A Pioneer of the East L.A. Sound
Lil' Ray Jimenez
Frankie Firme & Ruben Molina
Once again, in my musical quest to "bring it back, and keep it alive" in Aztlan, the Music Gods have smiled down upon me, and with the help of friends, my efforts have once again brought me face to face with another Chicano legend and pioneer of the West Coast Brown sound of the 1960's, Ramon "Lil' Ray" Jimenez.
Published on LatinoLA: December 8, 2004
Recently, Hector Gonzalez (another Chicano legend) of Rampart Records and I were chitchatting on the phone, as he is an endless history source on Chicano music, and I'm always looking for "new" rare music from back in the day. The subject of East L.A.'s most beloved Chicano crooners came up, and he mentioned that a friend of his just finished recording a new Latino Christmas CD, and that this is the first time in over 35 years this Chicano legend has recorded anything new. When he told me who his friend was, you know I was hot on the hook~up!
I say "Chicano" in the sense that, prior to the 1960's, with the notable exception of Lalo Guerrero & Richie Valens, most Latino performers on the West Coast made their mark performing Spanish language music, for a Spanish speaking audience, and were all generically referred to as "Latin" in the American music market.
Those that dared to venture into the English language U.S. Rock n Roll scene of the late 1950's and early 1960's were considered anomalies, survived the sting of public discrimination, and had no predecessors as role models. They were true music pioneers, and have left an indelible legacy on the American music scene. Of course singing in Spanish was second nature to them, but it was their English language recordings that made them stand out.
When you talk about the West Coast Chicano Rock n Roll sound of the 1960's and first generation English language singers , names like Mark Guerrero, Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia, Lil' Willie G, Max Uballez, Rene and Ray, the Sisters, and the Salas Brothers inevitably come up time & time again. The conversation cannot be complete without the mentioning of Lil' Ray, who was once billed as "Little Elvis" when he started performing at the age of seven.
After the hook up, I went down & met Ray at his studio in East L.A. Hearing so many stories about his grand performances from my older brothers & friends, I was excited to finally meet the guy who recorded such classics as "Karen," "I Who Have Nothing", and "Loretta". The irony is that although I've played these tunes on my show from time to time over the years, I never got the chance to see him perform live.
He was as affable and enthusiastic about music as I had heard. Still performing after more than 40 years, his voice & spirit are still sharp. We talked like homies on the porch, his wit and memory engaging.
My good friend author Ruben Molina did some extensive research on Lil Ray for his book "The Old Barrio Guide to Lowrider Music 1950-1975". Here is an excerpt from his story on Lil' Ray (and I couldn't have said it better! Thanks Ruben!):
Ramon Jimenez was born and raised in the farm worker community of Delano, California. Lil' Ray's musical inspiration came to him at a young age. Before his seventh birthday, he was memorizing Rock n Roll songs by such acts as Little Richard, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley.
It was his older brother Vincent who took little Ray to a dance in Delano and convinced a local band called The Rythym Kings to let the seven year old up on stage. After the band agreed, little Ray wowed everybody by performing "Hound Dog" and "Ready Teddy", a pair of hits by his heroes. Ray soon became an integral part of the group, who billed him as "Little Elvis".
In 1961, eleven year old Ray was given his first chance to record. With the help of Ed Cobb of the Four Preps, Ray recorded a cover version of Big Jay McNeely's "There is Something on Your Mind" for Dore Records. The rest, shall we say, was history.
After moving to Los Angeles to live with his brother Robert (" I knew there was something else in life besides picking grapes", Ray now laughingly says), Ray's brother convinced the legendary Johnny Otis that his 13 year old kid brother could sing. Once on stage, Ray once again wowed the crowd, and impressed the famous band leader, who was compelled to give him an encore.
Along with performing, Ray was learning the art of stagemanship from some of the greatest R & B Music stars of the time: Jackie Wilson, Cleve Duncan, Vernon Green, and Ray Charles.
