Chicano Soul: Sound of the Barrio

An interview by Jimmy Franco with music historian Ruben Molina

By Jimmy Franco Sr.
Published on LatinoLA: May 2, 2011

Chicano Soul: Sound of the Barrio

Ruben Molina is the author of: "The Old Barrio Guide to Low-Rider Music, 1955-1975″ and "Chicano Soul: History and Recordings Of An American Culture"

These works depict the history of Chicano music from the 1930′s onward and the broad social conditions and musical genres that influenced its development.

"Social context has a powerful influence on musical creation, and music as a universal, non-verbal language, allows us to tap into the social, cultural and aesthetic traditions of different cultures and historical eras."
-Robert Greenberg

Jimmy: How would you describe Chicano Soul music?

Ruben: It is primarily music that was created and performed by Chicano artists during the 1960′s. The sound was heavily influenced by the African-American Soul Music that was popular at the time. Many young Chicano musicians were drawn to this music which they performed and in doing so, they gave it their own cultural tinge and style. This resulted in the enrichment of the music which led to the creation of Chicano Soul Music.

Jimmy: Did segregation or any other social conditions that existed at that time affect the creation of this type of music or influence it in any way?

Ruben: Yes, during the post World War Two period of the 1940′s and 1950′s, many African-American families were migrating west looking for work in California's factories. Large numbers of black people tended to settle in neighborhoods that Chicanos had lived in for generations and many began to work in the same industries where this music was listened to and shared by both groups. This was also true of Mexican workers who migrated to Los Angeles at this time from other states such as Texas and New Mexico and who were added to this ethnic mix. All of this interaction created a new cultural melting pot here in Los Angeles. This was also true in Texas where Mexican and black laborers worked together in the cotton fields and lived in small shanty towns next to the fields. These two groups listened to each others music and Chicano kids were particularly attracted to a lot of the black music that they heard. Thus, the segregation of these two ethnic groups by society actually had a somewhat positive aspect in that it forced both of them to become more creative in regard to the type of music that they developed. While this situation of forced segregation was socially negative, it actually motivated both blacks and Chicanos to create their own culturally distinct style of music.

Jimmy: What were some of the principal musical trends that influenced Chicano Soul Music?

Ruben: The popularity of black Soul Music among teens during the early 1960′s was huge. Its popularity was so strong that it became the foundation for all of the other forms of popular music of the period. Without Soul Music, there would not have been the British Invasion of pop music. Also, many of the Chicano bands from East Los Angeles, San Antonio, Phoenix and Albuquerque became house bands that accompanied these touring black groups and this helped to spread the influence of Soul Music throughout the barrios. One really important influence on the Chicano Soul Music of this period was the impact of the music program at Salesian High School in East L.A. This program was under the direction of instructor Bill Taggert and many of the future musicians that played and developed Chicano Soul came out of this East Side program. Bill motivated the students to develop their musical skills and strive for a higher level of technical sophistication and professionalism. He also stressed the role of brass instruments which became a prominent and distinctive instrumental sound of these Chicano Soul groups.

Jimmy: Why was Chicano Soul music so prevalent in Los Angeles and San Antonio during this time?

Ruben: Again, this was primarily due to the introduction of black Soul Music to Chicano listeners in these cities. In Los Angeles, there was also the important role that rhythm and blues deejays Hunter Hancock (H.H., as he was known) and Johnny Otis played during the 1940′s and 1950′s.

Music to cruise by.

These deejays helped spread rhythm and blues music throughout the barrios where it was widely listened to and played extensively at parties and dances. So, the musical foundation and audience already existed in these Chicano communities when Soul Music came upon the scene. In San Antonio, the black musical influence on Chicanos and their fledgling Soul musicians was exerted by black groups who performed in that city during the 1960′s. At that time, San Antonio was a part of the "Chitlin Circuit". This circuit consisted of the cities that black musical groups toured through and where they performed what was then called "race music" for primarily black audiences. During this time in San Antonio, many Chicanos attended these dynamic performances by these touring black Soul groups and their interaction with this music made it popular among the young people in that city.

Jimmy: What influences attracted you personally to this type of music?

Ruben: When I grew up in the 1980′s music was all around me. My dad loved blues, jazz and rhythm and blues. My mom was just a kid herself and she loved soul music and the Motown sound as well as the great Mexican singers of the time. My home was always filled with different musical sounds and trends which I eagerly absorbed. Out in the streets of the barrio, it was the Low Rider sound that caught my ear and by the time I was thirteen-years old I was collecting records.

Jimmy: Who were some of your favorite 1960′s Chicano Soul groups?

Ruben: I spent a lot of time listening to most of these groups and I enjoyed their different sounds and styles. However, some of the artists that I appreciated the most were David and Ruben, Thee Midniters and Little Ray.

Jimmy: How did these musical influences motivate you to eventually record this rich history of East Los Angeles music?

