Last May, Pittsburgh's TJ Lubinsky staged a three-day Oldies Spectacular at Benedum Center for an upcoming broadcast on WQED-TV. Of the 60 acts, the legendary garage-rock band Question Mark & the Mysterians was one of the few, if not the only, to feature all original band members. They brought the house down with a version of "96 Tears" that took everyone back to '66.
In the audience was Pat McArdle, a local concert promoter who hung up his hat more than two decades ago. "When they hit the stage with that energy, it was the best thing I had seen in years," McArdle says. "Question Mark took over that huge stage and made it intimate." What he saw inspired McArdle to bring the band back for a full performance, plus a screening of The T.A.M.I. Show, the 1964 concert film that includes The Rolling Stones and James Brown. Situated in a theater-style venue that can transport the audience back to the settings of early rock 'n' roll shows, this event promises to be memorable.
"96 Tears" has one of the most distinctive hooks of any hit single of the 1960s. It revolves primarily around two notes, played over and over on a Farfisa organ, evoking the bygone buzzing sound of a telephone left off the hook. It's complemented by an understated but firm vocal by a guy who sounds too snotty to be a soul singer but too soulful to be considered a mere garage rocker, thus placing him in his own category.
While the song is familiar to anyone who's listened to oldies radio, the same can't be said for the band behind it. Question Mark & the Mysterians (often rendered "? and the Mysterians") are five musicians from Saginaw, Mich., fronted by a dude in sunglasses who answers only to Question Mark -- or Q. They released the song in 1966, taking it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. In person, Question Mark danced around the stage while the band tore through material like the taut "I Need Somebody," which kicked off its first album. Like many groups of that era, the band's follow-up records didn't achieve the same chart action, and by the end of the '60s the members had drifted apart.
Reunited officially since 1983, the band has been acknowledged by many punk and garage-revival bands as a primary influence. It released new albums in the '90s, and keeps in musical shape with short jaunts across the country, plus occasional trips to Europe.
Question Mark himself brings intensity to the scene, whether he's onstage or on the phone, speaking his mind for a solid two hours. His energy level and braggadocio haven't been witnessed since the Godfather of Soul. Some writers state that his real name is Rudy Martinez, while he has told others he's a native of another planet. Regardless of which is true and wherever his tangents take him, he always brings the conversation back to his main point, the one that fuels his reputation: that what's of utmost importance is the performance. "I've been on the stage since I was born, and I'm still onstage," he says. "That's what it's about, being an entertainer. It's not about the gold records, not about being number one."
"I'm still amazed that at our age, he can go out there and be 20 years old," says Mysterians guitarist Bobby Balderrama. "He's such a great entertainer. I've always looked up to him because of his talent." Balderrama formed the core of the band as a 12-year old, shifting his sound from Ventures-style instrumentals to incorporate the blues style of early Rolling Stones albums. "Question Mark reminded me of a Mexican Mick Jagger," he says, referencing the Tejano roots of all the band members. "He just nailed those songs. We did 'Satisfaction' and some people thought we recorded that song."
The man himself doesn't go for such comparisons, at least not on record -- but not out of modesty. "Mick Jagger -- he was very dull on The Ed Sullivan Show," Question Mark says. "I was never influenced by anybody. And I continue to not be influenced by anybody.
"And anybody that was anybody really wasn't nobody," he adds with a laugh.
He proudly recalls a mention the band received in Rolling Stone following a 1998 performance in New York City's Coney Island High. That same evening, the Rolling Stones had played Madison Square Garden. During his band's set, Question Mark laid claim to the Stones' moniker, the "world's greatest rock 'n' roll band," and whipped out the band's own version of "Satisfaction" as an encore. Writer Ben Ratliff wrote of the Mysterians' "returning the egotistic anxiety to that song, and nailing it."
"Nothing about the Stones doing their own song," Question Mark says. "The guy said, 'Question Mark is the template.' And I said, 'Man, you got that right.' I am the template. I'm the mold and everything else."
QUESTION MARK THE MYSTERIANS with a screening of THE T.A.M.I. SHOW. 7 p.m. Sat., April 9. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $25. Tickets available at Attic Records, Caliban Books, Dave's Music Mine, Jerry's Records and Paul's CDs. 412-512-2830