From Blues Magoos and “Hair” to “Rockin’ the Planet” with “The Greatest Story Ever Sung”
By Ramón Hernández
Peppy Castro’s musical story is truly one of the greatest stories to be told for he has been here, there, everywhere; and he has done it all.
His musical journey began when he learned his first guitar chord as a result of being in a Christian church play at age 13.
“That’s when I realized that I could be a singer and musician,” Peppy said of his Christian upbringing and what he credits to be his biggest luence. “But,then you go through the rebellious years.”
A year later, he left home and went to Greenwich Village where he immersed himself in pop music and absorbed an endless array of 1950s and early 60’s sounds as he honed his guitar skills playing the clubs.
Along the way, he hit it off with Ralph Scala and Ronnie Gilbert, who he met at a street fair, and they became the Trenchcoats. This was during the time of the British music invasion. However, rather then going with the flow, they morphed their influences into something original, totally American. They created psychedelic rock.
Two years later, on September 24, 1965, bandleader Peppy and organist/lead vocalist Ralph Scala recorded “So I’m Wrong and You Are Right,” and extended-played 45-rpm that included “Wild About My Lovin” and “The People Had No Faces.”
It was released as Verve/Folkways KF 5006 in January 1966 and what makes this record a rare, sought-after single is that the label’s Artists and Repertoire people had changed their name to the Bloos Magoos, which the band later changed to Blues Magoos.
Hence, the Manhattan-born musician became one of the founding fathers of the legendary Bronx, New York-based Blues Magoos – the first psychedelic rock quintet in the United States.
Incidentally, their first manager was Marvin Laganoff, who managed Simon and Garfunkel when they were initially known as Tom and Jerry.
Next came “Tobacco Road” and an appearance on “The Jack Benny Show.” See www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGQxUQfbEz4. However, it was “We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet” (Mercury 72622), which reached No. 5 on Billboard’s charts on January 7, 1967 that put them on the map.
To boast sales and promote the band, they boarded a chartered plane to do a 20-day promotional tour during which they did showcase performances, radio, television and print media interviews, meet-and-greets and signed autographs as Peppy Magoo, Ralph Magoo, Mike Magoo, Ronnie Magoo and Geoff Magoo.
They spent the entire summer of 1967 on tour with Herman’s Hermits and The Who.
“Image that, earning your first hit record and touring all over the United States at the age of 17,” Peppy said in disbelief.
And this writer is proud to say that this rock’n’roll living legend is a Latino, or Hispanic, depending on what you prefer.
“Yes, my real name is Emilio (later shorten to Emil) and, my father was from Bogota, Colombia. My mother was French, German and English. However, my dad died when I was five months old,” Peppy revealed “As for Peppy, that comes from the fact that I am full of energy.”
After the “Psychedelic Lollipop” vinyl album, Blues Magoos released “Electric Comic Book,”
By now, they had become famous for their great psych flavor, complex melody and great vocal harmonies. However, their “Basic Blues Magoos” album lacked that “punk.” Instead it was pure pop, with a strong psychedelic flavor and effects.
Peppy’s answer to that question to Its Pyschedelic Baby Magazine was, “We were all evolving as writers and actually I think it’s my favorite. My songwriting skills and love of all the pop songs I grew up with were starting to surface.”
After this album, the band got discouraged and broke up. As Peppy told Its Pyschedelic Baby Magazine, “Weak management and having our second single “Pipe Dream” being banned by the ABC network killed our career. Radio was also moving too fast and we lost our follow up.”
This is when Peppy, thanks to his musical prominence and stature, was asked to join the original cast of “Hair,” a rock musical which broke new ground as the product of the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution. “Hair opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968 with an afro-haired Peppy alternating on the part of Woof, General Grant and a member of the hippie tribe of the “Age of Aquarius.”
Here’s another piece of trivia for inquiring minds who are wondering if Peppy would get his hair permed to sport an afro, he said, “I used to straighten my hair in the Magoos and then went natural with a fro, Lol.”
After “Hair,” Peppy followed up with being awarded Drama Logue Magazine’s Outstanding Achievement Award for his music and lyrics for the ground-breaking “Zen Boogie,” which garnered rave reviews in Beverly Hills.
In the meantime, Peppy taught Bronx buddy Paul Daniel “Ace” Frehley how to play guitar. If the name sounds familiar it’s because Ace is the original lead guitarist, occasional lead vocalist and co-founding member of the rock band Kiss.
He would also collaborate with Kiss’s Legendary Gene Simmons as a songwriter and performed on Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley’s solo records.
In 1969, after initially declining to start up a revamped Blues Magoo, Peppy agreed and ABC Records released “Never Go Back to Georgia” and a year later “Gulf Coast Bound.” However, their sound was not typical Magoos.
“You see, I was 19 years old and my concept now was to be the first Latin rock group since my father was from Colombia. So, I thought it would be great to play some music with a Latin influence and be the first rock band to establish Latin Rock.
“After realizing that it would take quite a while to start over with getting signed, I decided to … keep on moving forward,” Peppy revealed (www.psychedelicbabymag.com/2011/06/blues-magoos-interview-peppy-castro.html).
What must have crushed Peppy’s heart is when Santana came out and got the recognition for being the ‘First Latino Rock Band.” However, he must still be commended for being a role model and instilling pride in all U.S. Latinos by opting to keep Castro in his name for he is a prime example of the success that can be achieved by the son of an immigrant by creating a new American music genre.
Moving along; after the Blues Magoos, the Alessi Brothers, Billy and Bobby, who he had hit it off during “Hair” crossed paths in Munich, Germany and formed Barnaby Bye with Peppy on lead vocals.
