El Brujo del Rock
BÁTIZ: Living Legend
mayo 9th, 2015
Javier Bátiz: The Mexican Mentor
The profile subject’s ingles was definitely better than the writer’s español!
Guitarist Javier Batiz, 70, hails from Tijuana, B.C., Mexico (he still resides in the house where he was born), but doesn’t play stereotypical Latin American music (terms such as norteño, ranchera, and banda might come to mind). Instead, the veteran player has been dubbed “the Godfather of Mexican rock” by those who follow his career, and several notable musicians who have gone on to successful careers in the United States got their starts in Batiz’s bands.
In particular, Carlos Santana has acknowledged in print and onstage that Batiz is the primary reason the Grammy-winning guitarist decided to play guitar. Santana heard Batiz’s band, Los TJs, in the town plaza of Tijuana in 1959, and ultimately played bass in Los TJs before he moved to the U.S. Batiz, on the other hand, has remained in Mexico and has been through numerous guitars and musical associates. When VG conversed with him, he was in Mexico City for another appearance on a national television show, and to work on expanding his new club in Tijuana, Casa Del Blues Latino, to other locations in Mexico.
Batiz began playing acoustic guitar at age three, recalling that, “…in those times, you’d get one guitar and hope it would last a lifetime; I used to have to patch mine together with tape.”
And while he grew up in a home replete with music, his family wasn’t comprised of professional musicians.
“Mama used to sing when she would do the dishes, and my sisters would sing with each other, learning to harmonize,” he said.
The guitarist’s musical epiphany regarding American music (blues and R&B in particular) is credited to a San Diego record store owner Ray Robinson, who also hosted a radio show on a Tijuana station.
“It was on late at night, and that’s where I first heard Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Sunnyland Slim, Muddy Waters; a lot of blues people,” Batiz recalled. “The program was called ‘Ray Robinson’s Record Rack.’ In San Diego then, the black music was segregated, and it wasn’t easy for the guys to get airplay. So Ray was really smart – he came down to XEAZ in Tijuana, and rented some air time. When the Spanish-speaking radio programs went off the air, all of this great music came on, and it turned my life around!”
Batiz’s first electric guitar was a Kamico (Kay sub-brand) solidbody his mother purchased for him. “I think it cost $79,” Javier recounted. “She got it at Sears in the States. I played that guitar from 1957 to maybe ’61.”
He formed the TJs in 1957, and began playing at the Convoy Club in Tijuana. A photo of Batiz from that time shows him brandishing a Gibson ES-225T, but the guitarist says it wasn’t his instrument; the club owner didn’t like the sound of Batiz’s Kamico, and bought the Gibson to loan to the guitarist for performances. In ’61, Batiz acquired a solidbody Epiphone double-cutaway he also used for years.
Another early influence was expatriate American Gene Ross (now deceased), who performed in Tijuana, and inspired the budding Mexican guitarist to learn how to perform the American music he loved listening to on XEAZ.
“We were an R&B, black-oriented band, and we would sing in both English and Spanish,” he said. “The term ‘Tex- Mex’ may have come out of Texas and Mexico, but the music actually started in Tijuana. Nobody had ever heard anything like it.”
Performance photos from those years show a young girl singing with Los TJs. That’s Batiz’s sister, La Baby, who still performs with her sibling (she now resides in Mexico City). “She’s 52, but we still call her La Baby!” Batiz said with a laugh. “She’s a great singer – she sounds like Etta James doing Janis Joplin!”
Los TJs also had a horn section, but according to Batiz, “…they would only play one note together; they didn’t know how to harmonize!” The band performed in the Tijuana area for six years and attained a nominal amount of regional success until Batiz opted to journey to Mexico City in ’63 to purvey his new music there.
But in the TJs’ heyday, one individual who played bass in the aggregation was a young boy named Carlos Santana. Batiz recalled the young player’s initial foray into popular music with the Tijuana combo.
“His mama brought him over to my house and asked me to help teach him to play guitar,” said Batiz. “We became very good friends, and we used to build model cars together, and listen to records. I told him I could teach him how to play guitar, but I really needed a bass player, so my condition was that I’d have to teach him how to play the guitar and the bass.”
VG reminded Batiz that Carlos Santana noted elsewhere in print that his father taught him how to play guitar.
“He didn’t teach me to play violin, either” (violin is reported to have been Santana’s first instrument), chuckled Batiz. “I taught him how to play the blues guitar, and you can play the blues on acoustic or electric.”
