Behind a Badge and a Band

Get to know Robert Payne of the eclectic band Tortilla Soup. Photo Credit: Tortilla Soup Music

A revealing and suprising look at Tortilla Soup’s frontman, Robert Payne


Belinda Quesada
Special to El Observador


San José native son, Robert Payne, is some kind of a genius. Not content with a career in law enforcement that lasted 27 years, he decided 16 years ago to start a little band called Tortilla Soup.


Make no mistake about it, Tortilla Soup delivers on some classic Chicano music that includes R&B, Rock, Blues, Funk, Soul, Cumbia, Salsa and Tex-Mex. Extremely popular in the Bay Area because their 10-piece band members have played with many of the greats like Santana, Malo, Tower of Power, Tierra, El Chicano, and Confunkshun just to name a few. They seriously rock.

This year, Tortilla Soup will be celebrating the New Year in style with Little Joe y La Familia, Los Angeles Bad Boys, and Tierra on December 31st, 2018 in San José, California at the Tortilla Soup New Year’s Eve Party.

The genius part for Payne is that he gets to continue to do what he loves, making people happy, one song at a time. So, it’s not like he’s really working. When he was a full time San José police officer working the day shift, his routine could not be more different than his weekend gigs playing music.

All in all, Payne reflects on the structure and discipline it takes to achieve success in both worlds explaining, “law enforcement and music are two different careers. The law is black and white, but music is my solace, my get-a-way. In law enforcement, you have rules and you have implicit trust in your partner that he’s got your back. On duty at any given time, the split-second decisions you make could save a life. As a cop, I tell my guys what they have to do, and they do it. Being a cop, taught me how to supervise and run a business. The supervisory part or management in police work also helped me be a better leader in the band.”

In a media saturated world, Payne figured out his fan base and delivered what they wanted; excellent music, extremely safe venues where like-minded people could just dance and celebrate their love of Chicano music and culture. Early on, he discovered the ability to capitalize on his niche market via Facebook. It’s a formula that’s worked quite successfully for nearly two decades.

Proud Silver Creek High Alumni, Robert Payne, is the manager, band leader and trumpet player under his new label, Tortilla Soup Music, Inc. Never content with the status quo, he also promotes other top Chicano/Latino artist and entertainers in the Bay Area.

Earlier in 2018, Payne decided to dip his toe into the cruise line industry by agreeing to a short-term contract to play on cruise ships. He’s loves the idea of making new friends along the way and introducing new fans to Chicano music.

Tortilla Soup’s unique name came in an early collaborate moment while Payne was giving the band their play list and wondering what their name should be. Quickly realizing that their songs were an eclectic mix of musical blends, kind of like a well-blended ‘soup’. They all looked around, noted their brown faces and well the rest, as-they-say is history.

With a successful following on two Facebook pages/profiles with over 7,000 subscribers and fans, Tortilla Soup, plays regularly in the Northern California area. Their members have the distinction of working with some of the best-known bands in Latin music.

But of course Robert Payne could not manage his popularity and success without his best girl beside him.


Together for 16 years, Anita Garcia, is an events manager. She also helps promote Tortilla Soup utilizing the talents learned while working as a secretary to the vice president at Hewlett Packard (HP) in Silicon Valley. Anita is at every Tortilla Soup event and works closely with Robert to ensure all details of the music business are fine tuned. As such, Anita creates posters, tickets, basically any and all marketing collateral for the band.


Their love story is one that Payne is proud of. “We met while she was working at HP and responsible for their Corporate gigs. She booked us for three gigs. I was a San José Police Officer during the day and played music on the weekends managing Tortilla Soup. We worked together for over a year, completely professional. Then one day, we met at a venue to check the sound system for an upcoming show and wound up waiting for the site manager who was more than an hour late. We started talking and discovered that we were both going through a divorce at the same time. Soon, we learned we had quite a lot in common. She loved our music and I loved her professionalism. Anita brings tremendous heart, talent and positive energy to the team. She is really the glue that holds us together. We are just meant to be.”


Robert Payne is still an Active Duty Reserve Officer for the San José Police Department. He is still playing the music he loves with the people he loves. Here is a revealing look at his early history, drive and his politics that may surprise you.

BQ:  What was your upbringing like?

RP:  I was born in 1967, the last of 6 children. My parents had 4 boys and 2 girls. We were raised in San José (SJ), is a strict household with two very loving parents. Early on, I was exposed to music because my brothers played in bands in our garage. My brothers joined the marines and service and love of country were early life lessons for me. Education was also primary emphasis in our household. We lived on the East side until 1977. Then at age 10, we moved to Evergreen Hills area of SJ. I remember that we were the only Hispanics on the block. My dad was a chemical supervisor for Litton Industries. Dad said be the best at whatever you do, and we did. My mom worked in a cannery until I was 8 years old. She did a good job raising all of her children. All siblings were educated and have good careers. My father passed away in 1991 of cancer and my mom is 86 and still with us. All my brothers went to war and lived to tell the tale. To this day, my mom is so proud of all her children. I give a lot of credit to my parents who always led by example.


BQ:  Was there an incident, a person(s), or mentor early on that helped guide you?

RP:  Growing up in my family, my first mentors were my brothers. I always looked up to them. As the youngest, everything they did was cool. My oldest brother played the drums and guitar. I was maybe 4 years old and  remember hearing ‘The Beatles’ and ‘Creedence Clearwater Rival.’ Another  brother played drums in the Marine Corp, and another played guitar in country rock band. When I grew up, I wanted to be in their bands.  In our family, we appreciated music, it was always a part of our life. In  school, my first influence/mentor was my high school teacher, Mr. Fred Lang. I played in Silver Creek Raider Marching Band. Mr. Lang was always there for students before, during, and after school. He was the one who taught me to play Earth, Wind, and Fire on my trumpet. My second Mentor was the great Mick Gillette who played with Tower of Power (30 years). He played the horns on “You’re Still a Young Man.” I took horn lessons from him for three years. I have a $5,000 trumpet that he engraved. Mick spoke highly of me in a San José Mercury New’s article stating that “whenever Robert gets behind that trumpet, watch out.” I was touched.


BQ:  Who/what influenced your music style? And how has your Mexican/Latin culture influenced your music?

RP:  Mt earliest memories came from the Santa Clara County Fair. My brothers took me to the Fair every summer and we saw the greats play; the Temptations, Doobie Brothers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and Smokey Robinson. I was influenced by what my siblings listened to. Both of my parents were born in Texas. My dad listened to Country music and my mom Tex-Mex. My parents were the presidents of the Ramon Ayala fan club. Whenever he played in the San José area, he would come to our house for dinner.


BQ:  Any major event(s) that influenced your music career?

RP:  When Mitch brought me up on stage to play with Tower of Power at Saratoga Mountain Winery. It was a dream come true.


BQ:  Your first big break?

RP:  Playing with ‘Little Joe y La Familia’s’ band, I was 18 and I had to sneak into the bar. Another break was when our little band, called ‘Ambiente’ auditioned in San Francisco for a national Kodak Film television commercial with the late, great, James Brown. We auditioned to the song ‘La Bamba,’  lip synching in the background. It was a thrill.


BQ:  Biggest triumph?

RP:  Playing with ‘Tower of Power.’


BQ:  How has fame/fortune affected you?

RP:  I’m humbled and very blessed to have our band. We have such talented members who have played with many of the great musicians from Ron E. Beck, who plays drums and played with ‘Tower of Power’, and Johnnie Beamont, our saxophone player who played with ‘Huey Lewis and the News’, and Steve Steinberg who plays saxophone and played for the ‘Whispers and O’Jay’s’, ‘Lenny Williams’, and ‘Pete Escovedo’.


BQ:  Has social media changed your music career?

RP:  Yes, we grown our fanbase times 100. I am maxed out at 5,000 friends on Facebook and started a 2nd Facebook page and now have over 2,500. Facebook Tortilla Soup


BQ:  Best thing about being you?

RP:  Performing in front of people every week and hanging out with the stars. Hanging out with our mentors and knowing them personally is a gift.


BQ:  Describe your collaborative process.

