In this March 23, 1999, file photo, John Tovar shows the homepage of the South Florida group Satellite Six on the web, which he says at the time had already had a big impact on how he does business with the music industry.
Miami Herald File
Miami music director John Tovar has named the Miami-made country-rock band The Mavericks. He was a bit of a maverick himself.
A hulking, hulking figure dressed in black, much like Johnny (The Man in Black) Cash, by way of Cuba, Tovar has been credited as the midwife to the Mavericks, shock rock band Marilyn Manson, and band simple rock band composed mostly of Cuban Americans known as Nuclear Valdez.
Under the independent-minded Tovar, these unlikely mavericks made their way out of Miami clubs onto national stages in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Mavericks and its lead singer Raul Malo, now based in Nashville, are still going strong.
Click to resize
Tovar died in his sleep at his home in Kendall on Sunday evening May 21 at age 65, after a period of poor health.
His friends say he was as unconventional as the acts he found in his adopted hometown.
Advancing the sound of Miami
If Miami’s sound was once defined by the Sunshine Band’s mix of R&B, tropical, pop and disco that frontman Harry Wayne Casey conjured up in the ’70s or the acidic Latin beats of the Estefans’ Miami Sound Machine in the ’80s – or even the feverish string of pop hits from British-born transplants the Bee Gees – Tovar’s discoveries were none of these.
A country band out of Miami – led by a Cuban-American Columbus High graduate? Didn’t look like Alabama, Brooks and Dunn or Diamond Rio. Not what Nashville was asking for. But Music City turned to The Mavericks.
An all-Hispanic rock band? Of course, there was Mexican Carlos Santana, the namesake frontman of a legendary Woodstock-era band that brought Latin rhythms to rock in a big way. Nuclear Valdez was a singer guitarist from the Dominican Republic and three Cuban musicians playing rock in an era dominated by Spandex-wearing “hair bands” on the Sunset Strip like Poison, Winger and Cinderella. Still, the Nukes became the first band with this non-traditional makeup to appear on “MTV Unplugged” in 1989.
The Marilyn Manson Band and its namesake leader and their Antichrist Superstar-shtick were as stylistically removed from the family Estefans as Broward is from Brisbane, Australia, in terms of mileage.
Is it any wonder then that, in his Miami Herald farewell column in 1990, former pop music critic Doug Adrianson dubbed Tovar “the almighty titan of rock-‘n’-roll?”
The Bearded Tovar could often be found standing at the back of the club or, amusingly, often dozing at the end of the bar after midnight. He dressed head to toe in black, under a 10-gallon black cowboy hat, arms crossed over his stupendous belly, and he got it all. He just obtained he. And in due course, music fans too.
If Tovar saw talent in someone in Miami, he’d find a way to light them up for Central America to see and he’d tell everyone about it – whether it was in a dark, warehouse-like music club. of South Beach like the long-vanished Washington Square, or a barren boardroom for buttoned-up executives somewhere in Los Angeles.
And he delivered his pitch with precision in a voice sprinkled with his thick caramelized Cuban accent. A reporter for the Miami Herald in a 1991 profile once described Tovar’s voice as “an elegant, Fernando Lamas-esque accent that people around him like to playfully mimic.”
They still do.
How the Mavericks got that name
Malo recounts how he — the Columbus kid who loved country music and the salsa music of the Fania All-Stars — and the Miami Man in Black — met to strategize music at Tovar’s house in Kendall about 35 years.
“We were sitting in his living room one day and I had this idea for this band and we had this idea of doing this kind of country-rock, rockabilly stuff and it wasn’t really well defined. And we knew we were going to be somewhere between Johnny Cash and The Clash – somewhere in there,” Malo said with a laugh in a phone interview with the Herald.
Then Tovar brought an idea to that late 1980s conversation between a hopeful young musician and the discerning-earing manager.
“We were 22 and just trying to figure things out and then he said, ‘You have to name the band The Mavericks. And I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good. ‘ He says that with that Cuban accent, “You don’t follow the herd”, said Malo, imitating his old friend.
“I will never forget that. It was the best. And you know that makes sense. I loved the name The Mavericks. And so it stuck,” Malo said.
Born in Cuba in November 1957, Tovar, an only child, moved with his parents to California in 1970 and, three years later, settled in Miami.
Tovar met future Nuclear Valdez drummer Robert Slade LeMont at Miami Senior High and graduated in 1976.
