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Tony Ortega: Musician, songwriter, and steel executive, 1938-2019

Yesterday morning, the Underground Bunker lost one of its most loyal and longtime readers. A resident of Redlands, California, he was fighting a recurrence of cancer after twice surviving the disease. His name was Tony Ortega. He was 80 years old. And he was my dad.

The son of a musician, Tony took up guitar and formed a couple of different folk music groups in the early 1960s, writing hundreds of songs. One of his bandmates, Larry Ramos, became a singer for The Association, and a song written by Tony, “Like Always,” appears on The Association’s 1968 album Greatest Hits, the group’s biggest-selling release. Tony also wrote songs that were recorded by the Fifth Dimension and other artists under the music company he had created in 1960 and called Sumex, for “Super Mexican.”

He also worked as a sales manager and then general manager in the steel industry in California with companies like Ryerson, RJM, and Cascade. At one point in the 1990s, he was running two steel distribution plants in Southern and Northern California at the same time, shuttling back and forth several times a month.

He was also a father and grandfather, survived by his wife JoAnn Ortega, seven children and stepchildren, 16 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.


“Tony was a great writer and composer. He was the best composer and lyricist I ever knew,” his longtime friend and collaborator Frank Robertson told us last night.

Tony Ortega was born on March 21, 1938 to Antonio and Virginia Ortega, the first of their nine children. Antonio was a machinist by day and had been working as a nightclub musician by night, playing keyboards in his orchestra in what was then gangster-controlled San Bernardino. It was a move up for Antonio, who had grown up in a family of fruit, lettuce, and cotton pickers. (Both Antonio and Virginia were born in California and were US citizens, but their parents were from Mexico, and Spanish was their first language growing up.)

The Ortegas moved to the San Fernando Valley as their first three children were born, all boys. Then they moved back to the Inland Empire, to Redlands, and into Lugonia Homes, public housing on the town’s Mexican north side as the family grew and grew. By the time he was at Redlands High School, Tony was living with his grandmother because there was no more room at home with his mother and father and what were then six siblings.

It was also in high school that he met a new kid from South Gate, Jerry “Jake” Jaquess, and they became inseparable, bonding over their love of music. And Jake was stunned by his friend’s talent as a poet. The school noticed as well, and when Tony graduated Redlands High in 1956, a local philanthropy group offered him a generous scholarship that had been designed especially for him. But Tony didn’t like the idea of going away to college, and he stayed at San Bernardino Valley Junior College and then Long Beach State, playing on the basketball teams at both schools.

Tony dropped out his senior year to join the Air Force — like Jake, who had joined the Army the year before, they were concerned about the uncertainty of the draft and chose to join up to have a little more control over their destinies. Tony went to Texas for medic training, then came home and he and Jake got more serious about their musical interests.


[The Ryerson crowd: Norma Luther, Jerry “Jake” Jaquess, Ralph Lilley, Tony Ortega, and Russ Young.]

[With his younger brother David in Redlands in 2016]

[With his son Larry Ortega in 2017]

With some friends Jake had grown up with in South Gate, they formed the Lonesome Travelers, a folk group that tapped into the Kingston Trio craze going on at the time. For a couple of years, they played for college crowds at The Prison of Socrates, a coffeehouse on Balboa Island in Newport Beach. Jake says they played other people’s music, but what set them apart were the songs written by Tony. They developed a following, but Jake was already married and needed something more reliable.

He found a job at Ryerson Steel, and then brought Tony in for a job there too, and the friends they formed there are still getting together, more than 50 years later.

“We played a baseball game he designed to play with cards,” says one of those friends, Russ Young. Tony had worked out how to simulate baseball with the use of poker hands, and it was hugely popular with the Ryerson crowd.

In 1960, Tony moved on to another musical group, a trio, with Larry Ramos and Frank Robertson, which they called the Westwinds. Ramos had grown up a child prodigy on Hawaii and was a statewide ukulele champion at only 7 years old. After playing with Tony and Frank in Los Angeles coffeehouses, Ramos became a member of the New Christy Minstrels, and then The Association.


