While making his documentary about Chris Montez, the rock ‘n’ roller known for hits “Let’s Dance” and “Call Me,” Burt Kearns managed to reunite him with his old high school pal, Brian Wilson
“Chris Montez would have made a great Beach Boy. He really would.” – Brian Wilson
So let’s get the backstory out of the way. This all began ten years ago. I was driving down Sunset Boulevard when a song came on the radio. A song from somewhere out of the Sixties: opening notes on a xylophone, then handclaps, piano, and after the intro, this high, sweet, tentative tenor: “The more I see you, the more I want you… Somehow this feeling just grows and grows…” The verses, then a reprise with the words replaced by “la la la’s” — Whoa! What a song!
I said, probably out loud in the car, “I know this chick!”
At home, I looked up the song online, and realized it wasn’t a chick at all. It was Chris Montez, the rock ‘n’ roller who had a hit with “Let’s Dance” in 1962, whose career was resurrected three years later when Herb Alpert signed him to A&M Records and turned him into an easy listening idol by pushing him to record standards like “Call Me,” with handclaps and xylophones and la la las. Montez, it turned out, had quite a story, a pioneering role in the history of rock ‘n’ roll and pop music, from Ritchie Valens to Clyde McPhatter, the Beatles to Los Lobos.
Two days later and fourteen miles east on Sunset Boulevard, I was sitting with Montez in his manager’s office, at the bow of the ship-shaped Crossroads of The World building (Ford Fairlane’s office in the movie), making a deal to produce a documentary on his life and career.
Chris was in his mid-sixties when we met. His hair was long. He was still youthful, soft-spoken and self-effacing, same as that guy who I thought was a chick singing “The More I See You” on that record from 1966. Chris was still the Mexican-American kid, one of ten kids in a family from the wrong side of the tracks in Hawthorne, a working-class community that grew around the aircraft industry in L.A’s South Bay. He was “Zeke” then, born Ezekiel Christopher Montañez. When I met him, Chris said he still kept in touch with his pals from Hawthorne High, like Ron Arias.
“He had this old-fashioned car and we’d hang out. I used to go to his house all the time,” Chris told me. “And when I’d go over there to his house, he had this little sister. And she’d always smile and she was kinda shy. That was Olivia. Olivia grew up and ended up working at A&M Records. I was there at A&M, after the “Let’s Dance” era, but I didn’t know. And then I found out that later, that’s where she met George Harrison. And she and George were married. This young girl turned out to be Olivia Harrison. It’s just –” He laughed. “It’s funny. Everything came full circle.”
Yeah, full circle. That comes back around to where we started. Chris had other pals in Hawthorne’s Class of 1960, like student athlete Al Jardine and class cut-up Brian. Brian Wilson.
“I had Brian in a couple of my classes,” Chris recalled. “I remember Brian in my science class. The teacher was Mr. Giddinger. And he was like six-foot-three and bald-headed, and when he’d be giving us a lecture on whatever he was teaching us, he’d always wipe his forehead, blow his nose, wipe his forehead. And we’d look at him kind of strange. And one day, he got called out of the classroom and he says, ‘Hey, Brian, you take over the class for a minute.’ So when he left, Brian got up there and said, ‘Okay guys, settle down, settle down.’ He imitated him. He said, ‘I want you guys to behave yourself, I need you to pull out a piece of paper.’ And he wiped his forehead and blew his nose in it, and we all started laughing. And the teacher came back in, and we all straightened out.
“Brian was a joker, yeah. So was I, but he was a funny guy.
“And I used to go to their house, and play with them. I remember going over there and practicing. Brian would be on the organ, and Dennis would be on the drums, and Carl on guitar, and we just jammed together. Never knowing where it was going or what they were going to become.”
“You jammed with the Beach Boys in high school?” I already knew he did. “Before they were the Beach Boys?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I jammed with the future Beach Boys in their living room,” Chris said. “I remember going over there and we’d always jam and I’d always want to play the hard rock. I can visualize Brian always sitting there with his organ.
“I remember having a conversation with him one time, when we were getting out of high school. And Brian said, ‘Hey Zeke, we just signed a contract.’ I said, ‘So did I!’ He said, ‘We’re gonna call ourselves the Beach Boys.’ And I said, ‘They’re going to call me Chris Montez.’ I’ll never forget that conversation.
“I guess Brian Wilson got the name the Beach Boys because Dennis used to surf, and surfing was a trend coming on then. And it’s funny, because I used to surf all the time. I used to think to myself, ‘Who are these guys to call themselves The Beach Boys? I surf more than any of them. I’m always in the water.’ But that’s the way it was.”
The Hawthorne High stories, along with Beatles and Herb Alpert, all came together in the work-in-progress we screened around the country while trying to raise funds for the film that would be called El Viaje Musical de Ezekiel Montañez: The Chris Montez Story. We brought the preview to Beatles fan conventions in Chicago and New Jersey, and film festivals, including the Paso Robles Digital Film Festival in Sideways wine country, where Chris was featured in an afternoon outdoor concert in a line-up that included Buddy Holly colleague Sonny Curtis (who took over lead vocals in The Crickets after Holly’s death), and Gary Busey, who’d sing Buddy Holly songs like he did when he played the rocker in the movie.
When Curtis went onstage before him and went into a song from the Holly canon, Busey — and this is true, I swear to God– ran behind the stage and pulled the plug on the power.
Two years passed. It’s not easy financing a documentary. The filmmaking team scattered. Then, we got the call that Brian Wilson was available to participate and was looking forward to talking about his old pal Zeke, whom he hadn’t seen — in person, at least — in more than fifty years.
We arrived late in the afternoon at Brian Wilson’s mansion in a gated community off Mullholland Drive. We set up in a room upstairs — a room with a piano and awards and walls covered in wine-colored curtains — that was set aside for Brian’s interviews and photo shoots. We’d been warned that he could be a difficult interview, prone to one-word answers.
Brian entered the room. He was camera-ready, in slacks and nice patterned shirt, looking good for a guy his age. And while microphones and lights were adjusted, this giant of music, this broken genius pleasantly awaited the first question. There were a few short answers, a silence or two while I regrouped with a follow-up that might elicit a run of sentences, and though it seemed at times he might have been swimming a few yards to the surface in his efforts to respond, Brian Wilson was comfortable talking about music and high school and his old pal Zeke.
Me: So, we’re here to talk about Zeke, Zeke Montañez, back from the Hawthorne days.
BRIAN WILSON: Ezekiel Montañez!
Chris has really fond memories of Hawthorne High. What do you remember about high school?
“Um, a bunch of pretty girls. I used to, you know, I fell in love in my senior year, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this girl all day long.”
What was her name?
Did you write a song about her?
What was Hawthorne like, growing up?
“Had a little, nice little hamburger stand, you know, called Skippy’s, and of course the beach, you know. We used to go to the beach.
Chris was a surfer back then, too, he said–
“Oh was he? I didn’t know that!”
Yeah, he said he was a surfer. You didn’t surf much, that’s one thing I know, right?
“No, I never surfed.”
I understand Chris was one of the only two Mexican kids in the class. Did he stand out, or was he one of guys?
“He’s one of the guys, yeah.”
What do you remember about Zeke from high school?
“I was in one of his classes, and he used to make people laugh. He would say things that made people laugh in the classroom. I can’t remember anything specifically. He really was funny. He really had a good sense of humor.”
It’s funny you say that, because he told us the same thing about you. He said you were the cutup, like in chemistry class, when you used to imitate the teacher.
(laughs) Remember that?
He also talked about going over to your house and jamming in your living room.
“Yeah! We used to do that.”
What kind of music were you doing?
“You know, I can’t remember. It was rock ‘n’ roll, but I can’t remember.”
Did Zeke stand out at all? Did you think that someday he would be a musician?
“No, I had never guessed that he would, you know? I don’t think that he thought that I would, either.” (laughs)
What is it about Hawthorne, do you think, that is so special, that grew all these great musical talents?
“Well, it was just an open place, you know, like, people rambling around, you know, it’s just like — I wish I could do that again.”
When you were starting your first groups in high school, Carl and the Passions, was there ever a chance that Chris would’ve joined your group?
“You know, that’s a good question. I don’t think so — I don’t know, I don’t really know.”
You think he would’ve made a good Beach Boy?
“Chris would’ve made a great Beach Boy, he really would.”
Around that time, we invited Chris Montez into the room. It wasn’t a surprise to Brian; we’d told him in advance that Chris would be joining us. Even so, he wasn’t sure what to expect. It was their first meeting in more than fifty years.
BRIAN WILSON: Hey Chris!
CHRIS MONTEZ : Oh, my man!
BRIAN WILSON: The sweetest guy in the world.
CHRIS MONTEZ: Oh, no, go on! The sweetest guy …
BRIAN WILSON: You are the sweetest singer in the world.
And what did they talk about, the legendary composer of teenage symphonies to God and the singing star with no less than three international anthems? In their first meeting in more than fifty years, Chris Montez and Brian Wilson caught up like any couple of high school pals who hadn’t seen each other in decades. They reminisced about high school.
Chris Montez is 75. So is Brian Wilson. Both musicians are still on the road. Brian is on tour now, playing Beach Boys hits with Al Jardine. In May, Chris will be touring Australia with The Crystals. The documentary, as documentaries tend to be, is still in production.
COMING SOON: Another PleaseKillMe.com video exclusive! Eyewitness accounts of Chris Montez’s brawl with John Lennon!