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John Tovar, Miami’s ‘Almighty Titan of Rock-n-Roll’ who discovered Mavericks, dies at 65

Miami music manager John Tovar named the made-in-Miami country-rock group The Mavericks. He was a bit of a maverick himself.

An imposing, hulking figure clad in black, not unlike Johnny (The Man in Black) Cash, by way of Cuba, Tovar was credited as the midwife for the Mavericks, for shock-rock act Marilyn Manson and for a straightforward rock band of mostly Cuban Americans known as Nuclear Valdez.

Under the independent-minded Tovar’s guidance, these unlikely mavericks bashed their ways 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 thriving.

Tovar died in his sleep at his Kendall home on Sunday evening, May 21, at 65, after a period of poor health.

His friends say he was as unconventional as the acts he found in his adopted city.

Advancing Miami’s sound

If the Miami sound was once defined by the Sunshine Band’s blend of R&B, tropical, pop and disco that its leader Harry Wayne Casey conjured in the ‘70s or the tangy Latin rhythms of the Estefans’ Miami Sound Machine in the ‘80s — or even the feverish run of pop hits from British-born transplants the Bee Gees — Tovar’s discoveries were none of these.

A country group 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 clamored for. But Music City took to The Mavericks.

An all-Hispanic rock band? Sure, there was Mexican Carlos Santana, the namesake leader of a legendary Woodstock-era band that brought Latin rhythms to rock in a big way. Nuclear Valdez was a guitarist vocalist 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 that non-traditional makeup to appear on “MTV Unplugged” in 1989.

The Marilyn Manson group and its namesake leader and their Antichrist Superstar-shtick was as far removed stylistically from the family friendly Estefans as Broward is to Brisbane, Australia, in mileage.

Is it any wonder, then, that in his farewell column to the Miami Herald 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 in the back of the club, or, amusingly, oft-dozing at the end of the bar after midnight. He’d dress head to boots in black, under a black 10-gallon cowboy hat, arms folded across his prodigious belly, and he took it all in. He just got it. And in due time, so would music fans.

If Tovar saw talent in someone in Miami, he’d find a way to illuminate them for middle America to see and he’d tell everyone all about them — be it in a dim, warehouse-like South Beach music club like the long-gone Washington Square, or a sterile boardroom to button-down executives somewhere in Los Angeles.

And he’d deliver his pitch precisely in a voice drizzled in his thick caramelized Cuban accent. A Miami Herald reporter in a 1991 profile once described Tovar’s voice as “an elegant, Fernando Lamas-kind of accent that people around him like to playfully imitate.”

They still do.

How The Mavericks got that name

Malo tells of how he — the Columbus kid who liked country music and the salsa music of the Fania All-Stars — and the Miami Man in Black — met to plot music strategy in Tovar’s Kendall home some 35 years ago.

“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 sort of country-rock, rockabilly thing 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, chuckling during a phone interview with the Herald.

Then Tovar contributed an idea during that late-1980s conversation between young hopeful musician and the manager with the perceptive ears.

“We were 22 years old just trying to figure stuff out and so he said, ‘You need to name the band The Mavericks.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good. ‘ He says this in this Cuban accent, ‘You don’t follow the herd,’” Malo said, imitating his old pal.

“I’ll never forget that. It was the best. And you know this makes sense. I loved the name The Mavericks. And so it stuck,” Malo said.

Tovar’s history

Born in Cuba in November 1957, Tovar, an only child, moved with his parents to California in 1970 and, three years later, moved to 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 during the 1980s. The original Exposé, a Latin freestyle dance group from Miami that 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 to a backing tape.

“I wasn’t a fan, I just wanted 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 — songwriters. I was a big Elton John fan. I love Bowie. Dylan. Springsteen. I’m a Beatles fan,” he said in a 1999 Herald story.

Spotting talent

Woody Graber, a veteran Miami publicist whose ties in 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 defunct 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 during Woody’s opening night in December 1987.

Tovar brought 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 original live music managers in Miami. He was constantly bringing me new bands and artists that I had to listen to and quite honestly they were all good. Some better than others but all with a special something. He had the gift to see the talent when it was there,” Graber said in an interview with the Herald.

Tovar also brought the Mavericks to Y&T Music founder Rich Ulloa’s attention. Ulloa’s independent label released the first self-titled Mavericks album in 1990. That album led to the Mavericks’ signing with national major label MCA in 1992.

By that point, Ulloa was receptive to Tovar’s recommendations. It was Tovar who wound up introducing Ulloa to singer-songwriter Mary Karlzen with whom Ulloa would have his most rewarding and longest-lasting music relationship. Karlzen was a shy bass player for an all-female rock act Tovar was interested in, Vesper Sparrow.

It was the summer of 1989, and Ulloa was then focused on running his Yesterday & Today record store on Bird Road and on his wife and two young daughters. He reluctantly followed Tovar out 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 joint career, running a record label named for his store and a management career. Karzlen became his client.

Ulloa’s reactivated Y&T label has recently issued a number of recordings including new titles from Karlzen, The Surf Piranhas, Mandy Marylane and “Shine On,” a double-album, 35-song tribute to Badfinger songwriter Pete Ham that features South Florida artists as well as folk singer Melanie of “Brand New Key” fame.

In March, Tovar was in the audience for a Vesper Sparrow reunion concert and a 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. “Unequivocally, there would be no Y&T Music record label today, doing all these projects, if it wasn’t for John,” Ulloa said. “If it wasn’t for John, who knows if I would have even gone to a lot of shows?”

READ MORE: The Beatles and a shy Miami pop singer changed Rich Ulloa’s life

Old friends like John Tovar, and Vesper Sparrow’s Mary Karlzen (left), Kelly Christy (center) and Carolyn Colachicco (receiving the hug), prepare for their reunion set at My Mama’s Books & Records Records Cafe in Dania Beach on March 19, 2023.
Old friends like John Tovar, and Vesper Sparrow’s Mary Karlzen (left), Kelly Christy (center) and Carolyn Colachicco (receiving the hug), prepare for their reunion set at My Mama’s Books & Records Records Cafe in Dania Beach on March 19, 2023.

Still finding new talent

But, as is often the case in the industry, others with higher national profiles and deeper pockets would take over, as when Nine Inch Nails’ leader Trent Reznor took over management of Marilyn Manson in 1994. Other management teams also took over the Nukes and Mavs.

“The music business is a hard mistress but John never stopped trying. He was the biggest cheerleader for those he supported and even friends that weren’t part of his stable. He was live music to Miami,” Graber said.

Tovar wasn’t bowed. “When you have it in you, it’s really hard to completely get away from it,” Tovar told the Herald in 1999.

Indeed, at the time of his death Tovar was managing a new talent, 26-year-old progressive rock vocalist Loui Daniels.

The pair, who were working on songs for an album that tentatively will release in the summer, met in December 2021 when a mutual friend suggested that Daniels, a former actor put out of work by the pandemic, send Tovar some of his material.

Tovar was intrigued by the Miami-born Daniels’ opera-trained voice. No one sounded like him, Daniels says Tovar told him.

“I was always singing , I sang my whole life, I was trained. ... I always wanted to be a singer-songwriter and I had the opportunity when my friend got me to know John,” Daniels told the Miami Herald. “I never had the ambition until I met him and he taught me a lot. He taught me a lot about the business and the things I need to do and not do and I was just amazed at what a brilliant mind John had. He really pushed me. I mean, he pushed me every day because he believed in me. He was the Music Man. That was his life.”

Services

Tovar leaves no immediate family survivors. His friends plan a celebration of life at a date to come.