Archive for December 19, 2011

Martinez Music Legacy: 311’s SA Martinez takes music tradition laid down by father and grandfather in new direction

December 19, 2011 6 comments

Once in a while, and not nearly often enough, an editor or publisher will approach me with a story idea instead of the other way around.  In the case of this story The Reader and El Perico publisher John Heaston asked me to write about the music legacy of an Omaha Latino family – all three generations worth.  The star of the story is SA Martinez of 311 rock band fame. SA is a rapper and turntable artist.  His father Ernie is a jazz guitarist.  And Ernie’s later father Jose Bonificia was a jack of all instruments way back in the day.  It’s a short, simple, feel-good story with some meaty heritage attached to it.



SA Martinez of 311



Martinez Music Legacy: 311’s SA Martinez takes music tradition laid down by father and grandfather in new Direction

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader ( and El Perico


Singer-songwriter-turntable artist SA Martinez is a cog in the successful rock band 311 that started in Omaha 21 years ago and is still going strong today from its Southern Calif.-base. Recordings and national tours keep the group, whose founding members remain intact, a popular draw.

While he’s reached musical heights, SA is not the first professional musician in his family. His father Ernie Martinez and late paternal grandfather Jose Martinez preceded him. SA feels part of “a legacy” that extends to his musical siblings.

“We always loved music. We all did it, sang it, performed, whatever…just always had nothing but great times with music. It was just a constant,” says Martinez.

He has only “vague memories” of his grandfather, but he does have his old mandolin as a link to the man and the music.

“I’ll look at the mandolin and wonder just exactly how he came into possession of it and what songs was he playing on this thing.”

Sure, SA’s, a rock star, but his elders made their marks on their own terms.

Jose Bonificia Martinez emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. in the early 1900s. He worked as a water boy on the railroad in Texas before migrating to Gary, Indiana, where he landed in the steel mills. In Sioux City, Iowa, he worked in a packing house and played music on weekends. Ernie marvels that his father learned to play the mandolin, fiddle, upright bass and guitar. Jose met his wife Helen, Ernie’s mother, in Sioux City.

After moving to Omaha in 1930, Jose worked the slaughter house kill floor and played in a band that performed South Omaha house parties.

“I remember him telling me they’d cross the river into Council Bluffs to play festivals in the Hispanic section,” recalls Ernie, who was born in Omaha.

Tired of the dirty, dangerous, backbreaking kill floor, Jose became a hired hand for a livestock producer in Gibbon, Neb., where Ernie and his siblings grew up. Jose found a measure of fame fronting his own band, The Kid and His Friends, on a live show broadcast by KGFW radio in Kearney, Neb. and sponsored by a feed store. The signal reached deep into the Platte Valley, bringing the band new gigs at festivals and fairs.

By the early 1950s Ernie began gravitating to music himself. “I listened to a radio broadcast out of New Orleans coming from the Roosevelt Hotel every Friday night — Tony Almerico and his (Original Dixieland Jamboree All Stars) band.”



©photo by Phil DeSimone



Ernie learned to play “off the radio” — “I’d get the note from the first chord they played and I’d go from there. Somehow my dad had acquired an upright bass from a traveling salesman and he built me a little stool and I’d jump up on that stool and start messing around with my fingers, thumping away. Then he’d take me down, put the bass away and he’d show me a few chords on the guitar.”

Fast forward three decades later and Ernie, by then a journeyman jazz guitarist with local house bands, was schooling SA.

“We’d sit down on occasion and he’d try to teach me something, but he didn’t honestly have any patience when it came to instructing on an instrument,” says SA. “I remember setting his stuff up in the basement and kind of tooling around on it and just having fun.”

SA grew up steeped in his father’s sideman life.

“Come the weekend he was getting ready to go play somewhere. I just remember that whole era of the ‘70s — the polyester suits, the jewelry, the cologne. Before he’d go out he’d pat my face with some cologne.”

He came to respect his old man’s chops.

“My dad played bass growing up but he’s really a better guitarist and the style of guitar he plays is very wide actually. He can play like the Wes Montgomery, really dope jazz chords. cool and rich sounding, and then he can bust into some cool folk Mexican stuff. He definitely has a pretty deep memory.

