IT'S JULY 17, A SUN-DRENCHED LOS ANGELES afternoon. Just a stone's throw from the Police Academy is an annual picnic to commemorate the mass dispossession of Mexican-Americans who lived in Chavez Ravine until the area was cleared for Dodger Stadium. The attendees fall into two groups — those who were put out of their homes, and their descendants. Sitting on a small bandstand, singing in Spanish and strumming an acoustic guitar, is an old but still charismatic Chicano man. The crowd receives him with wild applause. Afterward, he sits at a table beneath a shady tree, selling CDs. Members of the crowd walk up to him — alone, or with a family member. Unfailingly, each relates a story to him about the impact his music has made on their lives. Everyone wants an autograph. “Lalo, can you make it out to . . .” He obliges each with a warm smile.
Lalo Guerrero, now 82, is the father of Chicano music. He was the first to join Mexican-Spanish lyrics and slang to American styles (swing, R&B), and his bilingual jump blues, such as “Marihuana Boogie” and “Vamos a Bailar,” are classics, and were practically anthems to late-1940s pachucos.
“I used to play at a club at Spring and Macy that was very popular with the movie crowd. Rita Hayworth and John Garfield would come down there,” he recalls. “And the other thing we got was a lot of zoot suiters. They were really sharp-dressed and clean — not like the gangs of today. They loved swing, so we played it, and also the conga, the rhumba and boleros — the sad love songs in Spanish.
“I recorded with a trio on Imperial Records, and I said, 'Why don't we write some swing songs in Spanish for these people? Not only in Spanish, but in their kind of slang — Spanglish'. They loved it.”
Guerrero's music jumped hard enough to reach past its intended audience. “The band was all Latin, but our audience was 60 percent blacks and whites. We did swing and boogie-woogie, but we also did Latin. We mixed it up, and that's why people liked it. At that time, L.A. was a very peaceful town. There wasn't really trouble between the races.”
Fittingly, Guerrero's jump tunes were featured throughout the 1984 musical Zoot Suit. He has a snazzy new CD on Break — Vamos a Baile Otra Vez (Get Out and Dance Once More) — that focuses on both swing and Latin big-band styles. The Smithsonian recently acknowledged Guerrero as a “national folk treasure,” and President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts. Indeed, Guerrero has the air of a man who's been celebrated at the White House — regal, at ease and expansive.
Guerrero's lyrics are often very pointed, which is atypical of a performer of his generation. His famous parodies cover the INS, low-pay food-service jobs, and youngsters deserting Mexican music in favor of rock & roll. His other new CD, Tacos for Two: Lalo Guerrero's Greatest Parodies (S.O.S. Records), features engaging, buoyant recent recordings of such favorites as “I Left My Car in San Francisco,” “Tacos for Two” and “Mexican Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Busboys.” While Vamos shows his Cab Callowayon Whittier Boulevard side, Tacos is all charm and mischief, capturing the most overt components of Guerrero's personality.
Because Disney's music-publishing arm won't grant licenses to parodies of songs to which they control the rights, Tacos doesn't contain Guerrero's best-known lampoon, the 1955 “Pancho Lopez,” which spoofed “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” Despite the fact that Crockett owed his celebrity to his shooting of Mexicans at the Alamo, the Crockett TV show was quite popular with Chicanos. Says Guerrero, “[Pancho] was a lazy, siesta-addicted Mexican who opens a taco stand on Olvera Street.
“I had never written a parody before. I knew who ol' Davy was, so I decided to poke fun. I recorded it first in Spanish, and it was a big hit, and [Imperial Records president] Lew Chudd said that we would sell a million if I recorded it in English, so I did. From the money for that, I bought my nightclub, Lalo's, in 1963.
“At the end of the song, I tell people to come to Olvera Street to see Pancho running his taco stand. Tourists would come into Union Station and say, 'Where's Olvera Street?' and, of course, it was right near there. The merchants loved 'Pancho' because it told people to come to Olvera Street, and they did.”
Although he'll be remembered mainly as a parodist, Guerrero has made all kinds of Latin music — mariachi, boleros, banda, Cugat-esque tropical, salsa and corridos. He's also cut credible records in many Anglo pop styles (in English), and even a great deal of Spanish-language children's music. In 1994, he joined Los Lobos for a children's record, Music for Little People (which earned him his first Grammy nomination). When asked if he ever worried about confusing his audience, Guerrero shakes his head emphatically:
“No! Because I'm that kind of a guy — I just want to write something if I get inspired. Whether it's in English or Spanish, a parody, a love song, swing . . . I don't mind.”
WHILE GUERRERO WAS BUSY RUNNING AND PERFORMing at his club, the California farm workers went on their famous strike. His Chavez-era protest songs are treasures, their reportage of life in the San Joaquin Valley on a par with Merle Haggard's best, their message of pride akin to Curtis Mayfield's. The alliance between Guerrero and Cesar Chavez began in an offhand way.
“When I first met him, in Delano, I was on the road with my band. We'd go up north to Bakersfield, Fresno, Tulare, Merced, Sacramento, San Jose. Cesar would come [to the clubs] with his friends, looking for girls. He'd say, 'Lalo, they're gonna be picking onions over in Sacramento Valley' or 'Lalo, they're gonna be picking strawberries in Bakersfield,' and the pickers were mostly Chicanos, so he'd tip me to where they'd be, we'd go there to play, and sure enough, there would be a lot of people to see us.
“He and I stayed close to the end, and of course, I played some of the marches and met many of the people.”
Guerrero left Los Angeles after he sold Lalo's in 1972. His plan was to return to his hometown of Tucson, open a little Mexican restaurant, maybe do a little strolling table-to-table with the guitar. He got in the car intending to resettle. He didn't make it. While driving through Palm Springs, he called his friend Gloria Becker, a local booking agent.
“She said, 'Lalo, I need you to play. They're opening a beautiful Mexican restaurant here.' Well, they made me an offer I couldn't refuse, and I stayed for 24 years. The pay was excellent, and it worked out better than Tucson would have, because I have so much to do in Los Angeles. I'm only two hours away.”
Guerrero still lives near Palm Springs, in semiretirement. Terrible at sitting still, he's busy promoting his two new discs and playing wherever he is asked, and a Lalo Guerrero Big Band concert is in the works. He's just made a music video in support of Vamos a Baile, and a local newsmagazine show recently featured a segment about him. He is an octogenarian perpetual-motion machine, and nothing about him looks ready to slow down.
“I love to be around musicians, around music. I don't tell myself, 'Keep active' or anything. I just love what I'm doing, and lately I've been getting recognition, which feels very good. I wouldn't try to stop something that feels so good.”