In the 1960’s a group of San Gabriel High School students led by bassist Freddy Sanchez formed a Chicano band called the VIP’s. The VIP’s included guitarist Micky Lespron. Their Mexican-American rhythm and blues style of music was missing a key component. Freddy met a keyboardist from a Chicano surf band (Micky & the Invaders) and invited him to join the VIP’s. His name was Bobby Espinosa. This began a life-long professional and personal friendship and brotherhood.
With an expanded line-up, the VIP’s were invited to Eddie Davis’ recording studio in Hollywood to record a rendition of Gerald Wilson’s song Viva Tirado. Gerald had written this jazz piece to honor the great Mexican bullfighter, Jose Ramon Tirado, who refused to kill the bull he was fighting. The recording session was magic and Eddie saw so much talent in this group of young Chicanos.
Eddie Davis recognized how racist our American society was towards Mexican-Americans. He knew that previous Latin groups had to hide their cultural identity just to get airplay in regional markets. He convinced the VIP’s to change their name to El Chicano in a daring move in order to confront the music industry and help American listeners come to grips with America’s second largest minority at that time.
El Chicano was born in a burst of cultural pride in 1970. Keep in mind that until the Chicano civil rights movement in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, the term Chicano had a negative connotation. Mexicanos used Chicano as a put down for Mexican Americans and Anglo society viewed Chicano as a radical and anti-American term. This group of six musicians helped us to understand ‘somos Chicanos’.
KAPP Records released the album Viva Tirado by El Chicano. The group’s original line-up included: Ersi Arvisu on tambourine and maracas and vocals on later productions; Andre Baeza on congas; John DeLuna on drums; Little Micky Lespron on guitar; Freddy Sanchez on electric bass; and Bobby Espinosa on the organ.
The year 1970 shared the birth of the band El Chicano as well as the Chicano Moratorium, an action to voice opposition to American aggression and in particular in opposition to the occupation of Vietnam. 1970 was also a year when the United Farmworker Movement educated America about the illegal slave wage practices and pesticide usage throughout our farmlands. 1970 marked the infancy of Chicano student and community organizations throughout the Southwest. Why do I mention these historical facts? If music is culture, and culture is a reflection of society, then the music of El Chicano was both a reflection and a reminder of what America was in 1970. As El Chicano toured the United States in the early 1970’s, they knew they had chosen the perfect band name.
Because of Viva Tirado’s national distribution and billboard success, El Chicano was invited to the prestigious Ohio Jazz Festival held at the old Crosley Field in Cincinnati in 1970. The promoters were shocked when a Chicano rock band showed up. Two minutes into their first song, they won over both the promoters and the crowd to their style of Chicano fusion. That scene was repeated that summer when they played the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. New Yorkers weren’t sure what the word Chicano meant but assumed they were a black group. Bobby recalled that audience members shouted “who are these Indians?”
By year’s end, El Chicano was named Jazz Group of the Year by music industry’s trade magazines Billboard and Record World. Bobby Espinosa tells us in the liner notes of the CD titled Chicano Chant that I was in my early teens when I first heard someone say, music is the universal language. A decade later, I found music to be a universal bond. Bobby was mature beyond his years. The music industry promotes musicians for many of the wrong reasons. Likewise, many musicians get into the industry for unprincipled reasons. Bobby held to a sound philosophical premise, which is the love of humanity and the love of La Raza through his love of music. As a child, he was raised in a home filled with many styles of music, from mariachi to jazz. Bobby believed that his “feel” for the material enabled both he and his band to take an audience through different musical dimensions and that all people could express themselves through that music.
In 1995, Bobby’s re-tooled El Chicano band played in Japan as a part of a Latin All-Stars Tour. He remembered the Japanese youth having a fervent passion for Chicano culture including low-riding and baggy clothes. At the end of a set, at the Blue Note in Tokyo, the Japanese youth sought Bobby’s autograph, but requested he sign his name graffiti-style. While in the United States, El Chicano had a wide range of acceptance and fan’s expectations. During some tours, fans wanted Bobby to play Mexican and Tex-Mex music. Some crowds wanted to hear cumbias and rancheras. Bobby had to explain that they were Americans of Mexican descent and that El Chicano’s music in the main, reflected the urban Chicano experience. The band El Chicano knew what it was to be ….a Chicano.
