Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Sonics / Colorado Beetles

 The surviving members of the Sonics 
(left to right: Lee Mestas, Joe Martinez, the author, and Angelio DeHerrera)
Photo taken November 1, 2019

Anyone who has ever listened to my radio shows know that I end the broadcast with the song "No Credit," and the words, "Take it away Joey." I'm talking about Joey Buffalo and Sonics, the short-lived, little-known Pueblo band, who recorded only one single, and became one of the many talented Southern Colorado bands to never be heard from again.

After I posted my first "help me track down this group" blog post (back in 2013, since deleted), and added audio to the story, I noticed something - the value of this single skyrocketed. Last year, the band's one and only single fetched almost $250, as word of this obscure garage band rocker 45 spread among collectors. But little was known about the band behind the single.

(click to enlarge)

I had always hit a brick wall, when trying to track down information about Joey Buffalo and Sonics. Nobody seemed to know anything about this group. Then last year, I received a message from Issac Frame: "My grandpa was in the Sonics, and knows all the band members...I would love to document you interviewing the band."

So, after years of trying to learn about this band, I headed down to Colorado Springs, to meet up with all of the surviving members of the Sonics - Angelio DeHerrera, Joe Martinez and Lee Mestas.

The beginnings

For Angelio DeHerrera, music came as second nature. "I was always involved in music. I was brought up with music. I always sang with my mother, at parties. I had uncles in California who were recording artists, with different Mexican groups."

He took up the guitar, at the age of nine, a little Stella model his father bought him. Money was tight, so he knew that if he wanted to learn how to play it, he would have to be creative. "My cousin was taking guitar lessons, so I went to where he was taking lessons and I sat outside the window, up against the wall, and I was listening to all of the instructions, and I learned that way. Once I learned the basic chords, I was there."

While Angelio was serious about music, education seemed less so. In 9th grade, he dropped out of Pleasant View Junior High, after a run-in with his school principal. "I used to smoke, and I got caught smoking, and the principal told me I was going to get the paddle. I warned him that if he paddled me, I would quit school. So he paddled me, and I quit." His father immediately told him that he wasn't going to sit around the house, so he got a job picking crops around Pueblo County.  The experience was shortlived. After a few weeks in the field, he learned his lesson.

"I told my dad I would go back to school. My dad, he never finished school, knew that education was very important. He said if I went back to school, he would buy me another guitar. I had to repeat the 9th grade again. My friends had already left for Pueblo County High, but I stuck it out, and graduated."

While DeHerrera was mastering the guitar, Joe Martinez was learning the accordion.

"I started taking lessons from Nick DiNero, but it wasn't going so good."

But the experience introduced him to DeHerrera, who happened to be attending an informal family concert. It was shortly after that meeting, Joe ditched the accordion, for the drums.

"My neighbor was in the marching band at South, and he brought a snare drum to my house - so I joined the band at Pueblo Catholic High, as a drummer."

Forming a band

The instant friendship of DeHerrera and Martinez, and their love of music, morphed into the idea of forming a band.

"Angelio and I got together, first," said Martinez. "I had a cousin who played, Leroy Valdez. We had an immediate connection, with our dads, and we just kept adding people, including Fred Brescher."

"We were really into what is called oldies, now - The Temptations, the Platters, a lot of instrumentals, like the Kingsmen and the Ventures," said DeHerrera.

"There was a lot of do-wop going on, at that time, and I was into Bobby Vee," said Martinez. "I used to listen to KOMA in Oklahoma City, and they were able to broadcast late at night, and we would get that in Pueblo, real clearly. I would listen to Bobby Rydell, the Platters, and then soul started coming in. I listened to a lot of harmonies, Ray Charles, and quite a bit of blues."

In an effort to learn to play the hit songs, Angelio would listen to the radio over and over, waiting for the songs to come on KDZA, so he could learn them, "I would also pick up a record and play it, to learn it. But back then, money was scarce. Even if it was $.50, if you didn’t have it, you didn’t have it. So I had to come up with other ways to learn the songs."  

"The first song we ever played, in full, as a band, was probably (Rosie and the Originals) 'Angel Baby'." said DeHerrera. "Leroy was our original rhythm guitar player. He was into country music, so he also had some old country music to play, too. Back then country was real easy to learn, three chords."

The band needed a name, so Joe decided to ask his classmates for help. "I was a senior in high school, and I made up a list of about ten names, and passed around the class, asking what everyone thought, and to mark a check by the ones they liked. I really don’t remember any of the names. I know one was called The Galaxies, and there were checkmarks all around that one. I picked the Sonics, because I really didn’t like the ones they picked."

The newly-christened Sonics practiced in basements and garages. Their first public appearance was courtesy of Joe's girlfriend.