“He had a couple buddies who’d come over from time to time. Johnny Vintore played keyboards. Another guy by the name of Charlie Davis played trombone. Just really cool dudes with loads of talent. They had their good times. It’s really cool thinking back on that whole scene.”

Ernie, who worked a regular job at a truck line, gigged at night spots when Omaha was still a hopping live music hub.

SA never saw his dad on stage, but often witnessed him practice or jam at home. He also absorbed the jazz tunes his pops spun, instilling an appreciation for the standards. Together, they “listened religiously” to KVNO radio’s Primetime Jazz hosted by Bill Watts

“Man, that was a killer show and he played like the bomb jazz,” recalls SA. “We loved listening to that show.”





Immersed in music at home and at school, where he played viola and trumpet and sang, SA was destined for a life in music. “It’s weird, I always kind of knew in the back of my mind something like that would surface for me, I just didn’t know when or how.” 311 took off in the ‘90s here at the Ranch Bowl and the Peony Park Ballroom. He ascribes the group’s unusual longevity to “chemistry” and “just hard work.”

“It really is an experience I’m blessed to be a part of. It’s a never ending rock ‘n’ roll fantasy.”

Last July, 311 had its first homecoming show in a long time when it played the Red Sky Music Festival at TD Ameritrade Park. SA says entertaining family and friends after a show like that is more draining then the concert itself. “But it’s a lot of fun.”

His parents return the favor by visiting him on the coast, where father and son always find time to play a few licks. SA invariably breaks out the old bass his dad owned.

SA’s daughter shows signs of continuing this unbroken line of Martinez music makers. “She loves it. She lights up,” SA says. Ernie’s proud it’s lasted four generations, saying, “It amazes me what my dad started.”

Preston Love Jr. channels Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in one-man chautauqua

December 19, 2011 2 comments

In his final years I got to know musician Preston Love Sr. pretty well, or at least well enough to write several stories about him, most of which can be found on this blog.  I know his eldest son and namesake, Preston Love Jr., less well.  While he didn’t inherit his late father’s ability to play music, though he does sing well, he definitely does share some of the same ebullient, playful personality. Like his old man did, he knows how to work a room.   He loves people and being the center of attention.  All of which makes him a natural to portray the late civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell.  Love’s one-man show about Powell is the subject of the following article I wrote for The Reader (

Preston Love Jr. channels Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in one-man chautauqua 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Omahan Preston Love Jr. knows a charismatic figure when he sees one. After all, his late father, musician Preston Love Sr., exuded personality. In apple-not-falling-far-from-the-tree tradition the younger Preston’s put his own magnetic charm to use in corporate America, politics, community organizing, emceeing and gospel singing.

Therefore it’s no surprise the gregarious Love was drawn to do a one-man Chautauqua of his hero, the late charismatic civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell Jr. In the year he’s performed it Love said the show’s “taken on a life of its own.” He next channels Powell in two free performances: 6 p.m. on Feb. 5 at Creighton University’s Skutt Student Center; 11 a.m. on Feb. 10 at Metropolitan Community College’s South Campus ITC Conference Center. After each show Love fields questions in-character.

Powell’s bigger-than-life presence had its base in Harlem, New York, home to the mega-Abyssinian Baptist Church he pastored. The firebrand leader staged marches, protests and boycotts decades before Martin Luther King Jr. He served 26 years in the U.S. Congress. As chair of the Education and Labor Committee he shepherded through key civil rights legislation during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Love and others gravitated to Powell’s bold ideology, defiant stance and impassioned speech.

“The thing about Adam Clayton Powell that caught our imagination was he was so strong, so confident, so arrogant,” said Love. “He was just someone we looked up to because of what he stood up for. He was really the black Congressman for every black. That was really the role he played. He was our champion, and he stood head and shoulders above anyone else. His was the major voice.”

After studying the man, Love sees “parallels” in their lives as troublemakers. Public struggles with personal demons and a penchant for, as Powell said, “telling it like it is,” alienated them. It makes for good theater.

Powell’s flamboyance courted controversy. Congress sanctioned him in the late ‘60s in the wake of alleged improprieties. Love’s own fall from grace came after managing Jesse Jackson’s ‘84 national presidential campaign, the Rainbow Coalition and Harold Washington’s Chicago mayoral races.

A tendency to step on people’s toes cost Powell with his civil rights brethren just as Love said his own obstinateness makes it “tough” for him.


STILL: Adam Clayton Powell #NNVG146501

Adam Clayton Powell Jr.



“He was so strong, so independent, so outspoken, so unpredictable that he was at odds with the big civil rights leaders,” Love said. “They loved him when he did the right thing but they hated him when he took a position way off the deep end. He was never one of the boys, never one of the in-crowd, and they resented that.”

All of which has led to Powell becoming somewhat forgotten.

“He got lost in history because he was such a loner,” Love said, “and so as result there was no place for him to stick, history-wise. There’s nobody that does not respect what he did, but there’s nobody championing him (today).”

Love hopes his show, set during a ‘68 Harlem campaign rally, gives the man his due.

“The performance is the vehicle, it is not the object,” he said. “The object is I want you to have a snapshot of black political-social history at a point in time. More importantly, I want you to have an appreciation for Adam and the major, transactional role he played in civil rights history.”

Upon conceiving the one-man portrayal in late 2007 Love had second thoughts. He’d never acted before. “This is not something I do,” he said. Rather than let the idea die, he put himself on the line by booking performance dates.

“It’s an old technique I use,” Love said, “to set myself up. Then I started the research. It was bigger and harder than I thought. The scariest part was I had done the research but I had no clue how to turn that research into a performance, let alone perform it.”

With the first show looming closer, his muse awoke.

“It came to me one night all at once,” he said. “The whole thing just came like a big gift and laid itself out in my head. Like a mad man I wrote the script and I had a performance. But I didn’t know whether or not I was going to be able to rise to the script — to make this a performance worth seeing, something I’d be proud of.”

Like a politico shaping a platform, Love consulted advisers, including local historians and theater professionals. He tried out the show at colleges. The feedback helped him work out the “rough spots.” The resulting performance is an amalgam of Powell mannerisms, speeches and catch-phrases, including, “Keep the faith baby.” Love hopes his interpretation of Powell’s legacy has legs beyond Omaha.

Born again ex-gangbanger and pugilist, now minister, Servando Perales makes Victory Boxing Club his mission church for saving youth from the streets

December 19, 2011 8 comments

It’s doubtful that another amateur boxing club has received as much ink and video coverage in the short time Victory Boxing has since starting about a decade ago.  The magnet for the attraction is founder Servando Perales, whose personal story of transformation and redemption and unbridled passion for helping at-risk youth are the driving forces behind his boxing gym.  The gym is really his mission church and sanctuary for getting kids out of the gang life that consumed him and landed him in prison.  That’s where his own turnaround began.  If you’re a boxing fan, then check out the boxing category on the right — I have many stories there about pro and amateur fighting, past and present.

Servando Perales



Born again ex-gangbanger and pugilist, now minister, Servando Perales, makes Victory Boxing Club his mission church for saving youth from the streets

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Rev. Servando Perales and his faith-based Victory Boxing Club at 3009 R Streets is a story of redemption laced with irony. He’s eager to share the story at its April 25 grand opening, when from 1 to 3 p.m. the public’s invited to experience the program USA Boxing magazine recently named national club of the month.

In terms of redemption, consider how this one-time boxer and gang-banger from south Omaha survived The Life of a drug dealer-abuser only to undergo a profound transformation in prison. Behind bars Perales found God with the help of fellow con Frankie Granados, an old friend he’d run with on the outside. Granados already had his own born again experience in the pen and he worked on Servando to take the plunge, too. It took time but Perales finally “surrendered.”

On the curious side, consider that Victory head coach John Determan is both a former corrections officer and cop. He donated Victory’s first ring. He appreciates the oddity of a gringo badge and a Latino fist teaming up.

“I knew him as a bad guy when I was a cop,” said Determan, a former Mills County (Iowa) deputy. “That’s what’s cool, you know — bad guy-cop coming together to do something like this,” said Determan, whose son Johnny, a nationally-rated 119-pound amateur, and daughter Jessica, a former amateur world champ, train there.

Beyond their lawman-outlaw roles, Determan and Perales knew one another from boxing circles. They even traded blows in the ring when the older Determan was a journeyman pro fighter and Perales a feisty young amateur. They dispute who got the better of each other in those long ago sparring sessions.