Ruben: Little did I know at the time that I was indexing the sound track of an era in the history of Los Angeles Chicano culture. All of these records and musical influences stayed with me throughout my trials and tribulations, my good times and bad times. It was this music that helped me get through them. Back in the mid-eighties, I mentioned to band-leader/ deejay Johnny Otis, that someone should write a book about the East Side sound that had been created by Chicanos from their barrio experience. I noticed that books had been written on Surf music, Punk music, Doo-Wop and the music of the British Invasion. Just about every other genre of music had been covered and written about except for the deeply-felt East Side sound of Los Angeles. I thought to myself that this sound of Chicano Soul was the forgotten music of Rock and Roll and needed to be documented and given its due in the world of music. So, Johnny Otis simply said to me, "You write it."

Five years later, a truck pulled into my driveway and dropped off 5000 copies of "The Old Barrio Guide to Low Rider Music 1955-1975″. It was an encyclopedia of the music that was so near and dear to the barrio dwellers of Southern California. The music was a mix of black, brown and white artists who created that special sound.

Jimmy: How did this first book motivate you to move on to other musical projects?

Ruben: My first book opened doors for me and I was able to contribute to other projects such as the documentaries: "Chicano Rock" and "Latin Music U.S.A.". Additional projects that I worked on included a museum exhibit called "American Sabor", and another project called "50 Winters Later" for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I also wrote numerous articles pertaining to the music scene. In 2005, I wrote and published "Chicano Soul: Recordings and History of an American Culture". It is a historical book that documents a multitude of Chicano artists ranging from San Antonio to Los Angeles who recorded hundreds of records during the nineteen sixties. The book is full of photos, record scans and personal stories told by the artists themselves.

Jimmy: In your opinion, when was the high point for Chicano Soul Music and who were some of its most prominent performers?

Ruben: The period was exciting and vibrant, but unfortunately it was short-lived. The period from 1963-1967 was probably the high point of creativity in this musical explosion. Some of the most prominent groups were Sunny and the Sunliners, Little Joe and the Latinaires, Thee Midniters, Little Ray and the Progressions, the Premiers, Freddy Fender and Cannibal and the Headhunters. However, the majority of this music was regional and so each particular region or city had their own stars and popular groups.

Jimmy: Did Chicano musicians encounter any obstacles in society at that time which hindered the development of their talents and careers?

Ruben: Since the music scene in East Los Angeles was so big at the time, many of the bands did not have to travel very far in order to get gigs. A few bands ventured out as far as Albuquerque, Phoenix, El Paso and Northern California, but that was about the extent of it. Most bands from other cities did not record as much as the groups from San Antonio. This was because San Antonio was a smaller market and there was a demand in that city for "home town" music. Texas migrants in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest also wanted to hear their San Antonio sound, so road life became essential for San Antonio's musicians. But again, it was mostly a regional type of music. In regard to air play, it was tough because the Spanish-language stations didn't want to play any music in English. Meanwhile, the black stations didn't want to play Soul Music by Chicanos, and the white stations didn't want to play any music by Latinos period. So, it was a very frustrating experience for these young Chicano musical artists as their attempts to get onto the air waves during this time were a losing cause.

Jimmy: Is Chicano Soul Music primarily instrumental or vocal in nature?

Ruben: There are several types of soul music. We have ballads, mid-tempo and heavy deep soul. All of these styles were mimicked by Chicano groups. Although Chicano voices do not have a tradition of being trained in a church setting at an early age such as many black vocalists had, a few vocalists do stand out. These are Willy Garcia, Sonny Ozuna, Dimas Garza, Little Ray, Joe Jama and Randy Garibay. The Chicano musical groups of this period tended to be larger than usual due to the inclusion of a horn section which gave them a full sound and drove their dynamic that alternated between a combination of vocals and instruments.

Jimmy: Did the latter phase of Chicano Soul Music develop to a higher level or simply hit a plane?

Ruben: As with most musical trends I think the music simply evolved further. Chicano musicians of the sixties grew up and were nurtured on Soul Music, but as most artists do, you develop your skills and push your creativity to the limits. For example, at the age of sixteen and seventeen, it was Soul Music that preoccupied many of these young Chicano musicians. Then, many of these groups discovered and explored Jazz and other new musical trends in addition to the music that their parents enjoyed. You synthesize all of this together and you have a new musical form created which is called Latin Rock.

Jimmy: Are there presently any musical groups whose style and sound impress you?

Ruben: There is a local group headed by Greg Esparza out of Lincoln Heights, and another called L.A. Balance. I really like the sound of Larry Lang and his "Lonely Knights" band out of Austin Texas.

Jimmy: What is the present situation for Chicano Soul Music?

Ruben: It lives, like it always will, as it is still played and listened to. Soul music is hard to shake and there will always be a place for it. It's Chicano music in general that presently needs a creative shot in the arm. I don't see a lot of new musical ideas or directions developing. The old bands are out there performing their traditional songs and the new bands are playing fifties and sixties tunes. However, very few want to move in a new direction and become the vanguard for a new sound. Hopefully, this creative shot of new energy will be forthcoming.

Jimmy: Thank you for documenting and promoting this valuable information, history and music which we need to preserve, enjoy and pass on to the present generation.

Ruben: Gracias

For more info on Chicano Soul music log on to: wwwchicanosoul.com

About Jimmy Franco Sr.:
Originally published at Latino Point of View. The writer and editor is Jimmy Franco Sr., a long-time educator and community activist who was born in Texas and grew up in the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles.
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