"His girlfriend was running for GI Forum queen, and her dad got a hold of Mr. Martinez, to see if he knew anyone who wanted to perform at the coronation dance." DeHerrera said.

"Yeah, the GI Forum was our first concert, as the Sonics," said Martinez.  "It was all new to us. We used borrowed equipment and a Silvertone amp. We played ten songs over and over. We were paid with applause."

The Sonics quickly became known as a diverse local musical group, playing teen dances and polkas.

"We weren’t even charging, in those early days of the band. We were just having fun," said DeHerrera.

 As the demand for the band increased, Joe's father acted as the group's manager, making sure the group was getting paid, and well behaved. "He was strict on certain things. No alcohol, no flirting, no smoking - although Angelio could smoke, during breaks," said Martinez. "He just wanted good basic, solid manners. We had to be friendly, and he would take care of the business. He was the boss, as far as keeping us together. He didn’t take a percentage. His son was out playing and entertaining, and that was his compensation."

The band's signature look was black pants and matching shirts. The group's vehicle was a 1950 panel truck, with plastic seats and faded paint. "It held a lot of equipment," said Martinez. "We didn’t have the Sonics painted on it, because nothing would stick to that."

The Sonics would quickly start headlining local clubs, including the Silver Saddle and the Arcadia Ballroom, where they were regulars, at the weekly Battle of the Bands contests. "We would play against the Teardrops, The Chandells, The Gents, The Sting Reys," said Martinez. "We would win a few, and we lost to all of them, at one time."

Joey Buffalo

Angelio DeHerrera and Joey Buffalo both graduated Pueblo County High School, in 1965. As the Sonics began to make a name for themselves, Joey asked his friend a favor, would the band be interested in backing him on a record?

Joey composed two songs "Ladder of Happiness" and "No Credit."

"I told him that I'd have to talk to the guys, first. I mentioned it to Leroy and Fred, and we all agreed to do it," said DeHerrera. "Joey was the lead guitar on those songs. We practiced several times, and recorded it at KOAA-TV, in the studios there."

Joey Buffalo handled the vocals on what was considered the A-side, "Ladder of Happiness," a simple, country-tinged song about teen heartbreak.

The flip, "No Credit," starts off with a simple Joey Buffalo guitar strum, followed by the guttural scream of Leroy Valdez of the song's title, then goes into a full-on heavy garage surf instrumental.

"Leroy had a real strong singing voice." said Joe Martinez. "I'm honestly surprised he didn't do more singing."

According to the band, the KOAA-TV recording session lasted barely two hours. Jimmy Cox children's TV show sidekick Cliff Hendrix acted as the recording engineer.

"There wasn't a mixing board. I think it was just a reel-to-reel. It was very raw. We had two takes, I believe," said DeHerrera.

"I listen to the recording now, and I hear a lot of dragging," said Martinez. "Now, I would be a little more critical, but it was so intimidating, back then."

The band was not paid for their work on the record. "I think we knew we would be credited on the record when it came out, but it was always Joey's record," said Martinez. "I think I heard the record on the radio (KDZA), but that was it. I had no idea how many were made, since Joey was the one who took care of distribution. He gave us each a 45."

The band would never record, again.

"Back then, it was a period where we didn’t have too many songs memorized," said DeHerrera.

 The Colorado Beetles and New Band Members

Mitch Kelloff had an idea.

As owner of the Uptown Theatre, he was at the forefront of what teens wanted to see and do in Pueblo. The Beatles had just come out with their first album, and Beatlemania was hitting America, and Southern Colorado. So he came up with the idea for Pueblo to have their own Fab Four - The Colorado Beetles. The Sonics seemed like the perfect band to fit the bill.

"To us, we were always the Sonics, but if we could pick up a few bucks, working part time, as the Colorado Beetles, it didn't seem like a bad thing. We were always the Sonics, first," said Martinez.

The band donned Beatles wigs, and picked up look-alike Beatles suits at Hub Clothing, on Union.

"Mitch approached us, after one dance, and said he wanted us to go on the road as the Colorado Beetles," said DeHerrera. "He was going to buy us instruments, and pay for flights to gigs."

Fred and Leroy didn't like the idea, at all.

"They finished the gig with us, and quit the band, that night. It was a blow," said DeHerrera.

"We never talked to Fred again," said DeHerrera. "We used to go listen to him, when he was with the Trolls. We'd go over to at Jerry’s, on 4th street, where they played.  He had a different style of music, but we were happy for him. After that, I never saw Fred again. I don’t know if it was hard feelings, but it wasn’t a hard feeling for me."

"The Trolls had their following, and we had ours," said Martinez. "There was no competition there, as far I was concerned."

