How L.A. Mariachi Helped Make One of Blondie’s Biggest Hits
Collection of Josh Kun

How L.A. Mariachi Helped Make One of Blondie’s Biggest Hits

Blondie were a tried-and-true New York City band. They were formed in New York, lived in New York and made music about New York. Denizens of the city's fabled downtown punk and new wave scene throughout the 1970s, they ran with some of New York's finest artists — Warhol and the Velvet Underground and the Ramones — and were children of some of New York's finest clubs — CBGB and Max's Kansas City.

But in 1980, the West Coast called, and they relocated to Los Angeles for two months to record their fifth album, Autoamerican. They were stationed at the iconic United Western Recorders on Sunset Boulevard, the hit-making headquarters of L.A.-produced classics by Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, the place where The Beach Boys made Pet Sounds and The Mamas and the Papas cut "California Dreamin'." In a memo he wrote for the band's fan club newsletter during their City of Angels stay, Blondie guitarist and co-founder Chris Stein suggested that the new album wouldn't just be recorded in L.A. but might somehow be of L.A., that the city's history as a capital of sunshine and noir, good vibrations and bad vibrations, myth and anti-myth, might just rub off on the band's sound. He wrote:

"Los Angeles, the city of lost angels, and angles. Dreamland. And, of course, Hollywood. L.A.'s not really a tough town. It has a strange feeling of fragility. Earthquakes on the brain may be part of the reason why the surface always seems about to crack with delicate tension. The fires burn the hills. The Strip still throbs dull reds and pinks, and the lights of the Valley still look beautiful in the hot, dusty nights. ... Every day we get up, stagger into the blinding sun, drive past a huge Moon-mobile from some ancient sci-fi movie that lies rotting by the side of the road and into L.A. proper. The Strip. The sessions get under way."

Among the songs produced during those early September sessions was "The Tide Is High," originally written by Jamaican legend John Holt and recorded by his rock-steady trio The Paragons in 1966. Blondie's version replicates the original's classic Caribbean reggae strut — a sound that had vibrantly left its mark on the sound of new wave and punk scenes in New York and London — but then throws in a Latin American curve ball. They nudge it closer to nearby Mexico and Cuba: The melody is played by trumpets and violins in the style of modern Mexican mariachi and the percussion section surrounds a steel drum with congas and timbales typically found on rumbas and mambos. It wasn't just the city's sunshine mythology and seismic doom that had made their way into the new album. It was the city's position as a key geographic and cultural hub within greater Latin America, the city's history as a mecca of Mexican music and as a laboratory for experiments in Afro-Cuban dance music in East Los Angeles pasta restaurants, downtown ballrooms, Sunset Strip supper clubs and Hollywood soundstages. The city had indeed rubbed off.

For the mariachi melodies of "The Tide Is High," Blondie hired a crew of the city's top session musicians that included Pete Candoli, Bill Peterson and Dalton Smith on trumpets, and Sidney Sharp, Joe Lyle and Tibor Zelig on violins. Among them, they had dates with Elvis Presley, Elmer Bernstein, Frank Zappa, The Emotions and Stan Kenton on their résumés, but because of the city where they worked — because they were of L.A. — they could lay down a mariachi horn swoon like they had just arrived in Guadalajara from the Mexican countryside. Mariachi music, long a musical symbol of Mexican national culture, has been part of the L.A. soundscape since at least the 1930s, when early mariachi recordings beamed over on local Spanish-language radio, immigrant audiences could hear mariachi in imported Mexican movies like Santa and Allá en el Rancho Grande, and the city's own network of working mariachi musicians began to take shape.

How to do the Mambo: Just relax, that’s all, according to Tony Vincent and Winifred Wakefield, 1956.
How to do the Mambo: Just relax, that’s all, according to Tony Vincent and Winifred Wakefield, 1956.
Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The first major mariachi band to take the music modern and commercial, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, played Los Angeles in 1940, and by the end of that decade L.A. had Jeanette's, a pioneering mariachi restaurant that showcased some of Mexico's biggest acts. Mariachis became as common a sight at birthday parties and tourist destinations like Olvera Street as they did on some of L.A.'s biggest stages: the Million Dollar Theater, the Hollywood Bowl and the Los Angeles Sports Arena. While L.A. has been home to multiple variations of mariachi style, it's where the idea of mariachi spectacle, a "show mariachi" or "restaurant mariachi," took off. Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano became the featured nightly attraction at La Fonda restaurant in 1967, and soon the idea of a mariachi-themed evening of drinks, dinner and dances was an L.A. staple. Universities, colleges and high schools across Los Angeles have had their own mariachi ensembles since the 1960s (most famously, Uclatlán of UCLA), the same period when the city's Roman Catholic churches began slipping mariachi into mass.

