Question Mark of ? and the Mysterians (96 Tears)

by Carl Wiser

The mystery man behind "96 Tears" tells the story of the song (sort of).

The man who brought us "96 Tears," the rock touchstone from 1966 with the unforgettable Vox Continental organ riff, goes by ?. His birth name might be Rudy Martinez, or it might not. It doesn't really matter, because his legend is built on enigma (he has steadfastly refused to remove his sunglasses), and if there is any pretense to his mysterious ways, he has kept it convincingly concealed.

We know that he is the frontman of a Michigan group called ? & the Mysterians, and that he is the only credited songwriter on "96 Tears," a song that defined garage rock, influenced punk, and was part of a Michigan rock revolution. Released as their first single, the song shot to #1 in October 1966. The group scored a minor hit with the follow-up single, "I Need Somebody," but made just two albums before disbanding (there have been sporadic reunions).

In this talk with ?, I tried to unlock the mystery of "96 Tears," but found out why it has been shrouded for so long. As soon as I hit record, he started talking.
?: I've been going on the Internet, because I just started going on the Internet. And I'm seeing so many things about ? and the Mysterians. It's like the assassination of Kennedy, there's so many theories. I'm trying to correct all these stories. We're in the Michigan Hall of Fame. We were inducted in 2006. When I went to that website, there's so many things that are so untrue.

Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Well, we are unencumbered here by previous narratives. So you can tell the story.

?: Well, I know they're going to make a movie about this, and a lot of the truth that I've been saying is on film, articles, and yet when I go on the Internet, ewww. But to make a long story short, the first thing is, Bobby Balderrama, where was he born at?

Songfacts: You're asking me?

?: Uh-huh.

Songfacts: I have no idea.

?: Well, see, you don't know a whole lot, do you?

Songfacts: No. I don't claim to know anything.

?: No, but this is what I was saying, he was born in Lubbock, Texas.

Songfacts: Okay.

?: The guitar player. The original guitar player. We're still together, the group is, okay? You know that. Well, ain't that interesting? You're from the area, right?

Songfacts: No, I'm not from Texas.

?: Well, 860 is from there.

Songfacts: That's not true. I can tell you that.

?: It's not?

Songfacts: No. I'm in Connecticut.

?: Okay. Wait a minute. Oh, I got the wrong area code. 'Cause I got 806 as Lubbock.

Songfacts: That's okay. Let's do this: Can you tell me how you wrote the song "96 Tears"?

?: Duh. Okay, my book is Are You For Real?. It's a long story, right? I mean, it's very inspirational. How I wrote the song, I wrote it way before I was in a band. The song, really the story's about me. Because you need a vehicle, you know what I'm saying? All the music's in my head. And when I write a song, just like "96 Tears," anything else, I never listened to the radio, so I never sat down with the band and said, "Okay, we got to write a song, what should we write about?" Never.

We came together in '62. Since I was born, I've been on stage. So, see, I'm the entertainer. I've always been entertaining, and I've been on stage. And I don't have dreams, I have goals. My first goal, my music influence is very simple: life. Being a Catholic, I would go to mass. What do they have in mass, they have an organ, right? Dig? Sometimes you can respond and say yeah, so I know you're there.

Songfacts: Oh, yeah. I'm here.

?: Then, after church, we would go to the ice cream parlor. I mean, we're little kids. This is my music influence, okay? And right next to the Baptist church was an ice cream parlor. And guess what? We couldn't look in, but you could hear them people. See, I grew up in the colored district. I still call them colored, because I don't know how many times they have to change who they are before they can... well, anybody can achieve what they want. Like, Mexicans, now they call them Hispanic, whatever. Things like that. In other words, why do you have to change the title of who you really are in order to progress in America? Is that going to make your status better, be accepted more?

