Issue # 45
March 22, 2001
My Back Pages, Part 1: The Del Rubio Triplets
By Rich Wilhelm

I bet you are now as sick of WEATHER!!! as I am.

For the next four weeks, I'm going to be publishing some of my older pieces on this website. There are two reasons for this. First, I like to revisit old stories now and then. Second, I've been trying to write some new pieces and, to be perfectly honest, not much has been happening. I've got the ideas, but I've been finding myself trying to turn these ideas into columns in one sitting, usually a two-hour period late on a Friday night when what I really need to be doing is sleeping. I need to change my approach to this and to do that, I need to take a break from putting new stories up. I hope you're cool with that. The plan is to return to a brand new Dichotomy column in about four weeks.

I'd like to begin this tour through my back pages with a story I wrote on the Del Rubio Triplets, which appeared in the fifth issue Cool And Strange Music! Magazine in May 1997. I was inspired to write this story after reading in December 1996 that Eadie Del Rubio, one of the triplets, had recently died. Sadly, I'm republishing it here this week as a tribute to Elena Del Rubio, who passed away this past Monday, March 19, 2001. Along with this story, I send my condolences out to Milly Del Rubio, Elena's surviving sister.

San Pedro, California is the home of two of the greatest, most underrated trios in popular music, two groups that changed the way I think about music: the 1980s punk band, the Minutemen, and the Del Rubio Triplets. This story is about the Del Rubio Triplets.

I had never even heard of the Del Rubio Triplets when they first strutted their way into my heart in the late 1980s via Pee Wee Herman's Christmas special, a television extravaganza so surreal and just plain wacky that it ought to be required viewing for fans of all things "cool and strange." There they were, Eadie, Milly and Elena Del Rubio, visiting the Playhouse with Grace Jones, Cher, Frankie and Annette, k.d.lang and seemingly hundreds of other luminaries. Three leggy senior citizens with big blonde hairdos, wearing matching outfits, playing matching guitars and belting out "Winter Wonderland" while strolling merrily through a delightfully fake-looking set. I was immediately intrigued and have remained a fan to this day. Sadly, Eadie Del Rubio died just after Christmas last year, but her memory and her spirit lives on in her sisters and in the wonderful music they created together.

Of course, the Del Rubio Triplets were around long before Pee Wee Herman brought them into my consciousness. No one knows exactly when (their age is a tightly guarded "professional secret") but sometime earlier in this century [that would be the 20th century now--RW] Milly, Elena and Eadie Del Rubio were born, 15 minutes apart. During their childhood, which was spent in the Panama Canal Zone and Washington D.C., the Del Rubios' father gave them three identical Martin guitars, since he instinctively felt that the girls possessed some kind of musical ability. The Del Rubio's have played those exact same guitars throughout their entire career.

The Del Rubio Triplets hit Hollywood after high school, hoping to make it big as a singing trio. They did not take professional voice lessons. "We had no coach," says lead guitarist Milly in a biographical sketch on the Del Rubio's website. "We learned by listening to records of our favorite singers."

After several years touring the local lounge circuit, the Del Rubio Triplets set off on a three-year odyssey, touring and wowing audiences around the world with their act. Following this amazing experience, the Del Rubio's found their vocation in life, while visiting their mother, who was sick in the hospital. As they sang for their mom each night, eventually other patients began to request a few songs. It was at this point that the Triplets realized that their mission was to bring comfort to the sick and elderly by playing and singing to them.

Ever since that revelation, the Del Rubio Triplets have driven their trusty station wagon named Bambi to countless hospitals and nursing homes. They would have happily spent the rest of their lives this way, but then a funny thing happened-the Del Rubio Triplets were discovered!

This had happened before, of course. Legend has it that Bob Hope was a supporter in the early days, but that the sisters chose a lifestyle away from the glare of stardom. This time, the discovery came in the late 1980s when songwriter Allee "Neutron Dance" Willis asked the Del Rubios to perform at some clubs that were part of the growing Los Angeles underground art world. The sisters gladly obliged, and soon people of all ages were being blown away by their energetic performances. Pee Wee found a place for them at the Playhouse and before long the Del Rubio's were showing up on sitcoms like Full House, Married With Children, The Golden Girls and, most recently, Ellen.

