By Alex Distefano
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By Nate Jackson
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Courtesy Mike CarcanoBelieve it or not—I'm looking at you here, Barbara Coe—there was once a time when the children of Mexican immigrants actually wanted to lose their ethnicity and be plain ol' Americans, when Jorge and Consuelo called themselves George and Connie and weren't ashamed of it. This was the early to mid-1960s, wherever there were segregated brown kids itching to shimmy. And the music? Chicano-written tracks, long ago assimilated into the American rock & roll songbook: Cannibal & the Headhunters' "Land of 1,000 Dances"; Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs' pre-adulterated "Wooly Bully"; the organ tarantella (and greatest song ever) that is "96 Tears," written by a bunch of Mexican kids from Saginaw, Wisconsin, known as ? and the Mysterians.
But towering over all these Mexican-American rockers was the original band from East Los Angeles: Thee Midniters, an untouchable eight-man, suit-wearing, mop-topped powerhouse. Spearheaded by the soulful growl of Willie García, Thee Midniters was mid-1960s rock at its pinnacle—a touch of soul, a lightning bolt of guitars and drums that could pitch over a skyscraper. They could light the same fire under torch songs such as Nat King Cole's "That's All" that they set under "Good Lovin'" or their own roaring rendition of "Land of 1,000 Dances." Thee Midniters' reputation was such that, in 1965, they co-billed a Rose Bowl show with Herman's Hermits, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Turtles and the Bobby Fuller Four. And while such a roster nowadays might seem underwhelming, consider that the pairing of a Mexican-American group with white groups is still pretty unheard of nowadays—when current Eastlos giants Quetzal tried to tour with Aerosmith a couple of years back, virulent ignorance greeted the group at every turn.
But Willie García and his mates were just about the music. The Chicano ethnicity that DJs, white people, and pretty much everyone except the band and their fans wanted to underline on every album didn't matter to them.
"I don't think the Chicano movement was a good thing," Thee Midniters manager Eddie Torres told the authors of Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock 'n' Roll from Southern California (the definitive account of the Eastlos sound, by the way). "I didn't think things were so bad at the time."
Trombonist Romeo Prado was even blunter: "I never liked the word Chicano. I still don't like it. I'd rather be called Mexican-American. I don't even like Hispanic."
Nevertheless, you can sense the hopes and realities of a colored generation in their music. Where the gabachos from the beach and Valley sang about surf and cars, Thee Midniters were rolling along "Whittier Boulevard," turning out an instrumental that remains the best interpretation of cruising ever recorded. And as Brian Wilson wondered about wide-open beaches and lonely rooms, García howled his way through McKinley Mitchell's "The Town I Live In," a slow, tortured self-interrogation about a barrio resident who can't decide whether he should stay or go—a question all Mexican-American kids eventually face.
By the late 1960s, a new generation of Mexican-American musicians—now calling themselves Chicanos and proudly weaving in heritage along with bitter polemics—pushed aside Thee Midniters and their non-political ilk. And when Thee Midniters tried to cash in on the movement, the result was the laughably bad "Ballad of César Chávez." They quickly faded from the scene, re-emerging only in the past couple of years to adoring crowds and musicians that grew up along with them—Los Lobos featured García's still-haunting voice on a cover of their "Is This All There Is?" for their latest release, an apt epitaph for one of the greatest groups never heard.
THEE MIDNITERS PERFORM AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES, 1530 S. DISNEYLAND DR., Anaheim, (714) 778-BLUE. WED., 8 P.M. $15. ALL AGES.