The story is that Paul McCartney had told the manager of the Beatles, Brian Epstein, he wanted the “Na Na boys” to open for the British group on the August portion of its 1965 American tour. Earlier that year, Cannibal and the Headhunters had released a cover of a song originally recorded in 1961 by Chris Kenner, a black performer from New Orleans, entitled “Land of a Thousand Dances” that featured the lead singer, Frankie Garcia (Cannibal), chanting “na, na, na, na, na” in a slow, sexy sequence for the opening 15-20 seconds. “Land of a Thousand Dances” became a national hit, partly because listeners were intrigued by that unusual opening, which legend has it occurred when Garcia forget the actual lyrics. Rather than have the band start over, producer Billy Cardenas has said he signaled from the recording booth for them to keep going, hearing in that spontaneous introduction a brilliant hook.
Perhaps McCartney had the song in his head a few years later, when he wrote “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da,” with its inclusion of the nonsensical sounds “bra,” “la” and “da.” A year after Cannibal and the Headhunters released “Land of a Thousand Dances,” the great soul singer Wilson Pickett recorded his own version that included the same opening. As a consequence of the Pickett recording, which reached # 6 on the Billboard Top 40, black civil rights marchers in the late summer of 1966 chanted “na na na na…” as they walked across dusty southern back roads, probably unaware that the phrase had originated with a charismatic Mexican-American singer from East Los Angeles.
For Cannibal and the Headhunters and their manager, a white man in his 30s named Eddie Davis, who loved watching young Mexican-American groups perform rhythm and blues songs in their unique style, the offer to open for the Beatles on a tour that included a stop at the Hollywood Bowl was both exhilarating and daunting. The opportunity couldn’t be surpassed -- an audience of 50,000+, national media coverage, the possibility of trading on a connection to the most popular rock and roll band in the world -- but delirious Beatle fans, especially girls between the ages of 12 and 17, were not known for their patience and understanding.
Ever since the Beatles first came to the United States, in February 1964, their concerts had included fans – most of them female -- who behaved with rudeness and disdain toward the hapless opening acts, which the kids regarded as useless diversions preventing them from hearing and seeing the kings of rock and roll. Since many of these performers looked like the Beatles, what chance did four brown-skin youths who played black-based r’n’b have in keeping the audience engaged?
But the Beatles and especially their manager Brian Epstein made a wise choice. Cannibal and the Headhunters had already endured the pressure of performing on stage for black audiences who until the rising of the curtain assumed the group looked like them. They had been fooled by “Land of a Thousand Dances,” specifically its hard, bass-driven funk sound and one-chord structure, ideal for an extended soul jam at a live performance. Further circumstantial evidence of the group’s blackness could be gleaned from the calm confidence of the lead singer that he has mastered all the latest dances steps, and its name, suggestive of Africa, though hardly in a flattering way. Members of the group in subsequent interviews recounted with amusement the puzzled looks on the faces of black patrons at East Coast urban venues when they discovered the true identity of Cannibal and the Headhunters. But when the song started, propelled by the familiar beat, and the group performed their tight, self-choreographed dance routines, including the rowboat, which involved them sitting on the stage, a few feet apart, moving their hips in unison, black audiences went wild. Forgotten was the curious ethnic makeup of the group; all that mattered was that they sounded and looked as genuine as anything in the Motown stable of stars.
After that experience, what did the guys have to fear from suburban teens in a state of hysteria counting down the seconds before the announcer proclaimed “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beatles”!!? Looking back decades later, the members of Cannibal and the Headhunters recalled the surreal quality of the performances, including Shea Stadium; massive audiences, many of whom appeared to be miles from the stage, alternately bored, indifferent or excited while the group tore into “Land of a Thousand Dances.” Some residents of Ramona Gardens, the housing projects east of downtown LA where the four were raised, and surrounding Mexican-American neighborhoods managed to score tickets to the Beatles concert at the Hollywood Bowl, which took place two weeks after the Shea Stadium performance. For these concertgoers, a minority in more ways than one, the British group was great, but the opening act was special. Around Ramona, the headline in late August of ’65 was not “Beatles come to Los Angeles,” but “local boys make good.”
