TAMPA ― From the late 1950s through mid 1960s, The Fabulous Rockers ruled Tampa Bay’s musical scene.
They were the band to book for proms, performed at New York City’s famed Peppermint Lounge, had a song on the regional top 40 chart and played with the likes of the Four Seasons and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“They were the benchmark for every other band,” said Rodney Justo, a Tampa musician who performed in that era.
The Fabulous Rockers had nine members, but Justo had a clear favorite: vocalist Arthur “Artie” Alvarez.
“He was the coolest guy in the coolest band,” Justo said. “He was the one all the women wanted. He was the heartthrob. We all wanted to be Artie.”
Fellow Rockers vocalist Donna Lynn Baccarella said she looks back on that time as “Tampa’s Happy Days. Artie was our Fonzie. The women adored him.”
Mr. Alvarez died on July 14. He was 78 and residing in St. Augustine.
Rick Alvarez said his father had been dealing with “heart issues” for years. Then, a few weeks ago, he “contracted pneumonia. The combination just took too much of a toll on him.”
The pneumonia, he said, was not from COVID-19.
“My dad lived life to the fullest,” Rick Alvarez said. “He enjoyed every minute of it. He was Tampa’s first pop idol.”
The Tampa native learned from the best.
Mr. Alvarez was 12 and selling sodas at West Tampa’s Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory when, on May 8, 1955, Elvis Presley performed there for the first time.
“It was an inspiration to him,” Rick Alvarez said. “Not so much musically, but by way of the attention Elvis got from the girls.”
A year later, Mr. Alvarez and his friend Sam Garcia were “crooning” in a West Tampa park, Rick Alvarez said, when a neighborhood girl took notice and offered them $65 to perform at her birthday party.
“The fellows replied, ‘You mean you’ll let us sing if we pay you $65?’ They would have paid too,” the son said. “That was his first paying singing job.”
The Fabulous Rockers formed in 1957.
A few of the original members quit over the next year, new ones were brought in, and, by 1958, they had their steady nine-person ensemble: pianist Dennis Pupello, trumpeter Onelio Ochoa, bass guitarist Wes Young, saxophonists Manuel “The Joker” Gutierrez and Roger Menendez, drummer Anthony Lopez, guitarist Chuck Borris and vocalists Baccarella and Mr. Alvarez.
A mix of Jefferson and Hillsborough high school students, they performed weekly Saturday shows at the Letter Carrier’s Hall in front of 1,000 teenagers dancing the night away to popular cover songs such as I Feel Good, Twist and Shout and La Bamba.
Proms were scheduled around their availability. National bands touring Florida hired them as the opening act or backup band.
They were best known for their original tune Would I Still Be Loving You written by Pupello and Mr. Alvarez. The song made it to national radio and led to the band being booked at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City, a hangout for celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra.
“The Fabulous Rockers were an institution,” Justo said. “They were their own venue. You didn’t say you were going to the Letter Carrier’s Hall. You said you were going to The Rockers.”
Mr. Alvarez was a star on the football field, too. A linebacker, he was co-captain of Jefferson High School’s team when they won the city championship in 1959.
“He dated the homecoming queen,” Justo said. “That’s just who he was — the coolest guy.”
He later married that homecoming queen, Betty Roza Alvarez.
While on tour, “wide-eyed groupies” would watch Mr. Alvarez perform and hope for a date, Baccarella said. “He knew how to perform for women. He was a flirt on stage. It was funny to watch because I knew the girls had no chance” because he was faithful.
Then, in 1964, with life taking the Fabulous Rockers in different directions, they broke up.
Mr. Alvarez graduated from the University of South Florida and forged a career designing beauty salons throughout the southeast, Rick Alvarez said. He also continued to perform throughout the 1970s as a local lounge act.
He would later marry his second wife, Sharon Alvarez, whom his son described as his father’s “greatest fan for over 30 years.”
The band got back together in 1994, but Mr. Alvarez declined to be a part of the reunion.
Band member Ochoa chalked it up to “creative differences. He wanted to do something different than we wanted. I respect that. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.”
But Ochoa said that does not take away from what Mr. Alvarez meant to the band.
“He was a great performer,” Ochoa said. “He was a natural.”
Added Baccarella: “It was such a special time for all of us. I think we did something special for Tampa. We really did. And people remember us all these years later. Artie was a big part of that.”
Born: Nov. 21, 1942
Died: July 14, 2021
The service is private.