A Chance Meeting with a Stranger Launched Poncho Sanchez's Career
Devin DeHaven Poncho Sanchez
What's a kid to do when caught between the world's of psychedelic rock, surf music, bebop, rhythm and blues, and Cha Cha?
If you're Poncho Sanchez, you combine them in giant soul stew on the way to becoming the leading purveyor of funky, grooving music with a deeply soulful edge. Many call it Latin jazz or Cubano bebop. Sanchez doesn't think it really needs a name (beyond having a place to shelve it in stores).
"It's a twist on soul music with a Latin groove," he says by phone from his Los Angeles home. "We take a funk and soul groove and give it a Latin tinge."
Growing up on a mixture of classic Latin artists (Machito, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria) and funky soul brothers (James Brown, Ray Charles, Junior Walker), Sanchez was always caught between worlds. When his friends started listening to Jimi Hendrix and Cream, Sanchez didn't follow the trend.
"Kids in the neighborhood would come over and I'd put on Cal Tjader or Tito Puente records, and they'd look at me like I was nuts," he says with a laugh. "Like, 'Why do you like that shit? That's old people's music.'"
Sanchez stuck with his passion, switching from guitar to congos. He joined Sabor, a local outfit that played weddings, parties and Latino clubs in the L.A. area. One day this "white guy" with a "hat and cigar" came to watch him play at The Latin American Press Club.
"He stuck out like a sore thumb," Sanchez recalls, adding that the man, Ernie Stills, claimed a friendship with Cal Tjader, Sanchez's favorite artist.
The two talked and when Stills left, "I said, 'Don't forget to tell your good friend Cal Tjader about me.' He said, 'Yeah, I will tell him.' I thought, 'Yeah, right.'"
Two weeks later Tjader was performing at Concerts By The Sea and Sanchez spied Stills talking with the Latin vibe master.
"It stopped me in my tracks," Sanchez says. "He turned around and pointed at me: 'Cal, there's the guy I was telling you about!'"