L.A. was also the first city where formally "Americanizing" mariachi seemed like a good idea. In 1960, the small Beverly Hills record label CG issued Mariachi Americana, a collection of "great mariachi favorites sung in English." Local radio personalities Rita and Antonio De Marco handled the English, and the esteemed Mariachi Chapala, who had already relocated to Los Angeles from Jalisco and become the house band at Club Granada downtown, handled the harps, horns, vihuela and guitarrón.

So the stage was well set for a non-Mexican Angeleno like Herb Alpert to launch A&M Records with his Tijuana Brass version of mariachi pop, which would become one of the best-selling and most ubiquitous sounds of the 1960s. Or for Sunset Strip psych-rockers Love in 1976 to slip mariachi horns onto "Alone Again Or" or for Jackson Browne to cut "Linda Paloma" with a traditional mariachi lineup of harp, violin, vihuela and guitarrón. The harp came courtesy of L.A. mariachi Arthur Gerst, who once played with Mariachi Sol de Mexico and also added mariachi touches to songs by Warren Zevon, Lowell George and Harry Nilsson. You can hear him on the latter two's recordings of "Cheek to Cheek," penned by George with Van Dyke Parks and Martin Kibbee, about a gringo in Mexico who "came all the way from Marina del Rey/on a plane yesterday/From the gray L.A. air," and falls in love with a Mexican woman on Rosarito Beach. Putting mariachi front and center in a new wave reggae cover as Blondie did might have seemed new, but by 1980 it was already an established L.A. tradition.

As was adding Afro-Cuban percussion where you might not expect it. On "The Tide Is High" it came courtesy of the only Latin American musician on the session, Alex Acuña. Born in Peru, Acuña first came to L.A. in the 1960s on tour with Cuban mambo architect Pérez Prado and recorded on his Hollywood-tinged Lights! Action! Prado!, a Cuban dance floor makeover of popular film scores. By the time he hooked up with Blondie, Acuña had already introduced Peruvian rhythms into the jazz fusions of Weather Report's Heavy Weather (recorded in North Hollywood). Joni Mitchell, who frequently came down from the foothills of Laurel Canyon to let loose on the 1970s salsa dance floor at Club Virginia's, invited Acuña to lace her Don Juan's Reckless Daughter with thickets of Latin American percussion (listen for him on the rhythm quest of "The Tenth World" and the tourist fantasy of "Dreamland"). He joined L.A.-based musicians from Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil and Cuba to launch the pan-American jazz fusion band Caldera, and sprayed timbales into the barrio disco-funk of Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin on the soundtrack to Boulevard Nights — Hollywood's first lowrider homage to East L.A. street life.

How L.A. Mariachi Helped Make One of Blondie’s Biggest Hits
Collection of Josh Kun

After Blondie, Acuña would continue to be one of L.A.'s most in-demand session hires and one of the key links in the city's Latin American musical chain. He was part of a community of Latin American immigrant session players who since the 1960s have been the invisible rhythm and horn section worker bees behind hundreds of the most commercial and influential recordings in rock, R&B and jazz. When nightclub dance floors lit up at the opening bass line of Herb Alpert's 1979 hit "Rise" (and when a generation later their kids lit up when it was sampled on Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize"), they were nodding their heads to Mexican bass player Abraham Laboriel Sr. When Roy Ayers' Ubiquity and The Commodores needed a saxophone to punctuate their vibrational L.A. funk, they turned to Justo Almario, the Colombian saxophonist who learned to play listening to his home country's heroes Pacho Galán and Lucho Bermúdez.

Once the Autoamerican recordings were done, Blondie went back to New York. For the photograph on the album's cover, they posed on a Manhattan rooftop, the Empire State Building looming behind them. Latin American Los Angeles wouldn't get the credit but it was there in the skyline's shadows, in the grooves, a secret West Coast ingredient that forever changed an iconic East Coast sound.

The cultural and national alchemy that went down in "The Tide Is High" session is but one example of just how intertwined the music of Los Angeles and the music of Latin America have been since the very birth of the city in the 18th century. As Sidney Robertson Cowell reminded back in the 1930s, there was in fact no Anglo-Saxon music in Los Angeles until the mid–19th century; before then, "Americans were numerically few and transient." The original music of Los Angeles belonged to Gabrielino Indians, Mexican vaqueros and Spanish friars and mission bands long before it began sounding like anything else. "Twenty years after the discovery of gold," Carey McWilliams wrote, "Los Angeles was still a small Mexican town."

