It'd be easy if I could tell you that Thee Midniters bassist Jimmy Espinoza looks like any other unassuming grandfatherly type. But it's just not true. He had the first of his hits in 1965–with a live version of “Land of A Thousand Dances” that's practically drowned out by the audience shrieking. Forty-eight years later, he still looks like he's ready to leap on stage and make the girls in front scream til they collapse. Top hat? Yes. With a feather? Yes. Giant glittering wizard ring? Of course. Awesome psychedelic-casual shorts? Mandatory.
Tomorrow at the Echo, Espinoza will be leading a special high-octane version of (arguably) East L.A.'s definitive band through the hardest-hitting songs they ever recorded. It's part of an unbelievable matinee bill of reunions and rare appearances by several generations of garage rockers, surf nuts and rock 'n' rollers that's a benefit for New York City's beloved Norton Records label, which suffered severe losses during Hurricane Sandy. When Espinoza and co. take the stage, expect nothing but the utmost badassery.
Of course, that's what you should expect from Thee Midniters anyway. Although they never broke nationally they way they should have, it wasn't because of the music. When thee Midniters went with their own Whittier Records label instead of signing with a major, it was a path almost never traveled, and they never got the benefit of the distribution and publicity that a major could offer. Still, if you find one of their too-rare 45s at a garage sale somewhere, odds are it's gonna be in bad shape because the person who owned it played it 'til it wore out.
In their prime, Thee Midniters could do it all, from heartbreaking Sinatra ballads to revved-up R&B covers and secret nods to LSD and searing originals like “Jump Jive and Harmonize.” They'd play alongside the Turtles and the Lovin' Spoonful for 38,000 people at the Rose Bowl and then they'd play shows that'd explode into full-on riots in hotel ballrooms in downtown Los Angeles. And of course it all started with a song called “Whittier Boulevard” — the white-hot instrumental salute to the vibrant cruising culture on the east side.
That's when East L.A. was practically a sister city of ultra-hip post-Beatles Liverpool, says Espinoza: “All we did was assemble the energy that was already there and put it in a song,” he explains. “We saw what was happening, we felt it and we gave it a name: 'Whittier Boulevard'! 'Let's take a trip!' It was a natural birth. We all said, 'Oh, I'm pregnant!' We assimilated the Beatles while the Rolling Stones inseminated us, and out came 'Whittier Boulevard'! Ha–I love that! Quote that one!”
That's the kind of guy Espinoza is — he knows when something's good. And that's why he signed on to play that special set of all-rockers at the Norton benefit. When Hurricane Sandy wiped out Norton's warehouse stock last year, the world's greatest rock 'n' roll label — sorry, that's scientific fact, not opinion — was on the brink of going under. When spontaneous benefit shows started popping up all across the world, L.A. DJ and promoter and music historian Howie Pyro, a longtime friend and helper of Norton, wanted to put together the “best, biggest and most insane benefit of all,” Pyro says. “I have never worked harder on anything in my life!”
First, Pyro recruited old-school L.A. garage rock promoter the Real Boss Hoss and guitar-geek extraordinaire Deke Dickerson to help wrangle bands like the Go-Nuts, the Phantom Surfers, the subterranean monster-rock legends the Castle Kings and so many more. (The Premiers! Mark and the Escorts! The South Bay Surfers! Thee Cormans!) And next he asked Espinoza to put together a version of Thee Midniters that could play the hits compiled in 2006 on Norton's all-killer In Thee Midnite Hour retrospective. Thanks to that reissue, thee Midniters found a whole new audience among fans of bands like the Black Lips and whatever fuzzed-out insanity Fullerton's Burger Records is putting out on tape this week.
While a version of thee Midniters has played (and continues to play) what Espinoza calls “legacy” shows in arena-size L.A. venues, sometimes with famed original singer Little Willie G. on board, the opportunities to do what Espinoza calls — with electric enthusiasm — “the fast shit” were somewhere between few and nonexistent. Instead, his audiences preferred romantic songs. But Espinoza's desire to (as he puts it) “get my rocks off” couldn't be denied.
At a 1990s show at the defunct Garage — now the Virgil — Espinoza did a “no fucking horns, no fucking ballads!” set that led to meeting with Norton's co-founder Miriam Linna, and the eventual issue of In Thee Midnite Hour. Now at Pyro's request, and in Norton's honor, he's ready to reprise that raucous part of thee Midniters history for only the third time in human history. (The second was a set at New Orleans' rock 'n' roll revival fest the Ponderosa Stomp.) To put it another way: it's like the L.A. version of the Who getting back together, but just to play songs from the first album, at the Echo.
“When we'd play in the Anglo areas, they didn't wanna hear the steamy ballads,” says Espinoza. “They wanted to dance and rock out! 'Louie Louie'! 'Farmer John'! 'Whittier Boulevard'! They didn't wanna hear 'Are You Angry?' That's more a Hispanic thing — more passion. 'Let's kiss and make up.' Because the sex is more exciting after making up! All the babies are made after a fight! So that's how we got the fast music. They demanded it, we had it!”
And now, almost 50 years after that audience was going insane on their first hit 45, you can see for yourself: Jimmy Espinoza and thee Midniters still got it.