Little Willie G.: New perspectives

”It‘s just in our DNA,“ says Guillermo Garcia, better known as Little Willie G., of his new solo album. ”We just tried to capture the passion of the music that influenced us growing up.“

The sounds on Make Up for the Lost Time are as passionate as one might expect from Garcia, the former lead voice of Thee Midniters, the band that reigned on the East L.A. rock & roll scene in the mid- and late ’60s. Today, the group may be best remembered for its oldies-station staple, the brawling instrumental ”Whittier Boulevard.“ But it‘s the group’s lush ballads -- ”Sad Girl,“ ”That‘s All,“ ”The Town I Live In,“ ”It’ll Never Be Over for Me“ -- that still make the hearts of Midniters fans flutter.

Garcia‘s new album is a sublime, resolutely old-school affair. Produced by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, it includes remakes of three Midniters tunes, new originals, and a clutch of R&B covers first waxed by Darrell Banks, Bobby Bland, the Miracles, Bobby Womack and Aretha Franklin. Garcia‘s soulful singing harks back to the lessons he learned as a teen.

Garcia counts Frank Sinatra, Jesse Belvin, Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis as his formative tutors. ”My folks couldn’t afford for us to take music lessons,“ he explains, ”so I shined shoes and did odd jobs, and spent my money on records. I would lock myself in my bedroom and sing along with them, and internalize the songs, their phrasing, anything I could get from them. Eventually it developed into a style.“

That style helped loft Thee Midniters -- founded by a group of friends at the East L.A. parochial school Salesian High -- to the top of the heap of the bands bred in the barrio during the ‘60s. Besides enlisting a following at regional rock & roll shows, the group became the sole rock outfit to be featured at Chico Sesna’s weekly salsa gigs at the Hollywood Palladium. However, in 1969, after five years with the group, Garcia called it quits.

”I felt the potential of the group never really manifested,“ he says, ”and as we were maturing into men, and our ideologies and our philosophies were changing, the group never outgrew some of its publicity, so to speak. [Thee Midniters] were trapped with the concept that [manager Eddie Torres] had propagated. That‘s why we just became a Southwest group, regionally known.“

On his own, Garcia recorded the memorable single ”Brown Baby,“ and hooked up with another prominent Eastside singer, L’il Ray Jimenez, in the group God‘s Children. He moved to San Francisco and became the singer for Malo, the Latino rock band founded by Jorge Santana, brother of Carlos. By 1976, when he returned to L.A., his life was becoming a Behind the Music episode.

”For four years, all I was doing was oldie-but-goodie shows with Thee Midniters, and I got heavily addicted to heroin and cocaine. My life was in a tailspin at that point. My marriage was going haywire.

“And a guy I grew up with who played in a later version of Thee Midniters, Tony Garcia, took an interest in my life. He invited me to come hear a band he was working with that was recording television shows aired throughout Central and South America. I saw it as an opportunity to crank another year out of my life and career. I ended up at a Christian broadcasting studio in Tustin, and was exposed to the Gospel there.”

In 1980, Garcia became a member of the evangelical Victory Outreach Church; though at first he had no intention of pursuing music in the church, he began singing at services in La Puente, and eventually incorporated some of Thee Midniters’ hits into his proselytizing. “It seems that God took exactly what He gifted me with, and gave it a purpose and a perspective,” he says.

Garcia recorded a self-released gospel album, Listening for Your Heartbeat, in 1996. At the urging of Gene Aguilera, a longtime associate of Los Lobos and the Blazers‘ ex-manager, Garcia was nudged into cutting an album of nonreligious material.

Featuring horn arrangements by Thee Midniters’ Romeo Prado and sympathetic playing by Hidalgo, guitarist Kid Ramos and gospel pianist the Rev. Charles Williams, Make Up for the Lost Time is a potent secular work that nonetheless communicates a subtle spiritual message on tracks like “(I Wanna) Testify,” “A World Where No One Cries” and “Joy in the Palace.”

Little Willie G. is welcoming a fresh chance to hip a new audience to his music. But he makes it clear that his rebirth is the most crucial thing in his life: “The Apostle Paul said, ‘I’ve become all things to all men, that by all means I might win some.‘ If it takes this to put me in a prominent platform where I can let people see what the Lord has done for me, it’ll be worth it.”

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