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Ersi Arvizu Throws a Hook (and Chorus)

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.

(Click to enlarge)

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.

After the Sisters, Arvizu sang with a Top 40 group called the Village Callers, then got offered money to go with a band called the V. I. P.s, which eventually became El Chicano. The group had minor success nationally with the jazzy instrumental “Viva Tirado,” but they remain iconic in East L.A. for Arvizu’s soulful singing on their lovely signature tune, “Sabor a Mi.”

As Arvizu was one of the very few Latinas, possibly the only one, fronting a rock band in 1970, her time spent in El Chicano was a rewarding but often pretty rough encounter. There was the group’s legendary performance at Leavenworth Penitentiary, for example, which she sings about in Friend’s “En el Cambo.” The inmates weren’t exactly cool about Arvizu’s presence.

“At Tehachapi,” she says, “backstage, they would lock me up in a cage. Because they were like animals. At that time, usually they would allow a woman to go only once a year. At Leavenworth, we were doing a concert in their baseball field, and it was scary, because I had 10 guards around me, and all the inmates are out, and they’re going to the field, and the guards would tell me, ‘You’re going to hear profanity, because they haven’t seen a woman in years. So just keep walking.’ ”

When El Chicano fizzled out, Arvizu eventually moved to Arizona and had a band with which she would sing in different nightclubs once in a while. But then she decided to jump into the boxing ring. She figured singing and boxing weren’t mutually exclusive disciplines.

“I had, like, four fights in Lake Tahoe,” she says, “and the first time I fought, I stopped the girl in the second round, and then after, I went to go eat, and then I went to the lounge to see the combo. Well, I got up to sing with the combo, and after that, they booked me for three fights, and then I got to sing in the lounge! The promoter told me, ‘I will pay you this much money to box and sing.’ I told him, ‘What if I get a black eye? What if they stop me? It’s not gonna look good.’ ”

Arvizu ended up being featured in the boxing mag The Ring, and while her father was at the barbershop, a customer said to him, “I thought your daughter was a professional singer.” Dad said, “She is.” “Well, what’s she doing in this Ring magazine?”

Arvizu laughs. “My mother called me, crying, saying it was a disgrace to our family, why are you doing this? So I just stopped — I had the four fights, and that was it. And, you know, I was okay with it, because to me, honestly, it’s not a woman’s sport. And I never did train women, never. They asked me to, but I refused to, because I don’t believe a woman should be in that ring. The reason I did it is, I needed to take it out of my system.”

Stories like these were what Cooder encouraged Arvizu to draw upon when he asked her to write material for the Chavez Ravine project, and for her new solo album. He’d asked her to probe deeply, to go all the way back. Among the most moving tracks on Friend is a touching love letter to her father titled “Mi India,” Papa’s affectionate nickname for his little girl.

Music and her father’s training regimens for boxers in that backyard room (and later at Resurrection gym, now owned by Oscar De La Hoya) were equally integral experiences for little Ersi. She gives shout-outs to her homeboy fighters on Friend’s opening track, “Windows of Dreams,” in which she sings about making holes in the walls of the workout room so she could watch the boxers train. Because she was only 8, her father wouldn’t let her into the gym — the men walked around in various states of undress. “I remember him asking me, ‘Well, you made those holes, what is it that you were trying to see on the other side?’ And what I wanted to see was to see them spar.”

For the Chavez Ravine album, Cooder had dared Arvizu to write about her life, to get those pictures of what she wanted to see on the other side. “I was looking for a ‘musical neighborhood’ kind of thing,” he says. “Then Ersi revealed the fact that her mother had written songs — not many, but some — and some had survived, and here was this one that told a very interesting story about how the soldiers went to World War II and fought, had all the shit jobs in the Army, then came home, and then afterwards they were eminent-domained out of there and so forth.”

Friend for Life is a heady dive into a sound that invites you in, perhaps to experience sounds you can’t put a name on but that seem somehow familiar — as if it’s been buried deep in your psyche, or your soul. For the most part, the songs are lushly imbued with the traditional Mexican love song, the bolero.

Says Cooder, “Bolero music, which flourished in the ’40s and ’50s, was based around one idea, and that was that you could deliver this romantic poetry in such a way as to make people feel it; they don’t sit there and intellectualize. Common sentiments, simple ideas, the poetry is very simple — it isn’t anything fancy, but if you really can sing it, people really will feel it.” He places Arvizu in the upper echelons of the great bolero-style singers, a discipline always in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth.

And as with Ibrahim Ferrer from Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club, Arvizu’s feel is not about the lyric in the Spanish language. “It’s wonderful,” Cooder says, “but you don’t have to know exactly what the singer’s saying; it’s what the singer’s able to do, and that they do it inside themselves, and that it originates in there. Arvizu talks about her parents teaching her to sing, but, you know, this is really just something that you have inside.”

“God gave me that,” says Arvizu. “I don’t know where it came from, but he gave me that. You have to be born with that. But then, the rest you learn in experience — the more you sing, you know where to put your vibrato, you know where to sing sexier, where to sing softer. You learn that, but as far as what’s gonna come out of your throat, you have to be born with that.”

It’s kind of like boxing: “I know how to throw a combination, I know how to break to the left and hook ’em to the body. I know how to execute.”

ERSI ARVIZU | Friend for Life | Anti-