Classic Lowriders: Low, Slow and Soulful

For decades, Chicano culture has been built on a legacy of soul music, doo wop, zoot suits, and classic lowriders.

| May/June 2012

  • Lowrider
    What Chicanos refer to as lowrider oldies is a loose category that describes a certain sound and tempo characteristic of songs found across half a dozen decades and about as many genres, but most particularly doo-wop and harmony soul.

  • Lowrider

For more than 50 years, California Chicano lowriders in search of the perfect musical mood to enhance their slow procession have looked to the past for a certain sound and feel: desperate and delicate harmonies proclaiming love, hate, or reconciliation set to dramatic arrangements and a tough R&B rhythm track. These classic lowriders, along with neighborhood record collectors and local DJs, have cataloged an unfathomably deep canon of R&B, doo-wop, and harmony soul, collectively known as oldies.

“If you’re a Chicano, you’re supposed to listen to oldies, have a lowrider, just dress like I’m dressed right now with the Pendleton, your brim hat, your Winos with your pantelon all creased up,” says Soulero Sal, the youngest, at 18, of the informal Northern California network of Chicano soul music collectors.

“Ever since I heard that sound, I wanted to collect anything that had those oohs and aahs in it,” says Tommy Siqueiro, Soulero Sal’s mentor and a San Jose local. He wasn’t the only one. More than 300 miles to the south, Ruben Molina had his oldies epiphany at about the same time:

“I remember being picked up from junior high school by a friend’s uncle. He was a laid-back vato from East Side Clover who drove a 1954 Bel Air dropped to the ground. He pulled up in front of the school, and as we piled in, the oldies streaming from his eight-track tape player filled my head. I knew right there, that was the sound for me.”

Today, both Siqueiro and Molina are considered veteranos of the Chicano oldies scene, one in Northern California and the other in the south, and each playing a critical role in supporting and influencing the next generation of Chicano record collectors. For generations, oldies remained a well-kept secret within the Chicano community. Just in the last few years, this sweet-soul secret has leaked out to the broader world of music collectors, musicians, and the general public. As Chicano collectors have infiltrated eBay and established a beachhead on YouTube and Facebook with video clips of their rare soul records, they are expanding the canon of classic oldies while exposing collectors and general soul music fans to the delicate beauty of these B-sides.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying oldies over computer speakers, the hi-fi, or a crackly radio connection, but oldies ideally should be experienced from the comfort of a classic lowrider with the windows down. Whether you call them “lowrider oldies,” “Chicano oldies,” or just plain “oldies,” this musical tradition is inseparable from the Chicano culture and specifically its lowrider subculture.

7/8/2012 10:45:56 PM

This was the music of my youth in the segregated black world of the 1950s, the soundtrack for our teen romances and slow dancing in the basement. But, I don't listen to those oldies anymore. I don't think many other African-Americans do. Like blues, jazz, and the other music genres that African-Americans created, black popular music from the fifties doesn't appeal to us anymore. So, the question is, why do Chicanos love it so today while African-Americans have left it behind?

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