On a recent Friday night in L.A., while most people were at home chilling with a cold one after a long workweek, folks southeast of the city were at the Lakewood Hop, a laid-back venue that’s a welcome relief from the played-out hipster dwellings of Silver Lake. Here, a crowd of Hot 92.3 listeners and L.A. natives who love their oldies, hip-hop and soul hang out most weekends. And that Friday in early April, dressed in their sexiest, the crowd spent the early evening politickin’ with homies, but turned their attention to the stage when legendary Fania Records singer and Salsoul originator Joe Bataan joined a 10-piece band that included his wife, Yvonne (vocals and percussion), musical director Ray Poncin (trumpet), best friend Peter Quintero (timbales) and MC Rocky Padilla.
Born Bataan Nitollano (“Joe” was an accidental nickname that stuck) in New York City in 1942, to a Filipino father and an African-American mother, Bataan was raised in Spanish Harlem, where he soaked up the doo-wop of the 1950s and the boogaloo of the 1960s, the same way he did Spanish while growing up with kids from Puerto Rico. His first major hit was a version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” in 1967 for Fania Records. He went on to release eight albums for the Latin-soul label; his 1972 single “Young, Gifted and Brown” empowered many a Brown Beret, and toward the end of that decade, he hooked up with the influential New York disco-funk label Salsoul and released “Rap-O Clap-O,” an early, underacknowledged rap track.
“I didn’t have to be the best singer in the world. I knew I was unique at what I did,” he says. “In 1968, I performed Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Riot’ for an hour straight on a boat that rocked back and forth. The captain had to beg me to stop, but there was a magic in the audience that stayed in New York for years after.”
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At 66, the King of Latin Soul (as he’s referred to by some) can still perform for hours, prompting even the hardest cholo to slow-dance with his woman to “Sad Girl,” “Mujer Mia” and “Chicana Lady.” He gives constant props to La Raza for always having his back — a nod to a “disappearance” that had many rumoring his death. In reality, Bataan took a 12-year hiatus from music to train his daughters in karate for the Olympics and to work with incarcerated youth. But he returned to music.
Gigging since the 1960s in places as diverse as his following — from East Berlin to East L.A. — Bataan connects with audiences the way a healer does with the sick; his 1970 hit “My Cloud” (I have a home among stars to cure all my ills and all my scars/but I’m tired of living on a cloud alone/I need a girl to help me through my happy home) resonates with listeners emotionally and is said to be Art Laboe’s most dedicated killer oldie.
The 2004 release of Call My Name on Spain’s VampiSoul Records, followed by 2005’s The Message, brought Bataan back out to the West Coast for performances throughout California once again. He’s currently wrapping up an album, due out in the summer, called Asian Persuasion, which features remakes of Tower of Power’s “You’re Still a Young Man” and Eddie Palmieri’s “Puerto Rico.” VampiSoul will be releasing some of his greatest hits, and small acting roles like his store-clerk part in N.Y.’s 2007 Latino Film Fest feature winner, Liberty Kid, keep him in the grind. That and the performances, which often lead to their own kind of grinding.
Joe Bataan performs at the Crazy Horse in West Covina on Sun., May 4. For more information, visit www.joebataan.net.