For all of the demographic and cultural shifts that were to come over the next century, to make music in Los Angeles — whether it be surf rock, bebop, gangsta rap or cosmic canyon folk — has always borne an echo of that small Mexican town and has always meant, to some degree, engaging with the sonic traditions and experiments of Latin American music and the musical histories of immigrant Latin American musicians. This is both by virtue of its location and history (Mayor Eric Garcetti likes to call L.A. "the northernmost city of Latin America") and by virtue of its multi-immigrant populations (a city that has always been a key hub for immigrants from across Latin America).

There is no music of Los Angeles without mariachi and banda and son jarocho, without bossa nova and samba, without mambo and cha cha cha and salsa, without Latin jazz helping West Coast jazz find its sound, without R&B and rock tuning "south of the border" or "South American Way." Or to musicalize the question from artist Rubén Ortiz-Torres, how could we listen to L.A. (Los Angeles) without the music of L.A. (Latin America)? How could we listen to Latin America without the music of Los Angeles? The city's distinctive musical urbanism is unthinkable without Latin American migrant sounds and migrant musicians. "Boom in Latin rhythms bigger than ever in L.A.," jazz magazine Down Beat declared in 1954, but truth is the boom was always booming, the tide was always high.

Radio host Eddie Rodriguez, at microphone, and Lionel "Chico" Sesma onstage at the Hollywood Palladium during a Latino holiday celebration, circa 1946.
Radio host Eddie Rodriguez, at microphone, and Lionel "Chico" Sesma onstage at the Hollywood Palladium during a Latino holiday celebration, circa 1946.
Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Los Angeles, we might say, has a Latin American cadence. Inspired by Ralph Ellison's now-famous aside in Time magazine that America is "jazz-shaped," Robert G. O'Meally has convincingly written that there is a "jazz cadence" embedded within the experiences of 20th-century American culture — a jazz "effect" or jazz "factor" that has informed speech, style, dance, poetry, film and politics to such a degree that jazz emerges as "the master trope of this American century: the definitive sound of America in our time." There is a wider argument to be made elsewhere that the musical styles of Latin America have similarly "shaped" American culture and politics in the 20th century — the mariachi cadence of American culture, the mambo cadence, the samba cadence — but within the history of Los Angeles, the Latin American cadence is hard to ignore: Among the city's most consistent beats, its most influential set of rhythms and melodies, are those that have arrived after traveling through a century or two of cultural contact and musical creativity in the Americas and across the African Diaspora.

Many scholars have asked the musical dust of Los Angeles — officially a Mexican city in 1821 — about its Mexican pasts and Mexican futures, providing detailed research on the influence of Mexico on the shaping of the city's earliest musical cultures, industries and communities. And with good reason: No other Latin American music culture and no other population — spanning a century of immigration waves over the California-Mexico border — has played such a foundational role in the history, culture and politics of the city. No wonder that of the few city statues in Los Angeles dedicated to musicians, three are from Mexico: revered composer and singer Agustín Lara and ranchera idols Lucha Reyes and Antonio Aguilar. While Lara's statue in the middle of Lincoln Park hearkens back to the 1930s and 1940s when he was beloved by Mexican and Mexican-American audiences in Los Angeles, the statues of Aguilar and Reyes — erected respectively in La Placita de Dolores at the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument and in Boyle Heights' Mariachi Plaza — are in direct dialogue with the contemporary moment. The working-class and immigrant-conscious genres that Reyes and Aguilar helped popularize in their songs and feature films — ranchera, banda, norteño — are among the most popular and most commercially successful in 21st-century Los Angeles among both immigrant communities and Latina/os born and raised here.

Beyond Mexican Los Angeles, though, the wider story of the musical interconnection between Latin America and Los Angeles has been less robustly told. That the city's rock, pop, jazz, funk and hip-hop cultures all can trace some roots to Latin America is an open secret among musicians and fans but one that has been little documented by scholars and journalists. Much of that other history lives in the liner-note essays of LPs, in band personnel credits and musicians' union session archives, in the oral histories and memoirs of label execs and musicians, and in the small print of Billboard magazine calendar blurbs, nightclub ads and micro concert reviews. What they collectively reveal is that so much of the music we have come to know as belonging to Los Angeles, as being of Los Angeles — be it Ritchie Valens workshopping "La Bamba" in a Silver Lake home studio (belonging to Del-Fi Records' Bob Keane) or Lalo Schifrin putting bongos at the foundation of the Mission: Impossible theme or even The Beach Boys wearing huarache sandals — has come over the waves and over the borders of the Americas.

