From the East Los Angeles barrio to international stardom, Los Lobos traces the musical evolution of a platinum-selling, Grammy Award–winning band that has ranged through virtually the entire breadth of American vernacular music, from traditional Mexican folk songs to roots rock and punk.
Series: American Music Series
Los Lobos leaped into the national spotlight in 1987, when their cover of “La Bamba” became a No. 1 hit. But what looked like an overnight achievement to the band’s new fans was actually a way station in a long musical journey that began in East Los Angeles in 1973 and is still going strong. Across four decades, Los Lobos (Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, and Steve Berlin) have ranged through virtually the entire breadth of American vernacular music, from rockabilly to primal punk rock, R&B to country and folk, Mexican son jarocho to Tex-Mex conjunto and Latin American cumbia. Their sui generis sound has sold millions of albums and won acclaim from fans and critics alike, including three Grammy Awards.
Los Lobos, the first book on this unique band, traces the entire arc of the band’s career. Music journalist Chris Morris draws on new interviews with Los Lobos members and their principal collaborators, as well as his own reporting since the early 1980s, to recount the evolution of Los Lobos’s music. He describes the creation of every album, lingering over highlights such as How Will the Wolf Survive?, La Pistola y El Corazon, and Kiko, while following the band’s trajectory from playing Mexican folk music at weddings and dances in East L.A. to international stardom and major-label success, as well as their independent work in the new millennium. Giving one of the longest-lived and most-honored American rock bands its due, Los Lobos celebrates the expansive reach and creative experimentalism that few other bands can match.
- Prologue: Cinco de Mayo
- 1. The Neighborhood: Life and Music in East L.A.
- 2. Homeboys: Growing Up and Garfield
- 3. A Beginning: The Founding of Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles
- 4. Recording por La Raza: The Making of Si Se Puede! and Just Another Band from East L.A.
- 5. Happy Hour: Going Electric at Las Lomas and a Baptism of Fire at the Olympic
- 6. Wolves of Hollywood: Los Lobos’ Arrival on the Punk Scene and at the Whisky
- 7. Arrivals: Steve Berlin, Slash Records, T Bone Burnett, and the Grammys
- 8. Quantum Leap: How Will the Wolf Survive?
- 9. Breakdowns: The Graceland Session and By the Light of the Moon
- 10. Numero Uno with a Bullet: La Bamba
- 11. Rooted and Rocked: La Pistola y El Corazon and The Neighborhood
- 12. Let’s Try This: Kiko, Latin Playboys, and Colossal Head
- 13. Side Tracks: Papa’s Dream, Soul Disguise, Houndog, Dose
- 14. In the Mouse’s House: Disney, Hollywood Records, This Time, and Good Morning Aztlán
- 15. Homecomings: The Ride, The Town and the City, Tin Can Trust
- Epilogue. 40: Back at the Whisky
- Gracias Very Much
- Listening, Reading, and Viewing
Cinco de Mayo
In 2012, Los Lobos were granted their own festival in Los Angeles. Under the auspices of the Nederlander Organization, the national concert venue and promotion ﬁrm, the East L.A. band mounted their ﬁrst daylong event at the Greek Theatre, a spacious, verdant amphitheater carved out of a hillside above the city’s Los Feliz neighborhood, many miles from L.A.’s East Side, where the band was born and bred.
It was the natural location for the show. The Lobos had enjoyed a history with the Greek dating back to July 1985, when the band—yet to make a big national mark, but already a much-loved local institution—made the ﬁrst of several summertime appearances there. These events were among the most unforgettable concerts of the mid-’80s. East L.A. homeboys and homegirls poured into the Greek in their ﬁnery, rubbing elbows with locals from the rock scene who had witnessed Los Lobos’ swift rise through the ranks of the Hollywood roots–punk axis. It was the biggest party in town.
“We’ve always had a pretty special relationship with the Greek,” Steve Berlin, the band’s saxophonist–keyboardist, told me the week before the ﬁrst festival. “They were very kind to us over the years, and we’ve had some pretty special nights there.”