It’s been like this ever since the time of Ritchie Valens, who to this day, more than 50 years after his tragic death in a plane crash, is thought of as the kid from Pacoima by many Latinos in Los Angeles. With Chicano fans of Chicano rock and roll, territory is as important as ethnicity. The community within the community is the key identifier of a particular group or performer; where they went to high school, the neighborhood in which they were raised, and, finally, the larger section – Boyle Heights, City Terrace, East LA – they called home. When Los Lobos described themselves as “Just Another Band from East LA,” the name of one of their anthologies, they were not merely being ironic. There have been many bands from East LA since the 1950s, and no matter how popular they become, they can never forget and are never allowed to forget where they started. The sense of drift, and rootlessness, which has always been a critical factor in the rock and roll myth – what is a “rolling stone,” after all? – has had no equivalent in Chicano rock and roll. los
Strong ties between performer and audience has sustained a vibrant music scene within the barrios of Southern California, starting with Valens in 1957 and carrying through to such present-day artists as Quetzal, Cava, and Lysa Flores, but it has also complicated any efforts on their part to achieve national success. A song or style that comes out of and is geared toward Whittier Boulevard, a major artery through East LA, might not appeal to Main Street, USA, wherever that might be. In those rare cases when Chicano groups have successfully captured both audiences, it can seem like an unintended consequence, such as young America liking “Land of a Thousand Dances” because of the “na na na” opening, or white kids in the South going for Los Lobos on the strength of their covers of Valens’ songs in the 1987 film “La Bamba.” With its wide-ranging musical diversity and idiosyncrasies – obscure cover versions, Anglo pop, Latin, and African-American influences, and, starting in the 1970s, recording of songs about political issues particular to the immediate neighborhood – Chicano rock crosses too many barriers to allow for the kind of simple marketing schemes that dominate the entertainment industry. Any genre that might be described as “some of this and some of that,” or “not quite this but not quite that” poses a problem for even savvy promoters.
Yet despite its comparative obscurity, the five decade history of Chicano rock and roll has continued far longer than its better-known California-based contributors. Surf music, to take the most obvious example, lasted only from 1960 to early 1966, undone by drugs, the British Invasion, and a dearth of skilled composers, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys being the obvious exception. Rock critics often talk about how Wilson went insane trying to compete with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, yet his obsession produced some splendid music, such as “Good Vibrations” and the Pet Sounds album. The Beach Boys all but invented the surf sound, but when it could no longer satisfy their commercial and artistic needs, they moved on to more complicated, adult songs. As a result, surf music will always represent a particular time and place in the history of Southern California, although its distinctive guitar style, notes played fast up and down the fret board, augmented by heavy reverb and echo, has been emulated by various players since the ‘60s.
Other genres associated with Southern California that have had nothing like the persistence of Chicano rock and roll include the singer/songwriters of the late 60s and early 70s – Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, the late Warren Zevon – who did not produce any musical offspring of note, and are hardly listened to by people born after 1975 – and the so-called “hair bands” that polluted the Sunset Strip during the mid and late-1980s. Their music sounds even worse today than it did back then, if that’s possible.
Chicano rock and roll has also had a more consistent run than African-American music – ballads, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, rap and hip hop – in Los Angeles since the mid-1950s. Outside of jazz, black popular music produced out of LA has had a curious history; during the 1960s, the heyday of Motown, Stax, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin, the city contributed little, an exception being the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm and Blues Band. Not until Ice Cube and the gangsta’ rap craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which reached its apex with the burning, looting and head-bashing of the 1992 LA Riots, would Southern California be regarded as a national center for the new, hot sounds in black music.
Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly, three giants of early rock and roll, didn’t do much for Mexican-American teen-agers in the 1950s. On the other hand, Little Richard was revered in East LA, along with Chuck Higgins, Joe Houston, and Big Jay McNeely, black saxophonists based in Los Angeles who forged a nexus between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Yet outside of Bobby Rey (born Bobby Reyes), a Mexican-American kid who learned his musical trade standing outside black churches and listening to gospel, none of the first wave of Chicano rock and roll performers played saxophone. Ritchie Valens, the most famous Mexican-American rock and roll performer of all-time, and the first rock and roll star from Los Angeles, played guitar. Before he was discovered by Bob Keane, an Anglo record producer who spent a considerable amount of time in Mexico and South America, and admired the music and culture of the region, Ritchie Valens was known as Richard Valenzuela. Keane had been directed to a roller rink in the central San Fernando Valley by someone who told him there was a talented high school kid playing rock and roll at the place. The producer, who was based in Hollywood, made the short trip to the Valley, heard this 15-year-old perform a few cover songs, and decided at that moment to sign him to a contract. As a condition, Keane insisted that the surname “Valenzuela” had to go. He later explained to Valens and the Valens family that he meant no disrespect to the Mexican-American people, but that the typical Caucasian consumer of any age would pick up a record by someone named Richard Valenzuela and immediately assume it was mariachi music or some other south-of-the-border genre performed in Spanish. And, he said, most Anglos don’t buy that stuff.
