Chuck Rio

Composer of 'Tequila'
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The Independent Online

Daniel Flores (Chuck Rio), singer, saxophone player, guitarist and songwriter: born Rankin, Texas 1929; married Sharee Munsell; died Westminster, California 19 September 2006.

With its raucous saxophone and its repeated shouts of the title, "Tequila" by the Champs remains one of the most irresistible records of the rock'n'roll era. It topped the American hit parade and charted around the world in 1958 and still crops up on television adverts and in films like Pee-Wee Big Adventure (1985) and Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles: The Movie (1990) when it's not blaring out of a car radio in an episode of a TV series set in the late Fifties. Chuck Rio wrote "Tequila" and played the memorable honking saxophone riff as well as shouting out the track's only lyric in his distinctive gravelly voice.

An original member of the Champs, Rio was edged out of the group by his co-founder Dave Burgess, who gained the upper hand because he was an executive at Challenge Records, the label the band were signed to. Rio subsequently sold the rights to his signature track in the United States but still managed to receive royalties reported to have been in the region of $70,000 a year in recent times from European usage alone.

In the Fifties, he also recorded vocal sides for Modern under his real name, Danny Flores, while, in the early Sixties, he cut surf instrumentals for Saturn with the Creshendoes (who were sometimes billed as the Persuaders behind their leader Chuck "Tequila" Rio). These and his recordings with the Champs were compiled by Ace Records on a CD entitled Chuck Rio: the Tequila Man in 1998.

Born Daniel Flores in Rankin, Texas, he moved to Santa Paula, California, with his Mexican parents in the Thirties. He first picked up a guitar at family gatherings in his early teens and benefited from the input of various relatives. By the late Forties, he had moved to the saxophone and was trying to emulate the rasping sound of Vido Musso, a tenor player who had made his name with Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton and was now recording for Modern, the West Coast label Flores would eventually sign to as a vocalist.

Flores played a variety of musical styles - jazz, country, pop, rhythm'n'blues - to entertain the clientele of the Long Beach clubs and bars where he appeared with his own quartet and famously remarked that some people began calling him "the Mexican hillbilly".

He recorded a few vocal sides for small labels in Pasadena before signing to Modern and releasing rock'n'roll material as well as ballads. In 1957, he met Dave Burgess, another aspiring songwriter, singer and guitarist with Challenge, a California label bankrolled by Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy.

After a few gigs as Danny and Dave, they used the drummer Gene Alden and guitarist Buddy Bruce, who were members of Flores's group, the session bassist Cliff Hills and Huelyn Duvall on backing vocals during a recording session held at Goldstar studios in Hollywood on 23 December ostensibly to record "Train to Nowhere", a Burgess instrumental. They also cut "Night Beat" and did three takes of "Tequila", based on a Latin-flavoured riff Flores used to play live as part of his club act. They decided to call themselves the Champs after Champion, a horse owned by Autry, while "Tequila" was credited to Chuck Rio on the label.

"Challenge told me to change my name," remembered the saxophonist:

They said Modern has you under contract as a vocalist, we have you as an instrumentalist, so they'll never know. But I said one word on "Tequila" and Modern said that's vocalising. The rest is history. In the end I cut a lot of records under both names.

When a DJ in Massachussets flipped the "Train to Nowhere" single and played "Tequila", listeners began requesting the near-instrumental, which started to climb up the charts in January 1958. It eventually reached number one in the US and made the UK Top Five in the spring of 1958 (despite a rush-released cover by Ted Heath and His Music).

Chuck Rio also cut two vocal sides for Challenge but became involved in a tug of war with Burgess and the record label over the leadership and ownership of the Champs. A compromise was eventually reached with Rio allowing them the rights to use the Champs' trademark for three years and the group carried on with an ever-changing line-up which, at times, included Glen Campbell, then a session guitarist, and Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts, who went on to become the Seventies duo Seals and Crofts.

The saxophonist formed the Original Champs, who soon became known as the Originals, but never came close to creating another "Tequila". By 1963, Rio had moved to the Saturn label, where he cut a series of raucous instrumentals later gathered on the Surfer's Nightmare album. In recent years, he had been suffering from Parkinson's disease.

His brother-in-law Kirk Munsell said that "Tequila", rather than the usual hymns, was played at the end of the funeral ceremony held in California on Thursday. Chuck Rio, sometimes called the Godfather of Latin Rock since the Chicano musician had a worldwide hit before Trini Lopez, Jose Feliciano and Carlos Santana, would have approved.

Pierre Perrone

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