Classic Lowriders: Low, Slow and Soulful

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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.

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.

But before there were Chicanos riding around in classic lowriders to the sweet sound of Chicano oldies, zoot suit-wearing Pachucos cruised the street in bombs–customized and lowered 1930s and 1940s sedans. With their flamboyant costume and its automotive counterpart, Pachucos were easy targets for the Anglo police force. Long before organizing migrant farmworkers, Cesar Chavez wore a zoot suit.

“That was the beginning of low and slow,” says Victor Vega, an advertising agent for Lowrider Magazine. “Cruising in Mexico was done walking around the plaza, flirting with the girls. Here, we do it in our cars, on the boulevard, checking out the girls. In white culture, they like their cars jacked up in the back and fast; we have to be different so we have them low. The U.S. is a car culture, and whether you’re white or Chicano, your car is an expression of yourself.”

Just as automotive designs evolved dramatically from the 1940s to the 1950s, so did popular music. The stew of jazz, blues, and swing that thrived in Los Angeles during the ’30s and ’40s gave birth to thriving local rock and roll and R&B scenes, which were hardly distinguishable from each other in their early years. Molina writes in his pioneering book The Old Barrio Guide to Low Rider Oldies, “This ‘cool’ sound was gathering a groundswell of support during the mid-’40s among Chicano teens and musicians who did not feel the same appreciation for ranchero and mariachi music as their parents did.”

Due to the massive influx of workers from the Southern states and Texas in order to man the factories cranking out hardware for the war in the Pacific, Los Angeles’ ethnic mix began skewing decidedly darker. Molina explains that alongside the Mexicans from Texas came “African Americans from the South and from Texas, so they congregated at work, and the music jumped over. Rhythm and blues slowly became part of Chicano culture.”

Around the mid-’60s, when the civil rights movement crested, a new kind of Mexican American emerged. In contrast to Pachucos, who were marginalized, seen as hoodlums and rebels, Chicanos embraced their indigenous heritage while forging a new political and cultural identity. Cesar Chavez’s evolution from a frustrated and marginalized zoot-suit-wearing, carrucha-driving Pachuco youth to a proud, lowrider-cruising Chicano activist represents that cultural and political shift within the Mexican American community. The Homeboy Mad, a Chicano activist and Streetlow Magazine editor, explains why after more than half a century Chicanos still celebrate the same musical aesthetic:

“I think it was just the music of the time when we really found ourselves: the way we talk, the way we dress, the cars we drive, and the music we listen to. Chicanos are about tradition, and we like holding on to our traditions. We don’t really like change too much. We like who we are, and we’re proud of who we are.”

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. And the songs usually are ballads with evocative lyrics that tell a story. “It’s kind of like elevator music,” Molina says, “something cool that you listen to [while cruising]. And then, when you’re alone, if the lyrics are really good, then it has a
double meaning.”

“The Hispanic community typically uses oldies song titles to express what they feel toward their loved ones, whether it be love or hate or ‘Let’s work it out,’ ” says DJ Tony C., who a few years ago fulfilled a lifelong goal of becoming an oldies radio DJ in his hometown of Salinas. On the weekly Saturday-night request show he cohosts, “the line is constantly off the hook, people calling for dedications and requests,” he says.  Beyond providing a memorable soundtrack to any given Saturday night, his show serves as a lifeline to two isolated communities within reach of his radio signal.

“A lot of the women who call in to my show have men who are incarcerated,” Tony explains, “and this is one way of getting to them and saying, ‘I love you, baby, and I’ll stay by your side.'”

For the first edition of The Old Barrio Guide to Low Rider Oldies, Molina started by documenting his own impressive collection of doo-wop, harmony soul, and Chicano soul. Then he hit the car shows and record shows and met with other collectors to see what the gente were listening to in other barrios. Molina says the landscape has changed since the first edition primarily because of the Internet. “Before [the Internet], there wasn’t really any new stuff coming in,” he says. “It was basically the same kind of oldies. But then the record collectors started to look deeper into the Chicago sound, the New Jersey and D.C. sounds, things that never popped up over here on the West Coast.”

With every leap in technology, a new generation emerges to master it. A few Chicano record collectors from the Bay Area came together and injected some seriously rare and unheard soul into the vibrant online community of oldies lovers. They prefer to remain anonymous to avoid legal hassles related to their influential compilations. These mysterious collectors also coined the term soulero, which is rapidly becoming the household term for Chicano and Chicana oldies collectors.

Being a soulero is “a badge of honor,” says Moe Arroyo. “I have five [half] brothers who are full-blood Mexican, and because my brothers were brown and I was light, I didn’t always fit in. But then one day, I started collecting these oldies, and it was a symbol of acceptance, because everybody started to see that I knew what this music was about.”

While it’s unlikely that a shared passion for lowrider oldies will erase generations of hostilities between Northern and Southern California Chicanos–a long-standing beef that has origins in the state prison system–the very fact that there’s dialogue is progress. Tommy Siqueiro explains his personal philosophy toward this historical rivalry: “I try to promote unity between the collectors there and here. It should be a West Coast soulero thing. We should all share the music, not hide it from each other, because it’s all about the love of music.”

But the reality is that Norteño and Sureño allegiances run deep. The family identity that’s so much a part of Chicano culture can be a double-edged sword. It may bring people together, as seen with the loose network of Northern California Chicano record collectors and their counterparts in Southern California, but it can also fuel traditional rivalries.

“With the Chicano,” Molina says, “it’s this never-ending loyalty, and I think that’s why there are a lot of problems with gangs and stuff like that, because people are very loyal to something that they love, and they never get rid of it. It becomes a part of you, and it’s handed down.”

Chicanos have single-handedly kept alive the careers of countless R&B and soul performers long after their fair-weather fans moved on to the next fad. Both lesser-known and better-known artists, like the Young Hearts and the Moments, are still singing to enthusiastic audiences thanks to shows organized in part by Molina in the south and Siqueiro in the north.

The Homeboy Mad came up with the idea to organize the first Souleros Ball to showcase the musical side of Chicano culture. Each ball has been bigger than the previous one, drawing more DJs and collectors and lowrider car clubs to listen to rare soul 45s, dance, and have a good time. “It’s all about bringing us all together and keeping our culture alive, and the rare soul music plays a huge part in that,” writes one Bay Area soulero, “and I don’t think it will ever come to end.” Soulero Sal debuted behind the turntables at the Souleros Ball in July 2011.

“He’s the next generation,” Siqueiro says of his protégé. “I’m inspired by him, because he calls me viejo and looks to me as a father of music, and he wants to be like me. And if being like me means collecting records, being a good guy, and staying out of trouble, then more power to him.”

Siqueiro says that collecting oldies has kept him out of gangs. “I’ve never hurt nobody,” he says, “never been in prison, never been in jail. I just love music and classic lowriders.”

Allen Thayer is a record collector, DJ, and music writer. Excerpted from Wax Poetics (No. 49), a Brooklyn-based magazine for record collectors and fans of vintage soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop, and R&B.

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