The Good Life of Roberto Zenteno -
Houston Remembers a Music Legend

Written by Editor of Bravo Houston, Olivia Flores Alvarez

Fans poured into the Sambuca Jazz Club on July 29 as they did every Thursday, ready to dance and enjoy the music of popular trumpet player Roberto Zenteno. They were shocked when a solemn member of the band announced that Roberto had passed away only hours before. A few blocks away, the Houston Press Music Awards (HPMA) audience was equally shocked when John Nova Lomax, music editor for the Houston Press, made a similar announcement as he presented Roberto's daughter Norma Zenteno with the Best Female Vocalist of the Year award. Norma, who has won over a dozen HPMA honors over the years, told the audience she had spoken to her father only minutes before he died. At the time, no one suspected that he was so close to death. She told him she might send her brother Bobby to the ceremony so that she could go to the hospital and be with him. "My dad said, "No, whether you win or not, you go. It's your name, you go get it." "I'm here tonight because my mother (told me), "The night your grandfather died, your father had a gig and he played it because the show must go on. You go to the awards. Whether you win or not, show your face, show respect for the music." So here I am." Holding up the award, she told the cheering crowd, "For my father." As news of Zenteno's death spread, fans and fellow musicians gathered at Sambuca. Norma, and her brothers Bobby and Javier eventually joined the other members of the band on stage. "I'm here to pay respect to my father," she told the crowd while fans laid bouquets of flowers at the base of her mic stand. Roberto Zenteno, who was named to the BravoHouston! 2003 Top Ten List as one of the people who had most contributed to the city's Latino culture, was an extraordinary musician. Born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, where his parents were popular vaudeville performers, Zenteno lost his left arm in a childhood accident. When doctors began to worry that his playing baseball might injure his right arm, Zenteno picked up a trumpet. By the age of 15 he was performing professionally and had recorded with Perez Prado, the King of Mambo, before he was 20. Zenteno toured with a variety of headliner groups including La Orquesta Falcon, Los Bazookas and Paco Miller. He and his wife Elsa eventually settled down in Houston in the early 1950s. Together they raised five children, Norma, Robert Jr., David, Ernest, and Javier. Zenteno led a variety of his own groups, from big bands to quartets, which performed in some of the city's most exclusive nightclubs. Most recently, The Roberto Zenteno Band included Luis Juarez, Lindy Pollard, Randy Holland, Liz Mendez, Samuel Dinkins III, Norma Zenteno, Javier Zenteno and Richard Saldivar. Many of Zenteno's friends and colleagues spoke to BravoHouston!, sharing their memories and thoughts. The following is a collection of those statements. Sebastian Whittaker, musician/bandleader Back in the mid-80s I worked with Norma (Zenteno) and I had the wonderful opportunity to meet her dad. I was just glad to get a chance to know him. On stage, he taught me how to be a better musician. But he taught even when he was off the stage, he taught me how to be a better person. It's probably been said many, many times already but I want people to remember that not only was he a great musician, he was a great person. I felt he had a lot of love to give and gave it freely. I hope they can (keep the Roberto Zenteno Band name). To me that's the same as having a Duke Ellington, and the Ellington Band is still going. Roberto and (The Roberto Zenteno Band) deserves the same amount of (respect). Dario Tapasco, musician/bandleader I've known him for 20 years and I loved him like he was my father. Roberto was a great musician, very talented, just incredible. He had a feeling to his playing that nobody else has. He had a very special style. Roberto talked with everyone, from the bus boy to the movie stars. He was friends with everyone. He played with a comedy band called Los Bazookas. They made movies and everything. He was also good friends with Tin Tan and Cantinflas. He played in the Warwick Hotel for a while and he would tell me stories about Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra. Roberto knew them. He would spend time with them when they came to the hotel. And with Dean Martin, they spent a lot of time together talking. They became very friendly. It didn't matter if he went to play at a tiny bar with a handful of people or at a big hotel with a thousand people, he was the same performer. He dressed the same, he played the same. He always gave every performance 100%. He had incredible ideas. Even when he wasn't playing, he was always thinking about the music. He was always trying to improve the arrangements or learn a new song, a new way of doing something. He never stopped trying to improve, to get better. He never said, 'O.K., that's all I'm going to do. This is enough.' There was always a little more he wanted to do for the next show, always something new he wanted to try. Every day he was thinking how to do more for his fans. It's great loss. And people like Roberto, there are very few. We'll never see another one like him. David Caceres, musician/bandleader I think he's been a spring board for a lot of Latin artists that started their own bands after playing with him. I would say he set the path for a lot of people. As far as being a band leader, as far as what it takes to keep a career going, of where to play, how to play, what to play, he was an example for the rest of us. He'll definitely be missed, but I think that spirit will be carried on in his kids' music. There will always be a part of him in their music. I think they'll carry on the tradition, the music. They're very talented and they'll continue to make him proud. Gilbert Martinez, musician He saw to it that the people were entertained, no matter what it took. I saw him entertain one time, just him by himself. It was an anniversary and it was at someone's business. For some reason or another I was there without an instrument. I can't remember why none of us had instruments but we didn't. Roberto took out his trumpet, and just him by himself, he put on a show. He played, he sang, he danced. Everybody had a ball. Just him by himself, he could entertain a whole crowd. When he first came to Houston and he broke into private clubs. In 1955 or '56, Roberto was one of the first (Hispanics) to play steady at a private club for white audiences. He played at the Rams Club on Dennis. He played for a long time at the Cork Club. They would bring in big, big shows and Roberto was playing in the lounge upstairs. I think wherever he landed, he was a hit. The people admired him. He knew how to get along with anybody. He knew what people wanted, he knew how to please the people. He was a full package, a real entertainer. A lot of people went through his band. He helped to start a lot of guys. Especially here lately, he would really go out of his way to help young guys that were just starting out. He would do anything he could for you. He wasn't selfish, he wasn't jealous. If you did good, he was happy for you. That's rare because the music business is so competitive, but Roberto helped a lot of musicians. A lot of musicians owe him their start. I understand that (Norma and Javier) are going to keep playing at Sambucca under Robert's name. That's an honor to him, to keep his memory alive. I hope they do. He was always so proud of his kids. I'm glad they played (the night Robert died). Robert was music. If anything, he would have wanted them to go play. Music was his life and that's the best thing they could have done. I've lost someone I had a lot of respect for - not only as a person, but as a friend and as a musician. It's a big loss for me. I'll miss him. Samuel Dinkins,III musician He was a fine musician and a fine leader. A lot of people can play music, but they aren't always good leaders. Mr. Zenteno was an excellent leader. He could play anything. A place like Sambuca is open to the public so even though Thursday's are known as Latin music night there, you would hear more than just Latin music from the Roberto Zenteno Group. He would get a very diverse crowd and he could play whatever they wanted. He was a great human being. We're going to miss him on and off stage. Danny Ward, musician/special events producer He was an anchor. He was a legend. I knew him for 30 years. We have a great history of Hispanic musicians in Houston, Roberto among the best of the best. Over the years, I have great memories of seeing him play. I remember seeing him play with Alonzo Alonzo, Richard Razzo, Kido Zapata. His solo style was unique, very spirited. It was so special to hear him, such a pleasure. There's no question that he was invaluable to this community. RICKY DIAZ, bandleader There will never be another Roberto Zenteno. I hope people remember him for his character. His family always came first. Music was so important to him, but never more important than the people around him. He was very kind, and a real gentleman. I hope people remember that, too. "A couple of weeks ago, he called me and said he had heard a song in a movie and liked it very much. This song happened to be a hit song by Tony Bennett in the early 60's by the name of "The Good Life". His (wanted) me to write him an arrangement for his band to feature his trumpet as a soloist. Today, this has had a strong impact on me because, just like the title of this song, "The Good Life", that's what Roberto lived all through his years as a performer in music and his love for all his friends and family."* *This was taken from the eulogy written by Ricky Diaz. Joe Medina, musician I worked with him from about 1960 until about 1965 at the Cork Club. I was just a kid then, I was about 18 years old. I got my foundation from him, I believe that everything I do now I learned from him. We were there six nights a week. We played upstairs in the lounge, and downstairs they had a show room with a 15-piece band that played two shows a night with big people. We were on top of the town. To me, he's always been young. He seemed a lot younger than his age, I think the music kept him young. That guy had class. He had real class. He always had his band dressed. I remember we had yellow sports coats. Bright yellow. To me, it was a little strange at the time because I was very young and I didn't know any better. But he always had us looking good, he had great taste. We were always very flashy, always very sophisticated. He could do everything. Sing, dance, play, tell jokes. He would have us do little routines. I died a thousand deaths every time he made me do it, but he would have us do little comedy routines. It was simple, little routines. Like he would be a pilot, and somebody would say 'Contact.' And Roberto would say, 'Contact? Con-tact? Con tacos.' And he would go off from there. He was like a father to a lot of us. I was a kid when I started with him and I learned so much from him. I feel that a lot of people didn't get a chance to hear him, and that's a shame. Musicians get labeled and the public sometimes doesn't look past that. He was known for playing Latin music but really he played it all. I wish more of Houston could have heard him. Houston should have known we had such a big talent here and unfortunately, some people didn't go out to hear him because they thought he just played Latin music. He recorded a lot with other groups, but not very much with his own group. I wish he had recorded more. We'll miss not having that to remember his with. Victor Trevino, Constable Pct. 1 Roberto Zenteno He made some tremendous contributions to our community. I had the pleasure of not only listening to his music but of knowing some of his family as well. Knowing that he overcame some obstacles, and that he overcame them with both grace and