How L.A. Mariachi Helped Make One of Blondie’s Biggest Hits
Collection of Josh Kun

A Taste of the Future

"I was looking for something that would turn my kids on." In 1972, L.A. City Schools teacher Arturo Preciado gave a presentation on bilingual teaching methods at a national conference on Chicano education at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. He was there to speak about A Taste of Education: Building Your Spanish Vocabulary Through Music, a cassette and LP released by C/P Records in L.A. that Preciado had just finished with pianist Eddie Cano. The solution to bilingual education was getting the kids to sing along with mambos and cha cha chas. "In one year I had cut my own record," Preciado told his fellow educators. "First thing, the beat turns them on. Listen, the sound, it's our beat, it's Chicano beat."

Students in classrooms across L.A. could now virtually be part of an Eddie Cano band, singing along with him as he named the parts of the body, counted to 10, ran through the alphabet and sang his way through pronunciation exercises. The Afro-Cuban rhythms featured on the album had become so ingrained in Mexican-American music culture — and so beloved and supported by the city's thriving Mexican-American population — that by the 1970s Preciado hears them as the "Chicano beat."

A Taste of Education — the title was a play on the hit that Cano had a decade earlier with Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass' "A Taste of Honey"— was the last album Cano would record on. His fluency in 1950s-era Cuban dance music and his deep connection to a vanished Hollywood supper-club scene had left him slightly out of step with the arrival of harder-edged Latin funk and salsa in the 1970s. "The salsa sound has been gaining in popularity," Billboard reported in the fall of 1973, even christening local singer Olga Menéndez "the Celia Cruz of Los Angeles." Just as East Coast mambo, rumba and cha cha cha found their way into the L.A. blender decades earlier, salsa found its way West to L.A. radio (KALI was an early salsa promoter) and to clubs like Virginia's, Candilejas, Chez Pico, the Mardi Gras and Rudy's Pasta House, with a new generation of bandleaders, musicians and singers ready for an L.A. relocation.

One act that topped many a salsa marquee was the orquesta of Cuban percussionist Orlando "Mazacote" López, who moved to L.A. in 1964. In the 1970s, he released two important local salsa albums on the Pico-Union–based Latin Records International, Shukandu! and 15th Aniversario de Mazacote & su Orquesta en el Hotel Airport Park, the latter recorded live at Hotel Airport Park in Inglewood (the album doubled as an ad for the hotel, listing its address and phone number under its full-bleed photograph on the front cover and including a spread of advertisements for nearby businesses in the gatefold). But the venue that would steer him into the mediatized memory of Los Angeles was the Million Dollar Theater in the heart of downtown. The Million Dollar was the city's great palace of Latin American, Spanish-language entertainment for much of the 20th century. Mazacote was a regular seat-filler there, especially after he opened legendary singer Celia Cruz's two-week run in 1965.

Mazacote also was the headliner for a series of shows in 1981, where he shared the bill with Los Mimilocos and a screening of the film Mamá Solita, a Mexican immigration tearjerker starring Pedrito Fernández and Pedro Armendáriz, about a young boy who leaves his mother in Mexico to cross the Rio Grande in search of his migrant father in the United States. We know this because the Million Dollar's marquee makes an appearance in Blade Runner, the now-classic ur-text of dystopian global L.A. sci-fi, which began principal photography that same year and used the Bradbury Building across the street from the Million Dollar as a primary set.

Set in 2019, the film's story of disillusioned ex-cops hunting down at-risk replicants who traveled to L.A. illegally, live in the shadows of a crowded, internationally financed simulacra skyline of 24/7 advertisements, and speak a mashed-up global Esperanto foreshadowed a Los Angeles to come, a Los Angeles that was already in the making.

There has been much critical hand-wringing about the enduring accuracy of Blade Runner's futurism. Yet one thing it most certainly got right is this: Latin American music in Los Angeles is past and future at once. The accidental cameo of Mazacote and the Million Dollar gave us Latin music as the time-compressed score to a time-compressed city, where history and prophecy move to migrant rhythms that have already happened, and have still yet to be heard.

Josh Kun is a 2016 MacArthur Fellow and a professor in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. For PST: LA/LA, he has curated a six-part series of public concerts and online playlists dedicated to the history of Latin American music in Los Angeles. The final concert, a tribute to Brazilian music in Los Angeles, featuring legendary pianist João Donato accompanied by Bixiga 70, is at Royce Hall on Dec. 2. This text is an excerpt from his introduction to the companion volume of essays, The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles (UC Press).

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