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Julius Wechter's Baja Marimba Band was, in his own words, "... like the Tijuana Brass' bad little brothers. Herb [Alpert] and his group would dress in tuxedos and put on a tight, professional presentation. And we'd flop on stage in big sombreros and old clothes with big pasted-on mustaches, smoking cigars and drinking beer."
Wechter grew up in Hollywood, and can be seen as a teenager in bit parts in a number of films from the late 1940s and early 1950s. He learned the vibraphone and played around the fringes of the West Coast jazz scene, recording an album under his own name in 1956.
For exotica fans, his fame began when he joined Martin Denny's combo in Hawaii. Wechter played vibes and many unusual percussion instruments on Denny's recordings, starting with "Exotica" in 1958, through "In Person" in 1962.
He then returned to Hollywood and worked as a session musician, recording with Sonny and Cher, the Beach Boys, and Phil Spector. One of his earliest session calls was to take his marimba to Herb Alpert's garage, where "The Lonely Bull," the first hit for what became the Tijuana Brass, was being recorded. Wechter continued to work with Alpert, an old acquaintance from high school days, as the TJB and Alpert's new A&M label got going. Wechter composed "The Spanish Flea," which became one of the most-recorded hits launched by the Tijuana Brass, covered by everyone from the squeaky-clean Doodletown Pipers to Homer Simpson.
As Alpert transformed the TJB from an anonymous studio group into a slick touring group based on a Mexican mariachi band, he suggested that Wechter follow the example with an Americanized adaptation of a marimba ensemble. Like the TJB, the band was made up of studio musicians, mostly of Jewish, Italian, and, in the case of Cal Tjader's brother, Curry, Scandinavian descent. When a reporter asked Wechter just how many Mexicans were in the group, he said candidly: "As many Mexicans as Herb has in the Tijuana Brass."
Dubbed the Baja Marimba Band, Wechter's group quickly had a hit with "Comin in the Back Door," which went on to become the title track of their first album and the group's theme song. Although never quite achieving the success of the TJB, the Baja Marimba Band did very well on its own, recording nearly a dozen albums for A&M and spawning several copycat groups, including the Leo Addeo-led Living Marimbas on RCA and the Acapulco Marimbas on London.
The band hung on several years after Alpert folded the TJB, but by the mid-1970s, Wechter had moved back to studio work, mainly for television. He scored a minor Disney film, "Midnight Madness." Around this time, his lifelong problem with involuntary nervous tics was diagnosed as Tourette's Syndrome, and Wechter became an active advocate for the understanding and treatment of the condition, serving as vice president of the local chapter of the Tourette's Syndrome Association.
In 1986, he and his wife Cissy collaborated on a musical revue, "Growing Pains," which was performed at several equity theaters in the Los Angeles area. In 1990, he briefly revived the Baja Marimba Band with a new set of musicians and played At My Place and other local clubs. Late in life, he became interested in psychology, and went on to earn a degree from Antioch College and work as a counselor for the Family Service Agency in Burbank. He died of lung cancer in early 1999. His son, David, is also professional musician.
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