The storied legacy of Sunny and the Sunliners is never in danger of being forgotten. On any given Sunday evening in Aztlán, a Chicano family barbecues carne asada while the San Antonio band’s classic “Smile Now, Cry Later” plays in rotation. The song’s title has long taken on a life of its own as a mantra of barrio existentialism expressed in clown face tattoos.
While Ildefonso Fraga Ozuna, better known as Sunny, remains a living legend on East Side Story oldies compilations, the crooner is enjoying renewed attention. The reappraisal comes courtesy of Big Crown, a Brooklyn-based label that recently released Mr. Brown Eyed Soul, a collection of Ozuna’s earliest and most enduring songs. “It’s like starting all over again,” he says. “And we’ve got a ways to go!”
Growing up on the south side of San Antonio during the ‘50s, Ozuna rushed home after school to catch Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Mexican-American teens like Ozuna took instruments into their garages, formed bands, and learned how to play all their favorite songs from artists on the show—that is, until the police shut them down at 10 p.m. every night. Ozuna didn’t know it at the time, but hanging out at a nearby recreation center after school paved the path for his own appearance on American Bandstand.
“This guy Randy Garibay came in everyday, banged on the piano and had this song in head all that time,” Ozuna recalls. Garibay, an accomplished musician in his own time, tinkered with the doo wop melodies of “Talk to Me” by Little Willie John. “I picked up the song but didn’t do anything with it until 1963.” By then, he formed Sunny and the Sunliners and recorded an impassioned cover of the tune for Huey Meaux’s Tear Drop label. The single shot up the Top 40 charts that year and landed the band a date with Dick Clark in Philadelphia.
“He stood up on that podium so from his waist up he looked like a much taller guy,” Ozuna says of Clark. “When I got there, the guy was shorter than I was. That felt pretty good!” The appearance proved groundbreaking by introducing a soulful Mexican-American band to national audiences. “Coming out of high school, as you can imagine, everything was moving real fast,” he says.
Ozuna became a heartthrob at car club shows in San Antonio. “When I’m with you, you belong to me,” said his young wife at the time. “Once you go onstage, you belong to everybody else but me because you get lost in what you’re doing. It’s kind of like ‘smile now and cry later.’” The phrased seemed like a perfect title to a song—and it was.
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“As artists, we’re always looking for those signature songs,” Ozuna says. “You don’t want to be an artist and have one or two hits and have people say, ‘well who was that guy?’” Years ago, Big Crown’s Danny Akalepse heard the horns on “Should I Take You Home” and Ozuna’s subtly smoky vocals intrigued him. The label courted the legend and finally signed Ozuna, gaining access to decades of songs spanning oldies, Tejano, Christmas, gospel and country genres. “They can’t believe how much material we have,” he says of Key-Loc Records, his longtime label.
Ozuna remains an established act in the Southwest with El Paso, Texas his longtime commercial capital even after legendary radio personality Steve Crosno, who helped popularize his music, passed away a decade ago. This weekend, he returns to Anaheim at invitation of Art Laboe, another living legend on the airwaves, for his annual Chicano Soul Legends concert. “In his mind, Laboe thinks he’s 25 or 30 years old!” Ozuna says. “It’s really energizing every time we’re around him.”
But Big Crown wants to take Ozuna beyond his comfort zone into new audiences. The 74-year-old singer is confident going forward. “Your hit songs will do that for you,” Ozuna says. “We’ve added our little grain of sand to the beach.”
Sunny Ozuna performs with Malo, El Chicano, Thee Midniters and more at Chicano Soul Legends at the Honda Center, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (800) 745-3000; hondacenteranaheim.com, Sat., 7 p.m.., $48-$138. All ages.