As a vocalist for the legendary East Los Angeles band Thee Midniters, Willie Garcia, better known as Little Willie G, crooned all their 1960s hits including "Sad Girl" and "Land of a Thousand Dances." He will be performing a spectrum of songs including what he likes to call those 'neighborhood classics' in helping to kick off the Segerstrom Center's Off Center Festival tonight alongside Grammy-nominated group La Santa Cecilia!
Before coming to Costa Mesa for the free Party on the Plaza show, there's more Thee Midniters OC history than just Emigdio Vasquez's Lemon Street Murals in Fullerton that are immortally emblazoned with their song title "The Town I Live In" on the overhead bridge.
"When we first started out, the only things that were really available to us aside from family parties were the battle of the bands that were staged around East Los Angeles, West LA and Buena Park," Little Willie G tells the Weekly. "That's where we went toe-to-toe with a band called the Spats. Their singers were a couple of guys who became the Righteous Brothers."
In those days, the group was called Benny and the Midniters before morphing into Thee Midniters. "Benny Ceballos was the congero, band leader and had a pick up truck to carry the equipment," the singer reminisces with a laugh. Soon the Chicano Soul band would find acclaim under its new name with rolas like "Chicano Power," "Whittier Boulevard," and "That's All." The prolific run is cemented now in a commemorative box set and greatest hits album.
Life after Thee Midniters continued on into the 1970s for Little Willie G. He was performing with a group called God's Children when Malo, another prolific band from that era, approached him after the gig with an offer. "Doug Tracy and Pablo Tellez asked me if I might consider coming up to San Francisco to see if the chemistry would work," the singer says. "I agreed and walked right into a recording project called Ascension."
Little Willie G is proud of the collaborative album and his catalog with Thee Midniters, but there were other aspects of his life back in the day that he's not so proud of. "You know when you're young, you think that you're invincible. I tested the limits of my physical and emotional capabilities as a young man and pretty much ruined my life," he candidly says. "I had to do something to turn it around."
"I thank God for Tony Garcia, a young man I went to high school with and played with in bands over the years. He introduced me to the Gospel of Jesus Christ at a time when I had nothing. I was heavily addicted to heroin and cocaine and was an abuser of alcohol."
The sobering transformation took place in 1980 and continues to this day. Little Willie G is now an ordained minister and does outreach to gang youth in the barrios. The homies listen to his message breaking bread with the music of Thee Midniters as common ground.
Little Willie G still occasionally performs with the group as a special guest when not continuing his solo career. "We owe a debt of gratitude to Art Laboe," he says of the Radio Hall of Fame inductee. "That guy is perpetually young and still puts on these great shows in the same vein that he did at the El Monte Legion Stadium." Together, they have a weekend of Valentine's Super Love Jam shows set for next month.
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Tonight, Little Willie G will be representing old school East Los while sharing the bill with La Santa Cecilia, one of the new school greats to emerge from the area. "I really love their video "El Hielo" and the way they approached it," he says of the band. "It's just exciting to see this new generation."
Little Willie G performs with La Santa Cecilia and Culture Clash as part of Party on the Plaza at Segerstrom Center for the Arts Plaza, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Fri., 6-8 p.m. Free. All Ages.