As the Colorado Beetles, the Sonics side project was a popular attraction, but the persona didn't last long. After the Pueblo version of the Fab Four ran its course, the Sonics took on two new members - Fernando Martinez and Lee Mestas.

"Leroy didn't want to leave us hanging, so he introduced us to Fernando," said Martinez. "We auditioned him, and liked him, and he noticed we didn't have a bass player. He told us that he knew of one, Lee Mestas."

Lee Mestas was attending East High School, at the time.

"I had never even heard of the Sonics, or went to any of the Battle of the Bands" said Mestas. "I was just a good guy who stayed at home and did my homework. Fernando introduced me to Angelio and Joe and we sat and talked. And it was said and done. The only problem was they had a gig in a couple of weeks. I didn’t even have a bass. So I had to start learning the songs, by ear."

Tony Sanchez

Fernando Martinez broke one the band rules - he liked to flirt.

Joe Martinez's father, the band's manager, had set rules for the group, including not flirting with girls.

"Fernando was a good looking guy, and he liked the girls," said DeHerrera. "He was with a girl, during one of our breaks."

"The break was over, and my dad expected us all to be on stage, with our instruments tuned, and ready to go, and Fernando was running late," said Martinez. "He was like my brother, but it was very businesslike, in the band, with my dad being the manager. I had to be the example. So he was let go."

Filling in for Fernando was Tony Sanchez, who was the one-time lead guitarist for the Fabulous Fremonts.

"He had heard about Fernando, and asked if he could join," said DeHerrera. "I think Mr. Martinez always knew that Fernando would be back, and it would be temporary. Tony played with us for about two months, and Fernando was allowed back."

The Sonics (left to right) 
 Lee Mestas - Bass Guitar 
 Joe Martinez - Vocals/Drums 
Angelio DeHerrera - Vocals/Rhythm Guitar
 Fernando Martinez - Lead Guitar

The End of the Sonics

"I got married in August 1965," said DeHerrera. "A couple of months later, my wife went into the hospital and had to have an emergency surgery, that was life threatening. At the time I was working for CF&I, but I couldn’t get in steady, so I was working for the city, making nothing. I couldn’t afford to pay for the hospital and doctors. She had relatives in Chicago, and they told me they could find me a good paying job there."

"It was hard, when he told me he was leaving." said Martinez. "But I could understand his situation. You just had to accept that he wasn’t coming back. I got married, just a little bit after he did, and I started working at CF&I."

Joe started taking on side jobs as a fill-in drummer for other Colorado groups, including with Bobby Montoya (later of Starr and the band San Juan), and Dave Ortega (the Cordova Brothers).

Lee Mestas got the call from Uncle Sam. "I got drafted. I was sad. I didn't know if I would ever see these guys again, I joined the Air Force, and played in base bands."

After the Sonics

Angelio never played in another band. "After we returned from Chicago, our debts were paid, but I couldn't find a job in Pueblo. So we moved to Colorado Springs," DeHerrera said. "I got into a gospel group, like a barbershop quartet, in the Springs. I performed with them for 25 years. I laid down my guitar for about 35 years."

"I stayed in music, for a while, but I went on to get my degree in marketing, and got on with United Airlines," said Martinez. "I was with them for 30 years. I never went to nightclubs. I never wanted to play again. I had children, and they come first. So I kept a steady job, and I didn’t mind working for the airlines."

(Of note: While doing research I also managed to find out that Joey Buffalo passed away in 1995.  His widow, Donna Corsentino Buffalo, informed me that he joined the U.S. Air Force, and after serving four years, went to work for the railroad.)

The recent interest in the band's one and only, now-scarce and collectible, single has caught DeHerrera and Martinez off guard. Both men still possess the copies Joey Buffalo gave them.

"My cousin, Bob Cordova, called me and said, 'You wouldn’t happen to have any of those records?', Martinez said.  "I told him I had one, and he told me how much it was going for. I thought he was drinking. Then Angelio told me about your website. I had to look it up. He’d always joke with us. Then I saw it on your website, I thought, 'Wow, this lady had to dig deep'."

"It blew me away, how much it's worth. It blew me away just to see it again, on your website," said DeHerrera.


Fernando Martinez passed away in October.

"He was the first one I contacted for this interview," said DeHerrera. "He was all in, and happy, but he never made it."

Angelio, Lee and Joe were with him, in the hospital.  "We kept telling him, 'We have one more gig to go,' and that was this interview. We wanted him to get rested up, but it didn’t work out that way," he added. "His girlfriend called, and told us that he was gone. I love my brothers – Lee, and Joe and Fernando. It hit me hard. I cried a few tears with my wife. But what do you do? So I called Joe and I called Lee, and told them what happened. We went to his service. It was a nice reunion, just not the kind we wanted."

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