March 25, 2005

Lalo Guerrero: The Father of Chicano Music

(Editor’s Note: Lalo Guerrero, 88, died March 17, 2005 at a Rancho Mirage convalescent home after gradually declining health. Lalo’s son Mark wrote the following article a few months ago.)

By Mark Guerrero

After having written seven articles featuring Chicano musical artists, I think it’s about time I write about my dad, Chicano music legend Lalo Guerrero.

Lalo Guerrero is rightfully recognized as the “Father of Chicano Music” because no other Chicano artist has come close to writing and recording more great songs in virtually every genre of Latin music, including salsa, norteña, banda, rancheras, boleros, corridos, cumbias, mambos, cha cha chas, socially relevant songs, swing, rock & roll and blues.

He has also created children’s music, comedy songs and parodies, in addition to being a world-class singer. Generations of children in Mexico and the U.S. grew up with his “Ardillitas” (squirrels), and his parodies such as, “Tacos for Two,” “Pancho Claus,” “Elvis Perez” and “There’s No Tortillas,” have brought laughter to Chicanos and Anglos alike.

His songs about Cesar Chavez and the farm workers, the braceros, martyred journalist Ruben Salazar, and the plight of illegal aliens, have chronicled Chicano history and inspired his people.

He’s the only Chicano I know of who has written songs that have become standards in Mexico. His “Cancion Mexicana” was covered by legendary singers such as, Lucha Reyes and Lola Beltran, while “Nunca Jamás” was recorded by the equally legendary Trio Los Panchos, Javier Solis and Jose Feliciano. As Jesus Velo, bassist for Chicano rock band Los Illegals, recently quipped, “Lalo’s the first Chicano to cross back” (as opposed to cross over). His Pachuco music of the late 40s and early 50s provided the sound track to Luis Valdez’ late 70s play and movie, “Zoot Suit.” All the above offers just a glimpse of over 700 songs he’s recorded since his first record in 1939.

He has performed all over the United States, Mexico and in Paris, France. He has received countless awards, including being declared a National Folk Treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., the National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, the Nosotros Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Medal of the Arts, presented by President Clinton. He has been invited to the White House three times, by Carter, Bush and Clinton.

This is not bad for a kid who was born and raised in the Barrio Libre section of Tucson, Arizona to a large family with limited financial means. His father, who was born in La Paz, Baja California, worked for Southern Pacific Railroad as a boilermaker. Lalo didn’t finish high school due to the depression and had no formal musical education.

His first group, Los Carlistas, represented Arizona at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and, while in New York, appeared on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour on national radio. He appeared in a few Hollywood movies, including, “Boots and Saddles” starring Gene Autry and “His Kind of Woman” starring Robert Mitchem and Jane Russell.

When he moved to Los Angeles in the 40s, he recorded about 200 songs for Imperial Records, as a soloist and with the Trio Imperial. He performed as a solo front man for years at the legendary Bamba Club near Olvera Street and later, in the 50s, formed his own orchestra and played for years at the Paramount Ballroom in East L.A. and toured extensively around the southwest. In the 60s, with the proceeds from his national hit, “Pancho Lopez,” he bought his own night club called “Lalo’s,” where his orchestra regularly performed. In 1972, after ten successful years, he sold it and moved to Palm Springs, California.

My musical relationship with my dad goes all the way back to the 60’s when my teenage band, Mark & the Escorts, backed him on several records and even toured with him a few times around California and Arizona. It was great experience for a bunch of 14 year olds.

The most successful song we recorded with him in that era was “La Minifalda de Reynalda.” It was a big hit in the Southwest and has been covered by many artists in Mexico.

In the late 70s and early 80’s, I collaborated with him on many of his children’s records, “Las Ardillitas de Lalo Guerrero.” Typically it would go something like this: I would write the music of a song, usually rock, and he would write the Spanish lyric. I would put together a band and cut the tracks. We’d fly to Mexico City, where his label, EMI Capitol, was based, and do the vocals. Yes Virginia, I would be one of the “Ardillitas.” We’d stay a week, recording and enjoying the great city.

My dad has also written Spanish lyrics for some of my rock songs, such as the all-Spanish version of “On the Boulevard.” We also collaborated on a ballad entitled, “Receta de Amor,” which was my music and his lyric. Also in the early 80s, during the Fernandomania era, we each wrote a song about Dodger pitcher, Fernando Valenzuela. It was released as a 45 and sold at Dodger Stadium. Dad did the vocals on his “Ole Fernando” and my “Fernando, El Toro.” The arrangements were done by Jose Hernandez, founder and leader of the great mariachi, Sol de Mexico. In 2001, these recordings were used in a documentary on Fernando Valenzuela entitled “Fernandomania” on the ESPN Classic cable network.

As far as live performances with my dad are concerned, we performed in 1985 at the Southwest Museum in Highland Park, California, where I did a set of my material, followed by him doing a set of his. The program was entitled, “Two Generations of Mexican-American Music in L.A.”

In 1990, we performed with the same format at the Barnsdall Art Center Theater in Los Angeles. In 1998, my dad asked me to perform with him in Paris, France at the Cite de la Musique. We put together a small band, in which I played lead guitar and was musical director. I also performed two of my songs. The tremendous response we received from the French audience led to enlarging the band to six pieces and performing about once every couple of months throughout ‘98 and to the present time.

We’ve performed at the new Getty Center in L.A., the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs, my alma mater, Cal State L.A. and my dad’s hometown, Tucson, Arizona, to name a few. At every concert, I did two or three of my songs in the show.

I feel very fortunate that circumstances made it possible for me to perform with my dad.

To read, hear and see more about Lalo Guerrero, please log on to http://cemaweb.library.ucsb.edu/guerrero.html.  This is the website at the California Ethnic and Multi-cultural Archives, Dept. of Special Collections, Donald C. Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara.

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