Although El Chicano could aptly cover songs from Gerald Wilson and Horace Silver, from Van Morrison to Tito Puente, their renditions were puro Chicano. Bobby Espinosa was also a talented composer. Bobby and company performed for four decades and produced a number of albums including: Viva Tirado (1970); Revolucion (1971); Celebracion (1972); El Chicano (1973); Cinco (1974); Best of Everything (1975); Pyramid (of Love and Friends) (1976); This is…El Chicano (1977); Viva El Chicano (1989); and Painting the Moment (1998). In my humble opinion, Painting the Moment is Bobby’s crowning jewel. It showcases his passion and love of this music. This I consider to be his masterpiece. If Micky Lespron’s Wes Montgomery-esque guitar playing was the heart of the original El Chicano Band, Bobby Espinosa’s Hammond B-3 organ was their soul.
Bobby Espinosa is not a well-recognized name in the American music lexicon. He devoted his life to the joy of music, but in the main he was forgotten, ignored or just plain dis-invited to the table of American music. I’ve given a few facts and anecdotes of Bobby’s musical career, but one hour can not do justice to explain who he was.
Bobby died February 27, 2010 at the age of 60. Richard “Thee Mr.” Duran, a long time friend of Bobby’s recalls in Latino L.A., published on March 1st, that Bobby was just a guy with a pet turtle, who had partied with Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and had Poncho Sanchez join the band while performing a fundraising event. But more importantly, there was no stage too small for Bobby. He was just plain good gente. I saw Bobby perform in 2009 at the Palladium in Denver when he joined a super-group of musicians. Once again, Bobby’s keyboard was ‘la alma’ of the night. Let’s not forget this man who never forgot us!
BooksBlackout in Precinct Puerto Rico
Minotaur, March 30, 2010
The publisher gives us this much about Steven Torres' latest novel: It’s Friday night when sixteen-year old Luisa Ferré stumbles into Sheriff Luis Gonzales’ path—naked, battered, and so traum
atized she won’t say a word. Between partygoers and out of towners, it isn’t long before the list of suspects begins to grow. This is the fifth in this series.
Pretty skimpy, no? There's a lot more to this book, take it from me, and I haven't even read it yet. Steven's Luis Gonzalo (not Gonzales - the publisher got the main character's name wrong - man, where is Maxwell Perkins when you need him?) series is one of the best ongoing fiction series out there, in any genre. I expect a good yarn, great action, and very human ups-and-downs for the Sheriff. At least one other reviewer (who has read the book) agrees. Check out Bill Crider's review of Blackout in Precinct Puerto Rico at this link. One unusual bit - Steven says that he wrote this book first, but here it is being published as number 5 in the series.
Eos, March, 2010
Meanwhile, Mario Acevedo continues to make huge waves with his Felix Gomez series, now at book number five. His latest is revving up for an even more impressive run. Example: Plenty of cliffhangers keep the story moving in this horror fan's perfect vacation read - Publishers Weekly. Or, Acevedo delivers a howling good time - Scott Nicholson writing for the International Thriller Writers. Latest news is that the Felix Gomez series is under development for a graphic novel - can't wait for that. Mario will be at the Tattered Cover, Colfax, Denver, on March 22 at 7:30 pm. As the man said, you can expect a howling good time at one of Mario's events. And go to Mario's website for a special offer involving other Urban Fantasy authors - here's the link.
I'll add a short note about my own book -- I'm scheduled for the Tattered Cover, Colfax, Denver, for May 20 at 7:30 pm. I plan to read and discuss my latest, King of the Chicanos. You can find out more about the King at the Wings Press website, here. Here's some of what the publisher says about the book:
Both heroic and tragic, King of the Chicanos, captures the spirit, energy, and imagination of the 1960s' Chicano movement -- a massive and intense struggle across a broad spectrum of political and cultural issues -- through the passionate story of the "King of the Chicanos," Ramón Hidalgo. From his very humble beginnings through the tumultuous decades of being a migrant farm worker, door-to-door salesman,prison inmate, political hack, and radical activist, the novel relates Hidalgo's personal failures and self-destructive personality amid the political turmoil of the times. With a gradual acceptance of his destiny as a leader and hero of the people, this impassioned novel relates the maturation of one man while encapsulating the fever of the Chicano movement.
Read even if your eyes bleed.