California dreaming

A new four-disc compilation attempts to give the West Coast East Side Sound its proper place in rock-and-roll history

With the L.A. County Latino population more than doubling between 1950 and 1960, and Chicano teens asserting their spending power through custom car clubs and snazzy threads, Davis aspired to create a Chicano Motown -- but he never limited himself to brown acts exclusively. Larry Tamblyn, both solo and with the early Standells, recorded for Davis; Tamblyn also produced the Premiers' 1966 fuzzfest "Come On and Dream" b/w "Get on This Plane." And Davis maintained two versions each, one black and one brown, of the Majestics and Atlantics.

Cardenas also brought Davis the Premiers, with their infectious, trash-rock remake of Don and Dewey's "Farmer John." Davis loved the swinging groove, courtesy of the Romancers, but felt the vocals needed camouflaging. So the Chevelles, a girls' car club that idolized the Premiers, came to the studio to party with the band. As they whooped it up, Davis played back "Farmer John" and recorded the festivities over them. He then plastered "Recorded Live at the Rhythm Room" across the label and made a hit out of the single and the club both. He turned the same trick with "La La La La La," the debut by Cardenas' other top group the Blendells, though the catchy muted trumpet no doubt also helped sell it.

Davis spread those two singles by leasing them to major labels, but kept Cannibal and the Headhunters' "Land of 1000 Dances" for Rampart. Smooth, suave, and badass, a product of two East L.A. housing projects, the quartet boasted impeccable street credentials. Frankie Garcia became known as "Little Cannibal" after biting a foe during a fight (his older brother was already known as "Big Cannibal"). Once he joined the vocal trio Bobby and the Classics, they took the new name. Their second single was this set's cover of Chris Kenner's minor 1963 hit, which Cannibal had been singing with the "na-na-na-naah" hook ever since he'd forgotten the words once in concert and had to improvise. With the Blendells backing the singers, the record was all thrust, with a rock-solid beat, nice horns, busy guitar, and aggressive vocals. The group opened for the Beatles' second tour, backed by King Curtis' band (which played on subsequent Cannibal singles). They joined Wilson Pickett, among others, on Murray the K's 1965 Christmas Show at the Brooklyn Fox. The next year, Pickett took "Land of 1000 Dances" into the Top 10 by speeding up Cannibal's arrangement. But like the Blendells and Premiers, Cannibal couldn't find a national follow-up, and retreated to East L.A. When he quit in 1967, he went to college, eventually becoming a nurse conducting AIDS research at the USC Medical Center until he succumbed to the disease himself in 1996 at age 49.

Cannibal and the Headhunters defined the West Coast East Side sound with their version of "Land of 1000 Dances."
Rhino Records
Cannibal and the Headhunters defined the West Coast East Side sound with their version of "Land of 1000 Dances."

Davis and Cardenas fell out when the national hits started coming. As Chicano activism grew in the '60s, East Side artists such as Willie G responded with records like "Brown Baby." But the Vietnam War, that great annihilator of working-class youth, claimed so many musicians. When they came back -- if they came back -- rock and roll had gone freaky, and Chicano pop was fragmenting. The last hurrah was El Chicano's 1970 "Viva Tirado (Part 1)." The burbling, auspicious instrumental was actually a demo by the Chicano house band of a Japanese restaurant. In climbing to No. 28 nationally, it set off a comedy of errors between Davis, the band, and the major-label subsidiary that licensed it. Eddie became unhinged, destroying everything he had concerning the music biz: contracts, press materials, clips, and -- gasp -- even the masters of all those great records. His mother, who managed his businesses, died around the same time. Davis didn't release another record until 1977. He died in 1994. These four CDs are drawn from old 45s rather than master tapes, but nothing can blunt their strutting cries for respect, understanding, and a place in the warm California sun.

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