Former members of the TJs besides Santana would go on to found their own bands, and when Batiz ventured to his country’s capital city, he ultimately hooked up with other musicians who would attain success in subsequent musical associations. Fito De La Parra, drummer for Canned Heat, also played with Batiz (albeit in Mexico City) before he migrated to the U.S.
“When I came to Mexico City, I was playing music no one there had heard before,” recounts Batiz. “Everybody wanted to play with me, and I had auditions. When I heard Fito play, he blew me away, and I taught him how to play the blues, too, because you can play rock and roll or the cha-cha-cha on the drums pretty easy, but you still have to learn how to play the blues on the drums. Everybody can go through the motions, but the emotion and the soul is something else.”
The musical friendship of Batiz and De La Parra would endure over the decades, and in 1999, Javier played guitar on a track called “World of Make Believe” on Canned Heat’s Boogie 2000 album (Ruf Records), and he toured with the band in Italy that same year.
Abraham Laboriel played guitar with Batiz during the latter’s tenure in Mexico City, and Laboriel would go on to play bass with the legendary progressive jazz outfit Weather Report. “He’s the brother of one of my dearest and closest friends, a singer named Johnny Laboriel,” avers Batiz. “I came from Tijuana to Mexico City to replace him as a singer in a band he was working with. If there was a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Mexico, he would be the first one to go in. Abraham was younger, and I taught him how to play the blues guitar. After he played guitar with me, he became the bass player for a band called Los Profetas (the Prophets).”
Batiz’s distinctive oozing/snarling guitar tone originally evolved with some innovative modifications to his amplifiers (which included a Fender Tremolux and a Fender Concert).
“When we started playing, we would cut little ovals in our speakers, because I’d noticed one time that I’d blown a speaker, but the notes lasted longer. And if I put a lot of bass on the tone controls, the notes would last even longer, and they squealed. So I thought that if I cut the speakers on purpose, it would help me get the sound I wanted. I don’t cut my speakers anymore; I use a Turbo distortion unit.”
Batiz has also played Fender instruments (his first was a Duosonic), including Stratocasters and Telecasters, as well as a Gibson L-5, at various times in his career. While he still owns a 25th Anniversary Stratocaster (as well as the old ’50s Kamico solidbody he started out with), he lost 47 guitars when his home was robbed in ’74. Stolen items included Les Pauls and an Epiphone Emperor with pushbutton tone controls.
In recent times, Batiz’s stage rig has been compliments of Carlos Santana. The guitarists have played onstage numerous times, and on one occasion in the ’80s Santana presented Batiz with an Anvil road case that contained a “…big old Boogie amplifier with a 15″ speaker.”
In ’93, Santana gave his early musical inspiration a Paul Reed Smith guitar Batiz admits to have almost completely worn out, but he’s also profoundly grateful for Carlos’ generosity.
Batiz has appeared on television programs across Mexico, as well as shows in San Francisco and San Diego, for many years. When we conversed with him during his stay in Mexico’s capital, he had just taped a show that is supposed to be seen by some 180 million viewers worldwide. He has also performed in 38 movies.
“I did a movie in ’64 called El Ciento Distante (The Distant Wind), and it won a prize for the best music in a motion picture in Austria,” stated the guitarist. “I write music, I write scripts, and I act a lot, too.”
Santana called Batiz some years ago, inquiring about the possibility of working on the soundtrack of La Bamba, but Batiz was unable to participate due to personal problems.
As for recordings, Batiz estimates he’s done, “…around 30 or 40 albums. A lot of people say 50 or 60, but I don’t think so; they are probably including reissues and bootlegs.”
One of Batiz’s more recent projects has been the opening of a club he owns in Tijuana called Casa Del Blues Latino. He envisions it becoming akin to the Fillmore, and was working on bringing the concept to Mexico City when we conversed.
Batiz has been-purveying his unique music in his native land for decades, and his playing abilities have garnered attention and accolades from other notable musicians, some of whom consider him to have a mentor and inspiration. One poster advertising a performance by Batiz included the phrase “La Leyendal!” (“The Legend!”), but the guitarist eschews the application of that term to both him and his music, opining that it’s more suitable for a deceased person.
“I’m still here!” he said with a laugh. “So call me ‘Thunder,’ call me ‘Hurricane,’ call me ‘The Forgotten Angel!’”
Call him whatever, but the Javier Batiz saga is indeed ongoing, and his determination to present his beloved music on his own terms is intriguing, like the music itself.