By the time he moved to East L.A. for his high school years, Ray was already an established singer. He soon met & hooked up with the Ceballos brothers, Romeo Prado and Larry Rendon, founding members of a group known as Benny & the Midnghters, later on to gain L.A. fame as Thee Midnighters. Lil' Ray recorded one song with Thee Midnighters on the Impact label, the classic "Loretta". Soon after, he moved on to a successful solo career, and was replaced by his musical proxy, Willie Garcia, who took a cue from Ray and became known as "Lil' Willie G". Thee Midniters did work with Ray one more time afterwards, helping him record his classic "Karen" on the Faro label.
"Life was full of surprises back then", Ray remembers. "Crossing musical racial lines was something new, and we were the experiment that worked for our promoters.Once during the mid 1960's, we somehow got booked to perform at a Surf Fair in Santa Monica, California, which was probably 99% white at the time, and during the Beach Boy craze. Can you imagine the scene of these unknown teen age Chicanos from East L.A., in matching tuxedos, being introduced on stage to an all white audience that was expecting Surf music?
Maybe 20 people clapped out of the hundreds there when we were introduced. After about 10 really uncomfortable seconds, we broke out in a Chicano Rock n Roll version of Ray Charles' `Baby, What I Say', and I pulled out all the stops, dancing like James Brown on stage, splits, slides & spins. At first the audience stared, then fingers started snapping, and by the time we finished, the audience was dancing & partying...and we were appreciated as musicians and performers. That showed me the power of music in a way I will never forget".
Ray later formed a group called the Progressions, which evolved to "The Lil' Ray Revue", touring the southwestern United States for many years.
Ray's voice is as good as ever, and he continues to perform in the Los Angeles area, where his recording studio is based. His new Record label "Cosa Buena", his recording & rehearsal studios "Sanctuary Studios", and his new booking agency "Total Performance Entertainment" are open for business, with an emphasis on new talent, as well as the re-introduction of established talent coming off hiatus.
Ray's years in the music business have given him keen insight into the ever evolving world of music, a staple in the Latino culture. "When I first started, it was all about Mexicans and Mexican~Americans in Los Angeles. Now, with the influx of Latinos from different countries, Latino music has blended into a mix of different styles, tastes and generational influences...and what a beautiful mix it is! As the pendulum swings, it's just a natural course to go back to spanish language songs, as the artistic & romantic structure of spanish verses are incomparable in english, and all classics started off as new sometime. And of course I'll continue producing & recording music in english as well".
His new CD is thus such a project. Intitled "Nuestra Navidad", this new CD is Ray's first production from Cosa Buena records. A compilation of 15 new Christmas songs in Spanish all produced & arranged by Ray, it promises to be the new classic of tomorrow.
Featuring new singing discoveries Meliza Brise?o, Eduardo Plata, and (hoping history will repeat itself) 7 year old Teresita Osuna, the songs are recorded and mixed with superb quality. Ray himself appears on 4 of the tracks, which marks the first time in over 35 years he has recorded anything new. As I was fortunate to sample this CD while meeting with Ray, he added "Originally, I only wanted to arrange and oversee production, and had another new male singer scheduled . When he couldn't make it, I stepped in at the last minute filling in for him." The results are nothing to be regretted, as Ray shows off his fine voice and style that still resonates with the quality that made him a legend. I highly recommend you pick up one of these, as they are surely to become a classic, just like the man.
Look for new material from Ramon Jimenez, aka Lil' Ray.
Pleasure meeting you, Carnal, and thanks for all your contributions to Chicano music!
Si se puede!! It's a BROWN thing, baby!!
Note: Ray Jimenez can be contacted for information on his new CD and other upcoming projects from Cosa Buena Records, Sanctuary Studios and Total Performance Entertainment at 323-888-9884. Located at 5223 1/2 E. Beverly Blvd, in the heart of East L.A., all talent interests and inquiries are welcome.
Ruben Molina's book, "The Old Barrio Guide to Lowrider Music 1950-1975" is available at www.mictlan.com
Frankie Firme & Ruben Molina:
frankie Firme spins the finest Chicano style oldies but Goodies and Latin Soul on the World Wide Web this & every Thursday on www.kclafm.com, at 6:oopm, pst.