Givin' the people what they want . . . and more

Byline: Paul Andersen

Back in the late 60's and early 70's, there was a phenomenon going on in popular music. It was the era of the horn bands, large-sized ensembles that incorporated horn sections in with the rhythm sections. They played flashy, vibrant pop music that was sonically charged, infusing it with jazz and/or Latin flavorings. It was music that was felt as well as heard.

I know, because I was there. This was the music of my high school years, and I couldn't get enough of it. It eventually led me into discovering Miles Davis and jazz fusion (and jazz in general, for that matter), music that in many ways changed my life, because that is the music that burned in me and got me writing.

Many of those bands are now history (does anyone besides me remember Azteca and Ballinjack?), though a couple, like Malo, have recently reformed. But there were a few who survived the test of time, who are still lighting up audiences today. Chicago, Tower of Power, Blood Sweat and Tears and Cold Duck are all still plugging away.

Cold Duck? They are the band whose name you see in the civic summer park concert schedules for numerous cities here in the valley, and they belong in the same breath as those other legendary groups.

When the eight-piece group began in 1969 in trumpeter Jose 'Chepe' Cuadra's garage, they were 15 and 16-year-old high schoolers with dreams of becoming a force in pop music. Within a short period, they had established themselves as the premiere dance band in the L.A. area, and by the time they won a "Battle of the Bands" competition at East Los Angeles College in 1971, it looked like they were well on their way. I can remember seeing their name listed seemingly playing everywhere in town.

"Man, it was quite a time," Cuadra recently recalled. "After that concert, it felt like we were the Beatles. We had record companies knocking on the door, falling all over themselves trying to sign us."

The group settled on a deal with A & M Records and prepared to enter the studio to make their first album. Then, two weeks after signing the contract, tragedy struck.

"Our manager suddenly died. He was only 34, and we were in shock," Cuadra related. The band tried to carry on, but by 1973 the dream had disappeared as new management dissolved amid legal problems. The members of Cold Duck veered off into different professions.

However, old passions don't die that quickly, and five years after disbanding the group was reborn in 1978. For the last 22 years they have maintained the same line-up. But there is a difference now, and it may help explain Cold Duck's longevity.

"Now we're moonlighting, doing this mostly for fun, more as a hobby than as a business," Cuadra admitted. "We play Top 40 covers, mainly from the 70's, and we have a great time doing it."

There is no longer the need to become pop stars. After all, the group -- which besides Cuadra on trumpet and lead vocals, includes trumpeter Gene Chavez, bassist Saul Chavez, saxman Tony Mason, drummer Ray Ortega, keyboardist Gregory Smith, trombonist Jeff Way and guitarist Eddie Estrada -- is now made up of engineers, scientists, even a boys' dean from a local high school.

Keyboardist Smith stayed with music as a career, and now tours the world with artists like Jose Feliciano. "But he always comes back because he loves playing with the guys," Cuadra said. "He went through the star thing with the group Animotion, and I don't think he wants any part of that again."

Today, the San Gabriel Valley-based band still gets together once a week to rehearse. In addition to their own local club circuit, including the Hop in Puente Hills, and all the parks every summer, the band does a lot charity work. In 1997, they were honored with the Chicano Music Award, and a couple of weeks ago the city of West Covina honored them with a proclamation after playing there five years in a row to ever-increasing crowds.

"We drew nearly 7000 people there this year," Cuadra proudly exclaimed. "And they've already asked us back for next year."

After finally releasing their first CD a few years ago, Cold Duck recently returned to the studio, and has just come out with their second, simply entitled "Cold Duck 2." "We were in a hurry to get it ready for the summer, because people kept saying "C'mon, you guys have got to do another CD, because we already have the first one,'" Cuadra laughed.

"But," he added, "this one has a couple of our originals on it."

Over the years, they've had the opportunity to play for a number of generations of fans. "I've had people come up and say, 'Hey, you played my mom's graduation,' or 'you guys did my granddaughter's prom,'" Cuadra chuckled. "And since we do a lot of these civic parks concerts, it seems like we're on somebody's local access cable channel all the time.

"But as long as we can keep giving people what they want and still have fun," concluded the trumpeter, "we'll keep going."

In that case, the road may go on forever.

(As published in the July 26, 2002, edition of the "San Gabriel Valley Newspaper". Reprinted with permission. [ See copy of article. Adobe PDF. Acrobat Reader required. ] )

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