As the Lowrider culture began to emerge in East Los Angeles, so too did the musical sound that would eventually define this up and coming movement. Filled with cruise nights, social dances, and parties at the park, East Los Angeles became the place to be during this time period. The Zoot Suit era and Pachuco movements were transforming themselves into a new culture now, a culture filled with custom automobiles and positivity, and a culture in desperate need of a new soundtrack that reflected this social change. This culture, now known as Lowriding is indeed our religion, and three historical musical groups make up the early trinity of our musical background. These invaluable contributors to Lowrider culture are: Thee Midniters, Cannibal and the Headhunters, and legendary Latino balladeer Chris Montez. The music from these three camps became the theme music for East Los Angeles, and was heard pouring out of every car, truck, home, and restaurant in the area during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Thee Midniters began their musical career in the 1960’s using a blend of timbales, horns, congas, keyboards, and electric guitars to define a new, distinctively Chicano rock sound. Led by band leader and vocalist Willie Garcia, Thee Midniters became a soulful entity and force to be reckoned with on the local music scene. “Little Willie G” as he was known, won crowds over with his plaintiff wailing, bringing out the heart and soul of any song he sang. Guitarist George Dominguez was ahead of his time as a guitar player, forming riffs and progressions that would later influence Chicano groups like Los Lobos, and drummer George Salazar provided the masterful back beat for this ground breaking group. Thee Midniters rose to fame thanks to jarring live performances of local favorites, and George Salazar’s live drumming on this songs alone was reason enough to go see this group in concert. They had the chops of a group like Chicago, but stayed true to their local roots, birthing the local anthem “Whittier Boulevard.” Never before had Los Angeles seen a group as musically sophisticated, or as Chicano as Thee Midniters, and their sound resonated from every corner in East Los Angeles. Pioneering Disc Jockey Casey Kasem once praised the boys saying “They were the best band I ever hired,” as he promoted early area concerts. The band followed the success of “Whittier Boulevard” with “Love Special Delivery” and “That’s All,” which both became huge neighborhood hits, and garnered cheers for the group as they played shows all across California. Their place among the pantheon of great Lowrider-based music was solidified with their inclusion in the “Trini Lopez presents the Legends of Latin Rock” PBS special, alongside Tierra, and El Chicano.
Chris Montez was born Ezekiel Christopher Montanez in 1941, in the city of Hawthorne, CA. As a teenager, he started out by singing ranchera music with his brothers, which honed his exquisite, high tenor vocal chops. While he loved singing ranchera with his family, Chris was inspired by the Lowrider culture and image surrounding him at the time, and even more inspired by the success of Rock n’ Roll pioneer Ritchie Valens, and decided to begin a career as a singer. His first taste of success came in the form of his 1962 breakout hit, “Let’s Dance” which he cut under the A&M records label. Chris began selling out shows in Southern California, and was also able to begin hitting the national circuit, thanks to the crossover success of this smash hit. After he returned from tour, he hit the studio once again, hoping to duplicate the magic he had created with “Let’s Dance.” Legendary musician and label director, Herb Alpert, of Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, pulled Chris aside in the studio one day and suggested a different approach. He praised the singer’s amazingly smooth high-tenor range and suggested that he try a few slow numbers and ballads instead. Chris listened reluctantly, but was willing to give it a try. His legacy as one of the premier Latino balladeer’s was born, and Chris saw instant success with songs like “Call Me” from his 1966 album “The More I See You.” Deejays began playing it from coast to coast, and Chris’ soft high tenor often led to confusion among the deejays as to whether Chris was male or female. He was that smooth. The ladies loved Chris however, and they swooned at his concert appearances as he found three top 40 hits off this album. “The More I See You” peaked at #2 on the U.S. adult contemporary charts, as did “Call Me,” while “There Will Never Be Another You” reached #4. Montez followed up this success with three more solid albums under the A&M label, reaching the top 40 once again with the title cut from his “Time After Time” album. Chris also scored a hit in 1974 in Brazil with the hit “Loco Para Ti,” and recorded two more albums, “Raza: Ay No Digas” and “Cartas De Amor,” before ending his professional recording career. Chris can still be seen performing live, and his legacy and cultural relevance lives on throughout the Lowrider culture.
Cannibal and the Headhunters honed a rock n’roll style that was distinctly recognized as the sound of East Los Angeles. Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia formed the group alongside Richard “Scar” Lopez, and Robert “Rabbit” Jaramillo, who used their Ramona Housing Projects up-bringing as the influence behind a new, Chicano-brand of rhythm and blues. Bobby and Scar honed their singing abilities as part of a four-part harmony quartet that they called “Bobby and the Classics, before ultimately teaming up with Cannibal and formed the group as its know today. They were dubbed “The Sound of East L.A.” in the Los Angeles Times in 1964, thanks to the success of songs like “The Land of 1000 Dances” which reached #30 on the Billboard charts in the spring of 1965. The song became a huge smash, and instant hit in Los Angeles, allowing the group to spread their wings and tour as far away as the east coast of the U.S. promoting their brand of Chicano rock. The group also opened up for The Beatles on their 2nd U.S. tour, which garnered the group crossover success and critical acclaim. While the world got to know this legendary group up close and personal thanks to their touring efforts, we still claim them as our own, and hold them in high regard as one of our favorite and most influential groups. Catch them performing live, even to this day, and you can see why Cannibal and The Headhunters are truly an integral part of our wonderful culture.