Words to live (and love) by
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 11, 2005 12:00 AM
Chicanos embrace old-school R&B, pop songs

Randy Cordova
If music serves as the soundtrack to a person's life, Sam Chavira's existence has been filled with buttery grooves and voices that are smoother than satin.

For instance, the Phoenix firefighter got married 13 years ago. He talks about it like it was yesterday.

"The first dance - that was our song," he recalls. "It was For the Love of You, by the Isley Brothers. That was the one."

Then he delicately starts singing the 1975 tune, almost in a whisper: "I wanna be livin' for the love of you . . . "

The mere thought of the music transports him to another place and time. But he's not alone. For a large number of Chicanos in the Valley, certain old R&B and pop songs - collectively known as "old school" - provide the backdrop for weddings, for dances, for first loves, even for heartaches. Old-school music fills the air at lowrider shows, while fans will flock to America West Arena on Saturday for a blowout featuring old-school acts.

The passion that the Chicano audience displays for this music may be a surprise. After all, the obvious assumption would be that Mexican-Americans would embrace Spanish-language material. But Peter Garcia, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Arizona State University, says Chicanos have deep R&B roots.

"There always has been a strong interaction between African-American and Mexican-Americans," he says, pointing out some cultural similarities.

For example, he says, Chicanos may have sported zoot suits in the '40s, but they borrowed the look from jazzman Cab Calloway. In such Latin music styles as the rumba and the samba, African-American influences can be heard.

There is also a regional side to the whole thing. A housing shortage after World War II caused African-Americans and Mexican-Americans to take up residence in such Los Angeles neighborhoods as Boyle Park and Lincoln Heights, creating "hubs where African-Americans and Chicanos were mixing," Garcia says.

The West Coast aspect of the music can be seen in such bicultural bands as War, Tower of Power and Santana, all classic old-school acts. It may also explain why the phenomenon is stronger in California and Arizona than in a state like Texas, where Tejano sounds fill a similar role.

"It's almost more of a lifestyle than just music," says Alex Santa Maria, program director at KAJM-FM (104.3). The station will host Saturday's Valentine's Super Love Jam, which drew an impressive 10,000 people last year.

Santa Maria compares the old-school lifestyle to the partying and clubbing scene that accompanied disco in the '70s.

"This music is about hanging out, about being with the family, about cruising with your friends," he says. "It's a kick-back-and-relax kind of thing. It's the kind of music you'd have on in the back yard, barbecuing with your family."

But what exactly makes the Chicano audience define something as old school? It's almost easier to say what doesn't pass muster.

For instance, it's usually not in Spanish, though certain verses or phrases may be (classic example: Malo's sweet Suavecito). The artist doesn't have to be Hispanic, but it doesn't hurt. El Chicano is definitely old school, but so is Marvin Gaye.

Then you have something like Santana's Oye Como Va, which combines both of those elements with African rhythms and a killer hook, and a classic
old-school act is born.

There are a couple of theories about why Chicanos seem to have bypassed straightforward rock and roll.

"Traditionally, Chicanos enjoy soft, romantic music, especially when you're cruising," says Jose Cortez, a public relations director for Chicanos Por La Causa, who also works as a disc jockey. "Old-school songs can be very romantic, very rhythmic. It's a neat thing."

"As long as Chicanos and African-Americans are marginalized in this country, they are always going to be sharing a musical space," Garcia says. "R&B really speaks to that marginalization."

That could be why the Chicano audience generally is more drawn to an old Four Tops' tune than something by, say, the Beach Boys.

"The topics that they talk about are especially . . . well, White," Garcia says. "The beach, the whole surfing culture - that's a very specific experience.

"Old school goes along with the dance at the wedding, or the trip to the club, or cruising the boulevard when you were in high school."

The popularity of old school also helps break the cliché of kids rejecting an older generation's music. For instance, Chavira was only 10 when For the Love of You was a hit.

Angelica Rodriquez is a 22-year-old student at Arizona State University, but she picked up her musical identity from her parents.

"My dad was born in the '50s and my mom was born in the '60s," she says. "In our house, old school was all we ever listened to."

Her parents literally handed the music down: They gave Rodriquez their old stereo and a record collection that includes the Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire and the Average White Band.

"It's hard to put it into words," Rodriquez says. "But with Chicanos, the music goes with our heritage. It stays with us."

Garcia agrees.

"Chicanos tend to recycle a lot of pop culture," he says. "They bring it home and make it usable. Look at lowriders. A Chicano goes to the junkyard and finds an old car and fixes it up, building it back up from scratch. Music works in the same way."

The use of sampling in today's pop music also allows the music to flow through different generations. John Legend's Number One takes its cue from the Staples Singers' Let's Do It Again, while Bobby Caldwell's What You Won't Do for Love resurfaced as 2Pac's Do for Love.

"Kids hear those songs and get interested in the originals," says Pebo Rodriguez, an executive at Thump Records, a label based in Pomona, Calif. "An older person hears it and goes, 'Hey, I know that song. It's from my era.' It works both ways."

Rodriguez is a man who knows his old school. His company made its mark by releasing compilations devoted to the style. The initial volume of Old School came out in 1993. Now there are eight discs in the series. The sales were so strong in the Southwest that a spin-off series of discs, called Lowrider, is also available.

The discs "sell to teenagers to guys in their 50s and 60s," Rodriguez says. "The music is constantly reinforced on both ends: hip-hop radio and oldies radio. Then you have car shows and a ton of these groups still tour. People don't buy their new stuff, but they'll buy their old stuff."

Cortez knows that's true. Tower of Power's new material doesn't get a lot of spins when he works as a deejay, but the vintage grooves of You're Still a Young Man will pack the dance floor.

"It's almost like you can't be a true Chicano if you don't know your oldies," he says. "It's like a badge of honor: If you want to fit in, you have to know a few of them."

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-8849.