One member of Bay Area bubblegum heroes the Rubinoos lives right here in River City
Like other émigrés who now call Sacramento home, Tommy Dunbar—a Levittown, N.Y., native who grew up in Berkeley—has found a certain low-key rhythm right here in the River City.
“I just love it up here,” the Midtown resident said. “One thing that’s amazing is we’re actually really good friends with our neighbors, and we hang out with them all the time. We call it ‘Mayberry’ ’cause it’s almost to the point of ridiculousness. Every Wednesday, we all go to yoga class together.”
Of course, Aunt Bea and Barney Fife most likely never sweated their way through a camel or triangle pose.
“I’ve never known my neighbors the way we do up here,” Dunbar continued. “It’s like, everybody on our block, we’re friends with; we have barbecues, just totally spur of the moment. We have a neighborhood e-mail list that we send ridiculous Web sites to. It’s a lot different than living in L.A.”
Yes, Sacramento can be charming. But what separates Dunbar from the Silicon Valley escapees who have migrated up I-80 is his line of work. He still plays guitar with the Rubinoos, onetime teen-pop sensations from Berkeley that formed there 33 years ago (“I think we were 13 when we started the band,” he said), and his favorite environment is a recording studio.
You may have heard some of Dunbar’s work in local spots for the River Cats and Blue Diamond. And if you cruise the netherworld of late-night cable TV, you may have seen ads for Kingtinued—a series of CDs featuring Elvis impersonators.
Three different Elvises—Elvi?—do the heavy lifting on Kingtinued. “It’s so funny when these guys show up at [my home studio], and they’re completely decked out,” Dunbar said, laughing. “One guy from Memphis, a limo picked him up the last time to take him back to the airport.”
A guitar student of Dunbar’s came up with the idea of having “Elvis” do U2 covers. “Noooo,” Dunbar responded. “It’s gotta be, like, directly aimed at people who live in trailers. It’s gotta be ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ or ‘Candle in the Wind’—what Elvis would be doing if he were alive.”
They figured out a marketing strategy: “We advertised on Lifetime channel,” Dunbar said, “with testimonials: ‘It sounds soooo much like Elvis’—kind of like the Saturday Night Live routine of Elvis’ coat.” Dunbar’s working on a Sun-era follow-up and has an even better set planned. “The next one, I’m really looking forward to. It’s gonna be Elvis Live at the Fillmore, 1967, with him doing ‘In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida’ and ‘White Rabbit.’”
Dunbar had an experience with another Elvis, too. In 1977, the Rubinoos were signed to Berserkley, a Bay Area indie label whose roster included Jonathan Richman; Greg Kihn; and Earth Quake, Dunbar’s brother Robbie’s band. The Rubinoos played 56 dates opening for Elvis Costello after their second album came out—fast times for the teen idols from Berkeley.
“That was kinda bizarre because all of a sudden we were in Tiger Beat magazine,” Dunbar recalled. “Which is really weird for a bunch of left-wing radical kids in Berkeley. We just thought it was the most ridiculous thing possible.”
In the 1980s, Dunbar and singer Jon Rubin moved to Los Angeles and cut a Todd Rundgren-produced EP for Warner Bros.—“Probably our least favorite thing we’ve ever done”—along with some film work: the theme to Revenge of the Nerds and music for Bachelor Party.
Now Dunbar lives here. The Rubinoos just released a CD on Zip Records titled Crimes Against Music. Its 13 covers include a stunning a cappella version of the Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains” along with 12 other well-chosen gems from the 1960s and ’70s. The band’s Japanese label initiated it, after hearing a version of Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” cut for the film Mallrats, which featured a character named Brandi. “Then they changed the name of the character,” Dunbar said.
“They allowed us to do Lou Christie, which we’ve always wanted to do,” he added, pointing out that the ’60s falsetto-voiced Christie will play Raley Field on July 12. “We’ll be there.”