Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: Walter Salas-Humara and Raul Malo stand tall among our hometown heroes.
Although I've mostly used this column to describe my encounters with national and, on occasion, international stars here in South Florida (and occasionally elsewhere), I've been somewhat lax when it comes to talking about our homegrown heroes who have gone on to make a mark on the national stage. Here are two local boys who made it big... and whom I had a chance to meet when they were here back home.
Walter Salas-Humara played in some local bands back in the '80s and helped front Gainesville's Vulgar Boatmen while attending college. But once Walter left Florida for the more lucrative environs of New York City, he hit his stride in the Silos, an alternative roots-rock outfit that was able to ink a series of major-label deals that later included RCA. A superb string of albums included 1987's Cuba, a heartfelt homage to Salas-Humarra's Cuban heritage. Several other discs followed, each of them reaping critical kudos and a growing following in the process. Unfortunately, the Silos never found a wider audience, and yet that didn't deter them. The Silos are currently signed to Chicago's insurgent Bloodshot Records, and in addition to his work with the Silos and intermittent solo projects, Walter also records with the band I'm Not Jim while also indulging his skills as a professional painter.
I had been a longtime fan of Walter and the Silos since the beginning, but despite his local roots, I never actually knew him during his original residency. So three or so years ago, when a PR contact at Bloodshot informed me that Walter and his then-wife were in town to visit family, I immediately asked if he was free for dinner so that I might meet him. Walter graciously agreed, and so he and his wife and me and mine convened at a small Vietnamese restaurant in Coral Gables, where the four of us enjoyed a lovely meal. I especially liked Walter because he laughed at all my silly jokes, something I can't even get my wife to do. The only problem was that Walter was a "low talker," one of those folks who speaks so softly that you have to lean in closely to hear him, and that can be problematic at times. Still, we struck up a nice friendship, and we still communicate to this day. He's since moved to Arizona, and I recently admitted that I was indeed jealous, having been there and experienced the lovely scenery. Still, my admission doesn't seem to bother Walter, because our communications back and forth continue unabated. Fortunately too, when one is communicating by email, being a low talker is of no consequence.
Like Walter, Raul Malo is a former South Florida resident of Cuban descent. Raul I met during the first flush of his career with the Mavericks, before the band left for the greener pastures of Nashville and became one of the most successful country crossover acts of the early '90s. Local label Yesterday & Today Records released the band's self-titled debut, which provided an excellent introduction to the world at large. Happily for me, I was asked to write a small essay that was included in the limited-edition box-set version of that release, an assignment that ingratiated me to the band early on. While doing the research, I had lunch with Malo and Rich Ulloa, owner of Yesterday & Today, both the record store and the record label, and I had the opportunity to hear Raul pour out his desire to become a successful singer/songwriter. His idols were icons Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and other great troubadours of an earlier era. Not surprisingly, his music betrayed an obvious influence early on.
In time, Malo and the Mavericks achieved their dreams, but at the time, Malo was just an ordinary guy, albeit a musician who was obviously incredibly talented. In fact, he even agreed to speak at a music business class that I taught after hours at a local high school. It was a small group of students that showed up that night -- no more than half a dozen -- but he was nice enough to bring along his acoustic guitar and play a few songs for what is likely the most intimate audience of his professional career. That humility made his later success all the more gratifying for his hometown fans. I caught up with him backstage a couple of years later after the Mavericks had released their first album on MCA and returned home for a show at the now-defunct Stephen Talkhouse on South Beach. It remains one of the most eclectic shows I've ever seen, veering from the band's upbeat originals to odd, obscure covers like the Beatles' "Inner Light," a strange choice anyway but especially daunting for a band with such rootsy leanings.
Malo and the Mavericks boasted several best-selling albums throughout the decade, but by the turn of the millennium, internal pressures put the band on hiatus. Although they reunited briefly in 2003, Malo turned his focus to a critically acclaimed solo career. In time, he began injecting more and more Latin sounds into his repertoire, along with elements of jazz, big band, and dusty pop standards. I've had the opportunity to speak to him a couple of times since then, usually while interviewing him to promote one of his new releases. I'm happy to report that he's still the personable fellow I knew back when, especially when we reminisce about his formative years before fame, fortune, and fate gave a collective nod in his direction.