The upcoming HBO documentary The Latin Explosion: A New America explores Latinos’ influence in mainstream U.S. culture and offers a glimpse at the rock canon’s most familiar songs. Cornerstones of rock ‘n’ roll and popular music the world over, like “96 Tears,” “Wooly Bully,” and “Land Of A Thousand Dances,” play in succession throughout the film. Although the groups responsible for these songs bear English names, they reveal what some have known, but few have addressed: Latinos have a long-standing influence in the history of rock music.
The initial wave of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers took African-American genres like blues, swing, and country music from the South and merged them into a groundbreaking – though appropriative – phenomenon. After that, many groups in search of Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis’ success picked up the baton. Most didn’t become icons like Elvis did, but they crafted some of the most inspired and influential music of the decade. Spawned before the Beatles and the British Invasion took over (and even overlapping for most of it; some of these bands even incorporated that influence and those gimmicks into their stuff, like with Texas’ Sir Douglas Quintet), these groups provided some of rock’s most enduring songs. Latino music even influenced perhaps the most famous of these recordings: “Louie Louie.” The classic song was initially written by Richard Berry in 1955 when he tried to rip off “Amarren Al Loco” aka “El Loco Cha Cha,” originally by Cuban musician Rosendo Ruíz, Jr. The song was taken over by The Kingsmen in 1963, and the rest is history.
Latinos’ roots in rock music stretch back to the 1940s, with figures like Lalo Guerrero, who mixed boogie and jump blues to create his patented Pachuco music, pioneered sounds similar to what rock was about to become. It wasn’t until Ritchie Valens (born Richard Valenzuela) hit it big with “Donna” and “La Bamba” (and sadly, his tragic death alongside Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper) that the doors opened for Latinos to do their thing, even if they had to take gringo names. Until the late 60s and early 70s, Latinos were free to use their birth names without fear of being painted into a corner, thanks to the impact of Carlos Santana and Jose Feliciano in the mainstream.
Some of these musicians don’t enjoy the status of British and American rock legends, but without them, the music we know and love wouldn’t be the same. These songs have been on TV, in movies, and commercials decade after decade. They’ve given artists standards that would be covered a million times, influenced the psychedelic hippie bands of the Woodstock nation, given Latin American bands their repertoire to translate, and drawn the blueprints of punk rock, among many other legacies. These aren’t all the Latinos in early rock music, but they are some of history’s greatest.
The Latin Explosion: A New America premieres Monday, November 16 at 9 p.m. on HBO and HBO Latino.