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In the year 2000, when Rhino Records released El Cancionero Mas Y Mas, a four CD retrospective of Los Lobos's recording career, Time magazine observed that “if one of them had looked like Ricky Martin, Los Lobos would have gotten the recognition they deserved.” The five man band from East L.A. has toured and recorded consistently since 1978, the year they performed their first concert and released their debut album, and their eclectic mix of rock 'n' roll, blues, country, and Tex Mex has won them an avid following among critics and the public. Still, they spent many years haunted by the ghost of Richie Valens, the singer who died at age 17 in the 1959 plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. In 1987, "La Bamba," the title song to the Valens biopic, gave Los Lobos its only number one hit.

 

"It was a cultural thing," singer-guitarist David Hidalgo told American Songwriter in 2010. "Ritchie Valens was the first Chicano rocker to have a top 20 hit. When we heard the idea about making a movie of his life, we thought, ‘Wow, that would be a great opportunity.’ It got us out there, but a lot of people who liked it didn’t know anything about the band. It overshadowed us. We resented it for a little while, but we’re over it.”

 

Los Lobos may be best-known to the general public for their hit version of Valens’ rock ‘n’ roll classic, but they are anything but a one hit wonder. Each of the band’s albums contain at least one song in Spanish “because it’s part of our identity,” but their music is too rich, too eclectic, to be neatly categorized. "The genius of Los Lobos," All Jazz raved, "resides in their innate ability to find the redemptive power of music, no matter the style they choose to play." In addition to performing original material, Los Lobos has dipped into the catalogues of such diverse musical talents as the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and Doc Pomas, but, as Time observed, “Los Lobos manage to make them all sound like they’re hatched from the same egg.” The All Music Guide made a similar observation, noting that "their music never sounds forced or self-conscious. Instead, all of their influences become one graceful, gritty sound." Their own songs have been covered by everyone from the late Waylon Jennings, who turned "How Will the Wolf Survive?" into a country hit, and former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant who asked the band to hear his version of “Angel Dance” before its release as the first single from his 2010 Band of Joy album. “He wanted our approval. It sounds great.” They have also been invited to add their trademark sound to albums by Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, and Ry Cooder.

 

Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo, and Louie Perez formed Los Lobos (Spanish for "the Wolves") in 1973 after they met at Garfield High School in East L.A. Like many another band, they were rockers who played the current top 40 hits in bars around the area. "Mexican music was largely wallpaper to us," Perez recalls, "it was always in the background, and we never paid much attention to it. We were modern kids who listened to rock and roll. Then we finally dug up some old records to learn a couple of songs. Then it grew. The old folks were blessing us and thanking us for playing this music. That's why we're still here, because of moments like that."

 

Their first album, Just Another Garage Band From L.A., recorded entirely in Spanish, went nowhere commercially, and gigs were few and far between. "We ended up doing happy hours strolling in a Mexican restaurant," Perez remembers. "That wasn't what we had in mind."

 

In 1980, Los Lobos opened for Public Image Ltd, the punk band led by former Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten, at L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium, and were loudly booed by the audience. Despite that rude reception, Los Lobos's style was beginning to find favor among the rock and punk fans in L.A. A 1982 gig opening for the Blasters at the legendary Whiskey A-Go-Go was enough of a success that Blasters saxophonist David Berlin would join the band and use his influence to get them signed to Slash Records where they released . . . And a Time to Dance, co-produced by T-Bone Burnett, in 1983. In reviewing the seven song disc, Rolling Stone called it “an infectious dance record that deserves to be heard by rock fans.”

 

Rock fans certainly heard How Will the Wolf Survive? Released in late 1984, the album made most music critics’s top ten lists, including those of both Jon Pareles and Robert Palmer in The New York Times with the latter praising it as “consummately skillful and heartfelt.” Writer Mark Deming of the All Music Guide found "the band's exemplary taste, musical smarts, and road-tested maturity in evidence on every cut." In Rolling Stone, Debby Miller hailed it as “the kind of record that dances you around till you’re worn out,” and thought “the guys in Los Lobos must’ve grown up in homes where Dad threw the Vicente Fernandez records on after Elvis - the little touches of sweetly soulful Mexican country music make their rock and roll unique.” When the magazine compiled its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2003, How Will the Wolf Survive? landed at number 461, sandwiched between Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear.

 

The album spawned two hit singles, the title song and "Don't Worry Baby," and made Los Lobos very prominent at a time when the musical landscape was otherwise dominated by Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and Duran Duran. David Hidalgo's vocals invited comparisons with the late Richie Valens for what Rolling Stone called its "romantic, plaintive tenor," and the band would channel Valens' ghost for their next big success, the soundtrack for the 1987 film, La Bamba, which reached number one on the Billboard charts, as did their version of the title song. Los Lobos performed eight of the 12 songs on the film soundtrack, including "Donna,” Valens’ love song to his girlfriend. “Rock-and-roll from the late 1950s has rarely been resurrected with more loving care,” observed Robert Palmer in The New York Times when choosing the disc as the Rock Album of the Week.
 

