The Drummer – Hank Castro

Apr 20, 2011 by

The Drummer – Hank Castro

“You gotta let us do the drivin’ Johnny.
You sing your song, we’ll set the tempo.
We’ll take you home, just have faith in us…”

Hank Castro

Those were the words of Henry “Hank” Castro, considered one of the top ten drummers in the music world of the 1960’s through the 1990’s. He befriended me and became my mentor, my tempo master, my musical advisor but best of all, my friend.

We met in 1968 in a nightclub in Ventura, California. Hank was half of the “Peter-Hank Duo”, Peter Urquidi was the other half. They were a couple of Santa Barbara musicians who made the most unbelievable music of their time. Their talent eventually took them to Las Vegas where they headlined lounges in the Stardust, Sands, Flamingo and Sahara hotel casinos along the “Strip”. In 1970 the Sahara Hotel signed them to a ten year contract, the first of its kind in Sin City for a lounge act.

Peter played piano with one hand and a homemade electronic organ with the other. He built the machine himself using old bits of recording tape, electronic parts he stole from TV sets and a keyboard he found in a pawn shop (I think the original keyboard was from an accordion).   When they performed Peter did musical magic with his hands while Hank was doing his own magic on the drums. It’s hard to realize just how much music these two genius’ created if you never heard them perform, the sounds they made are almost unimaginable. One of my great regrets is that I have no recordings of them.

I will never forget the first time I ever sang with the “Peter Hank Duo”.  An Artists & Repertoire rep was pushing records on my radio show, “Midnight Matinee” and we got to be friends. When he learned I really wanted to be a professional singer he listened to some scratchy recordings I made at the radio station. He told Betty Buck, an agent and recording executive from Hollywood, about me and she came to hear me. My only problem was I didn’t have a band to work with so I asked Hank and Pete if they would let me sing with them to impress the lady.

They agreed after some ground rules. I had to come to a rehearsal that afternoon and go over the songs I wanted to sing. That was easy as I only had about five songs in my whole repertoire. I was told Betty loved ballads so we rehearsed September Song from the musical Knickerbocker Holiday and the blues ballad Cry Me a River which was very popular at the time. I tried to create an up tempo version of Cry Me a River but Hank nixed that right away. He said, “Johnny, that’s a stylist’s song, a blues song, don’t mess with the tempo. What other songs do you know?”

I said, the only other songs I really know are oldies, like Chicago, Bye Bye Blackbird and Embraceable You…Hank thought for a moment and asked, “Do you know Because of You?”

As it turned out I did. I had played Tony Bennett’s recording of it on my radio show and loved it. I think it’s the only song I heard once and then could sing all of the lyrics. Those lyrics had a special meaning to me then and they still do to this day. Hank said, “Let’s try that and let us set the tempo, you just sing the song…”
We rehearsed it three times and I knew it was going to be MY song…I later sang San Francisco and some other Tony Bennett tunes in my nightclub act but none of them were ever up to Because of You.

We started out in a ballad style, but somewhere in the middle Hank was using his magic on the drums to set a driving beat that demanded that I sing the lyrics in a very special way. By the time it ended Pete was yelling “yeah, yeah Johnny” and Hank was using a long kettle drum roll on his big floor tom tom drum, to emphasize the ending. We were really “cookin”. I was never as excited, singing a song, as I was that day.

Pete Castro, the owner of the club ( no relation to Hank), Jack Foster, the head bartender and Betty Gonzales the head waitress were clapping loudly at the end of the song. Pete came over and ask me to appear for the next two weeks with Peter and Hank. I agreed and had my first professional gig as a saloon singer-entertainer. What a day that turned out to be.

While I was still coming down from my high Hank, said, “Johnny, you’ve got a lot of work to do but you’ve got the basics of a good entertainer. Learn more songs, learn the keys you sing them in, get them down on lead sheets and learn to set the tempo you want but most of all, learn to smile. Make the audience think you are enjoying singing as much as they are enjoying listening to you…” The best advice I ever got.

After singing for Betty Buck, she offered me a recording contract with her company “5000 Records”. And within a month I was in a studio in Hollywood for my first recording session. Betty also represented the composer who wrote the two original songs I was supposed to sing. There was only one problem, he wrote the arrangements in the wrong key for me. I would have had to be a boy soprano to sing them as written. Talk about disappointment. There I was, a set of headphones on, in my booth with a twenty five piece orchestra waiting to play behind me – and the damn thing was written in the wrong key…Hank was so right, knowing and getting your arrangements done in the correct key is everything to a singer. Another lesson learned the hard way for me. They eventually had a piano play my singing part.

The record never did amount to anything but I always felt it was a missed opportunity for me. Hank didn’t gloat, but he did say, “See, I told you, get ‘em written in your key…” I never made that mistake again.  The next day I had Richard Blaylock, the leader of a ten piece orchestra that played the Santa Barbara Biltmore Hotel, write out lead sheets for every song I did.

John W Strobel III - Nightclub Act

As we went through our first two weeks working together at the nightclub, Rory Calhoun’s Red Coach Inn, I learned a lot and was surprised at the reaction of the audiences. Each night was a new experience for me in entertaining.  Hank became my true mentor, critiquing every performance and helping me in every way he could. That early relationship blossomed into a lifelong friendship that lasted until the best damn drummer in the world, in my estimation, passed away. But before he went to the big band in the sky we had some marvelous times together, not always in a working relationship: sometimes carousing, drinking, bowling or gambling in Ventura and Santa Barbara and then later learning the in’s and out’s of Las Vegas. Hank coached me in how to act around big name personalities when he would introduce me to them.

