Joe Ruiz walks out to the parking lot of Self Help Graphics, the Boyle Heights community arts center, to show off his car — a 1964 Chevy Impala SS. It's not so much a car as a steel monument, shining supernaturally, reflecting the street lights.
Ruiz is a sight, too, wearing a pinstripe suit jacket, beige slacks pulled up to the waist, and a flashy gold pendant. After admiring his car, he shows off a record displayed on a wall inside Self Help: East Side Story Vol. 4. There's Ruiz on the cover, 40 years younger, crouched down next to a classic lowrider.
Melissa Dueñas organized the show at Self Help as a fundraiser for her forthcoming documentary about East Side Story, the classic, unpolished 12-volume series of lowrider oldies. Originally released in the late 1970s and early '80s, East Side Story represents a distinctive vein of horn-laden R&B and soul music, mostly from the '60s — think The Four Tops or The Delfonics.
These were the songs often associated with Mexican-American lowrider culture, the types of songs one could expect to hear floating from the windows of a car like Ruiz's, cruising down Whittier Boulevard or similar thoroughfares in San Jose, San Antonio or Chicago circa 1978. The songs on the records weren't necessarily from L.A., but the East Side Story records originated here, and were particularly cherished for their covers, which featured snapshots of East L.A. Chicanos and Chicanas and their cars.
Dueñas found Ruiz in the same painstaking way she's tracked down others who appeared on the East Side Story covers — in his case, by cold-calling a former Lowrider magazine photographer who happened to be Ruiz's brother-in-law.
A 29-year-old from San Diego, Dueñas has been at this for more than a year, putting names to the faces on the records and digging into the stories of the "East Side Story families" who collected the records back in the day. In 2015, she started @eastsidestoryproject, an Instagram account with photos, old and new, of the people she has met, partly as a way to track down more of them.
"There are a lot of narratives that intersect in these albums," Dueñas says. "I didn't really realize how complex it was until I started putting it out there. For example, if you post about an album cover and mention the original location, people will say, 'Oh man, I grew up next to that park!'"
The Instagram account has built a following among young Latinos eager to connect with the culture of the previous generation, and it formed the basis for Dueñas' documentary. "It kind of affirms who they are," she says. "When people see the East Side Story Instagram, they get excited because it really holds a fond place in their hearts. It's become this place for this collective narrative to really unfold."
Dueñas started collecting records when she was 16 and now hosts an online oldies radio show called Low Rider Sundays. The East Side Story compilations, she says, helped her tap into an endless well of vintage soul and funk. The records are foundational for many soul DJs, and their handmade covers and nameless faces pictured on the sleeves have helped fuel a sense of mystery around their origin. Rumor had it, for instance, that the records were created by a man who was Greek — not Latino, like the majority of those who bought his records — known only as Mr. B.
In fact, Mr. B was there at Dueñas' fundraiser — smiling, shaking hands, posing for pictures in front of the records mounted on the wall.
Long before the sign at the old Starlite Drive-In in South El Monte became a faded relic, 20 years before Melissa Dueñas was born, Anthony Boosalis and his sister took over their father's stall at the Starlite Swap Meet. Then as now, the sprawling flea market was a maze of vendors, hawking all kinds of goods. Boosalis, who is in fact Greek, sold blacklight posters. It was 1969.
Before long he had added records, and by the mid-'70s his curated selection of albums and 45s was flying off the shelf. Boosalis was exclusively selling records by then, and he paid close attention to the records that his clientele requested.
He started making his own bootleg 45s, carving out a niche in the swap meet's subterranean economy.
"I really knew the market inside and out," he says now. "I knew all the songs, and how popular certain songs were."
Starting in 1978, Boosalis assembled the first three East Side Story volumes. With his brother-in-law, he designed the album's covers — the red and green lines, the chicken-scratch lettering. Without a budget for cover art, the pair drove around East L.A., taking pictures of young Chicanos and their cars.
Boosalis didn't license the music or pay royalties until years later; in all, it was a thoroughly underground operation. But the records were a hit from the start, and grew steadily as Boosalis poured energy into the enterprise. He visited local stores and flea markets, and went on a long road trip across the country, selling the records.
"Virtually everyone bought them," he says. He estimates that the total number of East Side Story records sold is somewhere in the high hundreds of thousands.
Looking back, Boosalis remembers the details well but doesn't tend to get reflective about what it all means. The idea of creating a formative document of lowrider culture never crossed his mind.
"It was a business venture," he says. "That was my primary motivation. It was strictly a way of earning some income to support my family."
He seems genuinely surprised by but appreciative of the continued interest. "It's kind of a validation of all the hard work I did," he says now. "I really knew that area of music ... and I spent hours and hours putting those compilations together."
For Dueñas, the project is partly about acknowledging the records themselves but even more about communicating a collective history that, if not buoyed by the records' enduring popularity, might have been lost. That wide focus is evident in the sheer number of names, stories and locations she's sifted through in her work.
"As this project has gotten so crazy and thorough, I've thought, 'Gosh, this is insane — what am I doing?'" Dueñas says. "But then I'm like, 'Why the fuck shouldn't I do this?' These albums are very influential, and not just to a small community but to many people. The Beatles were not important in my upbringing — yet how many documentaries and books are there about The Beatles? This is an important part of musical history as well."
Dueñas' favorite East Side Story song is "It'll Never Be Over for Me," by East L.A. band Thee Midniters, from Vol. 3. It's a remarkable, perhaps perfect recording, driven by singer Little Willie G.'s desperate croon, a tribute to overwhelming sorrow.
"My dad used to have this little ghetto Walkman, and he always had random tapes in it, and he would always be singing along to [that song]," Dueñas recalls. "One time, I heard him in the shower singing it." Later, she says, she found an old 45 of "It'll Never Be Over for Me" inside her grandmother's record player cabinet.
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"I also played that song at his funeral," she says. "And the words — they resonate in that way, when someone is gone. You know, 'It'll never be over for me,' no matter what happens. It's a very haunting song. It has this bittersweet quality.
"Most people, I think that's why they like oldies — because they're bittersweet. These are sad, sad songs, but they're so beautiful at the same time."
The below Spotify playlist of East Side Story tracks was compiled by the good people at Wax Poetics.