The multi-platinum success of the La Bamba soundtrack led to greater exposure as the band opened for such superstar attractions as U2, but it overshadowed the release of their next album, By the Light of the Moon. "It was completely pre-empted by this massive hit," Perez said. In Rolling Stone, Anthony DeCurtis thought the album lacked cohesion as the band's two principal singer-songwriters, Hidalgo and Rosas, "seemed to have moved in different, not altogether complimentary, directions. . . At times it seems as if Hidalgo and Rosas were writing for two equally powerfully but markedly distinct albums." Hidalgo's vision was darker in songs like "Is That All There Is?" and "One Time, One Night," both of which addressed social problems, while Rosas's songs were more upbeat. Whatever the tone, the songs were marked by the band's belief in economy, a lesson learned partly through the example set by country music. "Writers like Hank Williams and Merle Haggard knew how to say things in just a few words," Perez told The New York Times. Hidalgo echoed that belief in an interview with American Songwriter in 2010: “The best songs are the ones that don’t sound like there’s a lot of work behind them. Even Dylan, who’s the greatest, puts his songs together so seamlessly that they seem simple.”
 

In 1988, they appeared at one of America’s most prestigious venues, Carnegie Hall, where, Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times, “they made difficult music sound as natural and unfettered as a house party. One couple even started waltzing in the aisle, but a Carnegie Hall usher put a stop to that.” In a commercially defiant move, they also released Pistola y el Corazon, an album of Mexican folk music that earned the band its second Grammy Award.
 

For 1990's The Neighborhood, the band was joined by Levon Helm of the Band, superstar drummer Jim Keltner, and singer-songwriter John Hiatt for a return to a more rock-oriented mood. The title was meant as an affirmation of their East L.A. roots. "A bringing-it-all-back-home affair," wrote Rolling Stone, "(the album) finds a spiritual dimension, a sense of wonder in the course of everyday life." The All Music Guide thought it both a "genuine step forward for a great band, as well as the jumping-off point to their most experimental period."
 

The experimentation was apparent in 1992's Kiko which many regard as Los Lobos's best album. "We were looking for more of an atmosphere than something conventional," said Perez, "and sonically we were trying to create a climate instead of saying 'Here's where the guitar solo goes.'" The album was distinguished by the use of feedback, tape loops, and other studio tricks, but it never detracted from songs addressing a wide-range of subjects, from homelessness and child abuse to alcoholism and rape. "It is an album unafraid of the possibilities of the studio," wrote Peter Watrous in The New York Times, "where guitars run backward and textures change rapidly." Despite the accolades for the production work of Mitchell Froom, the band's natural gifts remained front and center. Of Hidalgo, Watrous wrote, "Here is one of rock's finest singers, capable of making everything he sings profound." When including the disc on its list of the ten best albums of 1992, Fast Folk Musical Magazine wrote, “David Hidalgo has a tenor to die for, a gift he employs to wondrous effect throughout this album.” According to Time, the album “blends rock, jazz, and Mexican folk styles with authority and panache; David Hidalgo’s lambent vocals transport songs about hardship and redemption to a numinous state. More than a mere blending of two vibrant traditions, Kiko forges a new American sound.”
 

The next year found Los Lobos performing John Lennon's 1966 psychedelic classic, "Tomorrow Never Knows," for a PBS special, The Beatles Songbook, taped at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, and releasing Just Another Band from East L.A., a two-CD retrospective compiling hits and rarities. It was followed in 1995 by Papa's Dream, a children's record which included sing-a-long versions of "La Bamba" and "Wooly Bully." Colossal Head, released in 1996, continued the experimentations of Kiko that were also seeping into their live shows. "Los Lobos used to be more clear-cut," Jon Pareles wrote in his New York Times review of their appearance at the Mercury Lounge on April 27, 1996. Finding their new music "freer and stranger," he concluded that "Los Lobos has left the guideposts of tradition behind, but the band clearly knows where it wants to go."
 

One place they wanted to go was to a new label, Hollywood Records, for whom they recorded 1999's This Time. The album was awash in the sonic experimentations they started with Kiko, but their next disc, 2002's Good Morning Aztlan, found the band in a back-to-basics mood which Christine Hoard, writing in Rolling Stone, thought "was all we could ask for from these twenty-nine-year vets: a record as poignant as it is rollicking, and a welcome return to form."
 

The Ride (2004) was a star-studded affair featuring contributions from Reuben Blades, Elvis Costello, Mavis Staples, Richard Thompson, and Tom Waits. "We had a wish list," Perez said, "and I consider them all friends." When The Town and the City was released in 2006, Rolling Stone opined that "With the exception of U2, no other band has stayed on top of its game as long as Los Lobos." The next year, they contributed a cover of Bob Dylan's "Billy 1" (from the soundtrack of 1973's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid) to Todd Haynes's eccentric Dylan biopic, I'm Not There.
 

In 2009, they performed at the White House and released Los Lobos Goes Disney, an album resulting from a purely mercenary consideration. "We did that because our contract was over with Hollywood Records," Hidalgo said, "and we didn't want to leave them with another album of original material they would own." Instead, they saved their new songs for Tin Can Trust, released by Shout Factory in 2010.
 

As Time noted a decade ago, none of its members look like Ricky Martin, but while the Puerto Rican heartthrob’s personal life seems to get more attention than his talent these days, Los Lobos plays on and, more remarkably in the fickle business of music, remain relevant, expanding and refining their style while still continuing to embrace their roots. Louie Perez may have explained the secret to Los Lobos's success in 1984, just as they were enjoying their first brush with fame: "We're not just playing music of our own culture, we're being Mexican-American in the purest definition - we're playing music that belongs to all of us." 

by Brian W. Fairbanks



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