"Eastside Heartbeats: A New Rock 'N' Roll Musical" has been playing to packed houses in its back-by-popular-demand run in East Los Angeles' CASA 0101 Theater. Judging by the response to the show, it's likely to make its way out to the bigger world — not unlike the Chicano band at the heart of the story, a 1965 collective of young guys in matching suits who dream of being No. 1 in the nation. The fictional musical tale is inspired by the wild true-life saga of Cannibal and the Headhunters, who opened for The Beatles at their first Hollywood Bowl engagement.
The original music is filled with the high energy life force of the time — and it turns out, it's nearly all written by a star songwriter of that time: James Holvay. For those who were around then, his "Kind of a Drag" and "Don't You Care" by the Buckinghams will bring it all back.
Holvay's is a different kind of a comeback story — since Holvay came back to the musical landscape after a successful other life and career as an executive with Pitney Bowes and then Office Depot. You see the old photos of Holvay, looking rock 'n' roll sexy with his leather pants and long hair, you get a sense of what it all must have been like before he went off and got the proverbial "real job," from which he retired several years ago.
So how did he get pulled back into show business?
As Holvay explains it, this all began about two and a half years ago, when he guested on the PBS Radio program, "Rock and Roll Stories" with host Tom Waldman. Waldman, who co-authored the book (with David Reyes) "Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock 'n' Roll from Southern California," had come across the Cannibal and the Headhunters story. He wound up writing the book for "Eastside Heartbeats" and getting Holvay to write songs.
The two had actually met 25 years earlier at LA's long-revered Tower Records store on the Sunset Strip and hit it off right away with their fondness for rock trivia, "but we went on to different careers," he notes.
While his initial involvement was simply as a writer, he wound up performing, too. "I went to a rehearsal to see if the musicians were playing correctly," explains Holvay. "I brought my guitar and amp just in case."
He found that the young musicians' performances were spot on.
"They'd learned the old music from their parents. It's an unbelievable phenomenon; they love '60s rock and soul music," he says of the young Latino band members. "I sat in with them and it was great. Then at the end, they said, 'You're going to play with us, right?'"
Right. He's been playing guitar with the band every night.
Holvay's family, friends and former co-workers have been having a blast coming out to see him in his old/new incarnation. And for him, "Are you kidding? It's been a blessing to not only play but write music again," he says.
Naturally, larger venues and off-Broadway are being considered now. Hey, and even a movie some day? Holvay points out that there've been only two really big Latino music stories on film — "'La Bamba' and 'Selena.' This is a great story. Cannibal and the Headhunters recorded this song on a fluke that became a huge hit. Then Paul McCartney heard them on the radio and said, 'We've got to have them open for us.'"
You never know when lightning might strike again.
Photo credit: Maria Eklind