It all started with Ritchie Valens and “La Bamba” and The Champs and “Tequila” in 1958, though it would be another decade before Santana took Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” and freaked it out in 1970. Los Lobos brought Spanish language to LA punks with “Anselma” in the early ’80s and to the masses in 1987 with a remake of “La Bamba”; in 2002, they tore it up Chicano style with “Good Morning Aztlán.” Of course, these names of Latino rock royalty can twist a phrase en español—it is their birthright. But what about los gringos without Latino roots who’ve brought a Mexican vibe to their rock ‘n’ roll? And the bands that feature lesser known Mexican-American musicians, plus los otros conquistadors of south-of-the-border sound? Well, they are the subject of this Cinco de Mayo post, claro que si.
There are any number of starting points I could choose to begin the story of Latin rock and the use of Spanish language in rock ‘n’ roll, but since I’m not a scholar of the stuff and just an admiradora, I’ll apologize upfront for any mismanagement of details, mangling of the language, and my Anglo-centric survey of the music. Let’s just say for the sake of ease we start with 1948 and Don Tosti’s recording of “Pachuco Boogie”, a swingin’ tune about the rebellious zoot-suiters featuring a conversation or street rap in Caló, the urban dialect of the Pachuco subculture. The Pachucos donned the zoot suit and started a ’40s fashion and attitude riot that asserted individuality and anger in the face of having been stripped of a cultural identity. What, you are asking yourself, does this have to do with music? Well, Southwestern Chicanos adopted the baggy trouser/knee-length jacket uniform that had previously been seen on the Harlem jazz scene, and Don Tosti earned the nickname “the Godfather of Latin Rhythm and Blues.” Alongside Lalo Guerrero, “the Father of Chicano Music,” who also sang of Pachuco life as well as farm laborers’ rights, Tosti opened the door for an ethnocentric brand of music to cross into the mainstream (“Pachuco Boogie” was a massive seller), though it wouldn’t be until the late ’60s that the Chicano Movement would come to organize in the name of cultural identity. “Suavecito”, the 1972 hit by Malo (the group led by Santana’s brother Jorge), is an example of Caló y Latin rhythms coming together in one classic R&B/rock ballad. But what happened between “Pachuco Boogie” and the day when Santana threw down at Woodstock before even releasing a debut album?
Well, that would be the invention of Latin rock by California son, Ritchie Valens, a rocker whose “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna” are ’50s standards, but who happens to be most remembered for the music of his cultural heritage. As we know, the music died on February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Valens, and the pilot died in a plane crash in Iowa, yet “La Bamba”, the el hefe of Spanish language rock songs, lives on. Starting out as a hundreds year-old Mexican folk song, Valens rocked it up and delivered a three-chord wonder that eventually any garage or punk-rock band could play. The Plugz, an LA band by way of El Paso, featuring Tito Larriva and Charlie Quintana, self-released their cranked-up version of “La Bamba” in 1981. The Plugz also recorded two long-playing rare classics, Electrify Me and Better Luck, before morphing into the Cruzados and then eventually going their separate ways, but not before their “El Clavo y La Cruz” and “Hombre Secreto” (as in “Secret Agent Man”) gave the right touch to Repo Man, the punky midnight movie about “the LA experience.” In 1987, Los Lobos were asked to re-record some Valens songs for the soundtrack to La Bamba, a Hollywood bio depiction of the Richie Valens story starring Lou Diamond Phillips. It was then the band, formed in 1973 in East LA, rose to a new level of fame (their take on “La Bamba” went to number one). Debuting in 1976 with Si Se Puede! benefitting the United Farm Workers, and inspired by music diverse as Bob Dylan and Traffic, R&B, Mexican folkloric music, Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye, Los Lobos are as American and rock’n’roll as they come, while they continue to clutch the roots of their musical heritage, masterfully incorporating traditional corridos and norteño sounds into their alternately furious rock’n’roll and laid back jams.
Los Lobos were also inspired by the Eastside sound of Thee Midnighters and Little Willie G (more on them in a minute), as well as Carlos Santana y Jerry Garcia, and the Sir Douglas Quintet, distinguished by Augie Meyers’ Vox Continental organ sound and the soulful singing of Doug Sahm who started their band in San Antonio, Texas. Their greatest hit, “She’s About a Mover,” as released in 1965. Sir Douglas Quintet belonged to the handful of US groups who brought the spirit of the British Invasion (English musicians doing American music), back into the hands of Americans by tricking the public into thinking they were playing British-styled music like the Beatles and the Stones, rather than American music by Americans. It was Sir Doug that officially added the Tex-Mex sound to the American music mix, while Sahm would also go on to sing of the border and other Mexican concerns (“Michoacan”). In later years, Sahm and Meyers would also join forces with Mexican-American rock and genre-straddling songwriter Freddie Fender and accordion virtuoso Flaco Jimenez as the Texas Tornados.