But like I said, I get into all kinds of things that people don't talk about. But we'd be standing outside licking on our ice cream cones, and man, them folks in that Baptist church would be playing that tambourine, they'd be stomping them feet, they'd be clapping their hands. And they a-be a-wailing. And I said, how come we can't celebrate like that in church?

I don't have one sound or style, and but we were frozen in time for many things, because Rolling Stone magazine started in '67. Ed Sullivan, we almost did it, but we were frozen in time because of Cameo Parkway. I knew they manipulated the stocks and they ran away with the money. Neil Bogart, who he was the sales manager, that's the only person I talked to. The rest of the Mysterians had nothing to do with talking to anybody. And Neil Bogart said okay, don't talk to anybody, it's just going to be me and you, right? Because that's how the communication was.

Well, Neil Bogart was the sales manager. I'd known him like 15 years. They're making a movie about him. It was supposed to be called The Golden Boy, but they're changing the title to Spinning Gold, and guess who's going to play Neil Bogart? He almost looks a little bit like Neil: Justin Timberlake is playing him. I went to the website, and he tells about how he formed an office here in Michigan, which is not true. See, everybody wants to take the credit for how things happen, except they're not telling the truth.

So with Neil Bogart, he said he came down here for a basic Cameo property in Michigan. No, he begged me week after week, he begged. Every major record company and United States wanted "96 Tears," and they knew it. Capitol Records, RCA, Mercury, Roulette, you name it, they all wanted "96 Tears." And he kept on persisting.

Songfacts: Okay, but Question Mark, that means that "96 Tears" had been out there. You guys had already put it out on another label when everybody kept coming?

?: Yes, Pa-Go-Go.

Songfacts: So can you take a step back and explain how the song ended up...

?: I'll get to that one. The other music reference, what I was saying, was the theme from Gone With The Wind. My ma took me when I was small, and I probably fell asleep, but I remember seeing Bonnie Blue falling off the little pony, then I remembered when she saw her ma in the casket, laid out.

I used to see Gone With The Wind whenever it came out. That's when it was interesting. See, the meaning of romance is you wait for that moment again. Now I've got it on DVD. People sent it to me when my fire happened [a fire destroyed ?'s home in 2007, taking with it his gold record for "96 Tears" and other memorabilia]. So, I could play it anytime I want. But I don't want to play it, because the romance is gone. But at that time, whenever Gone With The Wind came, like even in the '70s, I would see every showing, because I know I'm not going to see it again for a while. That's the romance. That's what romance is all about.

But to make a long story short, that movie score always stood with me. See, I'm into sound. That's what I'm into. So now you know where I get my reference from. Nobody. Music score. So I'm into sound, but people don't know that.

But okay, "96 Tears." Oh my God. I'm a little boy. Okay, so here's how the movie's going to start. I was born on a country road, don't know where, because we were migrant workers - went all over the United States, but we landed in Michigan. So anyways, my ma's expecting me. By the way, they always went to see live bands and things like that. My dad knew The Ink Spots and all them kind of people before they were famous. He saw B.B. King at the bars. One day he brought The Ink Spots over, because my ma cooks really good Mexican food, right? And who wouldn't want it, it's just like going to a restaurant. So he would bring them over. My parents all the time went to the big band musics and all that kind of stuff, and I'm doing live music, right? How cool is that? Because I felt the vibration.

So I'm coming out, my dad's wearing sunglasses, and he's so excited, because it's a boy. And back then you didn't know. He got so excited that when he said, "It's a boy," his glasses fell and they landed on me, and I screamed out, and I start singing. How do you like that one for an intro?

Songfacts: I like it.

?: Okay. That part didn't happen. And then to continue the story, when he took me to the hospital they're trying to weigh me and I'm kicking my feet around and the doctor spanked me and he said, "Quit dancing like that."

See, I'm original when it comes to writing, you know what I'm saying? Things like that. But to make a long story short, the years went by, and now I'm on stage. I'm dancing from the time I can remember. And the only thing I didn't do was tap dance, because I didn't believe in going one-two-three kick. I'm going to feel the music. When I feel the music, people feel the music. And that's what happens throughout today. And I run everybody down, from Michael Jackson to Usher to Beyoncé to all these people. You ever see Michael Jackson dance to his own music?

Songfacts: Yeah, of course.

?: No, you haven't.

Songfacts: All right.

?: You've never seen him dance to his own music. When he's auditioning for Berry Gordy, who is he dancing to?

Songfacts: I don't know, who was he dancing to?

?: James Brown. Remember the clips? Black and white clips? He's a little kid? What song is he singing? "Baby, baby, baby, babe, I got the feeling," right? He's doing James Brown. I never danced like James Brown. James Brown wasn't even around. I just danced to the music. I feel the music. The moonwalk, that ain't the moonwalk. It's called the backslide. Did you know that?

Songfacts: Yeah. It was introduced on Soul Train in 1979.

?: I used to see Soul Train. But guess who did it first?

Songfacts: The guy on Soul Train.

?: No. That's Jeffrey [Daniel]. No. Jackie Wilson did it first.

Songfacts: Jackie Wilson? All right.

?: Yes. Jackie Wilson had class. He had that suave thing about him. When he danced he had his hands hanging down, and then he would spin around, drop on his knees and all that kind of stuff. But he did the backslide really cool and slow, with his hands going down to the ground. Then Jeffrey, when I used to see Soul Train, they were doing it then. I saw Jeffrey a long time ago when there was Shalamar, and they did it then. Everybody went crazy, and I said, "What? That's the backslide. Michael Jackson didn't come up with that."

But see, when you have the big machine, they don't want people to know, because they want to make you bigger than life. Mitch Ryder said, "You want to know anything about rock and roll? Question Mark is the man." Because I know. I was there when it started, before it started. I was winning jitterbug contests and all that. I won every contest, danced up the Cape. I won the Limbo, I won the Twist. You name it, I won those contests. Because I'm a dancer. And I don't have to look at somebody dancing, because I got my own thing and people feel it when I dance. That's what they say: boy, he gets everybody's attention. Just like a magnet.

So Shalamar, Don Cornelius picked them out and all that kind of stuff, and when they made their appearance they did it 95 miles faster than Michael Jackson could ever do it. But Jeffrey comes, a year after Michael dies, and he says, "Yeah, Michael Jackson called me up when he saw me doing the backslide, and he said, 'Teach me how to do that.'" Okay. If you ever saw the making of Thriller, all these choreographer people that he paid top dollar to make him what he's not, there ain't nobody going to tell me how to dance to my music.

Songfacts: I get your point. You're not influenced by anybody, and by having your original style you're able to create some really original works.

?: I dance to my music. I dance to my lyrics. People say, "Man, you ought to be on Dancing With the Stars," because they know I can dance. I say, "Yeah, I know that." So when I'm not singing, I can dance. Because I don't have to worry about singing and all that kind of stuff. I can do a two-and-a-half hour show, and right after the show, I'm not out of breath. And I go from one song to another. I don't talk. I may have a few words, because otherwise, the guys won't drink no water.

Songfacts: Question Mark, let's talk about your songwriting. I want to know how you write and how you ended up with the sole composer credit on "96 Tears."

?: Well, the beginning of "96 Tears," I do it like this. Okay, do some kind of sound.

Songfacts: Wa-hoo.

?: No, something more.

Songfacts: Sure, let me give you something here. (making sounds)

?: (singing)
Oo, I see you coming down the road.
I don't know if I should talk to you, baby,
But let me know right know,
'Cause I got to have you by my side. Oo, yeah.

See, that's how I write my song. I don't care if guitar's playing or anything. You just came in with something, right? That's how I write my songs on the spot. I'm ahead, everybody's got to catch up with me.

Songfacts: But how did you do it for "96 Tears." The day that you wrote that song, what happened?

?: Okay. Well, here's how it is. I wrote my first song when I was a little kid, right? It took me a lot of money. $7.49. I got these comic books with an ad that says "Make your own recording." I never wanted to make a record to go nationwide, because I'm dancing on stage. Remember that. I'm performing. I started singing these lyrics and stuff. The recording I used at the time was "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu." Because it had a good beat. See, I need a beat. That's what I'm saying. I'm the vehicle. But I need a beat, because I don't play an instrument. All the instruments are in my head. I'll tell Bobby, play this guitar right there, okay, we're going to start like this, we're going to end it like this, the bridge is going to come right here. Because I got lyrics in my head all the time. I write lyrics every day, and they come to me just like that. Then I say, okay, I want the keyboard to do this, we want a break right there. That's how I do every song you ever heard by ? and the Mysterians, that's how they're formed.

But okay, "96 Tears." The years went by, I did get my recording, and it didn't look like nothing in the magazine. It was a small box and it had a needle and it had an arm and it had a small microphone. It wasn't a round disc, it was square. But I lined it up because I didn't know what synchronizing was, and then I sang to "Rockin'" - I made my own lyrics.

But it sounded so tinny. I didn't know what a recording studio was back then or nothing like that. The years went by, and I have all this music in my head, but I'm still performing on stage. Everybody loves the way I dance and all that kind of stuff. And then all of a sudden, I want to learn how to play the music so I could get the music in my head. So I went to the record shop. See, I used to make up names of songs and see if they had it. My thinking was, if they had it, they would sell it. I could sell it, right?

One day, I was at Tower Records, and I asked the girl, "Do you know anybody that can teach me how to play the piano? There's music in my head." And she said, "Yeah, my dad can." Well, she told me where to go. I lived on the poor side of town, and apparently she lived with her dad on the rich side of town. There, if you have grass on your lawn, you're rich. We didn't even grow grass on our grounds, so we played in the dirt.

Songfacts: Where were you living?

?: I never tell things like that. People say, what's the meaning behind ? and the Mysterians? I say it's so profound that if I told mankind, they couldn't comprehend the meaning. Now that I'm telling mankind, it's up to you to comprehend the meaning. Let's get back to "96 Tears."

Songfacts: Were you in Michigan at the time? Can you at least tell me that?

?: Well, yeah.

Songfacts: You just don't want to tell me what city.

?: No.

Songfacts: That's fine.

?: So now I go to this house where there's picket fences, white houses, green lawns. In other words, I'm on a rich side of town. Woooo. Dogs are barking, because I don't belong in that neighborhood. So I knock on the door, this fat guy, about 50 years old, gray hair, bifocals, pudgy, answers the door and he takes me downstairs. This basement had panels on the walls, carpet, a sofa. We didn't have nothing but coal to heat the house.

And I said, "Oo, this guy's rich." And then he had a piano and he sat me down. I said, "I want to learn how to do the music in my head." And he said, "Well, you have to start at the beginning, 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.'" I said, "No, I want the music in my head right now." He said, "Well, sing me one of your songs." So I sang him "96 Tears," and for the first time I heard my music come alive.

I heard that music and I said, "That's what I want. How do I get that?" and he said, "Well, you've got to start from the beginning." And I said, "No." and he said, "I'll tell you what, $10 a week." I don't have a penny in my pocket. I just told him, "I ain't never coming back here." But he said, "$10 a week and I'll teach you how to do the music you hear in your head." I walked home, it's nighttime, and all I could do was sing "96 Tears," because now I had the music. Now the thought is, How do I get old men like him to come to my house and do the music in my head?

Buddy Holly's dead, done died a long time ago. And I was writing songs before he died. I hate that saying in "American Pie," that's when the music died. Shoot, my music was alive. My music wasn't dead. I let people know that, too. I tell it like it is.

Songfacts: So let me just see if I can comprehend this. You had the music for "96 Tears" in your head, and you took a piano lesson and that's where this all came out. And now you're back home. So can you tell me now how the lyrics came together?

?: Well, I don't write personal songs. I write my songs for you. I don't know who you are. You are the person who's going to be here 100 years from now. Well, that was way back then. But '66, when I recorded the song, you're still the person that's coming in the future. I met people that were born on the same week I recorded "96 Tears" so they all the time know how old they are.

Songfacts: Writing the lyrics for the song, can you tell me where they came from, what it was originally called?

?: That's what it was. It was never 69. It was always called "96 Tears." And there's a reason for that.

Songfacts: Why?

?: We formed in '62. I've always had original songs, but you had to play other people's songs, right? I never listened to the radio. I even did "Stop! In The Name of Love," and I didn't know what the lyrics were. I made my own lyrics. People loved it, because I've always had this kind of aurora around me, this kind of charisma. It didn't make any difference if I sang the words backwards - they were going to love it.

Songfacts: Okay. But why 96?

?: Because all my lyrics have a ring to it. So you have to have that ring. Here's how it came. The years went by, somebody heard us, they took us to Detroit and we recorded songs in February of '66 called "Are You For Real," and "I'll Be Back." But the studio owner got shot in the head. We got the master tape, but he got shot in the head. And then Robert Martinez [drummer], he got called into the service. They had a lotto back there. If your birthday fell on that day, you were drafted. We didn't know anything about Vietnam at that time. Maybe other people did. I didn't pay attention to the news or nothing. Now I do, but back then, it was music 24 hours. Plus, we lived together at Bobby's house in Midland. Not everybody was from the same area like they say. Sometimes we only had toast bread to eat in the morning. But we breathed music. We slept music. Everything was music. When you have that going, you have that sound, and things like that. And everybody loved it, we played free many times for the colleges and things like that. We didn't care. Naturally, we didn't play the bars.

Songfacts: All right. So 96. 96.

?: Robert got drafted. Larry [Borjas, guitar] went - a buddy system, but it didn't turn out the way. Now we've got to come up with an original song, because it cannot end like this. There's a meaning for it. Now I know what it is. But to make a long story short, I went to Lilly Gonzalez, my manager. She had a small label called Pa-Go-Go Records. In 1965, she told us we were not ready. A year later I have this demo, so I called her up, I take it to her, now she wants to record it. But two of the guys ain't there. They already gone to Vietnam.

Robert knew Eddie Serrato, Serrato knew Francisco Lugo, so I incorporate them. But they're playing Mexican music. They were not really into rock and roll. But I needed somebody, because we were going to record this weekend coming up. Well, we practiced, and it was terrible. But then the day before we recorded, I called Lilly and said, "Can we do anything else?" she said, "Yeah. You guys can do whatever you want."

So now it's the day before recording, and we need original songs. What we came up with sounded like Motown. The Beatles. Rolling Stones. All that kind of stuff. I said, No, it's got to be original. Well, everybody's getting frustrated, and all of a sudden, 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.

Finally it came to me. I already had the title, but I didn't want it because The Rolling Stones had another song by the numbers: "19th Nervous Breakdown." See, me and Mick Jagger all the time have had something in common when it comes to titles.

Songfacts: Did the number 96 come to you?

?: No, I already had it before. But once I knew that was there, I said, "No, Rolling Stones got '19th Nervous Breakdown,' people going to say we're only doing that because they have a title and a song, so do we." And there was a million to one songs with numbers, right? And then they probably saying, "Oh, well this is the new Eric Burdon." That's probably why they put a number in there. No, 96 has a really profound meaning.

But then Bobby said, "Well, Question Mark, nobody's going to think that." And then they start throwing numbers around. Like 32 tears and all that kind of stuff. I said, Yeah, that's so ridiculous, 32 tears. Well, because I already had 96, I said, Okay, we'll call it 96. And they said, Oh, that sounds good. But remember now, they didn't like the song.

