Chicano Music Legend Rudy Salas of Tierra

The lead guitarist and songwriter for East L.A.'s legacy band speaks up about his new music, his politics, and his family

By Belinda Quesada, Contributing Writer
Published on LatinoLA: April 25, 2013

Chicano Music Legend Rudy Salas of Tierra

Rudy Salas, lead guitarist and songwriter for Tierra feels blessed to be a founding member of one of the most successful Chicano bands still producing music.

This week, Tierra drops its 14th CD, "Tierra Firme, On Solid Ground," and With 14 tracks combining fresh new tunes and classic old school jams. Tierra is the quintessential pride of Latinos everywhere, especially those from their hometown of Los Angeles, California.

Tierra celebrates over four decades of creating music they love for the people they love.

On Tierra's Facebook page , the image alone of Tierra's new CD cover generated over 11,000 Likes. (And the CD wasn't even out yet.)

Now that's star power!

Never forgetting his roots, lead singer Rudy Salas has not lost sight of those who helped shape his dream. He reflected on the recent loss of one of his early mentors, retired educator Sal Castro. Salas remarked, "Sal Castro was one of the most underrated Chicano leaders of our time. To me, it was sad that more people didn't know him. I compare him to Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King, Jr. He had the passion, the courage and the commitment to La Raza."

As a student at Lincoln High School in East Los Angeles, Rudy recalls how his teacher Sal Castro turned his life around because he challenged students to make a difference. Ready to give up and feeling lost in a school system that couldn't relate to him. Castro reminded youth daily that they had a beautiful culture and a right to read about their rich history, too. He provided the reality check they needed to fully understand that it wasn't their fault. This one teacher impressed upon his students that if nothing changed, then they had to make a difference. Rudy remembers that Sal Castro turned a lot of lives around back then. It affected him too and was an important lesson that Salas never forgot.

Playing music ever since he could ride a bike, Salas began singing with his younger brother Steve at the urging of his mother. Growing up in a diverse city like Los Angeles, the music they listened to was a combination of everything from Rhythm & Blues (R&B), Rock, Jazz, and Pop to Mexican standards, of Bolero, Cumbias, and Ranchera music.

"One of the things I am very excited about is that my children have followed their love of music. My son, David, is a top musical producer and has done several musical scores for movies and produces Latin Hip Hop music. My daughter, Rita, sings beautifully and reminds me of my mother when she sings. On the new album, we sing one song together."

My interview with Tierra's Rudy Salas was to promote their latest CD, "Tierra Firme, On Solid Ground," and What I did not know was that he's still a Chicano activist at heart.

He loves his family, his music, and his Raza/fans. (During the interview, his mother passed away and we stopped and agreed to pick up weeks later. On the day that we agreed to complete the interview, another influential friend and mentor, Sal Castro (mentioned above) passed away. It was a tough time; yet, Salas graciously granted the conclusion of our interview.)

Hot off the press: Sadly Rudy called after the interview to inform me that Tierra had lost another original band member, David Torres (keyboardist).

Funny thing, says Rudy; "I hadn't seen David in years even though he was still working in the music business. Last week, he dropped by the studio to record with some musicians and afterwards we talked. We reminisced about old times and talked about people we knew and lost, etc. It was beautiful. He was getting ready to go and we agreed to meet for lunch next week. I received a text message over the weekend that David died of an aneurism. I felt such sadness. It's been a hell-of-a-month. David was an original member of Tierra. He helped write many of our songs on our first album. He was brilliant keyboardist, pianist and arranger and graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Chicago. David was a phenomenal musician and a very gentle soul. We will miss him greatly."

Belinda Quesada: With over 40 years in the business, how has Tierra's music changed over the years?

Rudy Salas: When we started there were no Latino bands represented. We had no allies, no support system and no industry contacts. When we started many Latinos tried to hide their identity. Many groups changed their names. There was a lot of prejudice and racism that existed.

When we started as 'The Salas Brothers', no Hollywood music producer wanted us. They wanted to changes our name to the 'Sales Brothers'. You have to remember that forty years ago Chicanos weren't involved in the business end of music. We had to learn the business. Nowadays there are many more Latinos in the entertainment business. More doors have opened. It's a positive thing and the music has changed for the better. Tierra is proud to be a part of this history.

As far as Tierra's music changes, my role is to incorporate more new sounds and still stay true to our audience. They have also embraced our music and supported us. Part of it is the curiosity factor, younger audiences want to be nostalgic and follow us too. They accept the music as old school with contemporary influences. I am a Producer, leader of the band, and have written most of the original songs. I try to stay musically current.

