This song was written by "?," the band's frontman who wanted to be anonymous (he's listed on the composer credits as (Rudy Martinez). At one point he referred to the individual band members only by three-letter names (at one point, the band was known as XYZ). The mystery helped market the group, who wore dark glasses to add to the intrigue.
Since mystery has always been a staple of their act, it's hard to know which stories about the group are factual. When they recorded this song, they were a five-piece whose families migrated from Mexico and Texas to work in the Saginaw Valley in Michigan.
? tells us that the song was always called "96 Tears," and never "69 Tears" or "Too Many Teardrops" as sometimes reported. He insists that the number 96 has a deep, philosophical meaning, but refuses to tell us what that is. (Here's the full interview
Note that the singer is not the one crying the 96 Tears. He's been dumped, and plans to get revenge by reuniting so he can dump her back. That's when she'll be crying the 96 tears.
When the group came up with this song, ? didn't want to use a title with a number in it because he thought they would be accused of ripping off The Rolling Stones, who had a hit with "19th Nervous Breakdown
." His bandmates convinced him to go with it.
The record was taped in a converted living room in Bay City, Michigan. The band then had the Texas-based Pa-Go-Go Records press 500 copies so they could distribute them to the DJ's in southern Michigan. The song became the most requested record on WTAC Flint, and CKLW out of Windsor, Canada, which went into Detroit. Cameo Records, having solvency problems, picked up the record after one of its staffers heard it on CKLW.
In our interview with ?, he talked about how this song came together: "Little Frank [keyboard player Frank Rodriguez] comes in singing a tune, and I said, 'I've heard that before. And I ain't going to do nothing until I've heard where that music and the title of it comes from.' He played it for like 45 minutes. Everybody's getting mad. And then all of a sudden it dawned on me, I said, 'Oh, I know where I heard that. I wrote that song long time ago.'
Then the lyrics came out: 'Too many teardrops for one heart to be crying,' all that came out just like that. Boom. See, it was meant to be. There are certain things that are meant to be."
The follow-up to "96 Tears," "I Need Somebody," peaked at #22 in 1966. Three more singles followed including "Can't Get Enough Of You, Baby," which made #56 in 1967. The group disbanded in 1968, but have reunited from time to time since.
The organ riff on this song is one of the most recognizable in rock, and helped define the sound of that era.
Often thought to be a Farfisa, the band's keyboard player Frank Rodriguez used a Vox Continental on "96 Tears."
This trashy bar band sound would later become vintage - many musicians use a Vox or Farfisa to get a retro sound (see: "Dirty Laundry
" by Don Henley). Hearing this sound causes a rush of nostalgia for those of a certain age.
Garland Jeffreys covered this in 1980, with moderate success at the end of the disco era. ? & the Mysterians re-formed that year, with ? the only original member.
This was very popular with American soldiers during the Vietnam War. (thanks, Kenneth A. Hinks - Canton, MI)