Cruisin' Down Whittier Blvd...Again
Thee Midniters revisited
As I write this piece, the hauntingly soulful sounds of East L.A.'s classic royalty of 1960's Chicano Music, Thee Midniters, is playing softly in the background. Songs like "Sad girl", "Are you angry?" , "My girl", and "Love makes me do foolish things" bring back memories of tres flores, that first kiss, first slow dance, cruisin' low and slow on the east side of the L.A. River, the sparkle of the night...and a time almost forgotten.
Published on LatinoLA: February 2, 2006
Then, as if to kick my nostalgic moment into second gear and out of romantic autopilot, a young group of Chicanos suddenly scream in unison: "LET'S TAKE A TRIP DOWN WHITTIER BOULEVARD!", then a jalopy horn honk, and the ever memorable scream of "?Arriba! ?Arriba! Ahh-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-haaaaah!", followed by what is now known as the "East L.A. Chicano Anthem", the unforgetable blistering hot jam, "Whittier Boulevard" .
Back in the day, I would have yelled out "OH YEAH!" and started boogying where I stood...nowadays I get these strange looks from my kids & grandkids, and a good natured tease from my Lady to "Please turn it down, babe"...
...ahhh....for the good old days, huh, homies?
That song was an inovation for it's time, and was the first "In your face" message from a young vanguard of the first generation of Chicano Rock & Roll by young Mexican-American musicians from the West Coast. Never before had ANYBODY combined Surfer, Rock & Roll, Blues, and early Latin Soul music into an unbelievable combination of sound and fun, that still hits the airwaves around the World more than 40 years after it's release.
It also put East L.A. and Chicano Music on the music map, and the groove has never stopped.
When you consider that Chicano Rock & Roll Music (West Coast English language style) was in it's infancy, and there weren't many predecessors or role models to emulate at the time, the word "innovation" is utterly appropriate....who were these guys?
There have been more than a few personnel changes in the group that still performs from time to time, and they're not bad, but the originals will always be remembered as the ones who "started it all".
That being said, I was fortunate recently to go on a mission for LatinoLA and Mr. Hector Gonzalez of RAMPART RECORDS, to seek out the original Midniters still around and get the 411...one of my pleasures in life is still meeting the legends of my music world before I'm called upstairs for good.
So it was, on a cool Califas evening, myself, Music Promoter & RAMPART RECORDS President Steven Chavez, and Author Ruben Molina set out to interview some of the "Big Boys"...Mr. Benny Lopez (original bass player), and Mr. George Salazar(original drummer), original founding members of Thee Midniters.
Word had been on the streets that these two legends were still very much alive and playing music, and talk was that they were reforming, practicing, and getting ready to record a new album of updated material. Also in the works is a tell-all book from these member's memoirs that will finally lay to rest many of the myths surrounding this group that, like the Mayan, suddenly fell off the map in their hey day, only to return a few years later with new members, but never again achieving the fame & adoration they once commanded.
"I was born in Chavez Ravine, where Dodger Stadium now sits," Benny Lopez tells me. "As a kid, I grew up and hung around with Johnny Gamboa (of Johnny and the Crowns fame) We went to see an early rock & roll show, and we caught The Champs playing "Tequila". The guy on the acoustic guitar was hot, and most of the audience was made up of older, beautiful teenaged girls. ( I was only 13) I looked at Johnny and said 'Hey...we gotta learn how to play guitar and sing'...and we did!" Benny laughs. "My first gig was with a small combo when I was 14, and we were hired to perform at an intermediate school graduation. After all the attention I got from them (older) 15 and 16 year old girls in the audience, I was hooked on music!".
During the practice and interview, I got to hear a bit of his new cut "Whittier 2K" (a new updated version of Whittier Boulevard), and it was evident that Benny and George haven't lost a thing.
"I was one of the original Midniters when they were originally called Benny & The Midniters. The group included Benny & Raul Cevallos, and Lil' Ray Jiminez. Since Benny Cevallos was the leader of the group, he was the 'Benny' in the name. Having two Benny's didn't make sense, and after some good natured teasing, we shortened the name to Thee Midniters." Benny says with a smile. "Man, those were the days! Lil' Ray Jiminez was our lead singer and the master on stage, dancing, singing, flirting with the girls. Lil' Ray Jiminez was the major draw for us way before Willie Garcia ever became Lil' Willie G, and the lead singer. We jammed every week~end, traveling and having a ball. It was during one of our first road trips that Roy Marquez and myself wrote the song Whittier Boulevard, shortly after Lil Ray left the group for a successful solo career. We were kind of nervous having Willie being our lead singer, and we started playing around with the Rolling Stone's song '2120 Michigan Street'...you know, just messing around. George Salazar and Ronnie Figueroa just kinda jumped in and before you know it, we had an original song. We got excited, and being that Whittier Boulevard was an exciting place to hang out for cruising Chicanos in the early 1960's, the song just naturally became named Whittier Boulevard".
"Music in those days was really fun, new and exciting," George Salazar says. "Almost everything was new, and everbody was playing it. There were bands left & right, and you could play with almost any of them. One day I would do a surfer music gig, then next day do a Blues or Rock & Roll gig, then come back and start doing Beatles music. Everybody wanted to be in a band like the Beatles in the early 1960's. The main reason was of course the screaming, pretty girls! I had been playing drums since I was a young kid, so by the time I was a teenager, I was almost a veteran name. One day my friend Benny Lopez asked me to check out this new band called Thee Midniters, and we clicked from the start..the rest is history," George laughs.
George left the group shortly after they recorded their first album "Thee Midniters on Whittier Boulevard", as did Benny, when they were both drafted and sent to Viet Nam. "Thank God we made it back, but the music was never the same" George states.
Both Benny and George admit that their first album "Thee Midniters on Whittier Boulevard", with members Ronnie Figueroa, Romeo Prado, Larry Rendon, Roy Marquez, George Dominguez, Benny Lopez, George Salazar, and Lil' Willie G, contains their most classic and best recorded material ever, and the only one recorded with this ensemble. "This group recorded some of our best stuff...and the classic stuff REAL Midniter fans will aways remember from the Salesian-Garfield-Roosevelt-Cathedral-Lincoln High School and El Monte Legion Stadium, Kennedy Hall, Montebello Ballroom days," Benny says.
Although later versions of Thee Midniters surfaced, performed, and recorded with new members, they never reached the performance peak and popularity that the "Whittier Boulevard" version of Thee Midniters had attained.
Both Benny & George promise the new recordings ( with new members Alberto Lopez, Al Anaya, Arturo De La O, and George's nephew Daniel Lugo on keyboards) will bring back old fans and make new ones...but the real story will be in the upcoming book "The Beginning of Whittier Boulevard", which details the group's rise and fall from fame, and details the East L.A. Chicano Music scene of the 1960's.
"That will trip people out", says Benny.
As we left them after almost 2 hours, all Steven Chavez, Ruben Molina and myself could say repeatedly to each other was..."WOW"!
Rumors have it that RAMPART RECORDS may have a part in producing the new album, and that the book should be coming out by this summer.
Whatever happens first, you'll hear about it here...on LatinoLA.com !
note: for more info on Thee Midniters, see "The Old Barrio Guide to Lowrider Music"
by Ruben Molina at www.mictlan.com
For more history on Chicano Music, check out the film "The West Coast East Side Sound"
by Hector Gonzalez and Jimmy Velarde.(e~mail : Hector4rampart@yahoo.com or Stevenchavez68@hotmail.com
Frankie Firme's website:www.frankiefirme.50megs.com