We’ll never know if American teen-agers would have purchased “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna,” or, most especially, “La Bamba,” by Richard Valenzuela, but released under the name Ritchie Valens, the records sold well. From the start, Valens showed a talent for writing and performing both hard-charging songs and soft ballads, which would also be the case with some of the Mexican-American performers that came after him, but is not that common in rock and roll. The Beatles, with their harmonies and two lead singers, could do it, as evidenced by “Twist and Shout,” and “This Boy,” or “I’m Down,” and “Yes, It Is;” the Rolling Stones, not so much, although “Wild Horses” was a nice surprise. Among Valens’ contemporaries, only Buddy Holly and Fats Domino, if you include rhythm and blues ballads, had similar range.
To this day, no rock and roll performer, whether white, black, or Latino, has accomplished what Valens and Keane accomplished with “La Bamba” in 1958. Not only was the song recorded entirely in Spanish, three decades before some record company person invented the category of Rock En Espanol, but the words are almost impossible to decipher, even for those fluent in the language. In that sense, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” holds a distinct advantage over “ba da ba da ba La Bamba.”
Yet the song reached #22 on the Billboard pop charts in 1959; an impressive showing that cannot be solely attributed to buyer response to Valens’ tragic death – along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper – in a plane crash on February 3rd of that year. The bounce of the opening guitar riff, the push-and-pull rhythm, and the quick, amplified solo, which sounds louder than the rest of the record, exceeded the standards of late-50s’ rock and roll.
When Valens wrote and recorded “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna,” his other two hits, and transcribed and recorded “La Bamba,” he was 17-years-old. Other than 11-year-old Michael Jackson, who didn’t write the early great hits of the Jackson Five, and the various teen idols since the 1950s, who were packaged and controlled by management, no one accomplished as much at such a young age as did Valens. Rock and roll is music of and by youth nevertheless, having released three innovative hit songs, including a co-writer credit, before one has reached his or her 18th birthday is almost without precedent. John and Paul, or Mick and Keith, had barely met by the age of 17, let alone begun to write songs together.
During the years Valens was writing, recording, and touring, 1956, 1957, and 1958, Los Angeles was at best a minor contributor to the national rock and roll scene. Aside from the Penguins, who put out one of the first significant Doo Wop records, “Earth Angel,” in 1955, and Ricky Nelson, Valens’s contemporary, LA was not producing much rock and roll. A 17-year-old who had already recorded two albums’ worth of strong material, and was giving fans hope that rock and roll wouldn’t die at a time when Elvis was in the army, Jerry Lewis was in trouble for marrying his 13-year-old cousin, and Little Richard was getting right with God, had every reason to be excited about the future. Then he took his seat on a small plane departing in a blinding Iowa snowstorm.
The shocking death of Ritchie Valens left a hole in Mexican-American rock and roll not unlike what happened to liberal politics following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in the spring of 1968. Young Mexican-Americans fans and performers had been ecstatic about Valens’s rise, both for what it meant to rock and roll in general and the suggestion that others from the community could achieve local or even national success. Before Valens, rock and roll fans had already shown a willingness to embrace performers who did not fit the all-American ideal – hip-swiveling southern white boy singing “dangerous” black music (Elvis); effeminate, aggressive, hyper-sexual black screamer and shouter (Little Richard); maniacal Southern hell-raiser who liked the young girls (Jerry Lee Lewis). There was no reason to think that Valens, if he maintained his high standards, could not also acquire fans in Maine and Missouri, despite his seemingly odd background. Once that happened, it would be easier for the next talented Mexican-American rock and roll performer to find an audience thousands of miles from the barrios of Southern California.
