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Still shakin': Billings native Chan Romero reminisces on rock 'n' roll career

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Posted at 8:19 AM, Mar 16, 2023

BILLINGS - Even if you have never heard of Chan Romero, it’s a good bet that you’ve probably heard at least one of his songs.

Romero grew up in Billings and gained fame for writing and recording “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” a song that has been covered by dozens of other artists, including the Beatles, and has been included in several films.

“All my brothers played guitar and sang country music and I just kind of took over from them,” says Romero, who is now 81 and lives in California.

Romero says he grew up making a few dollars shining shoes and selling the Billings Gazette, along with later playing at teen clubs and bars.

When he first heard Elvis sing "Hound Dog" in the mid-50s, he says it struck him like a lightning bolt.

“Elvis had a strong effect on me. It just took me over and I said this is what I want to do,” he said.

So in 1958 after getting out of school for the summer at Billings Senior, Romero hitchhiked to Los Angeles with big dreams, without his family knowing.

“I didn’t tell them,” he laughed. “I just took off.”

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Chan Romero

It was there, at the age of 17, that he wrote “The Hippy Hippy Shake”—the song he is most known for of the many he’s recorded over his long career in music.

“It was really exciting when Del Fi records recognized my talent. Don King signed me to his label. He is the one that signed Ritchie Valens. Had the big hit 'Donna' and 'La Bamba,'” says Romero.

Valens died in a plane crash in 1959 at age of 17. Romero became fast friends with his family.

“I became, you might say, a part of his family,” he said.

“The Hippy Hippy Shake” didn’t make the charts for Romero in the United States, but it zoomed up to number three in Australia. And it didn’t take long for other artists to notice it. It was a big hit for the Swinging Blue Jeans and was also covered by the Beatles.

“It’s amazing, especially when I heard that Paul McCartney picked it up and it became one of him and the Beatles' very favorites,” Romero says.

Romero continued to perform up until just the last few years but says he doesn’t play much now. He recorded a remake with Zelimir that was recently released at the start of this year as a tribute to Romero and the song he wrote 65 years ago.

Despite its enduring popularity, Romero’s daughter says he no longer receives anything from royalties.

A bill to make it Montana’s official state Rock and Roll song failed to pass the Legislature in 2019.

Regardless, Chan Romero will go down in history as one of the greatest musicians to come out of Montana.

“It was something that I never knew would happen, but it happened,” he says.

Romero is also the first Latino to be inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Positively Montana