Spotlight on the Brown
L.A.'s unsinkable Hank Castro, Mr. Brown Eyed Soul
Frankie Firme, Contributing Editor
A couple weekends ago, I'm standing on the wings backstage at the historic Hemet Theater in Hemet, California, overlooking a scene I've witnessed so many times for almost 34 years...
Published on LatinoLA: February 16, 2015
...Hank Castro, L.A.'s "Mr. Brown Eyed Soul" is crooning the classic Oldies onstage, the stage front and dance floor is crowded by fans of all ages, mostly women, as they take flash pictures, dance, and sing along...just like I've seen so many times before.
Born Henry "Hank" Castro Jr. at East L.A.'s landmark General Hospital in 1953, Hank grew up an only child with a single mother in South Central Los Angeles. His mother came from a large family, and Hank fondly remembers regular weekend visits to East Los Angeles to visit his aunt & 13 cousins over the years, where he was exposed to the birth & heyday of East Los Angeles's "East Side Sound" music scene.
Hank started singing at age 4 at the advice of a Doctor after his mother made repeated trips to hospital emergency rooms with little Hank because of his chronic asthma and respiratory attacks as a young child.
"I couldn't run around & play with all the other kids, but I had to exercise my lungs somehow, so singing along with the radio & TV was what I did," Hank tells LatinoLA.
By the time he was in the 5th grade, Hank was being called upon regularly to sing the National Anthem at grammar school assemblies.
"I got pretty good at singing & dancing, I taught my older cousins how to dance, and they would take me to dances in East L.A. Once they left me alone at a dance so they could wander off and make out (giggles), so since I didn't know anybody, I took a chance and asked the local band that was playing if I could sing a song. They let me do 'Oooh, Baby, Baby'... and I met some pretty girls after that. THAT reinforced my desire to be a singer", Hank laughs.
He fondly remembers living in the same South Central Los Angeles neighborhood as Thee Midniter's lead singer Lil Willie Garcia on 43rd St & Long Beach Boulevard. "I remember seeing Thee Midniters on TV, and I would pass him on the street and would tell him 'When I grow up, I want to sing with the Midniters', and Willie would smile and say 'Ok, little brother'...we even dated sisters of the same family for a short while," Hank laughs. "Willie snuck me into a Midniters gig at the Little Union Hall in Vernon once when I was in Junior High school...I carried in a couple of microphone stands on stage...the view from the stage struck me as a place I wanted to be on a regular basis...and I knew I wanted to be a singer on stages."
After the infamous 1965 Watts Riots, Hank's mother moved to the south East L.A. neighborhood of Huntington Park, where Hank sang with his first band, The Majestics.
"We got pretty good, and gigged a lot for being young guys. The height of our success was when we were invited to compete in East L.A. College's 1969 Battle of the Bands, which was a REALLY big thing back in the 1960's. A lot of East L.A. musicians still performing today cut their performing teeth there," Hank remembers. "Chicano rock & rollers had nowhere else to go in those days to compete for recognition & exposure in L.A., so the competition & performances were real top level."
"We made it to the semi-finals, where we competed against such popular East L.A. bands as the V.I.P.'s (later to become EL CHICANO),The Ambertones, The Counts, The Royal Checkmates, and The Cresendos, among others. We were the only band from the south side, so we were made to feel very unwelcome. I remember the guys from the East Side always dressed so fine & formal, so they laughed at us in our casual clothes and used pawn shop instruments & amplifiers as we walked in. They had taken over the green room & dressing rooms, so when we asked where we could change and hang our clothes, they directed us to a broom/supply closet. I'll never forget that," Hank recounts.
"Anyways, we all agreed to play our hearts out, to not be intimidated by the other guys, and we did just that. Being that we didn't know who or how the voting went, we played our brief set, packed up, and jumped back in our old Chevy truck to go home when one of the judges came running out hollering, 'Where you going? You guys won the semi-finals!' Man! You could feel the hate in the air from the East-siders, and I truly believe we only lost the finals because the other bands had brought in so many ringers in the audience, and they somehow swayed the judges...but second place that day among that level of talent was like winning the World Series. We came back to South L.A. as conquering heroes. We went back 2 years later in 1971 and won the whole thing!"
