Publisher’s Note: I met Johnny Rodriguez in our teens. His family’s move from Chicago to Amalia, NM in the late 60’s started the unity of talented friends and family, building a band from its early days to present. They entertained many a teenager and families on those rockin’ Saturday nights. His unique sound holds a special place in many a New Mexico and Colorado Baby Boomer’s heart. Thank you Johnny ‘Ritmo’ Rodgriguez for many memories of a more innocent and safer time, long before COVID. Your signature “Cruzin the Roads of New Mexico” is your positive mark left for family and friends to enjoy forever. Vaya con Dios!
Johnny ‘Ritmo’ Rodriguez and his band, Los Diamantes, said his son TJ, were soldiers of fortune, but not in a bad way. Just the opposite. TJ Rodriguez said the group his father led for a half century was what could be described as ‘a kick-ass’ band that traveled as many miles across the Southwest as the Apollo astronauts logged on their moon mission, or so it seemed.
The band crisscrossed the Southwest, playing gigs in joints, dives, fairs, festivals, weddings, funerals and when they could, the big time, too. Though mostly a regional band, they rocked, making sure the audience moved, felt the tune Los Diamantes was knocking out. “We were jamming Fridays through Sundays.” But for now, the band’s ‘taking five.’ Johnny died at age 67 last Friday from Covid.
“We weren’t just a band,” said TJ, the group’s keyboardist. “We were family; we were strong; we were each other’s energy,” he said. It’s no wonder. Along with patriarch, Johnny, he and his brothers Miguel and Ramon made up the musical quartet. Before his death, their late brother, Johnny, Jr., was a bandmate, too.
Johnny Rodriguez was born in Chicago, but his family left the Windy City for a place that may as well have been the dark side of the moon, a tiny little northern New Mexican hamlet, Amalia in Taos County. That’s where a young Johnny learned music. He was a natural, soon comfortable on guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums. He also sang.
In a recent telephone interview that included not only TJ, but brothers Miguel and Ramon, they laughed easily sharing and remembering their band leader and father. “In high school,” said Miguel, “he was good enough that the Kansas City Royals wanted him.” Though Johnny didn’t fit the classic mold of a big leaguer, a scout told him, “as long as you can hit and run, we want you.” The Royals moved on with another shortstop. Johnny, too.
Another story the brothers tell is of their father once auditioning for The Temptations, a legendary Motown group whose music continues to get airplay today. “He tried out for ‘the Temps,” said the brothers, nearly in unison, on note and in perfect harmony. “They said, ‘you’ve got an awesome voice…you’re just the wrong color and you’re not tall enough. If not for that, you’d be a member of our band.’” Again, Johnny moved on, this time to the Marines.
After a tour in Viet Nam, Rodriguez returned home to northern New Mexico. Over the next few years, he would marry Barbara, a woman the brothers say was ‘Dad’s rock, the glue.’ While the marriage ended after 22 years, Johnny and Barbara never moved too far away. Until COVID separated the pair, they lived next door to one another.
But Johnny’s decision to bring the boys into the band was not without some dissent. “She didn’t like us playing in a bar,” said Miguel, Ramon, and TJ in nearly a single voice. “But she knew that my Dad was taking care of us.” She and Johnny also had a rule that school came before the band. “We’d practice every day,” said TJ. But band practice didn’t start until homework got done. No exceptions.
Though the Rodriguez brothers played with their Dad, once a set began, it was all business. “He was Dad,” said Miguel, “but he was also boss. If we hit the wrong key, he would look at us with ‘that face,’” the look that silently but unmistakably said, ‘get it right.’ Still, said Miguel, “we were like his best friends.”
The brothers mixed stories about the Dad with humor and reverence. “Everybody loved him. He was so genuine,” people would say of the patriarch. “When people needed my Dad, he was there.” Los Diamantes played their last gig in that spirit just days ago. It was at the funeral of former legislator and Thornton Councilman, Val Vigil. They played without Johnny. He was already hospitalized but still steady enough to give the order. “Get the music, honor your cousin’s life,” were his words.
For a while, it seemed like Johnny might beat COVID. “There were ups and downs,” said TJ. But as has been the case for more than 500,000 Americans, COVID won. The clock read ‘1:43’ when he died. The brothers say the timing could not have been more thoughtful. It, they say, was their Dad’s way of saying one last time, ‘I love you.’ The numbers perfectly match the number of letters in those three words.
Information on the Rodriguez family’s arrangements can be found on Facebook. YouTube also has videos of a few of the band’s performances. The brothers say they’ll take some time off before moving on. But the band, they say, stays together. They will always be family and ‘Los Diamantes.’