For some, Los Angeles' musical history fits nicely into categories: There was bouncing beach pop, Laurel Canyon folk, West Coast rap and Sunset Strip rock. But behind this shroud of notable names and iconic acts, there is a richer, more diverse portrait of music in Los Angeles.
The Grammy Museum's new exhibit, “Trouble in Paradise: Music and Los Angeles 1945-1975,” delves into L.A.'s music history, which, like the city itself, often is swept up in broad generalizations and stereotypes. The exhibit, curated by USC professor and music writer Josh Kun (who, full disclosure, was a grad school professor of mine), redraws L.A.'s musical map, focusing on hubs of creativity outside the usual suspects, revealing the sounds of East L.A., Watts and more. It explores the jazz history of Grand Avenue, which was outlined in Charles Mingus' autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, uncovering black and white musicians playing together at a time when segregation still festered.
The exhibit also investigates the influence of political and cultural clashes on L.A. music, focusing on the effects of public discord, including the Watts riots and the Vietnam War protests on the Eastside. The introductory placard for the exhibit provides a backdrop for music of this era: “A boon of wartime industry brought record numbers of Mexican immigrants and African Americans from the U.S. South to a growing metropolis rife with economic promise and racial segregation.”
“Trouble in Paradise” isn't just about political upheaval and music — instead it shows a Los Angeles that challenges the expectations of what our musical history looked, and sounded like. For an insight to L.A.'s real musical history, here are five little-known revelations and artifacts in the “Trouble in Paradise” exhibit.
5. Ed Ruscha was a music geek
Ed Ruscha is best known for his stark text paintings, but he was a big music geek, too. Along the same lines of his 1966 photo book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha documented his entire record collection in the aptly named Records book. Album covers and records from Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, James Brown and more were documented in an almost scientific fashion, displaying vinyl as both an art object and a time capsule for a distinct cut of history. Ruscha plays with the idea of the books as a medium of record keeping to create a compendium of his own record collection. A record of records? Ruscha the troublemaker strikes again. Ruscha also designed a record cover for jazz musician Mason Williams, emblazoning the word “Music” across a album sleeve, again confirming Ruscha's fetish for labeling and categorization.
4. Stevie Wonder: Beach Pop Star?
Stevie Wonder is one of the icons of the Motown sound, but could he have been a
beach pop star? In the early 1960s, “Little Stevie Wonder” shows up for a cameo at the end of the sappy movie Muscle Beach(video above) to sing “Happy Street” to an all-white audience, who seem unable to actually clap their hands to his rhythms. Helmed by William Asher, who also directed Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, the film is a Technicolor celebration and examination of teenage culture. Remember, youth culture was still relatively new in postwar America, and many adults were grappling with the seemingly bizarre antics of their kids.
Wonder shows up in the sequel, Bikini Beach, a Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello jaunt with the brilliant IMDB description: “A millionaire sets out to prove his theory that his pet chimpanzee is as intelligent as the teenagers who hang out on the local beach, where he is intending to build a retirement home.” Again, Wonder pops up at the credits, performing “Dance and Shout” in front of a gyrating audience of twisting teens and adults attempting to keep up. In 1964, Mr. Stevland Hardaway Morris was only 14, but his effervescent voice, wailing harmonica and that familiar joyful smile were already primed for a lifetime of music.
3. The Beatles are hip with East L.A.
For their second American tour, the Beatles brought East L.A. Chicano rockers Cannibal and the Headhunters on tour. The band founded by the late Richard “Scar” Lopez, who was raised in Ramona Gardens, struck gold with their hit “Land of 1,000 Dances.”
In February 1965, Cannibal and the Headhunters performed in the historic West Coast Eastside Revue Concert at the Shrine Auditorium, which included East L.A. bands Thee Midniters, Lil' Ray and Thee Medallions. East L.A.'s rock scene was exploding, and a flier in the Grammy exhibit, from Taschen editor and graphics archivist Jim Heimann's collection, advertises “East L.A. Teen Dances” on Avenue 22, with the dress code: “Girls dress nice” and “Boys wear tie.”
By August, Cannibal and the Headhunters were opening for the Beatles at Shea Stadium. “After we played, Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards] came backstage to tell us how good we were,” Scar told L.A. Weekly's Ben Quiñones in 2005. After touring the country with the Fab Four (hear their account of hanging with the Beatles in video above), they returned to their hometown to play the Hollywood Bowl.
Playing with the Beatles was a heavenly homecoming, Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia told the Los Angeles Times' Don Snowden (via Quiñones): “The biggest high that I ever experienced in my life was at the Hollywood Bowl during the Beatles tour when Casey Kasem introduced us. The people went so crazy, I saw nothing but lights coming at me. There were so many cameras and lights and screams, the energy just shot up so high. … I must have been in heaven.”
2. L.A. hosted the “black Woodstock”
The same month that Cannibal and the Headhunters played the Hollywood Bowl, the Watts Riots flared in South L.A., further fracturing the city by race and wealth inequality. Seven years later, in 1972, the iconic Memphis label Stax Records booked the L.A. Memorial Coliseum for the Wattstax music festival, which was dubbed the “black Woodstock.”
Thousands filled the stadium to hear performances that included Jesse Jackson reciting his poem “I Am Somebody,” Albert King serving up the blues and Isaac Hayes celebrating his 30th birthday onstage. Tickets were $1.
The event was captured in the 1973 Wattstax documentary (trailer above) by Mel Stewart, which wove clips of the civil rights era with footage from the festival. Richard Pryor narrated the film and set up the context for the concert that highlighted South L.A. as the city's cultural center.
1. The original lyrics for “La Bamba” had 15 Bambas
Perhaps the crown jewel of the exhibit is the handwritten lyrics for “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens. Sure, Ritchie Valens is a household name, and has become a sort of mythologized icon — as in, a flat representation — of Chicano pop, but this artifact makes him seem real. For many, the image of the real Ritchie Valens is forever merged with Lou Diamond Phillips' portrayal of the ill-fated singer in 1987 film La Bamba. The real and the fictitious Valens have become one. His early death in that infamous plane crash pushed his identity away from reality and further into folk-hero territory. So this fragment of the “real” Ritchie Valens, captured in his sloppy cursive, leaning slightly to the right, offers us an insight to who he really was.
Today, handwriting is an endangered species. We sign a check, maybe scrawl up a Post-It note, or the back of an envelope. But handwriting is a fingerprint, a signifier of a distinct identity, a fleeting art form that provides a glimpse of our ideas and habits channeled to a page.
On Valens' handwritten lyrics, we learn a bit about the singer through his words. Most surprisingly, he proclaims the song title as “Bamba,” not “La Bamba,” written in blue ink. The opening lines “Para bailar la bamba” repeat, marking the page with a roller coaster of loops and curls snarled up in those 14 “a's,” six “b's,” and two “p's.” He writes out the chorus once, then opting for ditto marks, to avoid writing all those “bambas” again. But for the outro, he writes out all the “bambas” again. It probably felt as great to write those culminating “bambas” as it does to hear them. Repetition is the heartbeat of pop music.
In the left margin (Valens was left-handed), next to the chorus, Valens wrote “repeat” in English, as though it was the lingua franca for pop song structure, the same way Italian graces classical sheet music. This bilingual act seems natural for Valens, and exposes the duality he faced every day. He could play a traditional Mexican folk song, but it was American pop structure that could make it sell. At 17, that San Fernando kid was already subsumed in two overlapping worlds on one page. Fifteen “bambas” and all.