a sense of humor, to me that makes him such a positive role model for all of us. It's not just his music, we should look up to. His music, his talent is important. It was great entertainment and brought a lot of people together but we should also look up to the fact that he chose to face the obstacles in his life in a positive way. I think that's something we can all appreciate. He was a great family man. He was a pioneer, he was ahead of his time. I think something that was really unique about him, is that he kept his perspective about his talent. He was very special, he was gifted musically but he remained a humble man. I admired him. I'm sure I'm just one of millions, because he had fans all over, and from several generations, but I very much respected him and saw in him the best that our community has to offer. For us, he was a very positive, a great example for everyone. We're going to miss him but hopefully we can continue to remember him, and honor him in the way he deserves. I hope that we as a community can find a way to honor him, some kind of tribute that is fitting to a man of his importance. I hope we remember him for everything he did for our community, not just as a musician. He was more than that. He was a wonderful musician and a wonderful man. Refugio "Kido" Zapata, musician A lot of people don't know this but Roberto is on the very first recording of Perez Prado's "Mambo Jose." Somewhere around 1943 or 1942 is when they recorded that. And he worked with some of the best bands anywhere in Mexico before he came to Houston. When he was just 14 years old, he was already working in clubs and all those fully grown women were after him because he was such a good looking kid. There was never a dull minute with Roberto. He was always joking, always having a good time. I bet you he could tell you 300 jokes without repeating one. And he was always very, very well groomed. I remember when we were all on the road, by the time we were just getting up, he was already dressed, not one hair out of place. He must have shined his shoes 10 times a week. He was always immaculate. That's rare for a man. He knew how to speak to anybody, in either English or Spanish. He was well educated. I don't know if it was from school or if it was on his own, but he was very, very well read. He knew a lot about geography. One day we got on that subject, and boy, I tell you, we should never have gotten him started. He just went on and on. But he knew what he was talking about. You wouldn't expect a man that knew that much about music to know about geography and history and politics, too. But he did. He was just like that, interested in everything. There are only a handful of people that would extend themselves, that I could count on every time I said, "Hey, there's a benefit, can you play?" Roberto, Ricky Diaz, Joe Trejo, Gilbert Martinez. They were always there for me Ð and for anyone who needed anything. The movie stars and big musicians that knew him, like Cantinflas, Tin Tan, Carlos Campos, Pete Esquivel. He worked with Pepe Compean. They all knew him, they all respected him as a musician. He had traveled all over the United States with different bands, different acts. People knew him in Mexico, in the United States. He really had an international reputation. Musicians are probably the most underrated of all the artists. We're the last ones on the totem pole. So for Roberto to be known across the country reflects what a great musician he was. There were a lot of guys who tried to be like Roberto, not to copy him because you could never copy him. There will only be one Roberto, but they tried to be like him, to model themselves after him. They looked at him and said, that's what I want to be like. He was one of the very few musicians who could play a very good polka, then turn around and play a jazz tune. He could play anything. You see that in his (band's song) book. He had sambas, rock, jazz, Mexican music, Jewish tunes, R&B, the oldies, the latest top 40s. And he liked all those kinds of music, too. He knew the history of each kind of music. I don't know anyone who could play any better than him on the microphone. He played cornet, a lot of people think he played trumpet but really he was playing cornet. He could get one inch away from the microphone and not screech, he had a soft, soft touch. He could hit a high-C with a wonderful, beautiful tone. I don't know anybody else who can do it like he did. At one time some of the best trumpet players in the world were right here in Houston, Roberto and Victor Reyes among them. Those guys could play, but nobody could get on the microphone like Roberto. Nobody could play a high-C with the same tone. The musicianship, that's why Roberto Zenteno was Roberto Zenteno. You'd have to spend some time with him in order to really understand Roberto, to understand how kind he was, how generous. He was such a class act. And a historical figure. Really, he's an important talent that Houston should be so proud of. We were talking one day and I told him, "You don't know is how many people really care about you, as a person and as a friend. Don't get a big head, but everybody loves you. Your fans, your friends, you family. We all love you." He got kind of serious, kind of sentimental, but then he tried to play it off. I really don't think he knew. It would be wonderful if (his kids) could use the Roberto Zenteno Band name as often as they can, while it will still be his children to do it. They should honor that name in every way that they can. Kit Reid, musician Robert was a bridge between generations. He knew and had played with so many people from the '30s and '40s and then of course, he was still playing up until last (month). And he knew everyone in between. What was really remarkable was that he was able to stay at the top of the game the entire time. He started a dynasty. Norma and Javier are excellent musicians in their own right, but that they could all perform together is so