Friday Five: “Chicano” Oldies

I realize I have an odd relationship to music. In general, most of the music I love comes from before or just after I was born. To put it another way, when most of the music I love was “new music” I was either not yet born or too young to form any memories of it.

I’m a historian, what can I say.

But part of my love of “oldies” (and by this I don’t mean just “old music” but, instead, the standard 50s and 60s music we associate with the early years of “Rock ‘n Roll”) is also cultural. I grew up in the greater Los Angeles area in a social world dominated by Chicano culture. This music played a big part in defining that culture.

The easy way to make sense of this is that I grew up in a social world where Chicano baby boomers were being nostalgic about their youth. Part of that is true. I think things like the Vietnam War and the more general loss of faith in the US political and economic system of the 70s also played a role in that nostalgia. So did the fact that they were grown up. But this music is bigger than that. It has even transcended the past in which it was first thought of as “old” as it continues to create an musical identity for Chicanos today.

Taken as a collection, it’s what Chicano culture sounds like, at least musically. It might be limited by region (Southern California) and time (late 20th century to now). It might be further shaped by whether folks are working class or not, and even by one’s connection to immigration (I don’t think it has penetrated into the immigrant communities that formed since the 80s).

Proof of this is the longevity of somebody like Art Laboe, the legendary DJ. He’s pretty much been on LA radio continuously since 1949. He was playing oldies music for a Chicano audience when those oldies were still “newies”! His dedication show (where listeners call in and dedicate songs to their loved ones) has been a standard part of Chicano LA (and beyond) for my entire life. The music he plays–oldies from doo-wop to R&B to soul–mostly fall into the “oldies” category, but there’s also newer stuff that sounds like the past. This is what I mean by one “Chicano oldies.”

So, though I’ve done this before, here’s a list of five more of my favorite Chicano oldies songs. My goal here is to choose the less obvious songs that don’t get a lot of play on standard “oldies” stations (or that didn’t, back when oldies stations played songs before 1980). What I think is most impressive about them is that even though they were mostly released more then a half century ago, these songs are well-known by subsequent generations of Chicanas and Chicanos who grew up in the greater LA region.

5. “Together” by Tierra (1980)

4. “I’m Your Puppet” by James and Bobby Purify (1966)

3. “Me and You” by Brenton Wood (1967)

2. “Baby, I’m For Real” by The Originals (1969)

1. “Sitting in the Park” by Billy Stewart (1965)

4 thoughts on “Friday Five: “Chicano” Oldies

  1. What has always interested me about “Chicano” oldies was the selection process … why did some oldies resonate more than others? Some make sense (Originals, Tierra), but Billy Stewart doesn’t make sense. Is Art Laboe the connection?

  2. I’ve often thought about the same. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn about a kind of structure for it, particular playlists of particular stations. Local markets meant something back then, no? But content has to be some part of this, too, right? Not only lyrics and sentimentality (some of these songs are pretty melodramatic) but there’s a sound sometimes, too. That strange almost out of tune aspect of some of the guitar (Billy Stewart or The Originals), the sing a longs where one voice is a little off, too. I don’t know the answer but I think all of these must have played a part.

  3. Yo, thank you for this! I’ve ruminated and debated for years on this topic and it brings me great joy. Growing up in New Mexico, I can say that Chicano culture here was firmly in the orbit of Art Laboe and SoCal-influenced lowrider oldies. I have fond memories of the Albuquerque flea market where OG’s (who often were younger than the Vietnam generation) would be selling those records and tapes, along with the more 90s-influenced iterations of the culture, like Homies dolls and cholo apparel (that is another topic that fascinates me, how 90s era hip hop incorporated and re-interpreted the earlier music and styles– Lighter Shade of Brown is a great example ) Anyway, you picked a great list. Check out this KCET piece on Art Laboe and the history of the El Monte connection


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