By Jessica Wheeler, Music Columnist
When it began in the 1950s, rock and roll could pretty much be separated into two categories: African-American R&B artists and the white rockabilly acts who revered them. As the genre grew through the 1960s, this dichotomy of black and white seemed to more or less hold up—but what about the artists who didn’t fit into one of those categories? As it turns out, artists of Latino descent have been involved in rock and roll all along, from the very beginning, sometimes hiding in plain sight. Here’s a look at some of the early Latino rock and roll artists who impacted the charts and listeners alike, paving the way for many other Latino artists to follow.
One of the earliest rock and roll stars, Ritchie Valens (born Richard Valenzuela) wrote and performed hits like “Come On Let’s Go” and “Donna.” He is best known for his version of “La Bamba,” a Mexican folk song that he took into the top 40 in 1958. He died, along with the legendary Buddy Holly, in a plane crash in 1959. He was just 17 years old.
Inspired by Ritchie Valens’ success, Californian Chris Montez recorded “Let’s Dance” in 1962. The song reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and has since become a rock and roll classic. He scored again with “Call Me” in 1966.
East Los Angeles garage band Thee Midniters didn’t hit it big on the charts, but won the hearts and loyalty of their fans in East L.A. Lead singer Willie Garcia (known as “Little Willie G.”) possessed a huge, soulful voice, and the band played some of the raunchiest garage rock on record. In the late 1960s, they became one of the first bands to sing about Chicano pride, in songs like “The Ballad of Cesar Chavez” and “Chicano Power.”
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
Sam the Sham was a stage name for Domingo Samudio, who led his band the Pharaohs on major hits like “Wooly Bully” (which reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts, selling more than 3 million copies in 1965) and “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Sir Douglas Quintet
Led by Doug Sahm, the Sir Douglas quintet boasted several Mexican-American members and played Tex-Mex music with a rock and roll chaser. Their big hit was 1965’s “She’s About a Mover,” but they continued in their career well after the single fell off the charts, becoming a favorite of Bob Dylan’s and recording more great songs like the top 40 classic “Mendocino.”
Question Mark and the Mysterians
The children of migrant farmers working in Michigan, Rudy Martinez and his bandmates dubbed themselves “Question Mark and the Mysterians” in hopes of drawing attention to their band. Martinez was known for wearing his sunglasses at all times, and the band switched from playing surf rock to straightforward garage. With their song “96 Tears,” they reached the very top of the pop charts in 1966, and then disappeared as mysteriously as they had appeared.
Sometimes known as just “Rodriguez,” the Detroit-based singer-songwriter channelled Bob Dylan and Motown on two classic albums before disappearing from the public eye. Subject of the excellent documentary Searching for Sugar Man, Rodriguez gained most of his fans after his initial burst of recording activity.
Jessica Wheeler is the Music Columnist for Alive Tampa Bay