Nearly five decades since a group of first generation Americans recorded one of the best known and most influential songs of the 1960s in a humble, homespun studio in Bay City, the ditty is garnering recognition in its hometown.
Equal parts protopunk and garage rock anthem, Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” is to be declared Bay City’s official rock ‘n’ roll song by Mayor Christopher Shannon at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 14, at Old City Hall, 814 Saginaw St.
96 tears, as performed by Question Mark on lead vocals, Frank Rodriguez on electric organ, Eddie Serrato on drums, Frank Lugo on bass and Bobby Balderrama on guitar, was recorded by Art Schiell in his home studio at 405 Raymond St. in late 1965. Question Mark, originally named Rudy Martinez, wrote the song’s lyrics and Rodriguez came up with the familiar organ riff that plays throughout the tune.
The quintet released the 2:56-long song on a 7-inch single in February 1966, backed with “Midnight Hour.” On Oct. 1 of that year, the band made its national television debut, performing the song on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. On Oct. 29, the fuzzy song with the putdown lyrics, infectious organ notes and minimalistic instrumentation hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
“It’s the only song that has been recorded in Bay City that’s achieved that,” Johnson said. “Realistically, it will probably be the only one that ever does. In addition to that, the song was the No. 2 hit in 1966 in the entire United States. A lot of people don’t realize that. That means ’96 Tears’ was on the chart longer than any other No. 1 hit by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, The Beach Boys or The Monkees (in 1966).
While Question Mark hailed from Flint, the rest of the band members were Saginaw natives, the sons of Mexican families that immigrated to America to pick vegetables in fields and later found factory work in the Saginaw area.
Question Mark and the Mysterians became the first Latino band to have a mainstream radio rock hit.
Since its heyday, the song has only grown in stature, Johnson said.
“The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has designated it as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock, and I think that’s probably due to the fact that a lot of music historians point to ’96 Tears’ as one of the early fusions of rock and roll and Tejano music,” Johnson said. “Frank Rodriguez’s lead organ kind of replaced the accordion that is found on that type of Mexican music.
“‘Rolling Stone’ magazine has listed it as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time,” he added. “That’s pretty fantastic. It’s known and loved all over the world. It’s been covered by Hall of Fame artists like Aretha Franklin, Iggy Pop and Bruce Springsteen in concert.”
The unsung hero of the song is Schiell, who left Russia for America with his family as a child and moved to Bay City in 1916. Professionally a hairdresser with a shop on Midland Street, Schiell constructed a recording studio in his home.
“It was small, but you can fit a band in there,” Johnson said. “I’ve measured it, and it’s about 75 percent the size of the original Sun Studio. He had an enclosed glass control room and had a lot of equipment. He was kind of an audiophile.”
The house is currently occupied by husband and wife Eduardo and Charlene Cotto. Johnson has said he’d like for the state or the city to place a historical marker in front of their home.
96 Tears by Question Mark and the Mysterians from YouTube shot on American Bandstand.
For the full article, see Cole Waterman, “Mayor to dedicate ’96 Tears’ as Bay City’s official rock and roll song”, MLive, July 27, 2014.
For another, see Cole Waterman, “Woman flies from Alabama to Bay City to see Question Mark & the Mysterians play ’96 Tears'”, MLive, August 14, 2014.