Songfacts: So what's the meaning of 96 that you keep alluding to?

?: Well, it's a very profound meaning.

Songfacts: Are you going to tell me?

?: No.

Songfacts: Okay. So that's going to remain a mystery.

?: Here's where people get mixed up. They each want the last day of the Ground Zero we played CBGB's, right. It wasn't original Mysterians, but I had the drummer anyways. And we played there and where was I going with that... okay, "96 Tears," right, oh, God. What was the question again?

Songfacts: Let's just worry about this: You're recording "96 Tears," you decide that you are going to call it "96" like you originally thought. Screw the Rolling Stones and their "19." And you record the song. Now, the other big thing I'd like to know is how did that little organ part come around?

?: Little Frank just came up with it. I didn't care about that. Once I heard the chord progression.

Remember when that old man played "96 Tears" for me, that's where it came from. At the beginning. That's why I recognized it all them years later, it's like a computer.

Little Frank was playing the melody line, and when I heard that chord progression, I said, "I heard that somewhere." You know when you're trying to think of a movie or a song or an actor, can't think of the name, it drives you crazy, right? That's what I was doing for 45 minutes. I said, "I heard that, until I know where I heard that from, I ain't doing nothing."

Songfacts: Did you manage to keep any of your royalties from this song?

?: No. We never got paid for "96 Tears" on royalties.

Songfacts: But when you write a song and you're on the credits, don't you get the royalty checks?

?: Well, yeah. But that's another story. To make "96 Tears" the song that it was, Neil Bogart's sales manager, for that money, he created Casablanca Records. KISS, Donna Summer, Village People. So he learned from us. We were his mentor. But we're not mentioned in the movie.

Songfacts: Did you sign away your rights to it?

?: No. Here's what it is. Now, October 1966 we got the #1 song, right? Well, Neil Bogart said on April 30th, You guys are going to get $50,000 each first installment. I mean, everything's great. Why wouldn't it be? We got the #1 song, we got the million-seller at the end of the year, we're recording the album, and everything's happening. We're doing shows with Sonny and Cher, the Beach Boys, anybody that was out there. For $2.50 you could see a show like this back then.

Why would you think it's going to come to an end, right? But guess what, I just found this out. I knew they manipulated the stock, because my manager, I found out in 1999 how she got paid $150,000 behind our back. We never knew that. That was in '67. But now it comes time for the checks, right? I get mine in the afternoon, they get theirs in the morning. All of a sudden, they started calling me: "Question Mark, the checks didn't come." And I said, "Well, they're probably going to come to me in my mailbox." So I waited till my mail came through, and it didn't come. So I called Neil Bogart and I said, "Neil, the checks didn't come." He said, "You guys signed all your rights over."

I said, "When they make a movie, you guys can have everything you want, all the money and all that kind of stuff. But there's one thing you guys don't have and won't ever have, and that's my ability to perform as a dancer, to write songs, and to sing. That belongs to me, and money can't buy that." Neil Bogart died in 1982, and a lot of people have died since then. What are we still doing? We're still rockin' and rollin', writing songs.

I never wanted to make a record. Never. But see, when The Beatles came out, they said, "Oh, man, do like the Beatles, you guys will be more popular." We all the time had a fanbase. And I said, "No, we got our own sound." "Oh, do disco," any kind of craze that came out there, "do rap." Even my nieces and nephews when they were small they would like KISS and all that stuff. Right now one of my nieces, she's starting to sing. And I hate Justin Bieber. I tell it like it is. I don't care who it is.

Songfacts: Do you own any rights to the song?

?: I got the copyright.

Songfacts: Do you get a check if somebody is using that song?

?: I get a small one.

May 26, 2015

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Comments: 1

  • Ben from BerlinWhat a wonderful interview ;-)
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