One night at the Sahara Hotel, Peter and Hank were alternating as a lounge act with Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Freddy Bell and the Belltones and, as Johnny Carson called him, “Mr. Warmth”, Don Rickles.

Rickles was my favorite comedian and Hank took me backstage to meet the great one. Don Rickles may be an acid tongued comedian on stage, but off stage he is the nicest, kindest person you would ever want to meet. He welcomed me into his dressing room (a closet behind the lounge stage) and asked me about myself. I felt a special bond with him an hour later when he came on stage only to have him crucify me as the butt of his humor. He found me sitting at the foot of the stage and asked, “You, you with German hair cut…Are you German?”

I answered that I was of German descent to which he shrieked, into the microphone, “Security, Security, we have a Nazi in the lounge. I don’t think it’s Adolph but it may be Goring. Oh, no, he’s not fat enough for Goring.” He switched into a full blown German accent and said, “Who are you? Ve Vill find out you know, there are no secrets here, unless you’re with someone other than your wife…” It was all in fun and I laughed until the tears rolled down my cheeks. The man was and is a comedic genius.

Henry “Hank” Castro had done many things before he became a professional musician, he operated a water taxi service in the Santa Barbara Harbor where he took millionaires out to their yachts anchored in the harbor. He was on a first name basis with many of the celebrities that visited the vacation paradise when he would “putt putt” them out to their expensive boats. He was a commercial fisherman for a while and taught me how to catch Halibut near shore, at the back of a breaking wave. Finally he hooked up with Peter Urquidi and the “Peter and Hank Duo” was born. They played around Santa Barbara for parties and weddings doing mostly Mexican music until they were finally booked into The Blue Onion in Montecito, a very popular night club. They honed their musical style adding many popular songs of the time until the “Onion” couldn’t handle the crowds they were drawing. It became the “in” thing to do to spend an evening with the “Peter and Hank Duo”.

Hank even owned a recording studio in Las Vegas for a while where Paul Anka, Liberace, and other stars of the “strip” recorded their latest hopes for a hit. I was in the studio one day when Paul Anka came in with his wife and children. He was recording his latest effort, a little ditty he entitled, “My Way”. To tell you the truth I didn’t think that much of it when I heard him rehearse it. But a few years later Frank Sinatra made it the number one hit of all time and then Elvis added his magnificent voice to it and it all started in my buddy Hank’s studio.

Hank and Becky bought a home in the gambling capitol of the world, raised their children and enjoyed life fully until Hank’s arteries gave out on him. He died much liked he lived his life, savoring the beat of life, enjoying the show, but knowing it would all come to an end too soon. There will never be another quite like him, my buddy Hank Castro, the Drummer Man…

6 Comments

  1. Dear Ms. Kovach;
    I misundestood your question in the e-mail I sent you regarding your inquiry. I thought YOU were looking for YOUR bilogical father but now I see that you are searching for your sepfather’s dad. I can only offer much the same as I did in my e-mail. Hank and I were very close friends for almost 60 years and he never, ever, spoke of any children other than those he had with Becky, his wife of more than 60 years when he passed away. I’m sure he would have mentioned something like that as we delved very deeply into each other’s lives and loves. (Loves being music and entertaining)…Again when I said, “Carousing and drinking” in the article I was describing two happy go lucky entertainers who thought tomorrow would never come. Sadly we learned the hard way that it does indeed come and you must pay the consequences of your actions and behavior. Hank and I were luckier than most, our wives, Donna and Becky stood by us through all of our nonsensical years and taught us the meaning of real love…I’m sorry that I cannot help you more…
    Regards
    John W. Strobel III

  2. Lorali Kovach

    Dear John,
    You do not know me but I am in search, for my stepfather, for his biological father.
    I think the man Henry “Hank” Castro might be him. We were given his name and that is all we know about him and that he met Mary Hancock ( my stepfathers biological mother) in San Jose before 1947. If you have any information, Please contact me.
    Thank You, p.s. My stepfather has been a professional drummer his entire life!

  3. Donna Morask

    John, I always look forward to reading your stories. Not only do you write in an engaging way and captivate your readers, you also reveal who you are, through who and where you’ve been you’ve been. Very cool story….. I can hear the drums beating faintly in the distance.

  4. Drummers are COOL. What else is there to know?!!

  5. Your big sister Jackie

    Iv’e been on this earth 84 years and I am still learning things about you Johnny, Your versatile talent and exciting journey through life is so nice to hear about in this,
    my late senior years. You are extremely talented in voice and pen and what a wonderful way to write a book ( in chapters of your life) on “Moments Count” We all appreciate your effort here for yourself and sharing with usl Keep those stories coming to a litlle old lady who loves her little Bro.

  6. William (Bill) J. Nelson

    John,
    Another nostalgic journey to your very memorable past. Fine job of writing, as always.You mentioned your meeting Hank in a Ventura night club. Would I know that
    club? Of course, that was 20 years after I departed Ventura, and the year I returned from Vietnam (October 1968). Later in the article you mentioned Rory Calhoun’s Red Coach Inn. I seem to remember Rory Calhoun having a place in Ventura. Was that the
    night club? Keep the cards and letters coming. Hope all is well.

    Bill & Linda