Tierra is celebrating over 40 years together. Sometimes it can be a negative, but we are not stagnate. Here's an example, in our smooth jazz market, our song, "Let Me Take You There," was released on a separate label as a single. It did well on the East Coast and in Canada. We are not pigeon holed and try to keep a certain fresh approach. We have two lead singers Billy Mondragon and my brother, Steve Salas.

Belinda Quesada: Has the audience changed?

Rudy Salas: A little, we have our original fans and younger audiences who love the music. Now our audiences are a lot more respectful. When our song "Together" came out it was crazy how people tried to get to us. It was a very busy time for us. Over time, our fans have mellowed and grew up with us. They showed us a lot of love. Our songs are played at birthdays, weddings, quincea??eras, anniversaries, etc. We feel like we did something right. It's an honor.

Belinda Quesada: What have you learned as a musician in your musical journey?

Rudy Salas: It is a very, hard and insecure business with no real security. At the same time, if you have a dream, don't give up on that dream. I have always followed my dream. It's been rough, sometimes frustrating but I love what I do and it's my dream come true.

Belinda Quesada: At what age did you decide to become a musician?

Rudy Salas: That's a hard one because my brother Steve and I were about 9 and 11; but it really started when we were much younger. My mom had a beautiful voice and would sing around the house. She sang Mexican Rancheras and Boleros and me and my brother picked up the two-part harmony. We spoke no Spanish; but could imitate the words well enough. Then a local band called the Jaguars heard us singing at a church fiesta and asked us to join their band because they thought we spoke Spanish. At that time we were about 10 and 12 years old. We grew up in Lincoln Heights and played all different types of venues, schools, churches, etc.

We recorded and started getting a lot of play from a tune called "Darling". I was so young then and didn't take it seriously until I was about 18 or 19 years old. I decided that I loved music, loved to play guitar and sing. In the beginning, I sang and backed up the guitar player. I didn't play lead guitar until I was in my later teens when we changed the group around.

Belinda Quesada: Who would you like to perform with and why?

Rudy Salas: Truthfully, I think we've been blessed to perform with a lot of talented musicians. Tierra has shared a stage with James Brown, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and many other talented groups. The one I missed though was Marvin Gaye. I would have loved to record with him.

Just before he passed away, James Brown approached us about touring with him and recording a Spanish album. He loved our music and wanted to cross over to the Latin market. Unfortunately he passed too quickly. The night he received the award on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Tierra backed him up. We idolized him. Grew up with him. Our hit "Together" made that possible.

Belinda Quesada: What impresses you personally or professionally?

Rudy Salas: Integrity, honesty, people who keep their word. I can't tolerate people who are dishonest. Drives me up the wall. I much prefer people who will talk to me directly instead of behind my back. As a leader of a band you have to wear so many hats. Handle so many things. I'm in a business that moves too fast. It's a creative business. Eventually, I want to spend more time on the administrative end. Not waste my time with bullshit.

Belinda Quesada: Who or what are you most proud of?

Rudy Salas: I am proud of my family and proud of the band. If it all ended today, I would have no qualms about the legacy of this band. I'm also very grateful that my mom and dad were able to see us play Carnegie Hall in New York City. We got the invitation to appear at Carnegie Hall and sat them in front row seats. That night, we received a standing ovation and they cried. They were so proud of us. Later, I found my dad signing autographs. I can honestly say that I am proud of our achievements in the band.

Belinda Quesada: Other than music, what is your dream job?

Rudy Salas: I am doing my dream job. There are so many aspects to this job. I'm involved in producing, administrative, booking, artist development, and lessons. I guess if I weren't doing this I would be working as an author, writing my memoirs. But I can never find the time to do it. That clich?® about there is never enough time in the day is true. My wife, Joanna, is constantly telling me to write my autobiography. I have a recording studio with a storefront and we sell our merchandise. My wife manages it. I guess I just love the creative process and will have to find time to write my book.

Belinda Quesada: Tierra has lost some original band members. How has that affected you?

Rudy Salas: In the last three years, Tierra has lost three band members, Isaac Avila, Steve Falomir, and Johnny "Sticks" Valenzuela (who played with us a few years back). It affects us deeply. In their honor, I wrote a song called "Band of Angels", on the new album, "Tierra Firme, On Solid Ground." It is a tribute to our fallen band members and includes Jenni Rivera, Selena, members from El Chicano and Malo, and many, many more.

These are people we loved. We were like a family and hung out together.

On the new CD cover it has a picture of a guy walking out of a car headed towards the light. It hit me when I lost my mom. I remember telling her when she was ill to head toward the light. To me it's been on my mind. I saw her suffer. I told her she could go home to her family. It's a deeply personal feeling and I never experienced that. My wife, Joanna, lost her mom years ago and she helped me get through it. I couldn't have done it without her.