After Valens’s died, a malaise permeated the Mexican-American community, especially the teen-agers, combined with a damaging fatalism, which interpreted the crash as a warning of the dangers of pursuing stardom. That response was one of the reasons that Mexican-American rock and roll largely went on hiatus during the early 1960s. The other was what Mexican-Americans regarded as the inferior quality of the product, with few exceptions. They were appalled by the Dick Clark stable of teen idols, and not all that excited by surf groups, the Four Seasons, folk singers, or much else associated with pop music during the Kennedy years.
On February 7th, 1964, thousands of teens and pre-teens in East Los Angeles tuned into the Ed Sullivan Show. Most accounts of the Beatles’ historic appearance that night neglected to mention that among the millions of American viewers was a sizeable number with surnames such as Garcia, Rodriguez and Valenzuela. East LA was as ready for and excited by the arrival of the Beatles as was West LA and Orange County. Mexican-American kids hadn’t heard many songs by the Beatles, but they were aware the group had a facility for straightforward rock and roll ballads, just like Ritchie Valens. For example, the song “This Boy,” which was the A-side of one of the many Beatle singles released by Capitol Records in the winter and spring that year sounded a lot like Valens’ cover version of “We Belong Together,” especially the strum of soft chords on the rhythm guitar. There was an added attraction as well. Even Brian Epstein, the smart manager of the Beatles, who was responsible for putting the group in stylish suits and boots that would never have worked for Elvis, could not have predicted the impact of that look – plus those haircuts – had on the next generation of Mexican-American rock and roll performers.
Members of Thee Midniters, who actually formed the group in 1963, adapted the Beatles look, including the haircuts, a few weeks after the broadcast of the Ed Sullivan Show. The suits and boots were purchased at clothing stores in East LA. They did not, however, consciously attempt to reproduce the Beatles’ sound, which was influenced by the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. The musical roots of Thee Midniters – the group’s name was taken from Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, which recorded the first version of “The Twist” – could be found in obscure r’n’b ballads, early Motown, and the Rolling Stones. Their first and biggest local hit, an instrumental entitled “Whittier Boulevard,” the hottest cruising spot on the Eastside in the 1960s, was closely modeled on a Rolling Stones’ instrumental, “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” the Chicago address of Chess Records, where the English group recorded in 1964-65.
Thee Midniters featured one member on sax, one member on trumpet, a bassist, lead guitar player, rhythm guitar player, leader singer, keyboardist, and drummer. Supported by manager Eddie Torres, who had more talent for organization than musical production, Thee Midniters fused horn-based r’n’b, which was the preference of Mexican-Americans listeners from the 1950s, with the guitar-based rock sound of the 1960s, and added a versatile lead singer who could range across styles with astonishing ease. No other band of any color or skill in America could record an obscure r’n’b ballad one day, heavily amplified 60s’ punk the next day, and have it all sound natural and true. They mined the soul and pop charts for ideas and material. Late in their career, Thee Midniters even put out a Latin jazz instrumental, “Chicano Power,” written by their sax player, Romeo Prado. More than the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas or the Doors, Thee Midniters embodied the musical diversity of Southern California; Boyle Heights, Watts, the Valley, and the Sunset Strip.
Yet to this day they remain the great East LA band that few people know of beyond Southern California. According to various band members speaking 30 years after the fact, a combination of their own youthful ignorance and a controlling manager fearful of losing control kept Thee Midniters from achieving national success. None of their songs did nearly as well on the charts as “Land of a Thousand Dances” by Cannibal and the Headhunters or “Farmer John” by the Premiers. But neither of those groups compiled anywhere near the body of work of Thee Midniters, nor garnered the same level of respect among local musicians, including Cesar Rosas and David Hildalgo of Los Lobos, who as teen-agers used to crash Midniter recording sessions. Like their idols the Beatles, Thee Midniters started to come apart at the end of the 1960s. Various members were either burned out or wanted to pursue other musical opportunities. Toward the end, they became known as much for their foray into Chicano politics, through songs such as “The Ballad of Cesar Chavez” and “Chicano Power,” as for their slow and fast dance numbers.
Tom Waldman is co-author with David Reyes of "Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock 'n' Roll from Southern California", published by University of New Mexico Press in 1998, 2nd edition, 2009. The book was the basis for the one-hour documentary "Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East LA," broadcast nationally on PBS in December 2008. A musical about Cannibal and the Headhunters and the night they opened for the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl is currently being developed.