Victory Boxing partnered with Jimmy John’s to purchase their gym at 3009 S. R. Street


Fighting’s not all they share in common. Both are devout Christians. Determan ran a faith-based boxing club in Glenwood, Iowa. The evangelists boldly fly their Christian colors at Victory, whose “t” is an oversized cross with a pair of boxing gloves hanging from it. A wooden cross adorns a wall inside, where Perales ends pep talks with, ‘You guys ready for the risen Lord? Alright, amen.’” The pair hold weekly Bible studies on Thursdays. All part of the signs and wonders that distinguish Victory from other gyms, where Christ is more apt to be an expletive than a prayer.

“The thing that separates us from all the other ones is that we’re Christ-centered,” said Perales. “We do not waver our faith, our values, and we stand firm on who can change a person’s life, and it’s Jesus Christ. That’s my strong belief and that’s what sets us apart. That’s why you see 30 kids in here. It’s not because we’re the best coaches or because we have the best fighters, it’s because they sense a presence of God in this place. I actually believe that.

“We acknowledge that God is the only one that can change circumstances and change people. If He did it for me he can do it for anybody.”

“It’s great when we have our Bible studies,” Determan said. “They’re really hot topics where we talk to the kids about things they might struggle with and they’re hearing it from two perspectives — the gang member and the cop. And that’s one of our testimonies to our kids — that it doesn’t matter who anybody is, skin color, background or any of that, you can come together.”

Perales, a father of five, said the fact he and Determan can speak with first-hand authority about both sides of the law, gives them an edge in dealing with kids who may have problems at home or school and be veering off track.

“They can’t pull a fast one over on either one of us,” said Perales, whose gym serves members ages 10 and up. The coaches field calls from kids at all hours.

The cop connection doesn’t end there. Retired Omaha deputy police chief Mark Martinez believes enough in what Perales does that he volunteers at the gym.

“Servando knows the challenges some young people face, having traveled that road himself, so he has an incredible ability to relate. His story is real and he has much credibility with youngsters. Consequently, he’s very effective, especially in helping troubled youth be positive and productive citizens,” said Martinez.

When storm damage made Victory’s previous site uninhabitable last summer, the gym was homeless. Martinez told a friend about it. Perales and the benefactor met and Victory soon had a spacious new home in the former Woodson Center.





“Actually, we wouldn’t be in this building had it not been for (ex) deputy chief Martinez. He’s the one who helped us get in this building by introducing us to a gentleman that actually put $65,000 up for this building,” said Perales.

A Weed and Seed grant purchased a new ring. The minister sees Victory as a partner with law enforcement to provide safe havens and activities. The gym hosts all-night lock-ins, takes kids camping and has them participate in community events, from parades to Easter egg hunts. Cops are frequent visitors. Some come to train, others just to kick it with kids. “We have a lot of cops that are friends,” Perales said. “Law enforcement is really deep out here. They’re strong. The gang unit, I know those guys personally. I grew up with them. We’re working, we’re doing everything in our power to keep the streets of south Omaha safe.”

It’s only logical the local Latino Peace Officers Association (LPOA) is a major backer of the gym, given its makeup and location in Hispanic-rich south Omaha and the club’s predominantly Hispanic members. But what you wouldn’t expect is that past LPOA president Virgil Patlan, the man who arrested Perales in ‘96 in a bust that sent Perales away for 18-months, ardently champions Victory. Once on opposite sides of the law, Patlan and Perales are friends and admirers today.

Perales attributes this turn of events to divine whimsy. “Yeah, God has a sense of humor, man — He put an ex-gangster and a cop together, and all for the glory of God,” said Perales, whose tats are remnants of the old life he left behind.


Patlan admits being dubious of Servando’s change of heart until hearing him preach and talking with him. “I was real skeptical at first because you hear this all the time about cons,” said Patlan. “It took a lot of ice-breaking but we became good friends. I knew he had a heart to help young people. I knew he didn’t want them to go through what he went through. I know if someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes — he’s not. He’s authentic, he’s genuine.”

An Omaha Police Department retiree, Patlan is an active community advocate and neighborhood association volunteer. He and Perales collaborate on projects.

“I think that’s where the trust and the respect came for each other,” said Patlan, “and we’ve just kept doing programs for the neighborhood.”

