Ruben & the Jets

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So, this is the story -- familiar to all fans of Frank Zappa -- of Ruben Sano and his '53 Nash, and the band he left behind at 19 when his girlfriend said she'd leave him if he didn't quit the group.…
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So, this is the story -- familiar to all fans of Frank Zappa -- of Ruben Sano and his '53 Nash, and the band he left behind at 19 when his girlfriend said she'd leave him if he didn't quit the group. Right?

Wrong.

Cruising with Ruben & the Jets
This is the story of Ruben Guevara and the real-life Ruben & the Jets. The latter was introduced as a nome de disque by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention for their 1968 album Cruising with Ruben & the Jets. At the time, life and art were regularly borrowing from each other in both directions all around Zappa and company. The Mothers of Invention album Freak Out! (1966) had served as part of the inspiration for the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), which Zappa and company, in turn, satirized -- along with the state of mind evoked by it -- on We're Only in It for the Money (1968).

Let It Be
Later that same year, Zappa and company created the fictional "Ruben & the Jets" persona for purposes of doing an album, Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, that was both a loving tribute to and satire of '50s rock & roll, and especially of doo wop music. It was a record that worked either straight or as a parody (especially of doo wop lyrics, which Zappa loathed as much as he loved the music); and it included not only some of his pre-Mothers work, but a handful of songs off of Freak Out! reimagined in distinctly '50s terms, which helped give it an extra layer of appeal for the already initiated. It didn't sell in huge numbers (few of Zappa's records in those days did), but it influenced a lot of other artists, including -- again -- the Beatles, whose own back-to-the-roots project (originally called "Get Back" and finished as Let It Be), followed a few months later. And as a purely personal observation, it was the first Frank Zappa album that this writer remembers turning up in the hands of any kid in his high school. Zappa and the Mothers moved on to other projects and ideas, and the "Ruben" album became part of their history, and that might've been the end of it.

But one person who heard the album was Ruben Ladron de Guevara from Los Angeles, who was a singer, musician, and songwriter with a special love of rock & roll. He turned up backstage after a Mothers gig in L.A. and told Zappa how much he'd loved the record -- he also pointed out that his name was Ruben, and he did music in that style. A couple of years later they crossed paths again, and Zappa suggested that Guevara think about putting together a band. He took the suggestion and ran with it, and came back to Zappa with a band and the idea of calling it "Ruben & the Jets." They needed Zappa's permission and he gave it, and also suggested that if they wanted to record an album, he'd produce it, if that was okay.

For Real!
It was, and thus the world suddenly had a real-life Ruben & the Jets, with a direct Zappa connection. And for his part, Zappa rose to the occasion with one of the best (and straightest) productions of his career, and one that oozed virtuosity out of every note, far beyond what anyone was expecting from a retro-rock & roll album in 1973. But you could understand how much Zappa liked the band and their sound from the fact that he took them on a 1972 West Coast tour supporting the Mothers, while the album was in the works. And when the latter surfaced in 1973 on Zappa's own Indiscreet label (through Mercury Records), the connections between art and life became even closer -- Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood, who had played in Zappa's Ruben & the Jets, was playing with the real guys. In a sense, this was a natural -- Sherwood and Zappa had once played together in a rock & roll/R&B outfit called the Omens, and the album, appropriately titled For Real!, was an extension of that history. The real Ruben & the Jets consisted of Ruben Guevara on vocals and tambourine, Tony Duran on lead and slide guitar, Robert "Frog" Camenara on rhythm guitar and vocals, Johnny Martinez on bass, organ, and vocals, Robert "Buffalo" Roberts on tenor sax, Bill Wild on bass and second tenor, Bob Zamora on drums, and Sherwood on baritone sax and tambourine. Among the songs, there was one Zappa original, the beautiful "If I Could Only Be Your Love Again," and although there is some dispute on this point among those who were there, it seems he also likely played the lead guitar on the second-half/fade-out for "Dedicated to the One I Love."

For Real! was as much of a masterpiece as Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, only different -- it was less a work of satire than the 1968 album had been, though it still had its moments of great fun amid some genuinely, truly magnificent rock & roll. Zappa took them on tour nationally with his band in 1973, and on a second tour during the same year Ruben & the Jets were booked alongside Three Dog Night and West, Bruce & Laing. They also played alongside the likes of Tower of Power, Azteca, and Cheech & Chong.

Despite all of their work, the group never broke through to a wider public, and For Real! never got as much exposure as the official Zappa album. Sad to say -- as one of Zappa's best productions -- it's scarcely known by Zappa fans who came along in the decades that followed. The group did one more LP, Con Safos, but ceased working together in the mid-'70s, mostly owing to Guevara getting the offer of a contract for a solo recording, and the frustrations of not making enough money. According to Sherwood, they played too many benefits and not enough paying gigs.