Joe Jama, a key figure in San Antonio's West Side soul sound, has died

Jama, who died at 74, joined the Royal Jesters and helped guide the band in a funkier, jazzier direction.

click to enlarge Joe Jama poses with longtime San Antonio TV anchor Fred Lozano. Both were members of local music group the Radiants. - Courtesy Photo / Jesus V. Garcia Archives
Courtesy Photo / Jesus V. Garcia Archives
Joe Jama poses with longtime San Antonio TV anchor Fred Lozano. Both were members of local music group the Radiants.
Singer-bassist Joe Jama, a key figure in San Antonio's Chicano soul sound, died Sunday at age 74, according to details shared online by friends and family.

Jama was a late-joining but key member of the Royal Jesters, a group formed in the late 1950s by Lanier High School students. By the time Jama — by then a veteran of local groups the Radiants and the Revells — came into the fold in 1968, the Jesters were shifting away from their fusion of doo-wop and Mexican music into a more contemporary sound reflecting a broader mix of influences.

click to enlarge Early on, Jama played bass in Beatles-influenced act the Radiants. - Courtesy Photo / Jesus V. Garcia Archives
Courtesy Photo / Jesus V. Garcia Archives
Early on, Jama played bass in Beatles-influenced act the Radiants.
Armed with a wide vocal range, an arranger's ear and the ability to write memorable tunes, Jama helped shift the Royal Jesters into a funkier, jazzier, horn-driven approach that embraced the burgeoning Chicano movement, said Hector Saldaña, curator of the Texas Music Collection at Texas State University's Wittliff Collections.

"When you saw Joe Jama in his heyday, it was a powerful thing," said Saldaña, who also penned a lengthy remembrance of the musician for the Express-News. "He wasn't just a soul shouter. He could bring together a lot of different elements."

Music historians credit Jama and other architects of San Antonio's Brown Eyed Soul movement with fusing the Mexican music of their upbringing with the blues showcased by Black musicians at venues including the Eastwood Country Club.

"San Antonio musicians would be in the audience and learn rhythm and blues listening to Bobby Bland and all these guys that were coming through," Ruben Molina, author of Chicano Soul, told the Current in 2015. "Doug Sahm, Randy Garibay, Joe Jama, Sunny [Ozuna]'s musicians were all there learning."
click to enlarge The Royal Jesters, including Jama (second from right), played their last gig as a group in 2010. - Courtesy Photo / Jesus V. Garcia Archives
Courtesy Photo / Jesus V. Garcia Archives
The Royal Jesters, including Jama (second from right), played their last gig as a group in 2010.
By the early '80s, Jama struck out on his own, leading a variety of other outfits, including 100 Proof, that drew college students and St. Mary's Street revelers along with older fans of his funky West Side soul. He continued to excel as a performer thanks to his vocal range and soulful, dance floor-ready tunes.

Jama slowed his performance schedule around a decade ago as he dealt with health issues, according to Saldaña. Even so, he remains an influential figure in Alamo City musical circles.

"What set Joe Jama apart was that he had that vocal ability, you know, he could go high or go low," Saldaña said. "He also had the musical chops to back it up."

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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