A Browner Shade of Black
Blazing trails of Chicano soul
At 12:06am, Jimmy Kimmel Live! explodes onto the air of local ABC affiliate KVUE. Punching the theme for the late-night talk show are the twin saxophones of father-and-son duo Cleto Escobedo Jr. and bandleader Cleto Escobedo III. Most biographies note that Cleto Escobedo Jr. lives in L.A. and played with Los Blues in Las Vegas. That's half the story.
Cleto Escobedo Jr. is a native player/charter member of San Antonio's elite Westside players, along with Frank Rodarte, the late Rocky Morales, and many others. Their sweet blend of reeds and brass, drawn from traditional Mexican genres and tempered with a love of rock & roll, blues, and jazz, gave a distinctive sound to the San Antonio bands of the early 1960s.
These were largely teenage players from the various Westside and Southside high schools with group monikers like the Royal Jesters, the Lyrics, the Dell-Kings, and the Sunglows. In their quest, they created a unique blend of music echoed in Dallas and South Texas, East Los Angeles, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and as far north as Saginaw, Mich.
What started in the barrios and Latino neighborhoods as an imitation of combo-based R&B acts and soul show bands was immediately supplanted by the real thing. In L.A., Ritchie Valens' career ended in tragedy, but Danny Flores (aka Chuck Rio) had a hit with his Champs' "Tequila," and Sunny & the Sunglows charted in 1963 with "Talk to Me." By the mid-1960s, garage rock hits like "96 Tears" by ? & the Mysterians, "Woolly Bully" by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, "She's About a Mover" by the Sir Douglas Quintet, and "Land of 1000 Dances" by Cannibal & the Headhunters shaped national radio. In San Antonio, the Royal Jesters and Rudy T. & the Reno Bops kept the beat, as did Rene & Rene, who had regional success with the bilingual "Lo Mucho Que Te Quiero."
Dubbed Chicano soul, it became the most potent music mix to draw from black, white, and brown cultures. It also turned into the largest puzzle piece missing from history books about rock & roll. And it's 100% American, asserts Ruben Molina, author of the recently published Chicano Soul: Recordings & History of an American Culture, like a Southwest American Graffiti in glowing shades of bronze, copper, and gold. As with most hybrid music, it sought its own level, hunkered down, and blended in so thoroughly that it's in your face nightly, and you don't know it.
Corazón and Chicano Soul
Chicano Soul by Ruben Molina, a Los Angeles record collector and author of 2002's The Old Barrio Guide to Low Rider Music 1950-1975, is nada if not revelatory. It's 160 pages of lovingly researched text and glossy color and black-and-white photos rarely seen outside collections, but its politics are what counts: Molina seeks acknowledgment of this under-the-radar genre. With this book, he'll get it.
By linking the trail of Chicano soul bands to the route of the Mexican-American migrant workers across the United States as well as the migration of south-of-the-border families into Texas after the Mexican Revolution, the author presents a compelling account of rock & roll heroes literally unsung. Molina makes a case for teenagers who took their parents' musical traditions, the trappings of black R&B bands with pop sensibilities, and channeled them into a vibrant sound that helped define the culture it sprang from. And in going back to the music's roots, he presents it to a generation ready to wear that solid-gold crown once again.
Molina begins making his case by choosing the word "Chicano," a politically and culturally loaded term from the 1970s that sounds dated today. Yet in Molina's hands, the word gleams anew, taking its place alongside the other descriptors of Latino subcultures: pachuco, cholo, vato. Some of this encapsulates physical style – clothing and hairstyles, the lowriders – but mostly it's pride in the face of prejudice.
"There was a time when 'Chicano' was a term not well taken, even among the Mexican community," contends Molina. "People wanted to be American or they wanted to be Mexican. In the Sixties, it became, 'Hey, we're in the middle! We're either/or. We can't go to Mexico and be Mexicans, because we can't speak Spanish like they do.'
"Chicano says, 'This is who we are.'
"In Texas, the term encompassed everything, the political scene, your life. In California, it was political, but more of a statement. So, when you talk to people in Texas and they talk about Chicano music, they're mostly talking about Spanish [music]. In California when you're talking about Chicano music, you're talking about Carlos Santana, the San Francisco hippie thing. You're rarely talking about it as Spanish-language music, whereas in Texas, the Chicano scene is Tex-Mex."
Ah, Tex-Mex! That's a more familiar description, one that evokes Doug Sahm, the Texas Tornados, and San Antonio's Randy Garibay & Cats Don't Sleep. Molina speaks as a Southern Californian with a clear view of the Lone Star State since he found the primary centers of Chicano soul in East L.A. and San Antonio. The distinctions are clear, however.
