The Royal Jesters were originally a crew of friends from Sidney Lanier High School in the heart of San Antonio’s west side, honing their harmonies around dartboards and church talent shows in a series of unsteady pick-up groups. Doo-wop, when it hit, crossed boundaries of ethnicity and class like no music had since jazz, finding its way from African-American neighborhoods in Philly to Italian kids in Jersey to Mexican-Americans in Texas. “They were the first Hispanics that actually did doo-wop,” said organist Luvine Elias Jr., who was 15 when he joined the group with a borrowed instrument. “They used to do doo-wop, vocals with no band, just like the blacks on the corner. Before that, they were doing mariachi stuff.”
Formed in ’58 by Mike Pedraza, Oscar Lawson, Henry Hernandez, and Louis Escalante—the boys were all either freshly graduated or completing their senior year at Lanier—the group’s first order of business was choosing a doo-wop-appropriate name. “Well during that time there was the Royal Days, royal this, royal that. A couple of us said, ‘Let’s call it the Royals,’” said Henry Hernandez. Others said, “‘No, let’s call it the Jesters,’ … that’s how we came up with the name.” Fully formed and perfectly compromised, the group took to playing school dances, talent shows, and hops at clubs and churches, including Blessed Sacrament, St. Francis, St. Anthony Ballroom, and the Imperial Ballroom.
The group performed a mix of local favorites and originals, but the influence of their Mexican roots was already apparent in their sound, as Oscar Lawson explained: “The Royal Jesters came together specifically to perform English rhythm and blues, mainly the Motown Sound. We based our harmonies on the Mexican trios like Los Tres Diamantes, Los Tres Aces, and Los Panchos, which were very similar to the group harmony sound we were listening to on the radio.”
Local DJ Joe “The Godfather” Anthony of 5,000-watt KMAC took an immediate liking to the Royal Jesters. “Joe Anthony…he would play the people he recorded, he would play them on the radio for sure,” said Hernandez. On the strength of a demo tape, he sent them to EJ Henke’s Harlem Records to record one of Lawson’s originals, “My Angel of Love” b/w “Those Dreamy Eyes,” with instrumentation by locals Charlie & the Jives. Released in 1959, Anthony, true to form, spun the record repeatedly on his rhythm ’n’ blues show, giving the group a new audience and wider reach beyond schoolmates and churchgoers.
Also on the scene was Abe Epstein, local real estate mogul and founder of the Cobra and Jox labels. Epstein was then performing as a solo act, still dreaming of his own stardom. It wouldn’t be long before he threw himself and his real estate money behind other people’s music, recording anyone with a hot sound. By 1962, a steady stream of Royal Jesters material, sung in both English and Spanish, began arriving bearing the Cobra imprint.
Doo-wop and soul crossed ethnic boundaries, sure, but so did the performers themselves—mixed in with the Spanish and English one could hear a fake Italian accent. Epstein had already done extensive business with Dimas before he joined the Jesters, convincing him to perform first under the name Dino Bazan and then Dino & the Dell-tones in a strange scheme to make him appear like an Italian singer because Latino singers weren’t marketable nationally at that time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an appealing move locally in San Antonio. Even Dimas and Epstein themselves seemed to doubt it—despite the ethnic bait-and-switch, Dino & the Dell-tones released several songs in Spanish, including “La Media Vuelta” and “El Peor de los Caminos,” before recording the Dimas signature “Don’t Leave Me Baby” in 1961. Tired of miming Italian, Dimas was eager to return to his Chicano roots with the Royal Jesters.
Despite Henry’s re-entry to civilian life, the lineup changes continued. Mike Pedraza left the group to take care of his young wife and become a minister, singing the praises of the Lord rather than another teen romance. Dimas suddenly found himself singing lead, with the group taking advantage of his Etta-influenced writing and singing style. However, this rapid promotion was not universally praised, and his closeness with Lawson led to growing tensions with other members of the group. Dimas found himself squeezed out in 1964, when the group also cut ties with Epstein’s Cobra concern.
“It just left the three of us,” said Hernandez. “So we said, let’s get a band together. After that, the band started growing, at first it was just four guys, then we started getting more horns and stuff like that.” Until 1964, the Royal Jesters had been relying on Sonny Ozuna’s Sunglows or the Reno-Bops to back them up at shows, but demand in Houston and the border towns had the group crisscrossing the state. They needed a permanent band for both recording and performing. This would give them the freedom to book shows without scheduling conflicts so they could hone their sound into a more full-on R&B/soul direction. The Royal Jesters quest for a permanent backing band escalated quickly, collecting what became the longest running lineup in the band’s history, with Lawson, Hernandez, and Galante on vocals, Charlie Cruz on bass, Ignacio Pache Cruz on guitar, Manual “Bones” Arrendondo on drums, Luvine Elias Jr. on organ, Victor Alvardo on trumpet, Alex Martinez on tenor saxophone, and Oscar Lawson pitching in on trombone parts when he wasn’t singing.
Freedom suited the group and, with a growing band and no cash to show for a string of local favorites, the Jesters decided to take a page from Epstein’s book, founding the Jester and Clown labels to release their own recordings. “So we could record whatever we wanted,” said Hernandez. “So we could keep track of the money and all that, cause we never got any money for none of these other recordings. Nobody ever paid anybody. So we said, let’s do it on our own.” Despite leaving Epstein’s orbit, the man was an inescapable presence on the San Antonio scene and he wound up contributing liner notes to the Royal Jester’s first LP We Go Together, issued on Jester Records in 1965.
With their own label, a full band, a full-length album, the Royal Jesters were at the center of an expanding empire, quickly becoming one of the biggest acts in the area. Despite their dominance of San Antonio, the Royal Jesters never traveled that far from home, endorsing John Steinbeck’s old claim that the Lone Star State is a nation in every sense of the word. “Our success was strictly local,” said Lawson. “We heard later that we were popular in Pittsburgh but we never left Texas.“
Though they’d long provided evidence of their Mexican-American heritage—particularly on tracks like “Spanish Grease” and “Manning Ave.”—the Royal Jesters for the first time abandoned the wider English rock and soul markets for a rapidly growing niche audience. The group was no longer operating under the all-embracing pluralism of “We Go Together;“ by 1971, they were driven by the proudly singular identity “Yo Soy Chicano (I Am Chicano).” It was a long way from the days when pretending to be Italian would have seemed a savvy move—English was out, and San Antonio’s long-running soul scene was coming to an end, felled by changing audience tastes and the growing popularity of Tejano radio.
In the wake of their new success, the Royal Jesters continued for another seven years as a popular Tejano act. Despite continued popularity, the 1970s took a toll on the Royal Jesters as the passions of the late ’60s were replaced by malaise, disco, and oil shortages. The romance was over—the Royal Jesters, like much of the world, was simply running out of gas.
“It was Valentine’s Day of 1977,” said Hernandez. “That’s when we stopped performing…. At that time, gasoline was starting to go up, that’s when they had shortages in gas at service stations and stuff like that…. A lot of the groups we toured with, they started to slow down and break up because it was getting a little hard to travel. Back then it was fun, that’s what we wanted to do and it didn’t matter how hard it was because we loved doing it.”
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