Instrumental rock 'n' roll groups were often one-hit wonders. Not so the Champs. They released 29 singles between 1958 and 1965, all on the same label (Challenge) and almost all of consistently high quality. Of course, they are best known for their first record and biggest hit, "Tequila". A few myths surround the recording of this classic. First, that it was recorded at the tail end of a Jerry Wallace session, with less than ten minutes of studio time left. Second, that it was recorded in one take. Third, that all the group members considered "Tequila" as a throwaway and didn't even stay to listen to the playback. The five men who recorded "Tequila" got together for the first time on December 10, 1957, in Hollywood's Goldstar studios, to accompany a black vocal quintet called the Kuf-Linx who recorded a cover version of "So Tough" by the Casuals. The session players were Dave Burgess (born December 13, 1934, guitar), bass player Cliff Hills and the Danny Flores Trio, consisting of Danny Flores (1929-2006, sax), Buddy Bruce (guitar) and Gene Alden (drums). After the Kuf-Linx had left, the group who were to become the Champs stayed in the studio, fooling around with a few riffs that Burgess had improvised on the spot. Producer Joe Johnson (also co-owner of Challenge Records) liked what he heard and invited the five musicians to return on December 23 to record a few instrumentals, seeing how well "Raunchy" was doing then. On that day, most of the three-hour session was spent on Burgess's composition "Train To Nowhere", intended as the A-side of a single. Also recorded were "Night Beat" (which would find a place on the first Champs LP), "All Night Rock" (the tape of which has never been found) and, finally, the song that Flores had brought to the session, "Tequila" (done in three takes, with handclaps and vocal interjections overdubbed later). "Tequila" was released as the B-side of "Train To Nowhere" on January 15, 1958. The group was named the Champs, in honour of Champion, a horse owned by Challenge founder Gene Autry. Danny Flores was masquerading as "Chuck Rio" on the writer credits of "Tequila", to avoid contravening his RPM contract. (Both Flores and Burgess had recorded several vocal singles before they got together in the Champs.) "Train To Nowhere" seemed to derail early on, until a deejay at KWY in Cleveland started playing "Tequila", soon followed by radio stations all over the country. On March 28, 1958, "Tequila" reached the # 1 spot in Billboard (jumping from outside of the Top 10 - # 12 to # 1 - the first record ever to do so) and stayed there for five weeks, in spite of heavy competition from a cover by Eddie Platt on ABC, which peaked at # 20. The song also spent four weeks at the top of the R&B charts and went on to win a Grammy as the best R&B performance of the year. The success of "Tequila" created an enormous demand for personal appearances. Buddy Bruce and Cliff Hills had no desire to go on the road and were replaced by Dale Norris (guitar) and Joe Burnas (bass), the latter in his turn soon replaced by Van Norman.

Unfortunately, the Champs' earliest stage shows were a disaster. Their choreography didn't work and there were ill feelings between Burgess and Flores, who both saw themselves as the group's leader. Flores and Alden left the group in June 1958 (Flores was separately signed by Challenge and recorded as Chuck Rio and the Originals), leaving Burgess with the task to find replacements. Slim Willett in Abilene offered Jimmy Seals (sax) and Dash Crofts (drums), but only if Dean Beard, in whose band Seals and Croft had played, could also join the Champs as a pianist. Thus the group became a sextet. Seals and Crofts would stay with the group until the end, but Dean Beard was fired by Burgess (a strict disciplinarian) in the spring of 1959, following alleged financial impropriety.

By then, the group had recorded material for two albums ("Go Champs Go!" and "Everybody's Rockin' With the Champs") and had enjoyed further chart success with "El Rancho Rock" (# 30), its excellent flip "Midnighter" (# 94) and "Chariot Rock" (# 59), all in 1958. A dry spell followed chart-wise, until "Too Much Tequila" went to # 30 in 1960. By then Dave Burgess had decided to come off the road, while retaining ownership of the Champs' name and control of their recordings. His place was taken by 24-year old guitar virtuoso Glen Campbell, newly arrived in L.A. from Oklahoma. Johnny Meeks (ex-Blue Caps) had replaced Dale Norris on guitar and Van Norman was tragically killed in a car crash and succeeded by Bob Morris. When Meeks was drafted in 1960, his place was taken by Jerry Cole. This line-up of Campbell-Cole-Seals- Crofts-Morris was probably the most proficient of all, but commercial success eluded them until "Limbo Rock" (originally the B-side of "Tequila Twist", which spent one week at # 99) became a surprise hit in mid-1962 (# 40, a vocal version by Chubby Checker went all the way to # 2). Only one more chart entry would follow, "Limbo Dance" (# 97, October 1962). From this point until Burgess disbanded the group in 1965, the Champs had become merely a touring business, the discs being made by Dave Burgess back at Challenge (where he now was vice president) with a bunch of studio musicians like Tommy Tedesco and Hal Blaine. Still, the quality of their recordings hardly suffered, with "La Cucaracha", "Roots" and their last single, "Buckaroo" (a cover of an instrumental hit by Buck Owens) c/w "Anna", as examples of their best work. Seals and Crofts remained the only permanent fixtures of the group at this stage. They would make the big time as a soft-rock duo in the early 1970s.

In conclusion, the Champs were one of the most distinctive instrumental groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The group's trademark was a "dirty" sax sound (first by Danny Flores / Chuck Rio, then by Jimmy Seals) and an infectious Latin rhythm. Cohesive arrangements emphasized the dynamics of each instrument.

CD recommendations:
The Champs, The Early Singles (Ace 525). 30 tracks. Released 1996.
The Champs, The Later Singles (Ace 631). 26 tracks. Released 1997.
These two CD's contain, in chronological order, all the A and B-sides of their singles, with the exception of the vocal 45 "What A Country"/"I've Just Seen Her" (Challenge 9143).

Acknowledgements : - Rob Finnis, Liner notes for "Wing Ding" (Ace 460) and "The Tequila Man : Chuck Rio" (Ace 688).
- Dave Burke and Roy Simonds, Liner notes for Ace 525 and Ace 631.

More info:
Challenge Records discography :


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