Peppy’s childhood sweetheart Mary Kelly wrote “Laneya,” the first song for this band. She also co-wrote “Jessie Girl” with Peppy, plus a poem that referred to Barnaby Bye, which the band adopted for their name.
They later got signed to Atlantic Records, hit the road and went on to release two vinyl albums – “Room to Grow” and “Touch” – during the 1970s.
Peppy followed Barnaby Bye with a stint as the lead singer for Balance. And, on June 15, 1981, one day before his 32nd birthday, “Breaking Away” landed them the No. 22 hit on Billboard’s charts.
Another rock band Peppy sang and played guitar with was Wiggy Bits. However, his greatest monetary success was most likely writing and singing some of the most iconic commercial jingles of the pass 40 years.
Let it suffice to know that Peppy has penned songs for Diana Ross, Cher, plus countless other international stars. And the list of other musicians he has worked with include Liza Minnelli, John Denver, Jay and the Americans, Ronnie Spector, Laura Branagin and Michael Bolton to name a few. As can be seen, the Long Island Hall of Fame inductee has the versatility to work in all music genres and this is just touching the surface.
In 2013, Peppy recorded “Just Beginning,” his first solo album; and a year later, the Blues Magoos reunited to record a compact disc they titled “Psychedelic Resurrection.”
This writer could go on and on with a list of awards, trivia and other achievements that anyone can find on the internet. Therefore, in order to get to the meat of our interview, I recommend our readers go to www.peppycastro.com or www.facebook.com/peppy.castro.1.
There is no doubt that the first thing that comes to mind is that a musician’s lifestyle and culture is characterized by that Holy Trinity of hedonism timeless trio – sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. However, this is not true of “all” musicians since many are able to resist these sins or vices.
Without going in details, let it suffice to continue with Peppy’s quote of, “After all those years, I did a full-circle.
“The world is in a worst place today and I want to help by putting faith, hope and love into people’s heart through music. God is love. Faith is powerful and music is universal. So, that’s one way to spread love across the planet.
“My wife of 18 years, Melissa Van Dedman aka Willy Blue, died of ovarian cancer and when you hit rock bottom, you either live or give up. The only thing that ‘healed me’ of my grief was my faith and belief in God.
“You know, atheists don’t believe in God, yet when they find themselves in a life-or-death situation, they utter, ‘Oh God, please don’t let me die.’ That’s because God in imbedded in us as a part of our DNA.”
After Peppy went from singing and playing guitar in church to national celebrity and non-stop parties during the era of stoned out hippies and free sex, plus fame as a songwriter, composer and playwright, his musical Christian roots have resurfaced.
And, now the musical icon finds himself in San Antonio workshopping his new POPERA, “Rockin’ the Planet – The Greatest Story Ever Sung” with Artistic Director of the Roxie Theatre Jonathan Pennington.
The play features ten songs in each of two acts. Picking out two songs to make a point, Peppy first explained the basis for “Seven.”
“Seven is the oldest number in the Bible,” Peppy said in relating to the creation of the world in seven days and that’s why there are seven days in a week. It appears all the way to the “seven spirits of God,” which are mentioned in Revelation 1:4; 3:1; and 5:6.
Pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth are seven vices or negative character qualities that according to Catholic theology are the seven capital and/or cardinal sins. They are sins that the Bible condemns. However, they are not called “the seven deadly sins” in the Bible.
Catholicism also teaches they can be overcome with the “seven virtues.”
“Then, there’s ‘The Ten Commandments.’ There could have been 11 commandments, but God chose ten. Follow those commandants and everything will be all right,” Peppy continued.
“Today, everybody wants to be a 10; and when you go to a hospital, you’re asked ‘What is your pain on a scale from one to ten?’ Thus, God set the standard.
“As can be seen, there is a message in every song in this production,” said the genius who penned the words to all twenty tunes based on the Bible. He also and composed all the music and played all the instrumentals on the play’s soundtrack.
Also, in giving credit where it’s due, Peppy said, “My son, Jesse Castro, contributed to writing some of the music for five of the tunes; and June Rachelson-Ospa was a co-lyricist to about one-third of the songs.
“Now, I’ve come full circle,” said the 69-year-old rock legend with the twinkling blue eyes.
“In San Antonio, I have fallen in love with these people, everyone involved in the production team (the assistant director, choreographer, stage manager, costumes/prop mistress, set design, lighting/media design and box office/business manager) plus the kids coming in after school and giving it their all.”
Regarding all the hits Peppy has written for numerous other international superstars, the ever-humble lyricist said, “I never write a song for them, but for my own enjoyment.”
Now thanks to Peppy, he has brought a Big Apple production to the Alamo City.
Even so, “Rockin’ the Planet” is just one of many musicals, he has written. Another subject that is close to his heart is a play he wrote with Stan Lee about super heroes for Marvel Comics. But let’s stick to the Roxie Theatre production for now.
“Rockin’ the Planet” can be seen at the Roxie Theater Performance House from April 5 to April 14. Performances are Fridays @ 8:00 p.m.., Saturdays @ 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays @ 4 p.m. The Roxie Theater is located at 7460 Callaghan Road, Suite 333, San Antonio, Texas.
To purchase tickets and for more information, call 210-360-9180 or visit their website: www.roxietheatrecompany.com/on-stage/rockin-the-planet.
The icing on the cake is getting to meet Peppy, Pennington and the cast when they make themselves available for selfies following the finale.
To purchase tickets and for more information, go to www.roxietheatrecompany.com/on-stage/rockin-the-planet.