The history of rock and roll is rife with talented brothers who are widely known for their fractious relationships — Phil and Don Everly, CCRs John and Tom Fogerty, The Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies, Oasis’ Noel and Liam Gallagher, and the Beach Boys’ three Wilson brothers, Brian, Dennis, and Carl, who added extra dissension by inviting cousin Mike Love along — to name just a few. Thanks to our contemporary tabloid culture, the internecine volatility and public disputes amongst these talented siblings have received more media attention in recent decades than their music.
Makin’ It, a new documentary from award-winning documentary film director John Ferry, chronicles a very different story of show biz brothers, that of Ernie Joseph (Ernest), Cory (Raymond), and Brian (Ruben) Orosco. The three have been playing rock and roll together since 1963, and as this film makes evident, they haven’t spent those years singing through clenched teeth. By way of extensive interviews, archival film, and photos, Ferry sketches the Oroscos’ careers over nearly fifty years of performing and recording, showing how deeply both music and fraternity have permeated and guided the entirety of their professional lives.
Esther and Joseph Orosco fronted a band of their own, playing functions around the Santa Barbara area where they were raising their family, although they apparently never attempted full-time music careers. Recognizing early ability in their children, the two elder Oroscos “wished for [the boys] to pursue a music career,” Ernie says, “but didn’t force it on us.” The parents’ encouragement was such that Esther not only didn’t shout at the boys to turn down the volume when they practiced, as his friends’ parents did, she would tell them to turn up.
The Orosco parents’ influence pervades Makin’ It, from the brothers choosing to honor family commitments over career opportunities, without any evidence of regret, to the recitation of Joseph’s guiding principle, “Life is tough, don’t make it tougher,” which the three have adopted as their own. In our cynical, post-Mommie Dearest age, especially, it is unusual to witness this kind of devotion to parents and family, offered without irony or sarcasm. When Brian chokes up while speaking about losing their father, it is unabashedly honest, and all the more emotionally devastating for it.
Nearly every aspect of the Oroscos’ narrative runs counter to the tawdry, stereotypical Behind the Music trajectory of obscurity, to success, to ruin. Makin’ It is nearly a real-life Ricky Nelson story, times three, only without Ozzie’s grueling work demands and a catastrophic drug habit. Or heaps of hit records. It’s evident that the Orosco brothers learned the price of attaining that level of success, and the accompanying pitfalls.
Even stories of Ernie’s early performances, singing Elvis songs outside Brownie’s neighborhood market when he was eight years old, sound like something out of an Ozzie & Harriet episode, right down to his getting “paid” in ice cream sandwiches. Instead of going it alone, though, a few years later he was part of “Santa Barbara’s first band,” The Cordells, along with a future member of the band, War, Ray Estrada.
By the time they were in junior high, the three brothers had a band together, Ernie & The Emperors, playing gigs like a Santa Maria battle of the bands and a school fundraiser (price of admission, 25 cents). In one of the film’s highlights, a montage of vintage stills and film clips depicts the brothers’ formative days, developing their visual style (such as incorporating dog collars into their tie-and-sport coat look) and, in a bit of especially entertaining footage, synchronized onstage moves. The frenzy of energy and excitement in this segment nicely evokes the wide-eyed ambition of so many fledgling musicians in those early-sixties days of promise, when every community boasted a hot band that had a legitimate shot at the big time.
Or, in the case of the Oroscos, the first of what would be several shots. Ernie & The Emperors parlayed their growing popularity into a chance to compete in a battle of the bands at Santa Barbara’s Earl Warren Showgrounds, going up against older, more seasoned acts in a struggle Ernie likened to “a heavyweight fight to the fifteenth round.” With their manager-father urging them to “pull out all the stops, get on top of your amplifiers, play the guitar behind your head,” the brothers’ band prevailed, winning the competition and a stint as house band at the Showgrounds’ domed Exhibit Building that ran nearly five years. The go-for-broke performance was, in Ernie’s words, “total bliss;” had there been any doubt before, this experience galvanized the brothers’ resolve to be musicians, full time, for life.
Opening for national acts at the Showgrounds, the band caught the ear of someone at Reprise Records, who signed them in 1965 and released the sole Ernie & The Emperors’ single, “Meet Me at the Corner,” a melodic slice of Mersey-flavored pop reminiscent of The Searchers. The single’s significant regional sales, along with their electric live act, led to plans to tour outside their usual Santa Barbara-area circuit, a major step to even-greater success.
But it was not to be. Joseph Orosco, the band’s manager, was trumped by Joseph, the boys’ father, who refused to allow them to drop out of high school in order to tour. Granted, decades have passed, but it is still remarkable to hear the brothers recount, without the first note of bitterness, how their opportunity to reach for the brass ring was denied. Ernie simply states that their dad “didn’t think it was conducive” to their careers, then shrugs, and matter-of-factly adds that they were also dropped by Reprise.
This seeming career suicide, incredibly, not only did not end their aspirations, the brothers rebounded to achieve their most enduring accomplishment to date. Where the Oroscos are known at all outside of the Santa Barbara — Gold Coast region, it is most likely as members of their post-Emperors incarnation, the intriguing Giant Crab. Under the guidance of Strawberry Alarm Clock manager, Bill Holmes, and along with another pair of ridiculously talented brothers, Dennis and Kenny Friscia, they created two horn-infused, psychedelic-influenced, blue-eyed soul albums in 1968-69, for UNI Records.
Their first album, A Giant Crab Comes Forth, comprised mostly of original songs, has become something of a cult classic through music blog postings and tantalizing references in psych-garage music guides such as Vernon Joynson’s indispensable Fuzz, Acid & Flowers. So little is known about how this intriguing, distinctive music came to be, it is disappointing that this phase of their lives, brief as it was, remains incidental to the story the documentary tells. Fans will be forgiven for hoping that a “Making of A Giant Crab Comes Forth” may someday, itself, come forth.
That music’s unjust obscurity attests to the Oroscos’ fortunes in the many intervening years since its release. From sharing a bill with Springsteen to canceled European tours, the vicissitudes of their lives in music have utterly failed to extinguish the brothers’ passion. A statement from Cory reveals that their positive outlook isn’t the product of self-deception or naivety, either; they are fully aware that “[to] be successful, you gotta go on the road and play your original songs,” whereas their current configuration, The Brian Faith Band, has survived primarily as a cover group, playing their local region.
It may be that, per their stated goal, they can once again make the transition to playing their own songs, to get “another shot at a tour.” The concluding excerpt from Ernie (which gives the film its title) makes clear, however, that should their ambitions evade them, the brothers still believe that they’ve “made it.” Perhaps it’s as corny and outdated as the Eisenhower era in which the Oroscos grew up, but there is no denying that they have managed to do what few ever do, to make a life out of playing music. And despite set-backs that rival those of the hapless metal band, Anvil, Ernie, Cory, and Brian seem fundamentally content with how they’ve done it.
Makin’ It is recommended viewing for anyone about to join a band, and should be required for those considering forming one with members of their own families. The simple fact is, like every hotshot high school three-point shooter’s odds of making the NBA, even the hottest band in town is not likely to land a record a deal, much less wind up on the cover of Rolling Stone. This film is a refreshing reminder that there still exist those who practice their art just because it makes them feel good, and who haven’t destroyed themselves in the process.
[Makin' It has been named an official selection of the 2012 Riverside International Film Festival, and will be screened on April 17, at Regal Cinemas, Riverside, California: http://www.riversidefilmfest.org/]