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La La Land: Only in LA: Jewish pedal steel guitarist from New Jersey stars in Mexican bands

La La Land: Only in LA: Jewish pedal steel guitarist from New Jersey stars in Mexican bands

Usually in this space I talk about behind the scenes music events in LA. But this week I ran into one of the most interesting and least expected LA musical stories I have heard. It all started with a blues guitarist in New Jersey.

Two weeks ago I interviewed blues guitarist Andy B.AND on my radio show.  After the interview he mentioned that his LA-based brother was the go-to pedal steel guitar player for international Latin music stars like Juanes, and Joan Sebastian, and Jenni Rivera. Oh, and he also played with Dwight Yokum and Tanya Tucker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Emmylou Harris and other major country stars. And he has an Oscar.

Wait a minute; pedal steel in Mexican music? A Jewish pedal steel guitar from New Jersey playing with major country bands and touring and recording with global Latin stars? And what about that Oscar? Got my attention. So I tracked him down for a conversation on the radio. What follows is one of LA’s oddest and most inspiring music stories. Here is the highlights of my interview with Bob “Boo” Bernstein.

Patrick. Bob, you have had and are still having an incredible career in both country western and Latin music. How did you go from buying a pedal steel guitar  in high school to playing with superstars like Jenni Rivera and Dwight Yokum?

Bernstein. It didn’t start with pedal steel. I was 10 years old and my brother got the first Jimi Hendrix album. I walked into the room, heard it, and I was like the Blues Brothers – on a mission from god. I had a little guitar under my bed, pulled it out and started banging on it. Hendrix got his chops from all these blues artists, so I got into blues music and started saving my money to buy a guitar just like BB King’s. But I heard a pedal steel guitar in the guitar store, it touched my soul and I bought it. So then I was the only guy in New Jersey with a pedal steel and I begged country artists who came through to show me how they played. In two years I was playing professionally and I started backing for Freddy Fender – the Latin rock and roll and blues star. That gave me the taste for Latin music. Sometime later, four months from graduating college, he calls me and asks me to come to Texas to join his band.  That started my big time music career – and opened the door to  the Latino music world.

Patrick. And you stayed with it?

Bob. I knew nothing about Latino culture or music. Freddy was born in Texas, so his music was very TexMex. He never considered himself a country artist, although that is where his fame came from.  He was an old rock and roller, playing with the Nevil Brothers and others and had rock hits in Mexico. I lived at his house for some time. He spoke Spanish as well as English, and I got immersed in the culture, the language, the music. And I loved it.

Patrick.  You toured with the world-famous Joán Sebastian until his death.  How did you and he integrate the pedal steel – which is not a Mexican instrument and not found in Mexican music – into Mexican music?

Bob. Music is universal. Musicians can talk to each other regardless of language – there are no borders.  Although a pedal steel is stereotyped for country music, it is a beautiful instrument and can fit into anything. It turns out that when Sebastian was young he listened to US country music and loved it and spent time in Nashville, so he knew the pedal steel —   it was another tool for creating music for him. He was also known as the poet as the people. His music was like country music – stories of the people. He was on the Los Tr3s tour and they decided to add a pedal steel for something special and asked me.  I had been doing big arena country shows in the states when they invited me to Mexico. I said “sure” and went;  then they asked me again and again and again.  About a month an half later I was still there so I asked the musical director if I was part of the band. He said I was playing with them so I just became part of the band and even recorded in the studio with Sebastian. It was never official, but it lasted for over five years.

Patrick. You recorded with LA’s most famous Latino fusion band, the Grammy winning La Santa Cecelia. How did  you get connected?

Bob. I had been following them because I loved them and had run into them in the airport in Mexico city and was introduced. But the connection came through Gustavo Santaolalla while scoring the film Brokeback Mountain (for which Bob won an Oscar). When they asked the producer for a pedal steel player, he gave them my name.  

Patrick. You are an unlikely member of the Latino music scene – you are not Latino, you are from New Jersey, you play an instrument not found in Mexican music. And yet, it seems you are a member of the Latino music community in LA. Are you?

Bob. Yes. I am proud and thankful that I have been embraced. It has never been about being the guerro or that I play a weird instrument. It has always been about they enjoy what I am doing, and I enjoy what they are doing. I am not very active in the alternative (Latino) music community here on a regular basis because I do more of my work in recording sessions and with bigger artists. But I do have local connections through (local artist and producer) Uli and the Mexicans and Eugene Toale and have played with them. I would like to do more

Patrick. You are the first pedal steel guitarist in major Mexican music. So you are a pioneer?

Bob. I think that I am. The guys in Sebastian’s band used to say that all the time.  He was not only experimenting, he made it part of his sound – it was his vision. His musical director Ernesto Martinez also produced Jenni Rivera’s album which is how a pedal steel guitarist wound up playing with her band.

Patrick. While you were touring, did the other people in the band ever kid you?

Bob. Yes, when I was playing a solo Sebastian would often scream out “El guerro!” (“the anglo”), but it was all in good fun. Sure, the guys would kid me  but it was in a very loving style.  When we played in Mexico, Sebastian had a banda on stage (a Mariachi band) and most of the guys in the bands did not speak English. I could speak some Spanish, but they didn’t care.  We were a band and they were my buds. It was great fun and I loved it.

We talked a lot more about scoring Brokeback Mountain and Man of Steel with Hans Zimmer, his music on Narcos and other TV shows, but his happiest parts of the interview were those above – about a how Jewish country western pedal steel guitar player become a part of platinum Mexican bands.  Only in LA.

Hear the full interview here.

Patrick O’Heffernan, PhD., is a music journalist and radio broadcaster based in Los Angeles, California, with a global following. His two weekly radio programs, MusicFridayLive! and MusicaFusionLA are heard nationwide and in the UK. He focuses on two music specialties: emerging bands in all genres, and the growing LA-based ALM genre (American Latino Music) that combines rock and rap, blues and jazz and pop with music from Latin America like cumbia, banda, jarocho and mariachi. He also likes to watch his friend drag race.

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