John “Mambo” Treanor (1953 -2001) was one of Austin’s most prolific, eccentric and best-loved drummers. He lived and played in Austin for 25 years, where he was known mainly as a jazz drummer.
‘In 1953, John Treanor, whose absentee father was nearly 30 years older than his mother, was born John Alter in San Antonio. Neither his mother nor his grandmother was Catholic, but when the family moved to the city's south side in the late Fifties, they had two choices on where to send their second-grader: a public school that lay across a busy intersection or a Catholic school just down the road. They chose the latter, and Father Treanor, a Catholic priest, wound up choosing Ms. Alter.
"He seemed witty and funny and liked mom a lot," says Treanor. "Pretty soon, he liked her a whole lot." A Catholic priest marrying a parishioner was scandalous enough to force relocation, so young John spent most of elementary school in Southern California before his stepfather landed back in Central Texas with a teaching position at Seguin's Texas Lutheran College. By that time, the boy had begun playing drums for the school band, applying what he learned watching his mother play organ in church.
"I'd always spent a lot of time watching my mother's choir rehearsals," he says. "Hearing them take that music apart and put it back together harmonically was tremendous ear training, even if I didn't know it." In high school, Treanor stepped up his interest in music and became the school's star drummer, anchoring both the marching and jazz bands. The school even built Treanor a platform in the stands for football games so he could perform half-time solos. "I played these big, double-bass solos because that's what all the rock & roll shows had," he says. "It's probably the reason I didn't get tossed out of school. The quarterback was the kid that could get in a lot of trouble but stay in school because they couldn't afford to lose the game. I was the quarterback of the band."
That said, Treanor never ignored his schoolwork thanks to the Vietnam War. "If you failed out of school, you were dead," he says matter of factly. "The draft was great motivation."
Treanor was also playing with the Delphi Oracle, a psychedelic rock band he founded with a childhood pal he'd later play with in Austin, Spencer Starnes. With a homemade light show, original, jam-oriented material, and a handful of Cream and Spirit covers, the Delphi Oracle played local proms and clubs, while touring regionally on weekends.
Recognizing the improvisational jazz aesthetic behind Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Treanor moved to Austin in 1971 and enrolled in UT's jazz program, where he met other young players like Mike Mordecai, Mitch Watkins, and Beto Skiles. By 1974, Treanor was leading 47 Times Its Own Weight, a free jazz group with a moniker that played off the purported absorption rate of Rolaids. "We're a heavy group" became the group's slogan.
The quintet, featuring a rotating cast including Skiles, played its own compositions and selections by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderly. Their reputation for improvisation forged a strong cult following that led to a number of residencies and dozens of Armadillo gigs opening for everyone from Frank Zappa to Jerry Jeff Walker.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was a regular at the band's gigs and eventually wound up at Treanor's house for a jazz tutorial, where the pair listened to Miles Davis and Joe Henderson records together. Treanor was only a few credits shy of his theory degree when he dropped out of UT to concentrate on music full-time. I didn't need paper from UT to jam with Roscoe Beck," observes Treanor. Maybe not, but Beck says it helped if local bassists trying to keep up with Treanor had a degree.
"He had a precision that nobody else had," says Beck, who played in the era's other leading local jazz group, Passenger. "He had mastered polyrhythmic aspects to his playing that nobody else had. He could turn the beat around on you like nobody's business. You'd be playing along, and all of a sudden he'd be playing 180 degrees on the other side of you. Eight bars later, he'd click out of it like someone had flicked a switch. It was downright exciting." By the mid-Seventies, Treanor had picked up a nickname as a response to traditional jazz's shift toward what he considered sterile fusion.
During the Eighties, Treanor divided his time between playing as many as 10 gigs a week, windsurfing professionally, and hanging around Barton Springs.
Snake Man's trademark, hats fashioned from roadkill, came from at time when Treanor and the Vanguards played a Mardi Gras gig where they wore costumes and surrounded themselves with candles and altars. They wound up liking the shtick enough to carry it into their regular act.
Treanor became instantly recognizable around Austin for dual trademarks: those roadkill hats and his washboard. Like the hats, the latter dates back to the fall of 1989, for no other reason than to try something new, Treanor bought a washboard, and characteristically, immersed himself in the business of mastering it. "It's percussion, but I approach it differently," says Treanor, who uses his thumbs to make a different sound than his fingers. "With both hands, I have four sounds I can make, whereas most players have two. It's like heel-and-toe tap dancing."
In late 1997 he was diagnosed with a form of tonsillar cancer. His last two days in the hospital, his room was more crowded than backstage at a Stones concert. They were playing a Mambo marathon on the radio. At his funeral, which was SRO, Beto y los Fairlanes and an Austin blues gospel supergroup. And in between the music, friends told Mambo stories. Owing to their subject, most of the stories were humorous. But there were no drummer jokes.
Click below to view "Mambo's" youtube performances: