ON 3 February 1959 Richard Valenzuela died in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly whose final recordings foretold the Beatless sixties; a more pop than rock era for which Valens would have prescribed the remedy.
He was a sixteen year old who passed for twenty-eight. A thick set, brutish greaser who carried on rockin' whilst, all around him, pretty boys like Fabian and Avalon ponced up the music.
A look at the situation of the Mexican American – scarcely white by U.S. standards – belies America's devotion to freedom and democracy. From San Fernando, Valen's background typified the Mexican-American struggle and his music contained the guts and emotion that by 1958, white rock 'n' rollers had begun to suppress.
'Donna', his biggest hit, was a pensive ode with a melody that lingered more than most fifties ballads but his other side was more than apparent in 'Ooh My Head', 'Framed', 'Cry, Cry, Cry' and numerous instrumentals. Tinny, chugging spaced-out rock immeasurably better if not unlike much of the surfin' material that followed. His voice – from intense, gutteral Richard Penniman hysterics to a whisper, thin and uncertain of pitch – inspired many imitators, largely among his Chicano fellows.
Bob Keene, owner of Delfi, had signed Chan Romero with a view to perpetuating Valens' heavy image within three months of the latter's death. There were two pulsating hard rock sides from Romero – 'Hippy, Hippy Shake' (4119) and 'My Little Ruby (1126) – before he moved to Philips. Other Valens admirers included Eddie Quinteros (on Brent) and Chris Montez (on Monogram) whose less than robust voice was best suited on 'Donna' type ballads like 'You're The One'.
Valens had a sound that was very nearly entirely his but Chicano rock 'n' roll is not a specific genre. Rather a collection of sounds. "There's a hundred thousand good cats that ain't made it" according to Doug Sahm, alias Sir Douglas. "Cats like Freddie Fender, from Harlingen. He's the original Chicano cat, had a voice like nobody else." Yet Fender is typical of the diverse influences upon Mexican-American singers. Indeed, every side he has made sounds like someone else. 'Mean Woman' (Imperial 5659 – leased by Duncan) is 'Heartbreak Hotel' were it not for Fender's perfect diction. The flip 'Holy One' replicates the mood of early West Coast black groups.
Other Duncan material is equally derivative. 'You're Something Else For Me' (leased to Argo) borrows a verse from 'Baby Let's Play House' and the chord sequence to 'Ain't That Lovin' You Baby'. A handful of records on Norco revived the hits of the Five Satins, Jimmy Reed, Rosco Gordon, Jessie Hill and Larry Williams. In between stretches an Angola (for impersonation?) Fender goes on and on. One song in particular – 'A Man Can Cry' – bears a resemblance to the stuff Mickey Gilley is doing now and this sort of slow, rambling East Texas ballad crops up in most Chicano repertoires.
The most expressive example – perhaps one of the greatest of all popular songs – is 'Talk To Me'. Sunny and the Sunglows (alias Sunliners) revived this Little Willie John standard in '63. They were all Mexicans. Sunny Ozuna, Gil Fernandez, Al Luna, Oscar Villanuera and half a dozen other compatriots had been toiling away in cantinas for a lifetime before producer Huey Meaux (pronounced Mose) gave them 'Talk To Me'. If this sort of sound makes you sweat/cry there's another to be found on Mendocino (Mercury 20160) by the Sir Douglas Quintet.
"You cain't live in Texas if you don't have lots of soul", Sir Douglas has said. By and large one wonders if he lives there any more for despite (or because of) Huey Meaux's production, the Sir Douglas Quintet usually come across like Merseybeat crud. They even boast about gettin' that English sound. But on the Mendocino album they failed. The track to hear is 'Texas Me'. It's a melancholic dream with a heart-tugging fiddle and a tape flutter that distorts Doug's gruff, phlegmatic voice. But they've not done anything else to beat it and whilst personal respect for Doug may have trebled since his Rolling Stone spread (number 86, July 1971) his music still largely fails to excite.
Rock fans don't have a lot to say about Sam the Sham – Domingo Samudio – either and this neglect is more difficult to understand. Sure, MGM tarted him up; crammed his revue with dolly-birds and made him drive around like something out of Tutenkahmen's tomb. Rather late in the day he told them what they could do with their f – turban. Exit Sam the Sham. These trivialities buried his music which had a lot of the brash, flash, funny ineptness that endeared far worse rockers to many fans.
He could be really bad. Two of his albums are a Jaggeristic mess. But hold on. Woolly Bully(MGM 1007). Aaah! It's a jewel. He couldn't cope with 'Long Tall Sally' but I'm not so sure I don't prefer his versions of 'I Found A Love', 'Haunted House' and 'Gangster Of Love' to those by the Fancons, Johnny Fuller or Johnny Watson. Certainly, the comic possibilities of the last two songs had not been so well presented since the Coasters and, for tongue-in-cheek jog-a-longs like these, restrained Mexican voices are as arresting as those of black blues singers.
Detecting Chicano origins in other singers is mainly a matter of guesswork. Pico Pete, known as a Little Richard imitator, could well be from South of The Panhandle if his version of Buck Owen's 'Hot Dog' – the flip of 'Chicken Little' (Jet 100) – is anything to go by. Same goes for Little Jimmy Merritt and the Cuba Sanchez ork. His Fancy Free (KRC 5004) catalogues rock titles like 'Whole Lotta Shakin' and 'Queen Of The Hop' in a manner which would have appealed to a greasy part Mexican – part Indian kid from Pacoima High who dug Little Richard the most.
© Bill Millar, 1971