California dreaming

Early in 1965, Cannibal and the Headhunters, a Chicano vocal quartet out of East Los Angeles, took "Land of a Thousand Dances" to No. 30 on the pop charts, shutting down a version by their archrivals Thee Midniters (which reached No. 67) in the process. It was the third national hit in less than a year for acts under the banner of label boss Eddie Davis -- the others were the Premiers' "Farmer John" (No. 19) and the Blendells' "La La La La La" (No. 62), both in 1964 -- and marked the apex of the West Coast East Side sound that had been evolving since the late 1950s. Despite being picked up by Date, a Columbia Records subsidiary, Cannibal never managed another Hot 100 single -- though "Nau Ninny Nau" was the kind of obvious follow-up that should have clicked in that era, and "Please Baby Please" was a true-blue vocal group record. By 1967, the best years of his career already behind him, Cannibal had left the music business, and in 1996 he died in obscurity of AIDS.

Something similar happened to awareness of the Chicano influence on rock and roll; today, it is all but ignored, conventional wisdom being that it jumps from Ritchie Valens to Los Lobos, with nothing in between. But in their day, those three records (and others) gave voice to the burgeoning Mexican-America population in Southern California and resonated well outside their barrios. The recent release of four volumes of compilations called The West Coast East Side Sound (Varese Vintage) thus fills a crucial void, though it will take several volumes of San Antonio rock and rhythm and blues from the same era to complete the task. The Alamo City's Sunny and the Sunglows, after all, had three Hot 100 hits -- including "Talk to Me," No. 11 in 1963 -- and the group racked up a fourth after Sunny Ozuna had left. The well-integrated S.A. scene also produced the likes of Danny Ezba (in whose group Augie Meyer and Monkee Michael Nesmith launched their careers), Sonny Ace y los Twisters (who did a great Spanish-language version of "Woolly Bully"), Charlie and the Jives, and many more, while also spawning Doug Sahm's Sir Douglas Quintet.

The East Side contribution to rock is overlooked partly because it wasn't a distinct sound. Sometimes it wasn't even instantly identifiable as Chicano -- but that was the whole idea. The diversity here is nearly as impressive as the fact that, somehow, these records are of a piece. The guitar sound drew from the same sources (especially the Cuban ballad "Malaguena") as surf. The screaming saxes fly right out of jump blues. Rooted in doo-wop and Motown, many East Side acts were vocal groups backed by anonymous bands. Whether embracing tenderness, machismo, innocence, loneliness, romance, or unabashed teenage fun, the lead voices all but dripped with intimacy and sincerity at their best (though at their worst they crossed into treacly melodrama). The vocal harmonies of the Salas Brothers ("One Like Mine," "Leaving You," and others) derived from the popular Mexican trio Los Dandys, but others reveal no accent at all. Many of these songs (the Romancers' "Take My Heart," with Andy Tesso's jumpy guitar) utilize Latino or Latino-influenced rhythms, but most stick to the era's rock and R&B beats. The cool soul-jazz of organist Jimmy Smith and pianist Ramsey Lewis were influences. The New Orleans sound figured prominently, while groups like the Romancers successfully made the transition from surf and hot rod to British Invasion, garage, and folk-rock.

The songs were often derivative, their sources dizzyingly eclectic, and sometimes suspect to rock aesthetes; Willie G's "Brown Baby" comes from Hugh Masakela's "Grazing in the Grass," and the Atlantics' "Sloop Dance" shamelessly rips off the McCoys' "Hang on Sloopy." The East Side presence can be subtle, almost subliminal; as Ruben Guevera wrote of Li'l Julian Herrera's 1956 doo-wop ballad "Lonely, Lonely Nights," the precursor to these sides, "Something about it -- the accent, the voice, the attitude -- made it different. It was Chicano rock."

East Side groups have had notable influence on mainstream rock, from War's black-'n'-brown funk to Tower of Power's horn-based sound. Santana's version of Willie Bobo's "Evil Ways," which was relegated to the can soon after it was recorded, would probably have languished there had the Village Callers' take (with much stronger vocals) not become a regional hit in San Francisco. Finally, the East Side ethos, that combination of Mexican-flavored tunes alternating with straight-ahead rock, informs much of what Los Lobos does today.

That particular aesthetic dominated Eddie Davis' labels -- Rampart, Faro, Gordo, Linda, Valhalla, Prospect, and Boomerang. Davis' career represents classic, seat-of-the-pants music-bizzing. The former child actor was a restaurateur and nightclub owner when he bankrolled his own four-song demo, including "I Was a Teenage Brain Surgeon for the FBI." Quickly coming to terms with his limitations, he started his own label to record actor Kenny Miller, star of 1958's I Was a Teenage Werewolf. But he didn't focus on Chicano-oriented sounds until 1962, when he began working with the Mixtures and the Romancers.

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John Morthland

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