Frank de la Rosa’s life story reads like a history lesson, including many familiar names in the music business.
His career has taken him around the world, and he is quite content to reflect on the highlights from his home in Washougal.
De la Rosa’s love for music could be attributed to his father, a musician who played the bass. His mother did not encourage him to pursue it as a career, because she thought it provided an unstable lifestyle.
When de la Rosa picked up a congo musical instrument at a Latin club, musicians told him he had a natural rhythm and encouraged him to pursue music.
He volunteered to join the Army and served during the Korean War. That qualified him for the GI Bill, which helped with college tuition. He attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Fine Arts.
De la Rosa, 79, was 23 when he started playing the double bass. Although that could be considered late in life to start playing a musical instrument, he made up for it with many hours of practice and a natural talent. He also took private lessons with Frederick Zimmermann, a renowned double bassist and teacher.
De la Rosa loved the music, and he loved the lifestyle of a musician. Eventually, with a great deal of determination, a lot of practice and the luck of being born with the talent, he became skilled enough to play for many well-known singers and musicians.De la Rosa was a member of the house band at the Sands Hotel, in Las Vegas, from 1960 to 1963 when the “Rat Pack” of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop performed.
He played at all of the hotels on the Strip, providing musical accompaniment for singers such as Paul Anka and Chubby Checker.
“That’s when there were seven hotels [in Vegas],” de la Rosa said. “Now, it’s like Disneyland.”
De la Rosa also played for Barbra Streisand and Nat King Cole.
“It was like going to college and learning how to play in a big band and orchestras,” he said. “That’s when the Mafia ran Vegas. They ran the Strip and the whole town. They took care of the musicians, but you had to watch your p’s and q’s.”
After moving to L.A., de la Rosa worked with the trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and the Don Ellis Orchestra. From 1968 to 1972, de la Rosa played double bass for Ella Fitzgerald. From 1972 to 1975, he performed with Sarah Vaughan.
“I got to travel the world with both of them,” de la Rosa said. “It was great.”
Vaughan’s trio included de la Rosa, pianist Carl Schroeder and Jimmy Cobb on drums. They performed for President Gerald Ford in the mid 1970’s, during a summit with the French president in Martinique.
Another career highlight involved retracing the steps of Mozart, in Vienna.
“I got to play in most of the great opera houses in Paris, Venice, London and Rome,” De la Rosa said. “Some are centuries old.”
He has also visited the ruins of Baalbek, in Lebanon, and he has performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
De la Rosa has no plans to write a book about his experiences.
“They’re all in my head,” he said. “Every one of them was great.”
Some bad memories also exist, including the night Bobby Kennedy was fatally shot in 1968. De la Rosa was performing at Memory Lane, a club also in L.A.
“We stopped playing after we heard about the assassination,” he said.
Five years earlier, the Strip in Las Vegas went completely dark after President John F. Kennedy was killed.
“Sammy Davis Jr. did not want to go on [the stage at the Sands],” De la Rosa said. “The whole city closed down. It is usually lit up like a Christmas tree.”
In the mid 1970’s, de la Rosa and Vaughan were not allowed to perform in South Africa during the Apartheid. Instead, they performed across the border in Swaziland.
That involved changing planes and going through customs in South Africa, where Vaughan was classified as black and de la Rosa as “colored.” He is of Mexican descent.
“They were separated from the white people,” said de la Rosa’s wife Carolyn. “They were eager to get on their next plane and out of there. They had both performed in parts of this country where they had to deal with race problems, but this was worse then anything they had encountered. They both said it was frightening.”
Although De la Rosa loved the early years of performing on the road, it was difficult. He was married to his first wife, and they had young children. De la Rosa decided there was enough work in Los Angeles, so he left the road.
He played at the Carousel Theater, in West Covina, Calif. De la Rosa was in the orchestra pit as entertainers such as Jack Benny, Liberace and Ethel Merman took the stage. At that time, Goldie Hawn was a chorus girl at the theater.
De la Rosa retired from playing music professionally in 2003, after he got tired of performing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
“It was not as exciting as playing on the road,” he said.
De la Rosa has four children and two grandchildren.
He and Carolyn have lived in Washougal for 18 years.
“I was ready for the peace and quiet we have up here,” she said.