Top of the Charts: The Robert Lee Revue Gains International Attention with a Pair of High-Ranking Original Single Compositions

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music,   From Issue 812   By: Robert E Martin

02nd July, 2015     0

Back in 1966 when he was still a teenager, Bobby Balderama was literally living the Rock ‘n Roll dream when the little garage rock band from Bay City called Question Mark & the Mysterians that he helped form; and who’s sound he and fellow band-mates Frank Lugo and Frankie Rodriguez helped shape; released the now classic single, 96 Tears, which quickly became a number one hit on the Billboard 100 and propelled the group to a 15-month period of national prominence.

Now nearly fifty years later Bobby is living the dream all over again with his ‘smooth-jazz’ outfit The Robert Lee Revue, which he formed several years ago along with former Mysterians keyboardist Rodriguez; and which recently hit the top of the Jazz charts with the release of their latest single, Estrella – the follow-up to an earlier single called Happy Go Lucky that was released last June and went to #27 all across the country on the Media Based Smooth Jazz charts.

Both singles mark a re-alignment and fresh focus for the Robert Lee Revue, who previously released a full CD of smooth-jazz material back in 2012 called City of Smooth Jazz. “I wrote Happy Go Lucky last year by accident,” explains Bobby. “I have an autistic stepson and was trying to teach him how to compose Rap music because he loves the rhythm tracks. I was experimenting around and trying to put this song together and came upon this really neat drum beat used for Rap rhythm tracks that we both really liked.”

“We put the song together in two weeks and showed it to the other guys in the band, recorded and released it, and it went to Number #27 all across the country on the Media Based Smooth jazz charts, which are similar to Billboard. Actually, today both Billboard and USA Today use that Media Base chart as their standard, because it compiles data from all the jazz stations from the east to west coast that use it as a reference for their play lists,” he continues. “Right now with the follow-up single Estrella, we’ve hit Number #1 on 96.9 ‘The Oasis’ in Palm Springs, California and on KJazz in England for the second week in a row.”

Balderama says that the latest cut Estrella was written by both Bobby and Rodriguez and began as a project to cheer his close partner and friend-up, as Rodriquez was required to go in for heart surgery and was not feeling good. “He wasn’t playing a whole lot so I started writing songs and came up with the hook to the song,” relates Bobby. “Chad Cunningham hoped us a lot with getting Happy Go Lucky circulated, because he had somebody that he knew from Sony Records help promote and get it out on Media Base.”

Estrella means ‘a star’, so I thought of Frankie and what he was going through and we both started working on fleshing out the song together,” continues Bobby. “It’s funny because when we started writing 96 Tears Frankie and I came up with the germ of that idea – I learned a bar chord and he started playing the organ; and the rest of the band all chipped in, with Question Mark obviously writing the lyrics.”

“Frank knows how to read me and vice versa and all the songs from the 96 Tears album the two of us initiated, even though everybody in the band were writers. Frank and I played the chorded instruments and drums and vocals are different, so I never say we wrote the hits with the Mysterians, because it was a collaborative effort; but with these latest inroads into Smooth jazz, I feel everything is moving forward as it should.”

Bobby says the Robert Lee Revue, which also features Dr. Jack Nash on bass, Tom Barsheff on sax, Rudy Levario on drums, and Balderama’s wife Amy on percussion, currently have enough songs together for another new album of original material, plus would like to revamp a couple songs taken from their first release. 

But in terms of ‘birthing’ their new material, does Bobby feel they are doing anything different stylistically that would attribute to the newfound acclaim and popularity of their latest two singles clocking so high on the charts?

“I pay close attention to all the smooth jazz music being played across the country and listen to it everyday,” he reflects. “I noticed that the songs that are making it are songs with a strong hook – similar to Top-40 and Groove songs; so mainly, I try to find a solid catchy hook and let the band improvise off the hook.  With Happy Go Lucky I play the hook note-for-note and then let Frank and Tom jam along. We’ll also have a new single out around the end of June called Jazz Dude, which is probably the best song I’ve ever done.”

“Working from a hip-hop beat helps too, because it’s more trendy,” he adds. “I think that’s also a factor, because a lot of smooth jazz units are using these hip-hop beats in the background. Plus nowadays bands are born by their singles. People don’t buy albums anymore but they go online and take what music they want, which kind of goes back to the way things were done in the 1960s.”

“Unfortunately, musicians are not making much money right now recording their music, which is why they tour so much,” states Bobby. “Artists make pennies on the dollar with online sales and the radio stations like Pandora that stream music are only paying .01% or so to the artists, so it’s a lot like the old days with the record labels. It’s great for unknown artists today and is probably the best time to get known by a large audience, but it’s a trade off.  Happy Go Lucky was the most played song on a lot of streaming lists, so people were listening to it; but it wasn’t selling.”

“Actually, Pandora was recently sued by some major artists over this issue and BMI and Flo & Eddie both won their lawsuit concerning royalties, but Pandora is a big company and is appealing the decision, so only until the Justice Department comes in and does something will this ever get resolved.  The current decision and new law entitles any artist with a copy-written song dating back to 1976 to share in the proceeds of online streaming, but for obvious reasons, I was hoping the decision would go back to 1965.”

Still, Bobby feels confident about the prospects for his future given the success of his last two singles because now the group has a rapport with all the radio stations. “Chad Cunningham was a huge help and now we’re working with Kelly Milionis on Jazz Dude. We’re releasing it with a new animated video at the end of June and with Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, and Atlanta markets all getting behind it, this gives the music more traction as opposed to only streaming it on the Internet.”

Considering that touring is where the money is; and given their recent recording success, does Bobby feel that now is the time for the band to start touring nationally in order to strike while the iron is hot?

“It’s harder to tour now because we’re all older,” he admits. “When we were kids it was exciting, but now that we’re in our 60s it’s a different type of game.  We played with Question Mark recently in Columbus, Ohio and it took me a day and a half to recover; but that’s what I want to do, is tour with the current band.  However, before we plan a tour, I want the demand to be very high for our music.”

“When I was in the 8th and 9th grade playing with Question Mark & the Mysterians, it was hard for us to get our records played locally. WKNX and Dick Fabian and Bob Dyer were great people, and then Bob Dell picked us up at WTAC in Flint. We used to play at Mount Holly and were barely making any money and asked him for a raise. He wouldn’t give us the raise, but agreed to play our song, 96 Tears, on the radio, which drew more people. Then when it took off in the Detroit market, Dell got hold of Lilly Gonzalez, our manager at the time, and became part manager with her. Suddenly we started coming up with $1,000 gigs back in 1965 and were making $50.00 at the time.”

“But as soon as it hit the Top-4o list we went to Detroit and the song hit Number #1 and Cameo Parkway picked it up and it went nationwide and we were getting gigs for like $5,000 per night. We never made any money locally, but once we hit the large markets it was a different story; so that’s where I want to get things with the Smooth Jazz. Not enough people know who we are yet, and I don’t want to go out touring that way until we’re much better known.”

Bobby does admit that when he got the news about Estrella hitting Number #1 he felt like he was 15-years old again.  “I remember when we first toured England we played this hall that was twice the size of the Temple Theatre and kids were screaming and mobbing us – England loves Smooth Jazz as well.”

“Actually, I got one email from Amsterdam and this promoter offered to pay our flight tickets, get us hotels and give us $8,000 for one show,” concludes Bobby. “If we could come up with a few more gigs over in Europe for $5,000, then it would be worth it.  But time will tell what happens on that front.” 

“I’m just excited that our music is getting out there and is being appreciated.”



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