special. The trumpet is a very physical instrument. It's hard enough to play it with two arms, I can only imagine what it was like for him with one arm. And that he was performing into his '70s is really remarkable. As a musician, he gave you something to shoot for. He had a level of excellence, on and off stage, that most of us can only hope for. Isidro Villerreal, musician We accompanied Tony Bennet when we were playing at the Cork Club. On the main floor there was a big orchestra, that played for the artists that came to do shows. On the second floor was a lounge, that's where we played. All the people would have dinner downstairs, see the show and then come upstairs where we were. Tony Bennet was playing downstairs, now this was before he was Mr. Tony Bennet. After his show, people from the audience brought him upstairs and he sang with us. It was wonderful. Jimmy Durante, Phyllis Diller, we accompanied them there, too. There are a lot of performers today that say they know music but put a piece of music in front of them and they couldn't read it to save their life. Roberto could read anything, he could play anything. Any style, any type. Always. He was very simple, very humble. He was never boastful or bragging, and so lots of people didn't know all the things he did. I went on tour with La Orchestra Falcon. It was me, Roberto Zenteno, Chuey Compean, Enrique Diaz, Marcello Garcia, Ernie Caceres. We went all over the United States. One Cinco de Mayo, La Sonora Matancera came in from Mexico City and we had a battle, I mean a battle. They played, then we played and then they played again. Each of us played harder and better, not because we wanted to showoff. We admired each other, we pushed each other and ourselves to do better. We applauded each other. The audience loved it. Hortencia Franco de Villerreal, friend Houston will be in mourning forever more. We've lost a great man, one of the best. Alonzo Alonzo, musician Roberto had a real pretty, mellow sound. He was very smooth, and made things look simple. Even when they weren't simple. He was a perfectionist. His band was always very tight, very polished. And he always gave everybody a chance to solo. He could have said, "I'm the star, I play all the solos," but he didn't. Everybody got a chance to solo and show what they had to say. Little Joe, bandleader I knew Zenteno for many years. Like so many other musicians, I'm a big fan of his. Then of course, I knew his kids. Javier, his son, was with me on the road for a while. I'm just a big fan of the whole family. Like everybody that knew him, I just loved the guy. He was a very special, a rare kind of spirit, besides his talent, which was incredible. I still have a hard time thinking of him in the past tense, he was a real special person. He always made me feel appreciated. He had a certain way of acknowledging people that made you feel like he really cared about you, at least that's how I always felt around him. I was fortunate that this last April, when Javier (Zenteno) got married, I was there for his wedding. I played and after my performance I was able to sit with Roberto for a couple of hours. I loved hearing his stories, he was a joker. He was telling some great stories and I was toasting with him. And all the while he was talking, I was drinking. I didn't realize that he never emptied his glass. He kept telling the people to bring me another drink, and all the while he was still on the same one. When it came time to leave, I could barely walk out of there. I saw that shine in his eye, and I thought, "How could he stay so sober after all those drinks?" Well, he was telling me stories and every time we would toast somebody and bang glasses, I would drink mine but he would just sip on his. I was putting these drinks away, and he didn't finish the first one. There was a real trickerster side to him. I know that anyone that ever met him and knew him, even if it was just in passing, it's going to be hard to forget him. That is why those of us who knew a little something about his career and those of us who were lucky enough to know him in a more personal way, we all know he was very special. We were all great fans of his. All the great names he played with, he belonged there, in such good company. It's unfortunate that people don't realize or haven't been informed about all the great people that he worked with. He was a giant, one of the greats. I mean how can one not be awed by him? If you appreciate music, appreciate the arts period, you have to appreciate someone like Zenteno. Not just for his talent, which was incredible but also for the way he handled himself, the way he conducted himself. He was always in a good mood, always up, positive. That's exactly the kind of spirit that you need to perform Ð especially at his level. This is always fun, but it isn't always easy, especially being on the road. But Zenteno did it and made it all fun, not just for him or for the fans but for everyone. The waiter, the roadie, the cab driver, anyone who came in touch with him, was touched by his spirit, his sense of humor. With Roberto and other friends that have passed on, they live in my mind, in my heart. I believe that as long as people live in our hearts and minds, they're alive. Even now it's hard for me to believe that he's not there, that he's gone. But that's just the physical. He'll always be in my heart. He'll always be with me. It really does help a lot, to have your friends and family and your companeros around you at times like this. It lightens the burden. And I'm sure that the appreciation and love that's been shown for Roberto has helped the family. We all loved him, we'll all miss him. B!
BravoHouston! thanks all those people who made this article possible, especially Gloria Zenteno and Luis and Gwen Juarez who provided us with photographs and Ricky Diaz who allowed us to reprint part of his eulogy. Originally appeared in BravoHouston! August 15, 2004. (c) NewSpan Media, 2004. Used by permission.