Tovar learned music management while studying business management at Florida International University in the 1980s. The original Exposé, a Latin freestyle dance group from Miami who had hits like “Point of No Return,” in 1985 hired Tovar to be their road manager for a dance hall concert tour. The women sang post-disco music over a backing tape.
“I wasn’t a fan, I just wanted to get a feel for the business,” Tovar told the Miami Herald in 1991. “I get excited when I hear singer-songwriters who can write a great song. That’s what I grew up listening to – the songwriters. I was a huge Elton John fan. I love Bowie. Dylan. Springsteen. I’m a Beatles fan,” he said. stated in a 1999 Herald article.
Woody Graber, a veteran Miami publicist whose ties to the music industry date back to his days on the road with the Grateful Dead circa 1970, met Tovar when Graber was in charge of publicizing the late Woody’s on the Beach at 455 Ocean Dr. Named for Rolling Stone Ron Wood, one of the club’s owners, Wood needed an opening act for his set on Woody’s opening night in December 1987.
Tovar brought in Graber Nuclear Valdez, the first band to play Woody’s, Graber said.
“He brought them to national prominence and then did the same with Marilyn Manson and the Mavericks. He was the king of the original live music managers in Miami. He was constantly bringing me new bands and artists for me to listen to and honestly they were all good. Some better than others but all with something special. He had a knack for seeing talent when he was around,” Graber said in an interview with the Herald.
Tovar also brought the Mavericks to the attention of Y&T Music founder Rich Ulloa. Ulloa’s independent label released the Mavericks’ self-titled debut album in 1990. This album led to the Mavericks signing with major national label MCA in 1992.
At this point, Ulloa was receptive to Tovar’s recommendations. It was Tovar who ended up introducing Ulloa to singer-songwriter Mary Karlzen with whom Ulloa would have his most rewarding and long-lasting musical relationship. Karlzen was a shy bassist for an all-female rock band Tovar was interested in, Vesper Sparrow.
It was the summer of 1989, and Ulloa was concentrating on running his record store Yesterday & Today on Bird Road and his wife and two young daughters. He reluctantly followed Tovar to the club because, well, Tovar.
When Karlzen finally sang lead on a song after the first set, Ulloa found his new favorite local singer and a career together, running a record company named for his store and a management career. Karzlen became his client.
Ulloa’s reactivated Y&T label recently released a number of recordings, including new tracks from Karlzen, The Surf Piranhas, Mandy Marylane and “Shine On”, a 35-song double album in tribute to the songwriter. by Badfinger Pete Ham which also features artists from South Florida. as folksinger Melanie of “Brand New Key” fame.
In March, Tovar was in the audience for a Vesper Sparrow reunion concert and Y&T CD release event at My Mama’s Books & Records in Dania Beach.
“I just can’t imagine a world without him in my life,” Ulloa said. “Equivocally, there wouldn’t be a Y&T Music label today, doing all these projects, if it wasn’t for John,” Ulloa said. “If it hadn’t been for John, who knows if I would have even been to a lot of shows?”
READ MORE: The Beatles and a shy Miami pop singer changed Rich Ulloa’s life
Always looking for new talents
But, as is often the case in the industry, others with higher national profiles and deeper pockets would take over, like when Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor took over Marilyn’s management. Manson in 1994. Other management teams also took over the Nukes and Mav.
“The music industry is a tough mistress, but John never stopped trying. He was the biggest cheerleader of those he supported and even friends who weren’t part of his stable. It was live music in Miami,” Graber said.
Tovar was not inclined. “When you have it in you, it’s really hard to completely walk away from it,” Tovar told the Herald in 1999.
Indeed, at the time of his death, Tovar was managing new talent, 26-year-old progressive rock singer Loui Daniels.
Miami-born Daniels was also Tovar’s caregiver in his final days.
The pair, who were working on songs for an album tentatively due out this summer, met in December 2021 when a mutual friend suggested that Daniels, a former actor laid off by the pandemic, send Tovar some of his its material.
Tovar was intrigued by Daniels’ operatically trained voice. No one looked like him, Daniels said, Tovar told him.
“I’ve always sung, I’ve sung all my life, I’ve been trained. … I always wanted to be a singer-songwriter and I had the opportunity when my friend put John on the map,” Daniels told the Miami Herald. “I never had any ambition until I met him and he taught me a lot. He taught me a lot about the business and the do’s and don’ts and I was amazed at what a brilliant mind John had. He really pushed me. I mean, he pushed me everyday because he believed in me. He was the Music Man. It was his life.
Tovar leaves no survivors to his immediate family. Her friends are planning a celebration of life for an upcoming date.