Appropriately, the 2012 Los Lobos Festival was presented on Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican national holiday celebrating the country’s improbable victory over invading French forces at
the Battle of Puebla on that date in 1862. The event at the Greek dovetailed naturally with the customary citywide ﬁesta thrown by L.A.’s enormous Mexican American population.
The inaugural 2012 festival, staged under crystalline skies on a summery day, was very much a family affair. In the afternoon, on the terrace outside the amphitheater, the acts playing on a small jury-rigged stage included the 44s, a bluesy rock unit that included drummer Jason Lozano, son of Los Lobos’ bassist Conrad Lozano, and David “Kid” Ramos, formerly guitarist for the Fabulous Thunderbirds; Ollin, a folk–punk act that served as the house band for Evangeline, the Queen of Make-Believe, a local multimedia show based on the Lobos songbook that premiered a week later; and La Santa Cecilia, a young East L.A. group that drew heavily on the Lobos’ original folk model. (The latter act would break through to wider recognition with their ﬁrst fulllength studio album, Treinta Dias, which won a Grammy Award in 2014 for Best Latin Rock, Urban, or Alternative Album.)
It was old home week on the main stage as well. The crowd was warmed up by Mariachi El Bronx, a brawny unit fusing traditional mariachi (the Mexican string and horn ensemble style) and punk rock, which included bajo sexto player Vince Hidalgo, son of Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo, among their colorfully costumed members, and X, the legendary punk band with whom the Lobos had shared bills in their earliest days in Hollywood.
When Los Lobos came out of the wings in the gloaming to robust cheers, they arrayed themselves before the crowd in their traditional onstage positions. To the audience’s far left stood Cesar Rosas, the band’s southpaw singer–guitarist, still the eminent Chicano hipster, his eyes masked by omnipresent RayBans, a neat goatee on his chin; he remains the taciturn group’s default master of ceremonies, and introduced most of the songs with a quip or an exclamation, acknowledging applause with “Gracias very much.” To Rosas’s left shoulder was Conrad Lozano, the most animated of the players, who bounced on the balls of his feet as he plucked his bass or monstrous guitarron, grinning broadly. Formerly seated atop the drum chair to the rear (now occupied by the boyish touring drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez), the small, almost doll-like Louie Pérez now commanded center stage, playing guitar and, on the traditional numbers that invariably grace the group’s set, a variety of acoustic stringed instruments. Next to him was his broad, moon-faced songwriting partner David Hidalgo; ever a retiring and almost bashful ﬁgure, he kept his onstage patter to the barest minimum, content to dazzle the audience with his soaring vocals and his virtuosity on guitar, accordion, and an arsenal of stringed instruments. Finally, Steve Berlin stood behind an electronic keyboard at the audience’s right, his battery of reed and wind instruments on stands behind him; “the new kid,” the Jewish saxophonist from Philly who joined Los Lobos in 1983, is so perfectly assimilated into the group that he might now be mistaken for an East Side homie, with his head crowned with a felt cap, eyes covered like Cesar’s with dark glasses, a long, pointed beard on his chin.
Old friends and fans joined the main attraction during their headlining stint, which commenced with an acoustic mini-set. Titian-haired Americana goddess Neko Case dueted with David Hidalgo on “One Time One Night.” Another Americana icon, the Texas-based Chicano singer–songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, fronted the group on his compositions “Rosalie” and “Rebel Kind,” a staple for his ’80s band the True Believers, road mates of Los Lobos in their ﬁrst days of touring. Accordionist Flaco Jimenez—the seventy-three-year-old star of norteño (Tex–Mex border) music and David Hidalgo’s principal inspiration on the instrument—and guitarist Max Baca of the contemporary border music combo (or conjunto) Los Texmaniacs backed Cesar Rosas on the hip-grinding Latin bolero (ballad) “Volver, Volver.” Singer–songwriter–guitarist Dave Alvin, whose group the Blasters had introduced the Lobos to L.A. punkdom, performed his composition “4th of July,” a number he had ﬁrst recorded as a member of X, with Jimenez behind him. Dave remained onstage to back his brother Phil on a rocking version of the Blasters’ neorockabilly classic “Marie Marie”—sung in Spanish, of course, as “Maria, Maria”—that ﬁlled the aisles with dancing fans.
