Los Vertigos Unleash a Coronavirus Cover

Los Vertigos: Mike Swede, Koop Kuper, Brian Ross and Bruce Ross
Los Vertigos: Mike Swede, Koop Kuper, Brian Ross and Bruce Ross Photo by Julia Schafer
The worldwide pandemic has certainly inspired (if only via forced artist seclusion) a lot of musical projects since The World Shut Down in March 2020.

According to the most recent estimate from the Centers for Disease Control, a total of nearly 1.3 million deaths in the U.S. alone can attributed to COVID, and it’s likely rare that anyone doesn’t know as least one person on that list.

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Record art by Earl V. Staley
Houston’s Los Vertigos wanted to make their first “post-pandemic” recording project a tribute to those lives lost, and the Americana/Roots Rock/R&B group chose a cover of the gospel standard hymn “Death Came a Knockin’” (also known as “Travelin’ Shoes”).

The slinky, spooky single with a mournful wail about a Grim Reaper who makes house calls was released last week on streaming services including Spotify, Amazon, iTunes, Apple Music, and Pandora.

“Death Came a Knockin’” has also been played locally on Tom Richards’ (who broke it first) and James “The Blues Hound” Nagel’s KPFT radio shows as well as those of outside-of-Houston DJs Big Kev and Joe Nick Patoski.

This week, it’s being serviced to reporting radio stations in the American Music Association and National Association of Community and College groups. And Los Vertigos debuted it live during a recent show at Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar, with their next gig scheduled for May 20 at Leon’s Lounge.

“I’m always looking on YouTube for material to cover, and this song seemed appropriate,” says Los Vertigos drummer Koop Kuper. “I remembered hearing it by the Blind Boys of Alabama. It’s one of those songs like ‘Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain.’ Everyone and their uncle have recorded it, even if you only know about one hit. It had a great groove to it, and it was appropriate for a time when people were dropping dead like flies.”

The hymn of unknown origin was first recorded in 1939 by the Selah Jubilee Singers, a quartet base in Brooklyn, New York. It’s also been covered by artists like Maria Muldaur and Elvin Bishop.

And while the lockdown was happening and touring was verboten the band—which also currently includes vocalist/bassist Bruce Ross, his brother vocalist/rhythm guitarist Brian Ross, and lead guitarist Mike Swede—continued to rehearse. Brian Ross does not play on the single, having left the band during the pandemic. He has since returned.
“The Ross Brothers are identical twins, even though they don’t look exactly like each other now,” Kuper says. “They have the blood harmonies from a lifetime of singing together, kind of like the Everly Brothers. Though there can be friction between the two!”

He adds that while Los Vertigos were “good” as a three-piece, the sound “was a little thin” and he looks forward to playing gigs as a quartet again.

Los Vertigos formed in 2006 with Kuper and Bruce Ross in the original group and a “revolving door” of Houston players. The current lineup coalesced in 2016. They have steadily been playing to Texas audiences at bars, night clubs, ice houses, breweries, and festivals, as well as private and corporate parties.

But it took 13 years for their debut EP, Rock and Soul Salvation (Recovery Recordings) to come out. It garnered some play on SiriusXM’s Underground Garage channel.
Though both Ross brothers are songwriters, Los Vertigos does not play original material. Kuper says that its members look at the group as a way to supplement their income and scratch a musical itch at the same time. But he firmly adds that doesn’t mean they play rote renditions of familiar material.

“I say we’re not a cover band. We reinterpret and reimagine material that’s already been published. As do the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles,” Kuper notes—before uttering what he knows might be fightin’ words.

“Somewhere floating around the internet, there’s a really cool video of Los Vertigos at the Fabulous Spot Club on 18th street performing ‘Treat Her Right’ by the late Roy Head,” he says. “And in 2019, Billy Gibbons [of ZZ Top] did a solo album where he reimagined that song. Our version is far superior to that lame version he recorded!”

The “extended single” of “Death Came a Knockin’” also includes two other covers. First is “Shakin’ All Over.” It was a 1960 hit for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates and four years later, a Canadian mystery band credited for a gimmick as “Guess Who?” that then actually became…the Guess Who. The Los Vertigos version is primal big beat force with an extended, ghostly guitar solo.

There’s also Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy,” pure raunch and roll with vocal effects about a place where the narrator’s woman who “turns him outta his mind” exists. Houston harmonica ace Steve Krase guests on the track. All three songs were recorded at King Benny Productions on Houston's east side and engineered by owner Jacob Rodriguez, then mastered by Rock Romano.

Finally, if you look up “Los Vertigos” on Spotify, you’ll see a page with all three songs and a number of others by the Houston-based band…as well as several tunes by a Spanish punk rock group with the same name. And even the Barcelona-based Los Vertigos has since broken up, it’s not hard to figure out which Vertigos the song “Mi Ramon Favorito” belongs to.

“The money doesn’t mingle [between the bands],” Kuper laughs. “Not that there’s a lot of that anyway!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero