Chan Romero, musician who had a hit with the rock’n’roll classic Hippy Hippy Shake – obituary

Chan Romero
Chan Romero - GAB Archive/Redferns

Chan Romero, who has died aged 82, was a musician best known for his 1959 hit Hippy Hippy Shake, which was covered, among others, by the Swinging Blue Jeans, who had a UK No 2 with it, and The Beatles, who made it a staple of their early live set; much later, Paul McCartney would often open his solo gigs with it.

Robert Lee Romero was born in Billings, Montana, on July 7 1941, one of six boys and four girls; his father had Spanish and Apache blood while his mother was of Mexican, Cherokee and Irish ancestry; farmworkers, they had moved from Colorado to seek work during the Great Depression. He was given his nickname of “Chan” by his grandfather thanks to his habit of going round barefoot; it ultimately derived from a Spanish phrase meaning “little boy with pig’s feet”.

The boy was a country fan from early on, especially the likes of Hank Williams. He was listening to the Grand Ol’ Opry when Elvis Presley came on, opening his ears to a new kind of music, and he described Presley’s subsequent performance of Hound Dog on The Steve Allen Show as a turning point in his life: “That blew me away to the place where I said: ‘I’ve got to do that!’ ”

He hitch-hiked to Los Angeles aged 17, and the following year wrote Hippy Hippy Shake. On the strength of that, an uncle introduced him to Sonny Bono, who was then working as an A&R man for Specialty Records; he asked the young man to polish the song and return in a few weeks. But Romero had to go home to Montana to finish his schooling, and never went back to Bono.

At home in Montana, Romero formed a rock’n’roll band; his manager Don Redfield, a local DJ, thought he looked and sounded like his fellow Latino Ritchie Valens, and when Valens died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper in February 1959, Redfield sent a tape of Chan’s music to Valens’s manager, Bob Keane, who signed him up.

Romero became friendly with Valens’s mother, who put him up in Los Angeles, giving her dead son’s bedroom to him. He became something of a surrogate son and went on to perform every year at the annual concert held in Valens’s memory.

When Hippy Hippy Shake was released in 1959 Romero’s career took off – he toured with Jerry Lee Lewis on the back of it – and when the single went out in the UK it reached the ears of Paul McCartney, who sang it with The Beatles at the Cavern and in Hamburg. In 1964 the Merseybeat band the Swinging Blue Jeans took the song to No 2 in the UK and No 24 in the US (and No 1 in Norway and Sweden).

That year Romero toured with the Beach Boys, standing in for Glenn Hardin in the Crickets, Buddy Holly’s former band, who were playing support. But he was never able to replicate the success of Hippy Hippy Shake, and in 1967 he followed his wife into becoming a born-again Christian.

“I called the guys in the band and said I won’t be coming back,” he recalled. “They said, ‘What’s wrong, are you sick?” I said: ‘No, I met the best friend that I’ve ever had and his name is Jesus.’ They thought I had lost my coins.”

Romero founded a label, Warrior Records, releasing his own gospel material, and continued to tour and record.

Hippy Hippy Shake had a busy afterlife, used in numerous films, including the 1988 Tom Cruise drama Cocktail (performed by the Georgia Satellites), the John Candy comedy Uncle Buck (1989), the 1995 romcom It Takes Two, the 1997 spy comedy Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and the 2011 superhero movie X-Men: First Class.

Chan Romero’s wife Laverne died last year; they had 11 children.

Chan Romero, born July 7 1941, died April 21 2024