VIP Lalo Guerrero

Lalo Guerrero (December 24, 1916 - March 17, 2005)

Often called the "Father of Chicano Music," Lalo Guerrero enjoyed a 60-year career and had a hit with "Marijuana Boogie," which was sung by Edward James Olmos in the 1981 film Zoot Suit.

Guerrero composed romantic ballads that became standards in Mexico. He recorded in Mexican regional as well as in tropical dance styles. He led swing bands that crossed over to popularity among European-American and African-American audiences in the Los Angeles area where he lived for most of his life. And he was a key figure in the Mexican-American pachuco youth culture that sprang up in Los Angeles during and after World War II.

He recorded a string of hit parodies that cleverly pointed up the fault lines between Mexican and American cultures, and he composed corridos, traditional-style ballads of Mexican-American life. On top of all this, he is lovingly remembered as a children's musician. In the words of Mexican-American vocalist Linda Ronstadt, as quoted in Variety, "Lalo is the first great Chicano musical artist and the historian and social conscience of that community."

During the Depression of the 1930s, Guerrero headed to Los Angeles and was quickly brought into a recording studio by producer Manuel Acuña, who spotted him on the street. In 1935 Guerrero traveled to Mexico City to record, having already written "Canción Mexicana" (Mexican Song), sometimes known as the unofficial Mexican anthem. The song became a hit after it was recorded by Lucha Reyes, and it found its way into the repertoires of mariachi bands everywhere. Another Guerrero composition, "Nunca Jamás" (Never Again), a hit for Guerrero himself in 1956, likewise became a standard repertoire item after it was recorded by the Trio Los Panchos, the great Mexican balladeer Javier Solis, and modern crooner José Feliciano, among many others.

With the hit song "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" (from the Disney Studios film Davy) riding high on pop charts in 1955, Guerrero recorded a Mexican-American version of the song, replacing the American frontiersman with a Mexican named Pancho Sanchez from the state of Chihuahua. The song gave Guerrero a gold record for sales of 500,000 copies after he re-recorded it in English, and it became the first of a string of hit Guerrero compositions that parodied earlier hits by other artists. "No Hay Tortillas" (There Are No Tortillas) was sung to the tune of Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never" (which was based on the Italian standard "O Sole Mio"), while "Pancho Claus" became a durable South-western holiday favorite. Some of Guerrero's parodies had a satirical thrust, such as "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Busboys" (a parody of the Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings country hit "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"), which pointed out that "jobs ain't easy to find, and they're harder to hold."

In the 1960s Guerrero operated a successful Los Angeles-area nightclub called Lalo's, then sold it in 1972. The music Guerrero made later in life was purpose-driven; beginning with pieces honoring slain presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and Chicano farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez, Guerrero often recorded corridos and other topical songs on contemporary themes. In the 1980s he wrote "La Mosca," the song used in a campaign to warn Californians about the threat posed to the state's agriculture industry by the Mediterranean fruit fly, and as late as 1996 he composed a theme song for the Latino Vote '96 election-year effort.

Continuing to forge a special bond with young listeners, Guerrero joined the Mexican-American rock group Los Lobos, whose members he had profoundly inspired, on the Grammy award-nominated children's album Music for Little People. His autobiography, Lalo: My Life and Music, co-written with Sherilyn Meece Mentes, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2002.

Source: James M. Manheim in Contemporary Musicians. Ed. Angela Pilchak. Vol. 55. Detroit: Gale, 2006. p64-66.

(Here's "Marijuana Boogie" from a 2010 Compañía Nacional de Teatro production of "Zoot Suit.")


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