Lalo Guerrero, 1916-2005 

Thursday, Mar 24 2005
One of the most prolific and beloved artists in California’s music history, singer-songwriter Edward “Lalo” Guerrero, died peacefully last week at a convalescent home in Rancho Mirage, not far from his Cathedral City house. Guerrero laid much of the groundwork for Mexican-American music with his 1940s trio, Los Carlistas, blending popular music from both sides of the border. He was the first to perfect the Chicano rhythm & blues style exemplified by “Chicas Patas Boogie” (a Spanglish version of Louis Prima’s “Oh Babe!”) and “Vamos A Bailar.” By the late ’40s, he’d moved from Arizona to Los Angeles; a fixture on the downtown club circuit, Lalo Guerrero y Sus Cinco Lobos were a full-serve club band, playing bilingual pop, R&B and Latin music. More than just a vocalist, Guerrero was a total soniero, a party-starting front man. In the mid-’50s, Guerrero started recording song parodies, usually marrying white popular songs to comedic lyrics about Chicano life, including the hugely popular “Pancho Lopez,” which lampooned “Davy Crockett.” In the ’60s, Guerrero opened his own East L.A. club, Lalo’s, and created the successful Los Ardillitas (the Squirrels, a Spanish-language version of the Chipmunks). But he also had a serious side: His support for Cesar Chavez led to performing at many farm-worker rallies and writing political material such as “Corrido de Delano.” In 1975, Guerrero took a gig at a Palm Springs restaurant that ended up lasting 24 years; he performed and recorded well into the last year of his life. The Grammy-nominated children’s album Papa’s Dream with Los Lobos arrived in 1995; his last recordings will appear on Ry Cooder’s upcoming Chavez Ravine. He was awarded the Medal of Arts by President Clinton in 1997. And his memoir, Lalo: My Life And Music (written with Sherilyn Meece Mentes) was published in 2002. For most of the last two decades, he claimed to be “retired.” Retirement did not sit well with Lalo Guerrero. Lalo was a friend of mine. In early 2000, I had the idea of having him perform his 1951 set. Lalo said the old sheet music was “long gone,” but I locked myself in a room for two weeks, transcribing from scratchy old 78-rpm records. When we hit the stage, I saw that soniero reflex go into action. Lalo looked over the room and sized up how much English to speak, how much Spanish, how many were younger and older. And he delivered the right combination every time we played. It was show-biz muscle memory, the kind you get only after 60 years.

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