The Mar Dels are 30 years strong but still backup-singer-challenged

The gigs just keep coming

The Mar Dels are 30 years strong but still backup-singer-challenged.
  • The Mar Dels are 30 years strong but still backup-singer-challenged.

“December 31, 1982, was the last New Year’s Eve that we didn’t work. Last year we played the Hotel Del. We’re booked to go back again this year.”

Mar Dels founder Doug Allen admits he has thought several times about putting the oldies revue inspired by Sha Na Na and Happy Days out to pasture. “But the gigs just keep coming.”

Allen (lead vocals/sax/keyboards) started the Mar Dels with Jesse Horner (guitar) and brothers Albert and Brian Williams (drums and bass). All four are still playing “Louie, Louie” and “Wooly Bully” in tuxedos. The format hasn’t changed. “We still do ’50s, ’60s, ’70s disco, and B-52’s. If you want just ’50s, we can do that all night.”

While some San Diego musicians have slagged the band for being silly or uninspired, the Mar Dels played the oldies for presidents Reagan, Bush (both), and former California governor Pete Wilson. They’ve played Radio City Music Hall, on aircraft carriers, in Macao, Hawaii, Bermuda, and Cabo San Lucas. “They flew us over to play Hong Kong four times.” says Allen. “We got hired by this group of European bankers.”

And the pay is good ($25,000 for one show was the most lucrative).

Allen says retaining female backup singers has been the most difficult part of the job. “We’ve had at least a dozen girls over the years. Every time one of them leaves it’s like we have to start the band over again.”

And while it doesn’t happen these days, the band has had to deal with some sketchy agents over the years. “There was one time when the agent got paid the same amount as the band: that’s a 100 percent agent fee. When you show up to the gig and find out about stuff like that, you just have to get through it, play the gig, and try not to get fooled again.” Horner and Allen now do all the booking.

The first public gigs were at long-closed Del Mar bars called Poncho’s and the Hill House. “Then, in 1984, we started playing every Monday at the Belly Up. There was a line out the door most every Monday night for two years.”

Allen says it’s not always easy. “There is a lot of stress. It’s loud. And everything has to go smoothly or people will get upset. They yell at you about when to start and when to stop and when to play their special song.... In China my sax fell apart in my bare hands. Another time our drummer left his drum sticks on the rickshaw on the way over. He had to pound the drums the whole night with two sticks he got from breaking up a stool. One time one of the girls had to play the whole night with two left shoes... Oh, yeah, and then there was the time someone died. This guy had a heart attack on the dance floor at the Belly Up.”

The Mar Dels play the Belly Up Sunday, June 9, from 2 to 5 p.m.; a fund-raiser for a four-year-old leukemia patient.

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