Los Lobos - Biography
Founded in 1973 by young rock and blues-schooled musicians to explore traditional Mexican-American music, Los Lobobs has ranged through virtually every imaginable roots-based style from south and north of the border, and has frequently knocked down imposing boundaries to formulate music that is distinctly a thing unto itself. In the process, this unassuming unit has sold millions of records and collected their share of Grammy Awards.
Not bad for a bunch of kids who graduated from East LA’s Garfield High School. The Mexican-American band members – singer-guitarists David Hidalgo (also a masterful accordionist) and Cesar Rosas, bassist Conrad Lozano, and drummer Louie Perez (who also played a full complement of stringed instruments common in Latin music) – were reared on the rock and metal of their day, and were also exposed to country, R&B, soul, and blues. They played in electric combos – The Young Sounds, Fast Company, The Royal Checkmates, Euphoria -- and Lozano performed with the East Side’s popular Hispanic pop group Tierra.
But they also came up amid the heat of the back-to-the-roots Chicano movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and they began to plumb their national musical origins. In the summer of ’73, with Rosas’ friend Frank Gonzalez (who soon exited the band), the four musicians founded Los Lobos Del Este de Los Angeles – The Wolves of East Los Angeles, a handle inspired by the name of a well-known Tex-Mex band – to perform traditional Mexican music on native acoustic instruments. They proved a popular attraction, and through the late ‘70s they played dozens of gigs at weddings, restaurants, and community halls on the East Side. In 1978 they issued their first independent album, the self-released Just Another Band From East LA (with a title that nodded and winked at the rubric of an earlier LP by Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention).
At the same time, the Lobos were not unaware of the left-field rock scene that was then beginning to flourish in the dives and clubs of Hollywood. They were still performing acoustically when their friend Tito Larriva, a Mexico-born actor-musician who led the LA punk trio The Plugz, secured them their first important gig outside of the East Side in May 1980 – as an incongruous opening act for Public Image Ltd., the English band fronted by The Sex Pistols’ John (Johnny Rotten) Lydon, at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown LA. The hirsute, traditionally-clad quartet’s acoustic set was greeted with jeers and pelted with projectiles, and they beat a hasty retreat. But Los Lobos found their first encounter with LA punkdom strangely exhilarating.
At around this time, Los Lobos were developing their electric chops again at a Mexican restaurant called Las Lomas in the Orange County town of Anaheim Hills. Playing rock ‘n’ roll covers and traditional Mexican material in an amped-up format, the group began to craft a sound of their own. They were ultimated fired from the job for playing too loud, but the die was cast.
The Lobos were also beginning to prowl the Hollywood club scene, where a number of post-punk roots-rock bands were rearing their heads. Foremost among these were The Blasters, a Downey-bred rockabilly/blues/R&B outfit headed by brothers Phil and Dave Alvin. A kinship developed between the two bands, and in January 1981 Los Lobos opened the first of many co-billed dates with The Blasters at the Whisky A Go Go on the Sunset Strip, where they created an immediate sensation. In no time, the East LA band had gone the traditional route and released a pair of homemade singles. One coupled a cover of the East Side ‘60s rockers the Premiers’ “Farmer John” with the original Spanish two-step “Anselma”; the other mated The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” with the Mexican ballad standard “Volver, Volver.” They also began to work regularly in the westerly end of town, in punk-friendly joints like the Cathay de Grande, Club 88, and the Music Machine.
In 1982, Los Lobos were signed to Slash Records, the Warner Bros.-distributed label offshoot of the LA punk magazine and the home of The Blasters. The following year, Blasters saxophonist Steve Berlin, who had been performing with both groups, threw in his hand as a permanent fifth member of Los Lobos. With T Bone Burnett, Berlin co-produced the band’s debut EP …And a Time to Dance (1983), which revealed their skill as performers of both traditional Mexican music and rough-edged rock. To the Lobos’ surprise, the record’s remake of “Anselma” received the first Grammy Award for best Mexican-American performance. After a decade together, the band had made their national breakthrough.
Now established as a top act among LA’s roots-punks, Los Lobos cut a pair of critically embraced albums, How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) and By the Light of the Moon (1987). These albums amply demonstrated the band’s long stylistic reach and featured splendid original compositions by Rosas and the team of Perez and Hidalgo, yet neither collection rose above No. 47 on Billboard’s albums chart.
However, at the same time that Burnett and Los Lobos engaged in the laboriously protracted making of By the Light of the Moon, Berlin was working in a neighboring studio at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound, marching the group through the repertoire of the late Latino rocker Ritchie Valens for the soundtrack of a biographical film directed by writer/director Luis Valdes, of Teatro Campesino and Zoot Suit fame. At the last minute, producer Mitchell Froom was brought in to cut a single version of the movie’s title song, a remake of Valens’ 1958 hit “La Bamba.”
To the astonishment of many – not least of them the band members – both La Bamba (which starred Lou Diamond Phillips, miming David Hidalgo’s singing and playing, as Valens) and its attendant soundtrack became sleeper hits during the summer of 1987. The Lobos’ single was No. 1 for two weeks, and the album topped the charts for three weeks and went double-platinum. After nearly 15 years together, Los Lobos had become “overnight” stars.
The group toured relentlessly in the wake of their hit, and often found themselves facing audiences who knew them only as “the guys who do ‘La Bamba.’” Fearful of entrapment in an artistic cul-de-sac as an oldies or novelty act, the Lobos retreated to their acoustic roots for a luminous all-Spanish set, La Pistola y El Corazon (1988), which failed to connect commercially but won the band another Grammy for best Tejano album.
The brooding rock collection The Neighborhood (1990) followed, and again failed to make it into the top half of the charts. The band again decided it was time to throw away the musical rulebook and cleanse their creative palates. Hidalgo and Perez rented a small room in Whittier and began writing face-to-face for the first time in years.
Produced by the band and Mitchell Froom and engineered by Tchad Blake, the resultant album, Kiko (1992) was an impressionistic flight of musical magical realism – Garcia Marquéz with a beat, if you will -- without precedent in Los Lobos’ catalog. (It was also the album that signaled Perez’s permanent move from behind the drum kit; Pete Thomas, Victor Bisetti, and Cougar Estrada would subsequently fill the percussion chair in the studio and on stage.)
Startling in its experimental bent, Kiko set the tone of the Lobos’ recordings for the remainder of the ‘90s. The band continued its off-kilter, slightly abrasive roots explorations on Colossal Head (1996) and This Time (1999). Their side projects of this period – Hidalgo and Perez’s two albums with Froom and Blake as The Latin Playboys, and Hidalgo’s space-blues excursion with Canned Heat’s Mike Halby, Houndog -- also reflected an askew approach.
Early in the new millennium, Los Lobos returned to more musically conservative turf on the back-to-basics set Good Morning Aztlan (2002). Their 2004 collection of covers The Ride united them with musicians they admired – Bobby Womack, Dave Alvin, Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Mavis Staples, Ruben Blades, and Thee Midniters’ Little Willie G. The ambitious The Town and the City (2006) mated the semi-autobiographical subject matter of early albums like How Will the Wolf Survive? with the hazy production style of Kiko.
Though now more than two decades removed from their “La Bamba” success, Los Lobos remain a hard-touring live act and one of the most consistently inventive recording acts of their LA generation. With their precursor Valens and their frequent stage partner Carlos Santana, they remain the most celebrated of all Hispanic rockers.