Wednesday, November 15, 2006

¡la raza musical!

[digital composite: chris montez, vikki carr, cannibal & the headhunters, santana, 2006]

forty years ago marked the emergent confluence of rock-era latino musical acts that opened the door for the many acts that would follow… who could forget tejano vikki carr (florencia bisenta de casillas martinez cardona) whose hit “it must be him” made the top five in 1967? while her greatest singing success was in castellano, she placed three english-language songs in the top 40 in the late sixties. her 1966 tour of vietnam—not to mention dean martin calling her “the best girl singer in the business”—helped propel this proud mexican-american singer to the stellar heights she achieved.

after the tragic death of pioneer ritchie valens—who pushed the envelope both as a rocker and mexican-american in the music business—chris montez (christopher montanez) became one of the leading figures in rock-and-roll in the los angeles scene. montez broke through with his hard-edged international hit “let’s dance” in 1962. under the tutelage of herb alpert, he had a string of hits in the mid-1960s including “call me,” “the more i see you,” and “time after time.” montez went to high school with members of the beach boys and toured the uk with the nascent beatles.

another mexican-american los angeles act also toured with the beatles (opening for the fab four on their second american tour). cannibal & the headhunters—originating in east l.a.—was founded by richard lopez in 1965. other band members were frankie garcia, joe jaramillo, and bobby jaramillo. the same year they hit big with “land of a thousand dances.”

the santana blues band was formed in 1966 when several musicians joined with mexican-born carlos santana. after a change of member line-up and band name (shortened to santana), the group hit big with the 1969 “santana” album that hit number four on the u.s. album charts. a single off that album, “evil ways” reached number nine on the billboard charts. the group reached its pinnacle in 1970 with the album “abraxas” that hit number one on the album charts and sold over four million copies. carlos’ brother jorge—a talented guitarist himself—started malo, the latin rock band noted for their top 20 hit “suavacito” in 1972.

without a doubt, the finances of blacklisted folkies and former weavers pete seeger and lee hays (who were verboten on network tv at the time) were buoyed significantly by royalties generated by trini lopez’s international hit (and seeger/hays composition) “if i had a hammer,” which hit number one in 25 countries. on that debut album lopez also included a version of “la bamba.” lopez’s worldwide popularity was fueled by his “latinized” versions of current hits such as “lemon tree,” “coming home cindy,” and “sally was a good old girl” in the mid-sixties. additionally, he had his own network tv program and starred in 1967’s “the dirty dozen.”

“96 tears,” by question mark & the mysterians hit number one on billboard’s charts in 1966. formed in flint, michigan, by rudy martinez, larry borjas, robert balderrama, and robert martinez, this group could be considered a precursor of punk rock. later frank and rudy rodriguez joined. this group of mexican-american rockers were mostly born in texas, but grew up in michigan.

as mark guerrero, richie unterberger, and xispas colectivo point out on their websites, the blendells and the premiers hit big during the peak of beatlemania in 1964 with their respective hits “la, la, la, la, la” and “farmer john”—further putting latino rockers in the spotlight.

arizonan linda ronstadt, whose father is mexican-american, was signed to capitol records with her group, the stone poneys in 1966. the group hit big with “different drum” (written by monkee michael nesmith) in 1967.

gloria estefan, ricky martin, christina aguilera, and others who have found success in the eighties and nineties, perhaps, owe a debt of gratitude to those earlier acts.

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