Its a Miracle!

Willie G.s tuff vibe survives smack, Jesus

Oralé! The First Annual Chicano Blues Festival goes down Sunday afternoon at the Green on the Hill in Signal Hill, featuring headliners LITTLE WILLIE G., KID RAMOS and THE BLAZERS. While Anaheim's Ramos and the Blazers (about whom I've already written extensively) will most likely provide the hottest musical sparks, Little Willie G. (née Garcia) adds an important sense of history and continuity to the proceedings, as his roots run deep in East LA music traditions and his story is long and complex.

Garcia, you see, was in the eye of one of the most happening rock & roll hurricanes of the '60s. The explosion of Chicano rock out of LA was a relatively unsung and short-lived phenomenon. But groups like Thee Midniters (with Garcia handling lead vocal chores), Cannibal & the Headhunters and The Premiers—along with such out-of-state Chicano bands as the Sir Douglas Quintet and ? and the Mysterians—produced music of ravenous energy and originality. The Chicano rock (or Brown-Eyed Soul, as it's often called) of the era, particularly in the hands of the East LA bands, blended the influence of black R&B with gringo garage sensibility and then added essential vato loco street flourishes; the Headhunters and The Premiers were actually named after their gangs.

The result was sometimes proto punk rock, really. This was the rock & roll soundtrack of the barrio, the perfect accompaniment for a few rounds of beer-drinking, lowrider-cruisin' and ass-whippin', kindred in spirit to such punky contemporaries as the Young Rascals, the Swingin' Medallions and Mitch Ryder, but with a spicy, Hispanic piquancy.

Thee Midniters were probably the most accomplished of East LA's lot, without sacrificing any of the tuff vibe so primary to the method. The Willie G. singing style was smoother, more soulful and more sophisticated than those of his croonin' carnals (and seems to have influenced Los Lobos' David Hidalgo along the way), but that's like saying he played Jessie Belvin to Cannibal's Wilson Pickett—nothin' wrong with that at all. Thee Midniters also boasted a big, blaring horn section, snarling lead guitar licks and a driving rhythm section reminiscent of Ryder's Detroit Wheels. They could kick your ass with unnervingly intense rock & roll or break your heart with the tenderest of soul ballads. Ironically (for Garcia, at least), Thee Midniters' best-remembered tune is an instrumental, although they recorded the now-standard sing-along "Land of 1000 Dances" before Cannibal and Pickett later turned it into a hit. The tune in question, "Whittier Boulevard," released in 1966, was a jacked-up cruisin' anthem, something akin to the Mar-Keys on crank, punctuated by car horns and lots of whoopin' and hollerin' and joyous screams of arriba! The song remains a staple of both lowrider and hot-rod cultures to this day.

Garcia left Thee Midniters in '69 for a spotty singing career in the '70s. He fronted Wag (which headlined the major LA clubs) and sang with God's Children, who are best remembered for providing the theme song for the unmemorable TV series Matt Lincoln. Garcia moved to San Francisco and joined Malo in 1974, which featured Carlos Santana's brother, Jorge, on guitar. Malo had scored earlier with the minor hit "Suavecito" (which Sugar Ray based their "Every Morning" on) but were on the way out by the time Garcia joined up. He toured with the group for a year before they disbanded.

That split sent Garcia into a tailspin. Depressed by his lack of success in Malo, he moved back home and got himself addicted to smack. Following several years of junkiedom, he became a born-again Christian in 1980. For years, he considered himself "an evangelist by trade" and busied himself preaching and singing the gospel—until this year, when he stepped into a most unlikely comeback in secular music.

The aptly titled Make up for the Lost Time, produced by Hidalgo and released by Hightone Records, is Little Willie G.'s first solo album, arriving 35 years after his glory days with Thee Midniters. An often impressive effort garnering solid reviews, it boasts little of the energy he used to demonstrate with his old barrio cronies. All the angst of Garcia's past is now a dim memory, replaced perhaps by some combination of middle-aged complacency and Jesus-borne bliss.

But there's something else: if anything, Garcia has matured into a technically better singer than he was in the '60s, his voice a soulful, expressive whisper that reminds you of the Fine Young Cannibals' inexplicably missing-in-action Roland Gift.

As an MOR soul record, Make up for the Lost Time succeeds nonetheless, as Garcia passionately tackles a set of originals (the best of which is the salsa-fied "Cultura"), Midniters' chestnuts and obscure covers from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, George Clinton, Smokey Robinson and Bobby "Blue" Bland. I could do without the aroma of smooth jazz that sometimes wafts into the proceedings, but hey, at least he's not doing Winger covers.

Garcia's voice is a pure, sensual delight from start to finish. It will be interesting to see if a live crowd can do more than the studio to spur him into singing with more huevos.

My unfortunate predilection for hippiedom manifests itself once again in an unseemly affection for keyboardist MERL SAUNDERS, who plays the Coach House on Thursday, May 18. Saunders is best-known for his four collaborative albums with Ultimate Hippie Jerome Garcia (no relation whatsoever to Willie G.!), but his trip was a long and strange one even before that, hence a large part of my admiration. What most smelly, tie-dyed longhairs don't realize is that Saunders studied under Hammond-torturing jazz master Jimmy Smith early on, subsequently turning in concert and session work with the distinguished likes of Miles Davis, B.B. King, Lionel Hampton, Johnny Mathis and Paul Butterfield, among others. More recently, Saunders has been known to hang out and jam with New Hippie acts like Blues Traveler and Phish, who apparently feel the need to keep company with someone who kept company with their hero, Captain Trips.

That's a pretty diverse list of co-conspirators, and Saunders' ease at moving between genres has been his artistic strength. The Bay Area fixture's playful spell casting on the B3 calls to mind Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Booker T. Jones, Stevie Wonder and former Grateful Dead keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, sometimes all within the framework of a single, extended song. And Saunders' enthusiasm for a long jam is as apparent as it is infectious to those of us who can put up with a 15-minute version of "In the Midnight Hour." Just as long as the grooves are carved deeply enough and the chops remain inventive—and they always do with Saunders helming the crew in his ever-present leather cap and combat boots.

The First Annual Chicano Blues Festival at the Green on the Hill, 27th Street & Walnut Avenue, Signal Hill, (818) 367-6614. Sun., doors open at noon. $15 in advance; $20 at the door; Merl Saunders performs at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Thurs., May 18, 8 p.m. $15.
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