A Look Back at the Unsung Latino Forefathers of Rock ‘n’ Roll

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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.

Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs

In the opening of The Latin Explosion, the now infamous Spanglish countdown gives way to the Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ early rock sound, and there couldn’t be a better intro. Domingo Samudio (who took the name Sam The Sham) gave us “Wooly Bully,” or “Bule Bule,” as it has been translated, one of the best rock songs in history, and it’s about Samudio’s cat of all things. Sure, they had an Egyptian gimmick, but don’t be fooled, they’re mostly Latinos.

Thee Midniters

Although they made their fortune by covering “Land Of A Thousand Dances,” Thee Midniters’ impact is one of the most widely felt in rock. They were one of the first groups to incorporate horns and congas, informing the music of Santana and War, and were also one of the first Chicano pride outfits. Some songs in their repertoire include “Chicano Power” and “The Ballad of César Chávez.” Definitely a band whose influence spread beyond music.

The Champs

It shouldn’t take listeners too much to figure out that the band responsible for “Tequila” were Latinos from LA. Written by Danny Flores under the alias Chuck Rio, the song features the signature sax riff and Flores’ deep voice enunciating the name of the famous Mexican liquor. It was recorded as a B-side in 1957. In 1958, it outsold the song on the flip side of the single; in 1959, it won a Grammy, and hasn’t stopped playing somewhere in the world ever since.

Freddy Fender

Baldemar Garza Huerta had quite the life. From singing “Paloma Querida” on the radio when he was 10, to being court-martialed when he was in the Navy, to becoming one of the first icons of rock en español as El Bebop Kid (playing Spanish versions of Elvis’ songs), to his signature song “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” his success was cut short by a stint on a prison farm for marijuana possession. Fender had a comeback in the 70s with a re-recording of this song, then became part of Tex-Mex supergroups The Texas Tornados and Los Super Seven alongside members of Sir Douglas Quintet and Los Lobos, and even embarked on a bolero career before his death in 2006. Seriously, why isn’t there a Freddy Fender biopic?

Cannibal and the Headhunters

Who doesn’t know the “naaaa-nanaaa-nanananaa…” chorus of Cannibal and the Headhunters’ “Land Of A Thousand Dances?” One of the most covered and reworked songs in the world was the product of an all-Latino East LA band that served as the opening act for The Beatles’ second tour in the U.S.

Question Mark & The Mysterians

Rudy Martinez is one crazy character (Google him for some amazing Illuminati conspiracy theories), so it’s no wonder he changed his artistic name to a punctuation symbol. Still, he’s a genius who gave us the organ-drenched “96 Tears,” birthing one of the first punk songs in history and influencing fellow Michigan hooligans like Iggy Pop.