As a senior at Huntington Park High School, Hank became the leader of UMAS (United Mexican American Students) and was expelled after he helped organize a couple of student walkouts & protests. He transferred to Wilson High School in El Sereno where he joined up with his next band, COLD DUCK, in late 1971.
"My time with Cold Duck was a lot of fun. We gigged regularly, met & opened up for some big names, and I learned so much.We got a record deal, and were about to go on tour with Joe Cocker and L.T.D. when our manager-agent died, and we lost our contract. Around 1973, Little Willie G had joined up with MALO, and I got the chance to join Thee Midniters on their brief cross-over Tejano tour and TV appearances, until they took a brief hiatus in 1974 after a short Oldies but Goodies Tour with Mary Wells, The Penguins, Ralfi Pagan, and the Crests."
In the summer of 1982, Thee Midniters made a highly publicized comeback, this time with Hank fronting the band in place of Lil' Willie G. This is where Hank Castro and I first met.
The place was Lincoln Park in East L.A., home to a large & loyal following of Lil' Willie G and Thee Midniters fans. Despite other scheduled acts, it was evident that the crowd was here to see Thee Midniters. I was working as stage security for the day, and the buzz going around the slightly intoxicated crowd of Veteranos was that Willie was not going to be here, and a "new guy" was stepping up.... A VER!!
Anticipation bordered on hostility as Thee Midniters opened up with "La Bamba", and then two instrumental songs before band leader Jimmy Espinosa introduced the "new guy", Hank Castro, (who was waiting off stage) in the middle of the song "Chicano Power"...
...enter on stage a young, muscular Hank Castro, black slicked back hair, dressed in a black sleeveless t-shirt, high-waisted black pleated baggy pants, spit-shined Stacey Adams shoes and a pair of dark sunglasses to face a large crowd of fans of the guy he was replacing....
Smiling & dancing his way across stage with a style not seen since Lil' Ray or Jackie Wilson, Hank got past curious stares and a couple of initial "boos", but kept smiling & dancing when he suddenly made a spin and strutted up to the microphone in 2 long steps just as the band transitioned into the familiar beginning of Midniter classic " The Town I Live In"....EVERYBODY waited for the ending....
BAMM! He nailed it! (that took a lot of huevos!)...and he has been a beloved East L.A. favorite ever since.
"I remember that day," Hanks laughs as we reminisce."I didn't know what to expect...Willie G was a legend even then."
After Thee Midniters took another hiatus after some successful tours, Hank performed with various groups as a guest artist, briefly formed another group, Hanko & The Boomers, recording 2 albums, before entering and winning the 1999 National TV Star Search competition (precursor to today's American Idol).
In 1999-2000, he performed briefly with Steve Salas, Rocky Padilla, and Cory Silva as one of the "Bad Boyz of East L.A. Oldies."
In 2002, he recorded a Christmas Album and a solo album featuring Willie & Susan Mondragon, which I was privileged to debut on my first radio show at KCLA FM in Hollywood, both which are still sought after today.
"I've had my share of personal problems and demons, for sure...who hasn't? I Thank GOD I've lived & survived this long despite some of the hard times I've endured. The music business is a wonderful, fun, artistic, but DANGEROUS place to be sometimes. It can be unfair, uncaring, and personally destructive. I've been blessed to have met & learned so much from many talented artists that I respectfully wish that they R.I.P., and I deeply respect the artists that have survived in the business for many years and continue to perform, tour, and support me and each other. That's the nature of a true artist...struggle, survive, and support while we continue to make the music people love. We have so much wonderful Chicano talent that is ignored by Hollywood, the Grammys, and the commercial music business, that we're lucky for today's technology like the Internet, where people can make their own choices in music, and keep the good stuff alive without being told what to listen to."
Despite some concerning medical problems, Hank continues to tour & perform in the Chicano Oldies Concerts-Car Show Circuit throughout California, and as evidenced in Hemet last weekend, through two sets...Hank still gots it!
"I love music, I love performing, I love & appreciate the fans...music is in my blood. Because of the return of live Oldies Shows like the ones put on by current stars like RAY CARRION & his LATIN LEGENDS, the music stays alive for another generation to enjoy".
So with that, LatinoLA takes pride in a long overdue warrior's welcome into the Land of 1000 Dances of Aztlan to Mr. Hank Castro.
Frankie Firme, Contributing Editor:
Frankie Firme is the Al Capone of the microphone, and the Hitman of West Coast Chicano Soul
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