"I consider [San Antonio's] 'Westside Sound' to be much more soulful than in Los Angeles," he admits. "The Southern influence was greater, and it seemed easier for kids to be able to get into the clubs and bars that were part of the Chitlin Circuit."
Pairing the word "Chicano" with soul, he explains, is "to separate it, give it its own identity. Is it Spanish, or is it English? I wanted to take people back to how the music developed. I think the first time Chicano was used in a song was in 1948 with Don Tosti, sung in English and caló – not real Spanish but pachuco talk, spoken in San Antonio, El Paso, and Los Angeles. It's real cool rhythm & blues-based music with caló lyrics."
"Ruben Molina went to such care to put this together – the record labels, the album covers, the posters," points out Rose Reyes, director of music and marketing for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. "He's a hero to our culture as a scholar and a historian. It's so important he brought it back. Let's honor the bands that are still around."
There's little to quibble with in the book besides spelling errors, because Molina waded into waters so uncharted that almost every point he makes is merely a jumping-off point for further discussion. He missteps in a few places, yet he reins in his subject tightly and keeps the writing on track. The lack of an index for such a crucial history book hurts, but that's somewhat forgivable given the impressive discography.
The golden age of Chicano soul ran from about 1958 to 1973, a glorious example of independent consciousness within an ethnic subculture. Its beginnings in East L.A. are traced in the 1940s to recordings by Lalo Guerrero, who crossbred boogie-woogie and swing jazz with rancheras sung in caló, and Don Tosti & the Pachuco Boogie Boys, whose "Pachuco Boogie" was a million-seller in 1948.
By 1956, acts such as the Jaguars and Li'l Julian were pulling together the East L.A. sound; Terri & the Velveteens, the Perez Brothers, and Rosie & the Originals followed. The Champs chased "Tequila" all the way to No. 1 in 1958, and by the end of the year, Ritchie Valens had both "Donna" and "La Bamba" in the can. His death on Feb. 3, 1959, left a void in the youthful scene, but it also birthed a growing audience that wanted more of this vibrant music in the following decade.
San Antonio's equivalent scene in the mid-1950s shifted into gear when Johnnie Phillips opened the Eastwood Country Club, which immediately parked itself as a hot spot on the Chitlin Circuit. Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Ike & Tina Turner all played there, as did locals Spot Barnett, Fats Martin, Curly Mays, and Shake Snyder plus favorites like Clifford Scott, who'd played on Bill Doggett's anthemic "Honky Tonk."
The way Austinite and Texas Tornado drummer Ernie Durawa recollects, "All of us Chicanos from the Westside spent our time on the Eastside, because it was the black part of town, and everyone wanted to be in Spot Barnett's band. He was the king of the Eastside, one of our mentors. That's where the groove was, the soul, and that's what we wanted.
"[Later], Doug and I were sidemen in Spot's band, but the rest were black. We played the all-black Ebony Club, and there was a disc jockey named Joe Anthony, a white guy who'd spin records, then we'd play. In San Antonio, they didn't care what color you were as long as you could play 'Honky Tonk.'"
Cleto Escobedo Jr. also idolized "Honky Tonk" sax soloist Clifford Scott.
"I used to sneak into the Eastwood Country Club," he recalls today. "We'd go see Bill Doggett and Clifford, who was my hero. In our dressing room on Jimmy Kimmel, I have his picture there. That's how much I loved him. He had that Texas sound everyone talks about."
That "Texas sound" is the blues-based "Southern sound" Molina refers to. East L.A. certainly had its share of black influence and some of it by way of the Lone Star State. Chicanos arriving in Southern California from Texas were delighted to hear the likes of Johnny Ace, T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson perform at the 54 Ballroom, the Barrelhouse, and the Angelus Ballroom. Spread between the two nexuses, R&B thus became part of the Chicano identification, Molina contends. A browner shade of black, if you will.
Little Roger Gonzalez's experience as vocalist for S.A.'s Rhythm Kings gave him a visceral view about melding cultures in Chicano Soul: "When you walk into an all-black club with eight black musicians and you're the only Chicano, then someone asks, 'Where's the singer?' and the band points at you, you better be able to sell that music."
Eastside vs. Westside
As with so many musical genres, the 1960s were Chicano soul's golden age. If San Antonio's acts were more heavily influenced by regional R&B, East L.A.'s bands took on a twangy sound that reflected the rise of surf music in Southern California. Out there, it wasn't unusual to find bands such as the Riptides sharing the stage with Los Dinos, much like Ernie Durawa sought out Spot Barnett in San Antonio.
