By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Vintage photos courtesy ofRampart Records
Mention Mexican-Americans and music, and most people conjure up stereotypical images of a sombrero-wearing mariachi singing rancheras or maybe accordion-laden corridos. They don’t think of the sounds of Ludwig drums, Farfisa and vox organs, Fender bass and guitars. In other words, not rock & roll. But Mexican-Americans have historically rocked out with the best of them. There were Sunny and the Sunglows, the Sir Douglas Quintet, Trini Lopez — who was so popular in 1964 that Gibson designed two different custom guitars for him. Would you be surprised to find out that Sam of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (“Wooly Bully”) was a Mexican-American named Domingo Samudio, or that the members of ? and the Mysterians of “96 Tears” fame were also Mexican-American? Chris Montez, who went to Hawthorne High School with the Beach Boys, had the 1962 dance hit “Let’s Dance” (later featured in the film Animal House). In 1963, he toured England and had this band called the Beatles open for him. Despite the prominent role played by Mexican-Americans in pioneering rock & roll, there are officially only two of them in the Hall of Fame: Jalisco-born and Tijuana-raised Carlos Santana was inducted with his band in 1998, and San Fernando Valley–born and –raised Ritchie “La Bamba” Valens (née Valenzuela) was inducted in 2001. Many of these Chicano rockers came out of Texas, but a great number flourished here too, specifically in the barrios of East Los Angeles. When Ritchie Valens was busy becoming the first Mexican-American rock & roll star by the age of 17, Del-Fi Records owner and legendary record producer Bob Keane allowed another 17-year-old Mexican-American teen, Billy Cardenas from East Los Angeles, to sit in on the sessions. Cardenas, by his own admission, was just a “street kid,” but observing Keane’s work with Valens inspired him to go on and develop, record and promote Mexican-Americans from Los Angeles.Cardenas would eventually hook up with restaurateur-turned-record-producer Eddie Davis, who was once quoted as saying, “If anybody thinks I got rich over my East Los Angeles music, they’re wrong. I cooked a lot of hamburgers to make those records.” Together they developed a deep Eastside rock & roll roster, including bands like the Romancers, the Premiers, the Blendells, and Cannibal & the Headhunters — the vocal group from the East L.A. projects who took New Orleans R&B singer Chris Kenner’s version of “Land of 1000 Dances” and ad-libbed the immortal “naa na na na naa” line, creating one of the most famous and most recorded phrases in rock & roll history. They also took Cannibal & the Headhunters to American Bandstand and then booked them to open for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965. The names of these bands might not be familiar to the average music fan, but that’s the point. Like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, these groups are integral to the history of American rock.
The Jaguars, featuring the Salas Brothers, were the first Eastside band to record for Rampart founder Eddie Davis, a restaurateur with a vision: “I was very naive, and I never knew anything about prejudice.”
On a sunny July Fourth weekend this past summer, I was invited by Billy Cardenas to his 67th-birthday celebration at the American Legion Hall in Pico Rivera (Cardenas is a Vietnam vet). When I got to the party, the first thing I heard was the blaring sound of rock & roll. Cardenas wore cool black shades and was drinking Budweiser long necks. He introduced me to family and friends, and dudes with big ol’ brochas — the Viking-style mustaches some veteranos wear. A live band that included Richard Provencio of the Romancers and members of the Heartbreakers, another Eastside band, played, and Cardenas began breaking down musicians and bands, most of whom I had never heard of. Talking to Cardenas was like unearthing a piece of history.Just as the story of the beginnings of the L.A. punk scene, with bands like the Germs, has been told and retold, and just as the origins of L.A. gangsta rap, with N.W.A, have been well-documented, Mexican-Americans from East Los Angeles have their own stories to tell. Many of these stories would have remained untold if not for Emmy-winning television sound engineer Hector Gonzalez. Gonzalez (more on him later) has compiled a wealth of history from interviews he conducted with Davis and others, and from the legacy Davis left to him when he died of cancer in 1994, including the Rampart Records label, master recordings from the era, press clippings, memorabilia — in essence, the Rosetta stone of the West Coast Eastside sound.From those sources, and from recent interviews with Cardenas and surviving musicians and personalities from the era’s heyday, comes this look at some of the men who helped create the West Coast Eastside sound, and changed American rock & roll in the process.
Billy Cardenas Billy Cardenas was born in 1938 in a house near Gleason and Dacotah streets in Boyle Heights. While in kindergarten, he met Bobby Ray, a friend who would become a successful musician with a hit record in the ’50s as a member of the Mask Phantoms. Ray lived around the corner, on Dacotah and First streets, and he introduced Cardenas to music.“I was poor, and Bobby’s father was financially better off than a lot of us in the neighborhood, so he bought his son all the instruments and schooled him in music. I listened to Bobby and another black family, who lived next to us. In that time blacks and Mexicans were mixed together, and that is how I got the music going,” says Cardenas, who would back up Ray at wedding dances by playing instruments like the cowbell.Growing up on the streets of Boyle Heights, Cardenas started boxing “for survival” when he was just 8 years old. During his high school years, he met one of the greatest Mexican-American fighters of all time, Enrique Bolaños, who was managed by the legendary George Parnassus. Cardenas would later use his fighting skills to become the Army’s 1957 Junior Golden Gloves champion in Hollywood and win the national 1959 Golden Gloves championship in Chicago.It was just before Cardenas joined the Army that he met Del-Fi Records owner and producer Bob Keane and got invited to the Ritchie Valens session. “I guess because Ritchie was Mexican and I was Mexican. [Bob] would say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this rhythm, does it sound traditional?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, that’s what my grandmother used to play on her Rocola,’ ” he says. At that session Cardenas remembers Valens singing early versions of songs like “Bluebirds Over the Mountain.” Cardenas was inspired by the music, but he would not be around to enjoy Ritchie’s success.In 1960, Cardenas went to Vietnam as part of the 101st Airborne Division, in which he was an expert in firearms and took part in many covert actions. “I was in places I shouldn’t have been,” he says. “Get caught, and you don’t belong to the U.S.”