Around this time, the Del Rubio's began to incorporate current pop tunes into their act and in 1988 recorded their debut album Three Gals, Three Guitars, which I think is quite frankly one of the most inspired albums ever made. Hearing this album is a delightful entrance into the Del Rubio Triplets experience and it's probably my all-time favorite record to secretly slip onto the turntable when unsuspecting friends are around. On this delicious slice of vinyl, the sisters take on hit after hit, from the Doors' "Light My Fire," to the Bangles' "Walk Like An Egyptian," and they hit each song out of the ballpark.

The basic Del Rubio style was just to bash the song out on the acoustic guitars while one Sister would also bang out percussion on the face of her guitar. All three sing, both solo and with the other two. Their style sounds so simple the first time you hear it, but each time you listen you realize there is a lot more going on in the interplay of the three guitars and three voices than initially meets the ear. And, because of the undeniably kitschy aspect of these three women singing songs like the Pet Shop Boys' "What Have I Done To Deserve This?", in addition to the previously mentioned songs, it's easy to dismiss the Three Gals... album as just another novelty record. But that would be a shame, because there is so much more to the album and all of it is rooted in the fact that the Del Rubio Triplets simply have a totally different, fresh perspective on popular music and they pursue this vision in a very serious, yet fun (and decidedly unpretentious), manner.

In the process of pursuing this vision, the Del Rubio Triplets disassemble many pop classics and allow us all to hear them in a new light. The Triplets turn simple-minded notions of what's "good" and "bad" upside down, creating an alternative pop universe where music fans, young and old, can be equally delighted by all of the history of pop, from "Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead" to "Hey Jude" and beyond.

There are many great moments on Three Gals, Three Guitars. The Triplets' version of "Light My Fire" rules, and provides further evidence for my theory that, while the Doors were only a mediocre psychedelic rock band, they were an incredible psychedelic lounge band. At one point in the song, the Triplets engage in an amazing feat of vocal gymnastics, singing the word "fire" nine times in a row, then immediately launching into the line, "Come on baby, light my fire," as if repeating a word over and over without taking a breath is no big deal.

Sometimes the musical arrangements on Three Gals, Three Guitars sound totally unhinged, like a loose ceiling fan, but the Del Rubios always bring it on home. Their rendition of "Walk Like An Egyptian" caterwauls merrily along and features two wordless vocal sections, the first a sly tribute/parody of 1940s era singing groups like the Andrews Sisters and the second a somewhat atonal wailing with a Middle Eastern feeling, in keeping with the Egyptian theme. The songs ends, like several songs on the album do, with a single, just slightly out-of-tune guitar chord. In theory, this might sound a little messy but, believe me, on vinyl (or CD) it is glorious. Trust me, if you are reading this magazine, you probably should check out Three Gals, Three Guitars.

According to the Del Rubio website, the gals released two other albums since Three Gals, Three Guitars. These albums are Whip It and Jingle Belles, both released in 1992. I have yet to hear either of these (I'm still recovering from Three Gals...), but I fervently hope and pray (and assume) that the title track of Whip is, in fact, the Devo classic. [Since the appearance of this article in Cool and Strange Music! a Del Rubios anthology, naturally called Anthology has been released. It looks excellent.]

I was never able to see the Del Rubio Triplets live, but I can imagine what a fun, amusing and genuinely warm-hearted show it would have been. I did see the sisters on a television news magazine show about a year ago. I don't remember which show it was, but reporter John Hockenberry's interview showed the Del Rubio Triplets to be three individuals who had a great deal of love for each other, for their audience and for what they considered to be their God-given vocation. It was funny, touching and life-affirming, and I'm glad I was watching television that night.

My sincerest sympathies, and I'm sure those of all the Del Rubio Triplets fans, go out to Milly and Elena [and now, sadly, just to Milly] and their friends now that Eadie [and Elena] is gone. Along with those sympathies, go our thanks to the Del Rubio Triplets for having such a unique and fun-loving perspective on music and for bringing that viewpoint to such vibrant life!

(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print a hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2001 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)