There is a kind of sound that delivers you back to a place and time that you loved — or that you imagine you would have loved if given the opportunity. Ersi Arvizu’s new Friend for Life is just such an experience.
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Arvizu, belting and crooning back in the day
When I say this album takes me back, I’m talking about a sound that we haven’t heard for a long, long time, because they just haven’t been making it, that peculiarly Los Angeles hybrid of rock, soul, funk, jazz and Afro-Cuban flavors that one band in particular, El Chicano, specialized in and briefly found favor with on the national charts in the early ’70s, and most especially on their home turf of East L.A.
For a time, the band featured a young woman named Ersi Arvizu on lead vocals. Arvizu possesses a set of pipes that emit this sandpapery, deep, melodious richness, a voice of the warmest but grittiest passion, inspired by the great bolero singers of Mexico but emanating from a special place inside a special person.
Arvizu’s Ry Cooder–produced Friend for Life represents her re-emergence after many years out of the limelight, a time she spent surviving — working for FedEx to pay the bills, but, more interestingly, also as a boxing trainer and, for a time, a singing prizefighter. (The latter two were not simultaneous, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
Arvizu’s return and her new album’s genesis all started when Cooder was scouting female singers to balance out the recording of his acclaimed 2005 Chavez Ravine album, and found her. In fact, though, the story starts back in the early ’60s, when the teenage Arvizu had a singing group with her siblings called the Sisters.
“I was about halfway through the Chavez Ravine album,” says Cooder, “and I had gotten Lalo Guerrero down, I had Don Tosti, I had Willie G and I had about five, six tunes, so it occurred to me that it was important to try to find some kind of female voice; it would just be a good thing. But in the repertoire of the East L.A. scene, there just hadn’t been very many — or that I was aware of.” While consulting Barrio Rhythm, an encyclopedia of East L.A. music, he saw a photo of the Sisters. “Here was this picture of a trio with three teenage girls, sisters, with their beehive hairdos and all this, and I said, ‘Look at those faces!’ ”
Cooder asked his Eastside pal Gene Aguilera to help find Arvizu. He wanted to see if she still sang like she did back in the day. It took only two songs. “It sounded exactly the same as the record,” he says. “So I thought, well, this is too good to be true, because, you know, time does things to people in music. The problem I find is that in the intervening time, tastes change, and demands change, and people change in order to try to accommodate those changes. That’s the worst thing of all — styles or originality or individuality, it’s stamped out half the time. Anyway, here was Ersi singing, and it didn’t sound any different, and moreover, she sounded fantastic.”
Arvizu had grown up in a musical family in East L.A. She and her two sisters and younger brother were bilingual as children; their mother was from Sonora, Mexico, while her father was from Tucson, Arizona. He trained boxers in a gym in the family’s backyard, with the assistance of eager young Ersi. With the encouragement of their mother, Arvizu and her sisters formed a singing group that performed at high school dances.
“My sisters and I used to sing the doo-wop stuff,” she says. “And there was a gentlemen by the name of Billy Cardenas who heard us, and he took us to Bob Keane [of Del-Fi Records]. Bob signed us, and we had a No. 3 record in ’65 called ‘Gee Baby Gee,’ until the Supremes came and knocked us down.”
The Sisters performed all over Los Angeles, opening up for the touring pop stars of the day, including Tina Turner, Sonny and Cher, the Righteous Brothers and Stevie Wonder. “We would sing at the big union hall in Vernon, or we would go to El Monte Legion Stadium, and then we would play local dances, like the Mardi Gras in L.A.”
Arvizu’s parents played a significant part in forming her musical sensibilities; her mother was a songwriter of sorts, though her father didn’t like that much: He was jealous, and thought Arvizu’s mother’s evenings spent songwriting downstairs a little suspicious. So she played the guitar and sang while she was making dinner, and would call the children in one by one and rehearse with them.