The roots of Chicano rock are found in the music of Don Tosti and Lalo Guerrero (”The Father of Chicano Music”) Tosti’s “Pachuco Boogie,” recorded in 1949 was the first Chicano million-selling record, a swing tune featuring a Spanish rap, using hipster slang called “Calo.” Guerrero also adapted swing and “jump” styles to Spanish language recordings — all this as rhythm and blues was beginning to emerge as a forerunner to rock ‘n’ roll.
In places such as Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, and Dallas and Houston, Texas, the African-American audience was very important to aspiring Latino musicians, and this kept their music wedded to authentic R&B. Undoubtedly, many listeners in the 1960s heard Sunny and the Sunglows “Talk to Me”, The Blendells or Thee Midniters‘ and more famously, Cannibal and the Headhunters‘ “Land of a Thousand Dances” and assumed that the groups were black.
In the 60s there was an explosion of Chicano rock bands in East Los Angeles. One of the first to have a local hit, and even appear on Dick Clark, was The Premiers, with a cover of a Don and Dewey song called “Farmer John.” It featured the beat from the popular hit, “Louie, Louie,” which was in turn based on a Latino song, “Loco Cha Cha.”
In the early to mid 1960s, the American audience was probably more open to Latin sounds than even today; because of the popularity of bossa nova, bugalú, mambo, and other forms. Also musicians who didn’t conform to the rather limited range of early rock could find success as folk performers. Trini Lopez, whose music was a mixture of folk, lounge pop, and R&B, was able to prosper before the Beatles came to America and Bob Dylan went electric. Trini mainly worked and recorded in a live setting (with a lot of audience participation), and soon the Beatles and The Beach Boys made studio recording effects dominant in rock, unfortunately making Trini’s loose, breezy live-in-club style seem old fashioned all too soon. The British Invasion challenged all American musicians, not just Chicanos. The Sir Douglas Quintet is said to have made the most ‘English’ sounding American music of the Beatlemania period (actually since the English were playing music that was more rooted in R&B than many white Americans of that time, the Quintet were actually sounding ‘English’ by keeping to an all-American R&B/Country sound). Indeed, producer Huey P. Meaux put the Sir in the group’s name to emphasize the connection, but that was more a marketing change than a musical one.
While none of these groups challenged the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for more than a brief time, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, Question Mark and the Mysterians, and Thee Midniters made music that was more like that of the British groups than many other American bands, like The Lovin’ Spoonful or The Beach Boys. Part of this was their love of pure R&B, and perhaps, in spite of being just as American as anyone else, these bands were treated as “outsiders” to some degree and their music reflects this unconventional point of view. Also, many of these groups produced music on a very low budget, often working on small labels, or even self-producing music; giving some of their work a rougher feel.
To listen to more Chicano music please check out Steven Chavez' show on the EastLARevue. Also, dont miss Mark Guerrero’s fantastic site for many more Chicano articles, photos, flyers and a whole lot more!