The Farfisa organ sound and the count-off uno, dos, one-two, tres cuatro would become recognized around the world that same year as the opening to “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Led by a Texas-born son of Mexican immigrants, Domingo (Sam) Samudio, the song is about nothing really and was said to be named after his cat. Domingo worked as an itinerant musician and reportedly as a carny before forming the Pharaohs, who took their name from Yul Brynner because he looked tough as the character in The Ten Commandments, one of those epic 1950s Bible movies. “Wooly Bully” became a staple of the frat-rock genre though it was more distinctive than just serving as the soundtrack to AnimalHouse-style hijinks. The song spent an incredible 18-week stand on the charts, and by the end of 1965, it was named Billboard magazine’s Number One Record of the Year and had helped dislodge singles on the charts by the aforementioned pesky British bands of the era. Sam the Sham’s “Li’l Red Riding Hood” was certainly another fine moment for the band, but it lacked the Tex-Mex organ sound that would crop up on the great singles of the ’60s made by another legendary group of Mexican-Americans: “96 Tears” by Question Mark & the Mysterians, who hailed from Michigan and were fronted by Question Mark aka Rudy Martinez and featured a teenaged organ player, Frank Rodriguez, Jr. The organ riffing would also inspire the group’s “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby.” In 1998, Smash Mouth from San Jose, California, had a hit with the song alongside their hit remake of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” by War, a mixed-race funk band whose big hit “Low Rider” was a hats-off to cruisin’, Chicano style.
Of course, when it comes to cruisin’ Chicano style, the band for that is East LA’s Thee Midniters. Known for their instrumental jam “Whittier Boulevard”
The band and their especially soulful singer Willie Garcia, better known as Little Willie G, was a big inspiration to the future members of Los Lobos. The song was a natural to cover for Los Straitjackets, the contemporary (mostly) all-instrumental band that performs in Mexican wrestler masks. Okay, so copping a Spanish name and wearing a mask does not make a Mexican rocker. But by virtue of using the article “los” in their names, Los Straitjackets, as well as Texas rockers Los Lonely Boys, are filed in American record stores with the other “los bands,” like Los Bravos, the rock group from Spain whose 1966 hit, “Black Is Black”, did not contain a word of Spanish. Nor to my knowledge did the Zeros, the Mexican-American band from San Diego, ever sing in Spanish, though as members of the class of ’77, they are distinguished as first-wave punk rockers; they also sprung Robert Lopez, aka El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Somewhere, there exists a rare single of their anthem “I Don’t Wanna” backed with “Li’l Latin Lupe Lu”, a cover of the first Righteous Brothers hit made even more famous by Mitch Ryder.
I have only scratched the surface of the Latino influence on rock, precisely because it is inescapable and inextricable. I never got to point toward the “Spanish” sound on all those Brill Building and Phil Spector hits, or delve deep into the Afro Cuban percussive roots of rock (best exemplified by Bo Diddley borrowing the rhumba-like clave beat), nor did we open the pandora’s box of disco that partially paved the road to hip hop and other forms of dance music. There is so much to uncover, from Devendra Banhart’s musings en español on Cripple Crow to the Mission District’s #1 son, Jerry Garcia (that is if you don’t count figure #1a, Tijuana-born Carlos Santana). I had planned to wax on about Jack White’s and Beck Hansen’s Mexican-American neighborhood origins as well as the exact definition of un perdedor as heard in Beck’s “Loser,” but I will leave that to you to explore. While were are here, let’s not forget the great Spanish-lover, Joe Strummer, whose Mexico City childhood allowed him to open his corazón to the Spanish-speaking world, and they to him. I had hoped to remind you to remember to forget U2’s lame-o uno, dos, tres, catorce countdown to “Vertigo”, but who am I to talk when all I can offer are my own gabacha sign-offs, ay, caramba y que lástima. Yo no soy una roquera, lo siento. Pero, in the hands of the Mars Volta, Ozomatli, Zack de la Rocha, La Santa Cecilia, Cambio, y todos los músicos, there is mas y mas y mas y mas musica: Rest assured, La Raza rocks on. Wishing all a safe and sane Cinco de Mayo.
The research compiled in this column was originally published some years ago in my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.