The vocal harmonies of doo-wop groups of the day had pronounced influence on San Antonio's burgeoning Chicano soul acts toward the end of the 1950s. Local vocal groups such the integrated Lyrics, with Dimas Garza and Carl Henderson, led the way as did the Royal Jesters and full bands like Sunny & the Sunglows, Sonny Ace & the Twisters, Rudy Tee & the Reno Bops, and Little Joe & the Harlems. Their very names evoke the R&B bands. The step from trios romanticos to doo-wop groups requires no effort.
The Lyrics' 1959 single "The Girl I Love" achieved regional success and became one of the city's favorites just as a velvet voice from the Valley named Baldemar Huerta was also developing a following. He wasn't yet known as Freddy Fender, but he sold more than a quarter-million copies of his single "Holy One," aka "Only One."
"Talk to Me," meanwhile, could well be the theme song of Texas Chicano soul. San Antonio's pride of Burbank High School, Sunny & the Sunglows was the first group from the city to break nationally, charting at No. 11 in 1963 with Little Willie John's "Talk to Me." Their television appearance on American Bandstand gave the country its first look at an all-Mexican-American band. The swaying beat made for clutching couples is punctuated by a sweetheart's affirmation sung in the key of love. "Talk to me, in your own gentle way, I love you so," croons Sunny Ozuna over a mournful brass section. What heart could resist such deep sincerity?
The British Invasion of 1964 changed the course of Chicano soul's sound and ap-pearance. Acts adapted to the new mod look by ditching the matching tuxedos and hair grease, opting for shaggier heads à la the Beatles, and eschewing the traditional look. The new fashions accompanied the most successful recordings yet, with five major rock radio hits of the 1960s made by Chicano and Chicano-influenced bands.
From East L.A. came Cannibal & the Headhunters' 1965 take on New Orleans favorite "Land of 1000 Dances." The song climbed into the Top 40 and landed them a tour with the Beatles. Then came the sound that connected young Chicano rock bands with their musical ancestors: the Vox organ. The instrument defined "Woolly Bully" by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs (formerly Omar Lopez & the Pharaohs), as well as the Sir Douglas Quintet's "She's About a Mover" and "The Rains Came." In 1966, "96 Tears" by ? & the Mysterians raced up the charts, another score for Texans relocated to Saginaw, Mich.
The organ was crucial according to Molina.
"It created a whole different sound you can hear with the Sunglows and on '96 Tears,' using that accordion opening on the organ," asserts the author. "When Manny Guerra started the Sunglows, he'd been performing with ranchera-type groups where the accordion was the main instrument, but he wanted to make music for the kids. Accordion was too 'country.' To give the music more sophistication, they used the organ in place of the accordion but kept the droning sound."
The organ-as-accordion sound helped define the San Antonio sound, but the use of two saxophones also emerged as the city's musical hallmark, especially in the outfit known as the Westside Horns. "They started using twin saxes in place of the accordion, but the horn sections were a little different," explains Molina. "In L.A., they really didn't use piano very much. They had guitars. In L.A., the guitar work had a lot to do with the surf scene. A lot of the young Chicano artists there came from surf groups and started out playing 'Wipeout.' You'd get more Fender guitar sound and the horns were more jazz-oriented."
R&B underwent its own changes in the 1960s. Black groups from Memphis; Muscle Shoals, Ala.; New Orleans; Detroit; and Chicago that once inspired early Chicano soul adapted to the new look with their own variations on a theme. Afros came into vogue, and fashions changed, as did a growing sense of ethnic pride in the music. That same awareness emerged strongly in the Mexican-American culture, fueled by political fights over Mexican farmworkers and the language barrier.
Not all these attempts to mesh sounds were successful. Sometimes the English was phonetic and awkwardly sung, the suits ill-fitting, and the harmonies more well-meaning than pleasing. Look at a 1966 photo of the Sir Douglas Quintet, where they're molded into the British band look complete with uncooperative hair being forced into bowl cuts. And yet, the pure beauty of the voices and the sincerity of the music outweighed its faults, and this quirky hybrid continued to shape national and local radio.
In San Antonio, the Eptones, Little Jr. Jesse & the Teardrops, Charlie & the Jives, and Little Henry & the Laveers kept the beat, as Sunny, now with the Sunliners, boasted a soulful repertoire packed with covers like "Hold On, I'm Coming," sung with a dollop of spicy sax, and a version of "Just a Gigolo" Diamond Dave can't touch. The Dell-Kings left San Antonio in 1963 for Los Angeles and settled in Las Vegas in 1965 where they eventually morphed into Los Blues and held a record-breaking 280-week gig as house band at the Sahara that ended in the early 1970s.
In 1969, the reformed Sir Douglas Quintet sent "Mendocino" up the charts with Augie Meyer's Vox organ leading the way once again. A San Francisco band named for leader Carlos Santana that fused Latin percussion with psychedelic overtones and rock melodies released their first album on Columbia that year. The following year, L.A.'s El Chicano hit with a jazzy instrumental called "Viva Tirado." Musical assimilation, complete.
