Early Rock ‘n’ Roll Era in the City of Pomona to Get Replay in Multimedia Exhibit and Events

Montage of vintage posters for music events

They had names like the Velveteens, the Sir Guys, and the Pace Setters, and they were the soundtrack of youth in the Pomona Valley in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s.

Now, they’re getting a second day in the sun, thanks to a new exhibit organized by Pomona College Associate Professor of History Tomás F. Summers Sandoval and community partners, many of whom played in the bands of the time. “Sounds of Pomona: The Golden Era of Music 1955-1975” will run free of charge from Nov. 11 through Feb. 24 at the dA Center for the Arts, 252 S. Main St. in Pomona. An opening reception will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. on Nov. 11, and related events will take place over the next three months.

“This was a very particular time in the music industry where it was still local,” says Summers Sandoval. He has been collecting oral histories with those involved in the Pomona music scene for the project for the past year and has involved students in his Oral Histories class at Pomona College in the research. “This is mostly Mexican American and African American youth coming of age in Pomona who found their identity as young people through music—rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll,” he says.

Wanting to tell the story

Excitement about the exhibit has been growing for the past year among musicians from the era, many of whom still live in the region. The idea “got started in the back yard,” says Martin Perez, whose connections as a board member at the dA got things rolling. Sharing memories led to a “we should get the band back together” vibe. “We wanted to tell the story,” says Perez, who was not in a band but was friends with the musicians who were. “We want our grandkids and great-grandkids to see what we did in those days and inspire and motivate them to pick up an instrument and become musicians or directors or promoters or songwriters.”

Whether the bands—or rather, musicians from the plethora of bands of that period—actually get back together for a reunion concert is still up in the air. Ernie Padilla, who played in local bands from ’63 to ’77, is hosting jam sessions every other Sunday at his home, and there’s no telling where it will lead. “This last Sunday, there were like 14 of us here,” he says, adding that some of the guys “haven’t played for about 50 years.”

Up until it burned to the ground in 1965, Pomona’s huge Rainbow Gardens venue attracted major acts like Little Richard, Nat King Cole and the Beach Boys. But while it was probably the largest, it was far from the only place attracting young people in the Cold War era in one of Southern California’s growing cities.

Rudy Carrasco, who still plays trumpet at the age of 72, recalls playing with local bands at the VFW Hall or the American Legion. “Once you got your foot in there, it was pretty good,” he says. “You’d have a band that people wanted to listen to.” The next step was the Sacred Heart Hall. “That was the big leagues,” he says.

Carrasco took up the trumpet at the age of 11. He might have preferred saxophone or drums, but they were all taken by other students at school, where many learned to be musicians in marching band. Sixty years later, he’s still playing.

As a seventh-grader, Carrasco and some friends formed a group they dubbed the Sir Guys. Garage bands were everywhere in Pomona, he recalls, at “almost every other house.” We would listen to each other, says Carrasco, “and get inspired to be one-up on them.”

“Bands were popping up everywhere”

David Reyes describes the period from ’65 to ’70 as a time when music exploded in Pomona. “Bands were popping up everywhere,” he says. “I joined a band when I was about 14 years old. I played saxophone. My very first band was called the Silver Tones.”

Reyes went on to a career in music and coauthored Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock ’N Roll from Southern California. He played in bands like the Pace Setters. Eventually, he notes, the Pomona music scene began to dissipate. “Some of the guys got drafted for Vietnam, and a lot of the guys got married,” Reyes says. And then “the venues closed. That was the big thing. The venues weren’t around anymore.”

Looking back at the time before iPods, Spotify and the internet, the Pomona musicians credit the local bands with being the glue that kept them together, that helped them to find community with each other and to head in a positive life direction. “It kept me out of the gangs,” says Padilla, who still owns an auto upholstery shop in Pomona. “It kept me busy on the weekends, and it made me a little bit of money.” That it wasn’t hugely lucrative for him doesn’t matter in retrospect. “At the time, we didn’t need a lot of money,” he says. “Gas was only 24 cents a gallon.”

Events to bring community together

The three-month-long exhibit also involves a calendar of events meant to bring the local community together and celebrate the role of music in our lives, notes Summers Sandoval. Among the events will be guided tours for youth, concerts and dances, and panel discussions about the history celebrated in the exhibit. Visitors can experience the music of early rock ‘n’ roll through recordings, videos, photos and memorabilia that Summers Sandoval, a scholar of Chicano and Latino history and former resident of Pomona, has curated. He specializes in oral history and previously staged an exhibition at the dA on Chicano/Latino Vietnam veterans.

Support for the exhibit comes from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by the Ena H. Thompson Fund and the Department of History at Pomona College.

Perez hopes that by the time the exhibit and events wrap on Feb. 24, the grandchildren of the Pomona musicians will recognize that “my grandpa used to play in the Little Latins!” or that “he was one of the Sir Guys!”

“I can’t stop saying it,” says Perez. The goal is “to inspire and motivate the youngsters to become all they can be.”