Going back to our roots as promised, this month’s installment of Lowrider’s Greatest Hits pays homage to Latin rock pioneers El Chicano. This groundbreaking group formed in East Los Angeles in the late 1960s, and featured a five-member line-up, made up of some incredibly talented musicians. Original members Bobby Espinosa, Freddie Sanchez, Mickey Lespron, Andre Baeza, and John De Luna, fancied themselves as “The V.I.P.s” before ultimately defining themselves as El Chicano in 1970. Using their own distinct blend of rock, jazz, soul, funk, blues, and Afro-Cuban salsa, El Chicano is a band that cannot be labeled or categorized; they are a group who simply make great music. First making their niche in Los Angeles, the group played such legendary Eastside venues as the Montebello Ballroom, The Boulevard Theater, Kennedy Hall, and The Big and Little Union Halls, before receiving recognition on the national stage.
El Chicano broke out into the national music scene with the release of their 1970 debut smash “Viva Tirado.” The album, released on MCA records, became a huge success, thanks in part to the chart-topping prowess of its title track. “Viva Tirado” was originally recorded by jazz artist Gordon Wilson as a tribute to Mexican Bullfighter Jose Ramon Tirado, but El Chicano put their own spin on it, breathing new life into the recording. Backed by the sweltering heat of Bobby Espinosa’s signature Hammond B3 organ and Mickey Lespron’s slinky jazz guitar, “Viva Tirado” went on to spend 13 weeks at number one on the Los Angeles charts, and is the first song to ever make appearances on all Billboard charts except for Country and Western. The song reached #28 on the Billboard Pop charts, and #20 on Billboard R&B chart-no small feat when you consider the fact that the song was a jazz instrumental and had no vocals! The song again hit the charts twenty years later, as it was sampled for Latino Rapper Kid Frost’s hit single “La Raza” in 1990.
Thanks to the overwhelming success of “Viva Tirado” in so many different markets, the group began to tour extensively, earning a name for themselves and putting money in their pockets. They played the famed Apollo Theater in 1970, and became the first Chicano group to do so. The band released “Revolucion” in 1971 and “Celebration” in 1972, before again catching fire with the release of their self-titled album “El Chicano” in 1973. This album contained the brown-eyed soul classic “Tell Her She’s Lovely” which reached #40 on the Billboard charts and became a huge cult hit for the band’s Latin fan base. On a par with the popularity of any hit by WAR, “Tell Her She’s Lovely” featured soulful lead vocals by Jerry Salas, and could be heard in every lowrider on any given “date night.” The group also scored hits with their rendition of Van Morrison’s smash “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Sabor a Mi,” a beautiful ballad featuring the plaintiff vocal stylings of Ersi Avizu.
With a career spanning over three decades, and 14 albums, El Chicano has no plans of slowing up. Their Steely Dan-like philosophy of keeping a few core members and hiring on extras as needed have helped them diversify their sound and audience like no other. Though the group has achieved worldwide recognition, they remain truly one of Los Angeles’ own. They saw the legacy of their success and place in history with the release of 1997’s “Latin Legends Live!” alongside other Lowrider favorites Malo and Tierra. El Chicano has also appeared on the soundtrack for Donnie Brasco, and the group’s first foray into film scoring saw them helm 1995’s “Mi Vida Loca.” This group is an intricate part of Lowrider culture and history, and has been supplying cruise night soundtracks for many years, and undoubtedly, they will be doing that for many more. El Chicano’s music embodies the color and texture of the cloth we have woven into Lowrider culture, and listening to their early music will give anybody the feel of what life was like back in the early days on the boulevard. The title of their greatest hits sums up our sentiments regarding this amazing group the best-“Viva El Chicano!”