A young Cleto Escobedo Jr., hanging out with Sammy Davis Jr.

 

This is part one of a two-part series.

There are about five minutes before the taping of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” begins. As comedian Dan Barris warms up the audience with a couple of bawdy routines the show’s band, better known as “Cleto and the Cletones,” quietly walks onto the stage and starts to get ready.

Smartly dressed in black and grey suits, the group — keyboardist Jeff Babko, guitarist Toshi Yanagi, bassist Jimmy Earl and drummer Jonathan Dresel — are led by a pair of Cletos. There’s Cleto Escobedo, Jr., a tenor sax player whose constant, joyous energy belies his 71 years. The other is Cleto Escobedo III, the son, 48. He plays the alto sax and is also the show’s musical director.

The Escobedos have been on the ABC show together since it began in 2003. They currently work four nights a week (the Friday shows are repeats). The program reveals snippets of their and the band’s talents since, normally, they are only heard playing into and out of commercial breaks, or if they back another guest performing live.

Both have gone through their own musical odysseys to reach this point, none more so than Escobedo, Jr., who had stopped playing professionally for 30 years until his son and Jimmy Kimmel got him back onstage full-time.

The father says he’s never been happier.

“A chance to play alongside my son every night; it gives me chills,” Escobedo said. “If not for him and Jimmy, I wouldn’t be playing again. And what father doesn’t want to play along with his son? I am blessed.”

A Wonderful Life

If Escobedo had never performed publicly again, he could reflect on a full, amazing life that began in San Antonio, where he was born, and his desire to play music brought him in contact with many topnotch entertainers.

He and wife Sylvia, who celebrate their 51st wedding anniversary in October, would have stayed retired in their Las Vegas home, watch their only child perform nightly on TV, and come out to Los Angeles periodically to fuss over their grandchildren.

But the thing about musicians: as long as they can draw a breath they want to perform. So Escobedo stays in an L.A. apartment when he does the show, and flies back home to Las Vegas on the weekends to be with his wife.

Cleto III lives with his family in Studio City.

When you can get Escobedo to be still — like he is today, on the phone from his Las Vegas home — the stories begin to spill out.

And what stories he has.

In San Antonio, Escobedo’s parents, Cleto Sr. and Victoria, loved to sing and enjoyed dancing at a neighborhood club called Johnny’s Paradise. One night his father woke him up and snuck Escobedo into the club. “He said “Mijo, you gotta hear this sax player,” Escobedo said. “’He can make it cry.’ I saw him and felt really neat. I started playing the sax in junior high, a $60 silver horn alto sax.”

Another prodding came from his uncle Felix, who played guitar. “He couldn’t wait until I could play by ear. I first learned the ‘Marines’ Hymn.’ And he helped me play it like a polka. He still plays,” Escobedo said.

Escobedo was also coming along at a time, in the 1950s, when American pop music was undergoing a profound artistic and generational change. Rock-and-roll was beginning to fuse its country, rhythm & blues, folk and gospel influences into a singular sound that would dominate youth culture. 

Styles were still regionalized; what played in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York wasn’t necessarily the same thing being played in Texas. But certain aspects of the music — guitar, bass, drums, a sax — were recognized everywhere. So was the sight of neighborhood kids forming street corner do-wop singing groups and garage bands.

Escobedo was swept up by the new sound, especially a tune called “Honky Tonk” made famous nationally by Clifford Scott, a San Antonio native who played tenor sax. The song became an unofficial anthem for the area bands. “All the sax players (in San Antonio) had to play ‘Honky Tonk,’” Escobedo said.

 He practiced and practiced until he could play it in his sleep. His mastery of “Honky Tonk” eventually led Escobedo to join a top local group called the Dell Kings as one of their sax players. The group would make it out of San Antonio, first going to Los Angeles, and a couple years later winding up in Las Vegas.

“Our main goal  was to get to and play Las Vegas. We had a vision,” he said. “We worked on our songs and had tight choreography. We saved $500, built own trailer to carry our equipment, and left in April of 1963 with no job. I had gotten a scholarship to go to St. Mary’s University. But I wanted to take the chance to go to LA. I figured my parents would say ‘no way,’ but instead they said ‘Mijo, if you feel it in your heart to pursue this, we will give our blessing.’”

In Vegas, Dell Kings changed their name to Los Blues. They settled into a seven-year-stay, first at the Silver Dollar Saloon then the Casbar Lounge at the Sahara Hotel, playing Latin rock, soul, pop and show tunes. The performance hours — 3:30 a.m. and 4:45 a.m. — weren’t the greatest. But they were also playing the last shows anywhere in Vegas, meaning other performers often came by to watch.

“Sammy Davis and Jackie Wilson sat in with us,” Escobedo said. “Elvis was in the audience once. We alternated shows with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.”

One of Ellington’s top players, Russell Procope, saw Escobedo playing an old tenor sax during a show and asked if he wanted a new one.

“I said ‘sure’; I thought he was kidding,” Escobedo said. “But a couple of months later, I was coming home and Sylvia said there was a package waiting for me at the Greyhound Bus Station.”

A brand new instrument, courtesy of Procope.

Getting Off The Road

By 1971 Los Blues had recorded an album and was beginning to tour outside of Vegas. But Escobedo realized he didn’t want to be away from Sylvia and Cleto III.

“At first I was afraid to approach guys and say I wanted to hang it up,” Escobedo said. “Then one Sunday, after church, I read in a newspaper an article about what man thinks of at the age of 30. One of the things was family.

“When we got to Colorado Springs, I told guys I wanted to quit. I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I wanted to see my son grow up.”

He would not play the sax professionally in a band for 30 years.

The remaining band members eventually broke up and all went back to San Antonio. Escobedo decided to stay in Las Vegas. He took a job as a busboy at Caesars Palace and soon moved up to waiter. One day he spotted Davis shopping for a coat. He stopped in the store to say hello.

“Sammy asked me what I was doing,” Escobedo said. “I told him the band had split up, and I was a waiter at Caesars. He said ‘Cleter, I’m gonna take care of you.’”

Escobedo become a backstage butler, taking care of performing artists before and after shows. Escobedo became so good that other performers like Frank Sinatra, and Don Rickles sought his service. He was promoted to being a head butler for performers and high rollers in their hotel suites.

“Caesars was the first hotel to do it….and you had to go to a school to learn what to do,” Escobedo said. “You learned how to greet guests, and make them feel comfortable so they would want to come back. You’d unpack their suitcases, see if they needed beverages, take care of their needs. Anything they wanted.”

He and Davis had a special connection. “He was so generous,” Escobedo recalled. “I was the first one in my neighborhood to have a Betamax (video tape) machine. He bought me one. He bought it because he found out when I got tips I had to share it with the other guys. So he got me the Betamax and, as only Sammy could say it, told me ‘that’s for you, babe.’”

But Davis wasn’t the only entertainer to show appreciation. When Sylvia, who worked for a local phone company, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, Escobedo said singer Julio Iglesias sent a bouquet of flowers “that was as tall as her.”

Escobedo still occasionally played his sax for fun, sitting in with some of his son’s bands now and then. Even when it was sometimes hard to watch other bands and musicians playing, the tradeoff of being able to help raise his son and be home for his wife was worth it.

“I admit I missed it. But I don’t regret the choice I made,” he said.

Next week, part two: the emergence of Cleto III as a working musician and joining “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

 

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