A program they formed called This is Your Neighborhood makes presentations to school-age kids about the evils of gang affiliation-activity and the importance of staying in school. By his late teens Perales was incorrigible and got expelled from South High. His troubles escalated after that. It’s why Victory requires members abide by a strict code of conduct that includes maintaining good grades and refraining from swearing, gang signs and any disrespectful behavior.

Since Victory’s inception Patlan’s helped with donations. He and his wife are planning a “fun run” to raise funds for the program’s operating expenses. Patlan and Perales share so many values they don’t dwell on the divergent paths that led them to the close bond they enjoy today.

“Now I don’t even think of it. It’s natural. We call each other brother,” said Patlan.

 Victory Boxing Club

Something more than fate led Perales back to his roots. Before he got mixed up in a gang, he trained under Kenny Wingo at the Downtown Boxing Club. The promising amateur soon wasted his potential, using his skills to protect turf and wreak havoc. After his conversion and ‘97 prison release Perales turned pro. “The Messenger” once fought on the undercard of a world heavyweight bout. He hung up the gloves with a 9-5 record. His heart wasn’t in it anymore.

Between matches he’d already begun missionary work with at-risk kids in his old South O stomping grounds — steering youths away from bad influences he’d succumbed to and bad choices he’d made. His regular job as a YMCA membership coordinator reflects the Christian outreach he’s felt drawn to. Unable to ignore the call to serve, he was ordained a minister in the Assemblies of God Church in 2005. He launched Victory in his garage that same year, using “the gift of boxing”  to coach/mentor/minister kids from the same streets he ran wild on.

“This is my church,” he said of Victory. “God called me to do this. It wasn’t by accident I boxed for 20 years. But with that comes responsibility, man.”

It’s no accident the Downtown club let an alum — Perales — train his kids there after the storm left Victory homeless. No accident he reunited with Determan, who took over Downtown after Wingo died. They’re family. It’s all come full circle for Perales. He sees in kids today the same hunger for love he craved at their age.

“Hopefully, God-willing, they learn and they feel valued here, because that’s the thing man — they’re all searching really for a sense of belonging,” said Perales, whose alcoholic father ditched the family. “For the most part they embrace our values and they love it here. 90 percent come to the Bible studies, and it’s optional. They want to be there. We tell ‘em, ‘You don’t have to join gangs to belong to something bigger than yourself. You don’t have to be a follower, man, you can be a leader.’ And that’s why were here — to provide that outlet.”

He said kids find escape at Victory from lives on the edge. “There’s maybe a couple I keep a close eye on and talk to one-on-one,” he said. Impressive prospect Luis Rodriguez, a gang member before Perales turned him onto Christ and boxing, “is one I think about a lot,” Perales said, “He’s been with me for about three years. I keep him very close to him. He and his little brother Ezekiel. They really respect our values.” Success stories include three Victory alums now in the military.

Peer pressure though is a constant worry. “I’m not going to lie, some kids have come and gone,” said Perales. “They didn’t embrace our values. They didn’t like the fact they couldn’t cuss, they couldn’t bag and sag, they couldn’t fight out on the streets. We’re not teaching them how to box so they can go out and hurt people. That’s what I did and I regret every minute of it.”

Victory’s road from humble beginnings to its envied new 10,000 square foot facility is the start of “a dream” Perales has to create a full-service “hope center.” A rec room’s set-up but computers are needed. The kitchen needs a new stove and fridge. The training area holds two rings and assorted bags and free weights but boxing equipment wears out fast. Hundreds of spectators can fit on the main level and balcony for boxing shows, which provide revenue for the nonprofit gym. But  Victory struggles making the $2,000 monthly rent. Overdue repairs await fixes.

Meanwhile, he said, grant monies have run out. More donations would secure Victory’s future as a community center. “It’s got so much potential, there’s so much room to grow. But one day at a time. It’s only been five months since we moved in,” he said. He’s counting on the grand opening adding new members and support. “I’ve personally invited all the organizations in this community and hopefully they’ll make it out.”

He worries but then he remembers to trust in his Higher Power. “We’ve been walking in faith the whole time. He hasn’t left us yet. He didn’t bring us here to leave us hanging. He opened this door for us. I know He’ll take care of us.” Amen.

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