RP:  I make calls, establish relationships and work with booking agents. I am always reaching out to work with concert venues. I collaborate with many different promoters like Alan Beck, CEO with Pacific Concert groups; Dale Berger with Art Laboe productions; and Jason Jacobs, CEO of Latin Soul Cruise on Carnival Cruise Lines. Someone I respect a lot is Victor Pamiroyan. He is Pete Escovedo’s manager/promoter for 3 decades. He is a classy guy who everyone respects. If I have a question or problem, I call Victor. He’ll set me straight.  Because of our solid reputation for never missing a gig and always paying our musicians-including anyone else we work with, we’ve managed to get bigger and better gigs. Sometimes I joke that I wish I had another me, like a manager. This way I could play my trumpet and go home, just take a little break from time to time. Still, it’s a good life.


BQ:  What’s new on the horizon?

RP:  In February 2019, we’re booked for a Valentine’s concert with Confunkshun. Valentines Day with Confunkshun and Tortilla Soup. Well, Tortilla Soup has decided that instead of getting together to create an album that we would work on a single. We’re all older and love playing our music; but let’s face it, the public prefers singles to albums. Please look for our new single in mid-January, along with the bands new look, website, photo’s, etc. 2019 is going to be a great year for Tortilla Soup.


BQ:  What do you do during your downtime?

RP:  I love to visit my grandson who is 6 months old. I enjoy being around him and watching him grow up. I try to see my son’s family every week. Every Sunday, we celebrate family dinners together. I love my two sons who are all grown up and doing well. And if we have time off, Anita and I have a house in Las Vegas, and we like to hang out there too.


BQ:  How has music changed professionally for you over time?

RP:  I play with musicians who are very professional and that helps because it keeps us on our toes. We don’t have CD’s to sell; therefore, we don’t have that constant competition. I still love music and listen to every body’s music on YouTube. Performing live and touring is where the moneys at.

How has your music influenced fans over the years? Generations have been influenced because of our longevity in the business. Recently, I met a gentleman who now brings his adult  daughter so she can hear the Tower of Power songs she loves. It’s funny, the younger kids were not around when our songs were popular. I don’t see a major difference. Our group fans are maybe 45-50 plus, mostly couples who love our sound and want to hear it live.


BQ:  Any comment on current day politics?

RP:  Well, it’s not a perfect world. I am pro Trump. The cop in me wants everyone to work together and get along. I am for law, order and justice. Just stating that your Republican or a Democrat is part of the issue. If we act like spoiled brats, then nothing gets accomplished. Honestly, I believe we are at a stale mate in politics. I voted for President Trump because I was tired of what all the politicians were saying. Do I like some of the words coming out of his mouth? No, not always. But then I look around and is there any other country messing with the US? No? I studied my Deferred Compensation package and it went up. So, our country is doing well. President Trump doesn’t talk like a politician because he’s not. Quite honestly, sometimes I don’t know what to believe anymore.


BQ:  What would you like the public to know about you that isn’t widely known?

RP:  I have a funny nick name, it’s Pudgy. Only close family and friends know me by that name. It doesn’t bother me anymore. When I was a cop, every-once in a while someone who knew me growing up would call me that and its surprised others. Another thing about me that people don’t know is that I almost quit the music business two years ago. Anita was the closest one to me that heard me say this. Then, the calls came in and things got better. And the feeling went away. Now, life is very different. I have a grandson and my priorities have shifted back to family again. I think protecting children and loving our children has to be one of our first priorities.


BQ:  How would you like to be remembered?

RP:  Oh, good question. As a humble musician and as someone who made people happy. I don’t do it for the money. For me, I love to see people getting dressed up, dancing, laughing, smiling, and just enjoying themselves. We play music that helps people feel good and have good time. Because let’s face it, everyone has a life with complications, problems, etc. We are lucky to have fans who come out from Oklahoma, Las Vegas, Southern California and from all over the Southwest. Like ‘Selena’ said in her movie, we are nothing without our fans. We’re a cover band and proud of it. So, thank you to our Tortilla Soup fans. We love you and appreciate you. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to you all. Hope to see you at our New Year’s Eve gig. New Year’s Eve, Tortilla Soup


Valentines Day with Confunkshun and Tortilla Soup

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Photo Credit: Tortilla Soup Music