With the coffeehouse craze subsiding, Tony focused on songwriting rather than performing. Frank says Tony had first started collecting his hundreds of songs under the “Sumex” brand starting in about 1960. By the mid-1960s, Tony was writing songs with Ramos and arranger Bob Alcivar and getting demos recorded with studio musicians, some from the legendary Wrecking Crew. But getting those demos accepted for release wasn’t easy. After the encouraging sale of “Like Always” and a few others, bigger success always seemed to be just out of reach.

His frustration was captured in one story he told us many years later, regarding a particular opportunity that got away. He had written a song he called “Hear Me Now,” and had an acetate copy of the song laid down with a young group that called themselves The Dawnbreakers. (Your proprietor has no memory of it, but in an audio tape made when we were young, you can hear us in the background exclaiming, “Hear me now! Hear me now!” Apparently the song was very popular at home.)

Tony submitted the song to Dunhill Records, and the acetate became an obsession with the women who worked in the office as they played it repeatedly on the office PA system.

Then, the story goes, one day Dunhill’s major star, John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas, came into the office and saw the receptionists singing along to the song, which he didn’t recognize. When he asked about it, one of the women said, “It’s our next big hit.”

Over his dead body, Phillips told the record company, and Dunhill rejected the song, “Hear Me Now” was never published, and the Dawnbreakers broke up as two of its members, Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, went on to become huge stars of their own.

Thanks a lot, John Phillips.

Well, that’s the story my dad told, anyway, and it was too good not to be true.

With a couple of bratty kids to feed, Tony had to give up on the full-time pursuit of songwriting, and went back to steel, moving into the management ranks. In the 1980s, he went back to school, finishing his bachelor’s degree and then an MBA at Pepperdine University.

In the 1990s, he move back to Redlands, this time in the tonier south side of town, and not far from his brothers and sisters and their families. In recent years, as he doted more on his grandkids, it became more difficult for him to spend time playing golf — an Ortega family obsession — and it also became more difficult for him to play his guitar. Still, just a few years ago, you could find him at open mike nights in downtown Redlands, still hogging the spotlight.

As his cancer came back and his strength ebbed, his oldest friends — from the Lonesome Travelers and Westwinds, from Ryerson Steel, that he had forged bonds with nearly 60 years ago — came to visit him in Redlands at two separate gatherings over the last couple of months. It really stunned us. We don’t know how many of the people we met in our early 20s we could count on in that way.

“That’s your dad,” Robertson told us. “They showed up for him. He could command that kind of attention and that kind of loyalty. He was a magnet for me.”

We’ll miss that electric power he had.




We have some news for you about how our plans for this year’s HowdyCon have changed a bit. First, to review: We had decided that because this year we’ll be in Los Angeles, we would coordinate with Janis Gillham Grady, who has an annual reunion barbecue and this year is dedicating her event to former Scientology ED Int Bill Franks, who died in December.

We were hoping to hold that barbecue at a former Scientology mission building in Riverside, but the sheer distance between Los Angeles and Riverside and the lack of public transportation in Southern California made our original plans problematic.

So, we’re still planning on holding events in LA on Thursday and Friday, June 20 and 21, but Janis is now looking for a new location for Saturday’s combined event in Burbank. She also says she will soon have hotel information for those coming in from out of town.


Scientology’s celebrities, ‘Ideal Orgs,’ and more!

[Elisabeth Moss, Michael Peña, and Laura Prepon]

We’ve been building landing pages about David Miscavige’s favorite playthings, including celebrities and ‘Ideal Orgs,’ and we’re hoping you’ll join in and help us gather as much information as we can about them. Head on over and help us with links and photos and comments.

Scientology’s celebrities, from A to Z! Find your favorite Hubbardite celeb at this index page — or suggest someone to add to the list!

Scientology’s ‘Ideal Orgs,’ from one end of the planet to the other! Help us build up pages about each these worldwide locations!

Scientology’s sneaky front groups, spreading the good news about L. Ron Hubbard while pretending to benefit society!

Scientology Lit: Books reviewed or excerpted in our weekly series. How many have you read?



[ONE year ago] How L. Ron Hubbard tried to hoax the FBI, and ‘brainwashed’ politicians of the far right
[TWO years ago] Louis Farrakhan: Nation of Islam will stand by Scientology as Leah Remini ‘goes in hard’
[THREE years ago] Scientology’s petition to the Texas Supreme Court mentions a dildo, and other surprises
[FOUR years ago] Scientology’s Orwellian methods of control explained in a new book by Jefferson Hawkins
[FIVE years ago] Scott Pilutik helps us evaluate Scientology’s petition to Texas appeals court
[SIX years ago] Oklahoma Drug Rehab Bill Passes Senate: Scientology’s Narconon Days Numbered?
[SEVEN years ago] Scientology’s OT Powers! A Hubbard Holiday Miracle


Scientology disconnection, a reminder

Bernie Headley has not seen his daughter Stephanie in 5,366 days.
Valerie Haney has not seen her mother Lynne in 1,497 days.
Katrina Reyes has not seen her mother Yelena in 1,999 days
Sylvia Wagner DeWall has not seen her brother Randy in 1,479 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his grandson Leo in 542 days.
Geoff Levin has not seen his son Collin and daughter Savannah in 430 days.
Christie Collbran has not seen her mother Liz King in 3,737 days.
Clarissa Adams has not seen her parents Walter and Irmin Huber in 1,605 days.
Carol Nyburg has not seen her daughter Nancy in 2,379 days.
Jamie Sorrentini Lugli has not seen her father Irving in 3,153 days.
Quailynn McDaniel has not seen her brother Sean in 2,499 days.
Dylan Gill has not seen his father Russell in 11,065 days.
Melissa Paris has not seen her father Jean-Francois in 6,985 days.
Valeska Paris has not seen her brother Raphael in 3,152 days.
Mirriam Francis has not seen her brother Ben in 2,733 days.
Claudio and Renata Lugli have not seen their son Flavio in 2,993 days.
Sara Goldberg has not seen her daughter Ashley in 2,033 days.
Lori Hodgson has not seen her son Jeremy and daughter Jessica in 1,745 days.
Marie Bilheimer has not seen her mother June in 1,271 days.
Joe Reaiche has not seen his daughter Alanna Masterson in 5,360 days
Derek Bloch has not seen his father Darren in 2,500 days.
Cindy Plahuta has not seen her daughter Kara in 2,820 days.
Roger Weller has not seen his daughter Alyssa in 7,676 days.
Claire Headley has not seen her mother Gen in 2,795 days.
Ramana Dienes-Browning has not seen her mother Jancis in 1,151 days.
Mike Rinder has not seen his son Benjamin and daughter Taryn in 5,453 days.
Brian Sheen has not seen his daughter Spring in 1,559 days.
Skip Young has not seen his daughters Megan and Alexis in 1,962 days.
Mary Kahn has not seen her son Sammy in 1,833 days.
Lois Reisdorf has not seen her son Craig in 1,416 days.
Phil and Willie Jones have not seen their son Mike and daughter Emily in 1,911 days.
Mary Jane Sterne has not seen her daughter Samantha in 2,165 days.
Kate Bornstein has not seen her daughter Jessica in 13,274 days.


Posted by Tony Ortega on February 20, 2019 at 07:00

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Our new book with Paulette Cooper, Battlefield Scientology: Exposing L. Ron Hubbard’s dangerous ‘religion’ is now on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. Our book about Paulette, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook versions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

The Best of the Underground Bunker, 1995-2018 Just starting out here? We’ve picked out the most important stories we’ve covered here at the Underground Bunker (2012-2018), The Village Voice (2008-2012), New Times Los Angeles (1999-2002) and the Phoenix New Times (1995-1999)

Other links: BLOGGING DIANETICS: Reading Scientology’s founding text cover to cover | UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists | GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice | SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts | Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Watch our short videos that explain Scientology’s controversies in three minutes or less…

Check your whale level at our dedicated page for status updates, or join us at the Underground Bunker’s Facebook discussion group for more frivolity.

Our non-Scientology stories: Robert Burnham Jr., the man who inscribed the universe | Notorious alt-right inspiration Kevin MacDonald and his theories about Jewish DNA | The selling of the “Phoenix Lights” | Astronomer Harlow Shapley‘s FBI file | Sex, spies, and local TV news | Battling Babe-Hounds: Ross Jeffries v. R. Don Steele


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