Even now, I have a hard time sometimes. During her last days, I had to prepare funeral services, etc., and was so preoccupied with having to get things right for my mom that I never had the chance to breath. It wasn't until the day after when I woke up and thought I have to go get my mom's candies and take them to the hospital. The candies helped to take the medicine taste out of her mouth. It was very emotional and she'll always be here in my heart.

Belinda Quesada: Any hobbies?

Rudy Salas: I'm a sports buff. I used to play a lot of basketball but haven't played in a long while. I found out that I have carpal tunnel syndrome. All of the sudden, I was playing the wrong chords and I couldn't feel the chords. At first, I thought it might be related to diabetes. Well, after playing the guitar for 50 years, it finally caught up to me. From sheer determination, I have learned to play around it.

Belinda Quesada: What is it like to live in Los Angeles all your life?

Rudy Salas: Its kind of surreal at times. I'm not a name dropper but last week we went to the premiere of Filly Brown, starring Gina Rodriguez, Jenni Rivera, Edward James Olmos, Lou Diamond Phillips, and many more talented Latinos. It was so beautiful and a very inspiring movie. My son worked on some of the music. And Jenni Rivera's family was there and her youngest son was crying the whole time. The family talked afterwards and said that they didn't know how talented she was. It was sad.

Belinda Quesada: Let's talk politics. Your song "Arizona" is right on time. It's funny and truthful. What inspired you to write it?

Rudy Salas: I feel that there should be a pathway to citizenship. The Dream Act is a very sensible approach by President Obama. My opinion on borders is I don't see a need. I understand the need for safety. Illegal immigrants should be able to become citizens. Arizona's SB1070 is archaic and causes racial profiling and takes up back to the 1960's and the days of the civil rights movement. It's almost parallel. It gives law enforcement the power to stop and check people just based on the color of their skin. It's a problem not only for illegal citizens but any person of color.

I think one of the best ways to reach people is through humor and music. And we will get the message out there. After a while people will get tired of all the rhetoric and find another way to approach it. I don't watch a lot of TV but when I do, I watch the news programs. During one of those news shows, I wrote the song "Arizona". We plan to pitch it to a lot of the political shows and venues that promote our music. If you go to our website, you'll see the video and the making of the video on you Tube. It's pretty funny.

Belinda Quesada: News organizations recently decided to use the term Undocumented not illegal. How do you feel about that?

Rudy Salas: I hate the word illegal and alien, sounds like something from space. But, undocumented I guess it's the necessary evil to describe someone who has not gone through the legal process of citizenship. We are all people. We are all human beings; to be branded like that is wrong. Jesus wouldn't approve of something like that and I agree with him.

Belinda Quesada: Do you have an opinion on immigration?

Rudy Salas: I have this problem with people that judge people who come over illegally. There is always a hateful message. If I was living in Mexico and I was under a tough situation and couldn't feed my family. I would do everything I could for my family. It takes moral courage. Anyone who puts down someone who is trying to do better for their family should not be treated like criminals. I look at them as my parents or grandparents. People forget that we are all human beings.

Belinda Quesada: What do you think of the Presidents Executive Order to temporarily allow undocumented youth to remain in the US? It is sometimes known as the "Dream Act."

Rudy Salas: I'm all for it. It's the least we could do. It's no their fault. They had no say in it and should not be punished.

Belinda Quesada: Are you married? Children? If yes, what do you think of their music and how has it influenced you musically?

Rudy Salas: Yes, married with two children and three stepchildren who are like my own children. I also have 8 grandchildren. My music has been a pretty big influence on my children. They grew up with it. To my surprise they really like it and have adopted it as their own. I used to take my son David to the studio with me. Now he is a successful recording engineer and producer.

David incorporates our music and blends current tracks. It's a huge compliment to me. He's done movie scores and worked on the new movie Filly Brown. He also worked with Director John Singleton, one of Bob Marley sons, Smokey Robinson, Jenni Rivera and many others.

Belinda Quesada: Are you familiar with what seems to be a nationwide movement to create public awareness and build a financial support fund for older musicians who may not have any health insurance?

Rudy Salas: Yes, and it's something Tierra has talked about doing one day. It is a very good idea and one that is truly needed. We do want to organize donations for musicians because some really need that extra support.

Belinda Quesada: What did you think about the death of fellow musician Jenni Rivera?

Rudy Salas: I felt the same way when Selena Quintanilla was taken so young, that we've been robbed. It reminded me of when I was a kid and we lost Richie Valens. He had a tremendous musical influence on me. It's so sad. We will never know what Selena or Jenni could have done. Music is very important to Latinos. It is a part of our culture.

With Tierra, we have a loyal following since our inception. People take the music very seriously. It's a big, big loss especially when someone like Jenni and Selena who were about to reach their peak and then disappeared. Jenni worked in our studios here in Los Angeles and it felt too close to home. My heart goes out to her children, her extended family and to her fans.

Belinda Quesada:What would you like to pass on to youth?

Rudy Salas: Follow your dreams, no matter how much you feel it's out of touch. Because you won't be happy unless do. Don't ever feel that something is out of reach. And don't give up. I followed my dream and I feel happy. I'm not a millionaire but I'm making a living to support my family. Remember, if you are going to get into the music business, prepare for a lot of heartaches, learn the business of music, and eventually you'll get there. It's not all about playing music. It is an actual business.

Belinda Quesada: What is Tierra's legacy?

Rudy Salas: Well, if it all ended today, I am so proud of what this band has achieved. We've made history. There haven't been a lot of Latino groups who made it and had this longevity. We are one of the few groups who have had this achievement.

Belinda Quesada: How has social media helped Tierra or you personally?

Rudy Salas: Tremendously. You Tube; Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have helped us a lot. We can reach our fan base directly, instantly. It's unbelievable. We wondered how we ever did it before?

Belinda Quesada: What's your favorite aspect of new media?

Rudy Salas: It's direct and immediate. It's great not to have to wait to see the results. Communication possibilities are endless too.

We have a fan base in Japan and will be touring there again soon. With social media and the Internet, they can watch our videos and listen to the music when it's released. It's amazing.

Belinda Quesada: Any early influences?

Rudy Salas: It was Sal Castro and the Chicano Blowout of 1968 that changed my life. Sal explained that the East Side Los Angeles School District was under staffed and there was a lot of racism and ignorance. The teachers pretended that everything was fine but Sal knew what was really going on and he shared that information with us. It was very powerful. I remember that we were forbidden to speak Spanish and were punished if we did. They swatted us with a big paddle. They discouraged us from taking college prep courses and encouraged students to sign up for shop classes. It wasn't right.

Sal Castro put his self on the line when he marched that day. It was Sal and twelve other activists who were arrested and faced some 60 years of jail time. Eventually, all charges were dropped. It was the beginning of an important episode of Chicano history. And my musical journey was realized then.

In fact, one of our student Walk Out leaders for Lincoln high school was Moctesuma Esparza. He was always very committed to La Raza and never forgot his roots. He went on to become an award-winning producer, entertainment executive, entrepreneur and community activist. These are important historical events that shaped not only my history but also the history of countless thousands of Chicanos.

Belinda Quesada: What's it like working with your brother Steve again?

Rudy Salas: It's good. My brother is a bit more of a rebel. When I took over the band, I had to give him an ultimatum. He decided to leave for eleven years. During that time, we would try to get back together and it just never worked out.

Eventually it was the death of our childhood friend, Eddie Serrano, who brought us back together. Eddie was badly injured riding his bike home from the store. It was a freak car accident and died in the hospital a few days later. We were so proud of Eddie because he made it big in music. He sang with Cannibal & the Head Hunters, and was the opening act and toured with the Beatles (yes, The Beatles). They got to play at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a shock when he died. We grew up next door to each other. Steve and me taught him to harmonize. When he died, I called my brother and said let's start being brothers again. It made our mom and our families feel better. We're working it out.

Belinda Quesada: What lesson or greatest memory do you have of your mother?

Rudy Salas: To see her happy. One of the greatest moments I will always remember was seeing how happy she was singing Rancheras and Boleros with my uncle. When she sang, she was so beautiful. Sometimes she'd sing with my dad and they would have fun together. Toward the end, my dad had a problem with alcohol and their lives took a different turn. But when they were younger, they were so happy and I chose to remember my mom like that. I feel blessed that my daughter, Rita, inherited her voice. When she sings she sounds just like my mom.

Belinda Quesada: Do you prefer the term Chicano or Latino?

Rudy Salas: I embrace the word Chicano; it's what we call ourselves. It has a revolutionary feel to it. When the word Chicano was being used it was during a time when we were fighting for our civil rights. My dad used to march for our civil rights. In East Los Angeles, the Chicano Moratorium is commemorated every ten years and we were involved. Thanks to Sal Castro and others like him, we learned how important it was to be involved and stand up for our rights. Not to be defined by someone else.

Belinda Quesada: What else would you like to let the audience know?

Rudy Salas: That we have a new CD coming out April 20th. Please check Facebook page, www.facebook/ and, and . We have a recording studio and a small store that Joanna manages. We have t-shirts that say "Chicano Rock University", videos, CD's, beautiful clothing, jewelry, hats, etc. We want to thank our Tierra fans for all of their love and support over the years. They made it possible for us.

Thanks, we love you guys!

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