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In the Room

Bob Gallarza aims to bring Tejano music into the '90s

Deer Park resident Bob Gallarza may have lived one of the American music industry's most exotic and long-lived careers, but sitting across a table from him at Butera's last week, it's clear that he's nobody's idea of a legend. Now nearing 48, he's something less than trim, and with a gimme cap pulled low over his craggy forehead and tinted sunglasses hiding his eyes, he looks like some unholy cross between Hank Williams Jr. and Charles Bukowski. His unusually short, pudgy fingers don't offer the slightest hint at Gallarza's considerable guitar prowess, and a gruff voice filled with a.m. phlegm gives him the air of a roadie -- one of the few music industry jobs he's never held.

The jobs Gallarza has held during the course of a 30-year career make for a pretty impressive list. As a Hispanic studio musician in an age when such a thing was all but unheard of, Gallarza performed and recorded with Ike and Tina Turner, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Sister Sledge, James Brown, Neil Sedaka and Willie Nelson. He's played on Broadway and appeared in more television shows than you can name. Wherever it is, he's been there.

In 1971, the Fifth Dimension needed a fill-in guitarist for a Mexico City concert and called a session regular, who was already booked and so recommended his friend Gallarza. Gallarza flew to Mexico City, and he says he saw the looks of apprehension when a Hispanic musician walked into the room full of black entertainers. He played the show, and the Fifth Dimension immediately fired its regular player and hired Gallarza, who spent the next 15 years touring the world from Russia to the White House as a featured member of one of the premier acts of the day.

Gallarza's not modest with his war stories, and if you express an interest, he'll tell some doozies. About Robert Duvall's pleading request for guitar lessons. About the hotel lobby where a lonely Engelbert Humperdinck begged an already feminine-accompanied Gallarza to set him up with a girl, any girl. Engelbert Humperdinck. About the time Gallarza was strolling in the White House rose garden prior to a command performance and was accosted by newly installed presidential advisor Lt. Colonel Oliver North, who wanted some company to help him scope the teenage daughters of fellow visitor Imelda Marcos. Gallarza is a fan of celebrity, and he's gotten to bask in the glow of a lot of it in the past 30 years. He makes a point of noting his position of acceptance as one of the first Hispanics to travel in that rarefied entertainment world air. "Never once in all that time," he says, "did anyone look at me as if I wasn't supposed to be there. You know what I'm saying? In that world, if you're in the room, it's assumed that you know what you're doing."

Gallarza was born in the same small California town that spawned Ritchie Valens, Pacoima, where he first picked up a guitar and embarked on a life in music that, to hear him tell it, turned out to be a series of leapfrogs from one fortuitous circumstance to another. He's not modest about the education he's gleaned from three decades in the upper echelon of the business, but unlike the artists who kept him in continuous employ, he's not a particularly big fan of his own guitar playing. He's been, he says, in the right place at the right time with uncanny regularity.

But by the mid-'80s, with plenty of money and a burnt out drive, Gallarza retired from the touring life and began splitting his time between California and Texas, moving to the Houston area permanently in 1990. Part of the draw of Houston was a long-standing friendship with Tejano legend Little Joe. It was Little Joe who introduced Gallarza to Tejano, and from the first time he heard it, Gallarza says he knew there was something in the music that he wanted to work with. Gallarza had already turned down an offer to join Little Joe's band back in the Fifth Dimension days, but when the chance to work collaboratively presented itself again, Gallarza was present and ready. Little Joe brought to the partnership a chance to dig into the Tejano music Gallarza loved. Gallarza brought a business savvy and web of connections that helped Little Joe land a deal with CBS's Latin division, now Sony Discos. He's so far produced five Little Joe discs, including 1992's Grammy Award-winning 16 De Septiembre.

Since settling in Houston, he's also released two albums under his own name, a la super-producer Quincy Jones, even though Gallarza's no frontman. He employs a battery of vocalists and players to render tunes for which he contributes guitar, arrangements and conception. The first such, On the Edge, was attributed to Bob Gallarza and Friends. The latest, released without noticeable fanfare last month, is called Body and Soul, and it's already quietly sold some 5,000 copies and garnered airplay at Tejano stations around the country. "I can walk into any Tejano radio station and give them something with my name on it and they will play it," Gallarza says. "They respect me."

That would sound cocky -- well, it does sound cocky -- but Gallarza's a cocky guy who, oddly enough, doesn't seem particularly self-serving about it. He digs Tejano music and he thinks there's great room for the Tejano sound to grow out of the marketing ghetto it's still in. Gallarza's single from On the Edge was a country song, sung in English, that hit the charts at every Tejano station, but according to Gallarza, his label, Sony Discos, refused to introduce the song to mainstream Nashville country radio. Gallarza thinks they missed an opportunity, and he's not fond of missed opportunities, so Body and Soul is released under Gallarza's own Tejano Proud label (he says he now dislikes the name and plans to change it to something more generic). This way, he can decide how best to market the music.

Gallarza talks a lot about markets when he talks about music, and he thinks both the Houston and national Tejano markets are underdeveloped. The problem isn't lack of talent, but lack of production skills, connections, business experience. Those things, Gallarza will tell you, are his strong points, and the gold albums he's produced not only for Little Joe but also for Elsa Garcia back him up. Never mind cracking the Anglo market, since, as he notes, "There's a lot of Hispanics."

You can hear the same expansionist thinking at work in the music released under his own name. Gallarza is traditionalist enough that he won't use a synthesizer when a horn section will do, but he'll also write in whichever language he damn well pleases, since they're both his, and let his fluent guitar lines carry a tune into jazz or blues as the mood strikes. He's maybe proudest of his arrangements, and his horn lines can sound positively pop next to the cheese-whiz blurts that plague much Tejano music. He's a contemporary traditionalist trying to bring Tejano into the 1990s, where its listeners reside.

Gallarza will tell you that his productions have a sound that's identifiably his, and while it would take an experienced Tejano listener to confirm the claim, even an underexposed ear can hear the uncommon professionalism at work. It's not that he's bragging, really. It's just that he sees the Tejano market as still immature, and when you ask him what the scene needs to bring it to fruition, he's got the answer: "More people like me.

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