1973 and Everything After
So if the "menudo circuit" for Chicano soul bands was so widespread, why doesn't Austin have anything to show for the sound? It does.
The 1970s found local bands like Ruben Ramos & the Mexican Revolution (later the Tejano Revolution) taking a cue from Ruben's father, Alfonse, as well as Shorty & the Corvettes, La Mafia, Mandy & the COs, and Ben Marines' Salaman. Not only did those San Antonio bands travel through the capital, Little Joe & the Latinaires (later Little Joe y la Familia) from Temple connected the dots between Central Texas and Dallas.
Ruben Molina believes the general consensus is that Austin was a place to play on the circuit, rather than a scene like San Antonio. Rose Reyes agrees that "because San Antonio was so much the center of where the music was coming from, Austin was more of a stopping point." She also notes that the effect of Chicano soul took root in Austin.
"There are [later] bands like Conjunto Aztlan, who came out the anthropology program at UT," she says. "People were really proud to be Chicano, and it wasn't just political."
Vietnam had taken its toll on San Antonio's young Chicano males by 1973 (and on blacks and poor whites), and those who returned home did so to a different world changing every day. Chicano soul was alive and pumping in Texas, but rock had progressed well into the FM radio era with glam rock shaking a feather boa, while Doug Sahm was hauling Flaco Jimenez to his classic Atlantic sessions and applying country grooves with the Tex mix.
Soul music was becoming infused with dance beats in those pre-Hustle days, and in San Antonio, many young Chicanos found themselves dazzled by the rise of heavy metal. By the end of the 1970s, California punk rock musicians like Javier and Alejandro Escovedo were bringing the Zeros and the Nuns a dash of Chicano soul, while Los Lobos redefined roots-rock with a Chicano accent. In Texas, Joe "King" Carrasco revived the Tex-Mex Vox organ, first with the San Antonio-based El Molino, then with the Austin-based Crowns.
Many older purveyors of Chicano soul like Randy Garibay and Frank Rodarte returned from the road and settled back in San Antonio, where "Talk to Me" had never gone out of style. Freddy Fender scored big with "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" in the mid-1970s, though it would be two decades before he won Grammys with Sahm, Durawa, and Augie Meyers in the Texas Tornados.
Carlos Santana's 10-Grammy win for Supernatural in 1999 gets props for its soulful revival of the hybrid, and Ruben Molina hears modernized Chicano soul in Los Lonely Boys' harmonies. That R&B-influenced horn section is present in Austin's Del Castillo and Grupo Fantasma, while the Tex-Mex Experience is 100% Chicano-soul influenced, as to be expected of Doug Sahm's son Shawn, the bandleader.
Cleto Escobedo Jr.'s payoff wouldn't be evident during the 30 years his sax lay in mothballs after leaving Los Blues, and he worked his way up from busboy to head butler to the stars at Caesars Palace.
"Five years ago, my son called me and said that ABC wanted to give Jimmy Kimmel a TV show and that they wanted him in the band," the senior Escobedo relates.
"'Will you and Mom come support me at my audition?'
"'Sure,' I said. 'And bring your horn,' he told me."
"So I brought my horn, not knowing that the president of ABC was there with Jimmy Kimmel and they were auditioning me at the same time! My son called me up to play 'Pick Up the Pieces' and we did. As I was walking off, they said, 'Congratulations, we just hired your son as musical director, and Jimmy wants you to be in the band, too.'
"I get chills talking about it."
Not to mention being able to bring decades of Texas-style Chicano soul to the world every night of the week.
10 San Antonio Classic Chicano Soul Bands
1) Sunny & the Sunglows
2) The Royal Jesters
3) The Dell-Kings
4) Charlie & the Jives
5) Rudy Tee & the Reno Bops
6) Little Henry & the Laveers
7) Vic Love & the Lovells
8) The Lyrics
9) Li'l Jr. Jesse & the Teardrops
10) Spider & the Playboys
10 Great Chicano (and Chicano-Influenced) Radio Hits
1) Sir Douglas Quintet, "She's About a Mover"
2) Cannibal & the Headhunters, "Land of 1000 Dances"
3) The Blendells, "La La La La La"
4) Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, "Woolly Bully"
5) Sunny & the Sunglows, "Talk to Me"
6) ? & the Mysterians, "96 Tears"
7) Thee Midnighters, "Jump, Jive and Harmonize"
8) Rene & Rene, "Lo Mucho Que Te Quiero"
9) El Chicano, "Viva Tirado"
10) Freddy Fender, "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights"