Robert ‘Bobby’ Lee Balderrama was born in O’Donnell, Texas, and grew up in Saginaw, Michigan during the renaissance of Rock ‘n Roll in the 1960s. As the guitarist for the breakthrough group Question Mark & the Mysterians, he hit the big time at very young age when their first hit song 96 Tears rode the wave to the top of the Billboard charts in 1966. After the Mysterians broke up he later played with Joe King Carrasco & the Crowns on their 1987 Bandido Rock album, continuing to play periodic gigs with the original Mysterians throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.
After forming a smooth jazz group, The Robert Lee Revue, Bobby achieved measurable success with two albums: For the Love of Smooth Jazz in 2010 and City of Smooth Jazz in 2012, but sadly was diagnosed with prostate cancer in October, 2017, which he courageously battled and survived only to suffer ancillary complications.
Continuing to record and perform with The Robert Lee Revue, this past March Bobby released an autobiographical memoir titled Famous Guitarists I have Met Who Influenced Me, which chronicles the life and musical influences that have informed his impressive career. “The book is basically about me learning to be a better guitarist by listening to my favorite artists to learn what they were doing,” writes Bobby in the preface. “Playing in a band that a #1 hit song gave me the opportunity to tour and be up close to great guitarists that I could actually see perform.”
As Bobby talks about meeting each of these influences, we learn through the process how he was able to create his own style. Among the guitarists discussed in the memoir are names such as Les Paul, Dick Wagner, Jim McCarty, Rick Derringer, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter, and George Benson.
Recently I sat down with Bobby to discuss some of those influences and the evolution of his musical style.
Review: Is there any one moment when you realized that you wanted to pursue guitar & realize your dreams musically?
Balderrama: My father played guitar ad accordion and I was amazed at how well the wo worked together. But I enjoyed listening to music and was about 11-years old when I got attracted to the guitar, and started my first band at the age of 12. I would watch guitar players on TV and it was something I really wanted to learn and play. My cousin talked about playing bars and clubs and I told myself at that time performing live music was what I wanted to do. I thought playing in clubs was big time, so I was about 11-years old when I first embraced the idea of being a professional musician.
Review: You hooked up with Question Mark and the rest of the Mysterians shortly after than when you were all teenagers. Do you remember what got you going as far as popular music, apart from the Tejano that you grew up listening to? Did you have an idea of the sound you wanted to create when developing the Mysterians?
Balderrama: Elvis Presley influenced me, but not as a guitar player. All my nieces listened to him. I started listening to The Beatles in 1963-63 and was fascinated by the crowds they attracted; and the Rolling Stones came out shortly later and I was really interested in Keith Richards and his style of guitar playing. He was really into the Blues and I didn’t know people aware of that style, so I got into the Blues players. I didn’t listen to any one style, but I liked Chuck Berry and that’s where I kept going.
Review: You have an economical style when playing that is heavily rhythmic, which happens in Tejano music as well, that tends to ground the band without crowding anybody out, leaving everybody enough space to express themselves as a group. Is that a fair assessment?
Balderrama: Yeah - with Tejano music the guitars do a lot of plucking and if you listen to Keith he kind of does the same thing. He would play a Gibson ESP-35 and I loved that sound. On that first Question Mark album 96 Tears didn’t have that sound so much, but the rest of the album had more of that style - more like a Tex-Mex sound.
Review: The arc of success for Question Mark & the Mysterians was so short lived because of management problems, yet their legacy and legend occurs, which must be amazing to you in a way. After all these years have you been able to wrap your head around what it was that made you guys stand out?
Balderrama: I think what is was it the fact our sound was so simple. Question Mark was convinced that 96 Tears would be a hit because you could dance to it. I think the sound we created at the time was kind of new. The rock critic Dave Marsh described us a bunch of young punk kids, so we got aligned with that. A lot of stories were thrown out that looked at us as Punk originators with that Garage Band style. One critic said we were the world’s greatest garage band; and at that time I mostly played rhythm guitar, so I especially admired Dick Wagner (guitarist of The Bossmen, The Frost, Alice Cooper & Lou Reed). I never talked to Dick much at that time because he seemed like a big rock star to me, but talk about melodic songs! My attention turned more towards that after the Question Mark period. Dick was so good at different techniques and he would go off on these tangents that would make me wonder what he was doing; but he was improvising and I was playing Walk Don’t Run. It was an eye-opener for me. Dick was one guitar player who really had it down.
Review: After Question Mark & the Mysterians fell apart thanks to fiscal shenanigans on the part of your management and while you were absorbing these other influences during that twilight period after the break-up, did you have any idea how you wanted to evolve? Is that when you started developing your interest in Jazz? What exactly was going on during that period?
Balderrama: Actually, I started getting into jazz around the age of 13. I listened to Wes Montgomery and loved him, but he was way above my head. I took classical guitar lessons from a friend who told me if I wanted to be a classical guitarist, I’d better quit laying rock, so I quit the classical lessons! But I did listen to a lot of jazz - people like Les Paul and Chet Atkins - guitarists with different techniques. In the early ‘70s George Benson came out with Masquerade and he hit the jackpot on the charts. Around 1973-74 I started practicing a lot of George Benson material; and I also got turned on to Ron Lopez. I liked him a lot and he was playing with Mike Brush at The Fordney Hotel and when I first listened to him I thought, ‘Yeah, Ron really has it down.’ He wanted me to show him some Blues licks, and he showed me how to play Breezin’, and knocked it out of the park. I decided then I was gonna stick with Jazz. Rock is my bread and butter, but jazz guitar fascinated me because it was more challenging and rewarding.
Review: When you started writing and putting your own material together for the Robert Lee Revue, that initial project had a definite style and edge to it - the heavy rhythmic foundation was there, but it brought tastes of different R&B and Rock and Jazz into the mix. When you were assembling that material did you have a clear idea of what kind of sound you wanted?
Balderrama; I wanted that Wes Montgomery smooth sound. Around 2005 I understood more about what Benson was doing and wanted to stick to smooth jazz because it was more appealing to a mainstream audience, as opposed to the extreme jazz of bands like Weather Report. A jazz guitarist from Bay City - Patrick Yandell - really influenced me a lot. I would have never suspected he also played in rock bands, but he was a big influence in my decision to jump into the fire and get back into the studio and record. He invited me to come jam with him at The State Theater, but I was suddenly sick at the time with prostate cancer. But I wanted to do that gig with him so badly.
Review: Around this same time the music business was radically changing, with streaming media, Napster, and new musical platforms happening that were self-empowering artists. Your music with the Robert Lee Revue was getting played all over the world suddenly. When that happened were you surprised at the level of attention you were getting from that material?
Balderrama: A lot of what was happening with Question Mark & the Mysterians was history, so I was surprised at the success of the Robert Lee Revue. It helped things along. My song Happy Go Luck went up to #27 on Media Base all over the country and I toured a lot behind it. It was played on Smooth Jazz stations all over the world and was in heavy rotation in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles markets. Chad Cunningham helped me a lot initially. I told him that I had this song I just recorded and he listened to it and sent it to a friend of his in New York who worked at Sony Records, who loved the song. He told Chad that song could be in the Top 30 and Chad promoted it all over the USA and Canada. It started out on Media Base at #150 and kept going higher, but eventually stopped at #27. I wrote it all by myself, although James Owen took it and revamped it and put a different drum style on it and made that song into a solid R&B tune as well.
Review: You and original Question Mark keyboardist Frank Lugo are like musical brothers. He also plays with you in the Robert Lee Revue. Did you know who you wanted in that band when you first configured it?
Balderrama: I went to see Jack Nash perform and found him to be a solid player, so I knew he would be in on bass. With Frankie back in the early 1980s Joe King Carrasco was playing in Frankenmuth and he kept pushing me to put the original Mysterians back together. In 1984 we reunited and re-recorded the whole first album again and were offered a record deal in France. We could have toured all over Europe, but when I approached Question Mark on it, he had a new band and just wanted to play the reunion, so Joe King asked if I would play in his band and I agreed and traveled all over. He was looking for a keyboard player, so got hold of Frankie, but he already had somebody else in mind so I couldn’t swing it. By the time 1995-96 rolled around we played a reunion show in Wenonah Park with Count & the Colony and The Cherry Slush and Frankie was playing out west, but ended up showing up for the gig. We’ve played together since we were little kids so he is my musical brother. He wrote most of those songs on the first Question mark album, which are all keyboard centered and moved up from Texas. I felt obligated to keep him working.
To order Robert's book, Famous Guitarists I have Met Who Influenced Me, send $12.50 plus $2.00 shipping, check or money order (made out to Robert L. Balderrama) to RLB Publishing, PO Box 106, Essexville, Michigan 48732. Balderrama also will sign the book; please enclose what you would like him to write for your inscription.
16th November, 2023