As ever, it was a straight-ahead performance by the stars of the show. The enduring elements of a Los Lobos show are its lack of crowd-pandering or superﬂuous ﬂash, and its fundamental gravity. Save for Rosas’s ad-libs and the occasional interjection by the ever-reticent Hidalgo, the coolly undemonstrative group has always left it to their considerable musicianship—especially to Hidalgo’s multi-instrumental virtuosity and Rosas’s fret ﬁrepower—to carry the show. In ways both visual and musical, they resemble a group of ’60s-era elders with whom they shared stages in the 1980s: the Grateful Dead. A Los Lobos performance is invariably fun, but there is simultaneously never any doubt that the band members are serious about what they do. And so it was at the Greek.
The ﬁrst Lobos Cinco de Mayo Fest proved so successful that it was repeated a year to the day later with a different cast of supporting acts. The previous year’s sunshine was in short supply. The date took place under uncommonly gray L.A. skies; an intermittent drizzle dampened the festivities and sent some audience members heading for the exits early during the latter part of the night. La Santa Cecilia returned for the afternoon portion of the show, joined by Los Fabulocos (Kid Ramos’s band) and Making Movies, a bilingual Latino–roots act from Kansas City with an album produced by Steve Berlin to their credit.
Unlike the previous year, there was no punk act in the lineup to enlist the graying rockers, and the 2013 festival drew a higher percentage of Latinos among its audience members. The opening acts on the big stage were El Chicano, the ’70s band from East L.A. that scored huge hits with the bolero “Sabor a Mi” (part of the Lobos’ early repertoire) and the instrumental “Viva Tirado”; Kinky, the in-your-face, techno-ﬂavored rock en Español group from Monterrey, Mexico; and Pedro Torres y Su Mariachi, a local act playing in the traditional mariachi style.
Beyond the presence of the gospel-reared steel guitarist Robert Randolph—who capped the night with duels on Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” Ritchie Valens’s “Come On, Let’s Go,” and the Lobos’ “Mas y Mas”—guests for the headliners’ set were similarly Latin in ﬂavor. A couple of highlights were contributed by members of Los Super Seven, the Tex–Mex supergroup that numbered the Lobos among their personnel on their ﬁrst two albums: Ruben Ramos tore up the bolero “Paloma Negra,” while Rick Treviño honored George Jones, who had died the previous month, with a moving cover of the country singer’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Members of Kinky brought their electronic style to a collaborative rendering of “Kiko and the Lavender Moon.” Returnee Max Baca (also a charter member of Los Super Seven) and his nephew, accordionist Josh Baca, stepped in for “Margarita.” And Little Willie G., lead vocalist of the ’60s East L.A. rock act Thee Midniters, fronted the group for three numbers, climaxing with his old band’s ballad hit “That’s All.”
The two Cinco de Mayo Festivals—which were succeeded in 2014 with a third holiday event, with the popular local Latino rock act Ozomatli in support—were more than a demonstration of Los Lobos’ totemic position in L.A.’s musical ﬁrmament. The band’s prominence—perhaps most notably acknowledged by three Grammy Awards and a 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Grammys—had long ago transcended local-hero status. On October 13, 2009, they had appeared before President Barack Obama as part of Fiesta Latina, a celebration of Latino American music on the White House lawn. During the televised event, the president could be seen singing along to “La Bamba,” the song that had thrown the group into the national spotlight in 1987, when their cover of the Ritchie Valens number became a No. 1 hit.
The Greek Theatre shows significantly dramatized the breadth of Los Lobos’ audience. Put in the terms of their hometown’s cultural and demographic map, it’s as much West Side as East Side. Over time, they became cherished by white, middleclass rock fans who had been drawn to the band’s seamless mating of Latin and American roots styles, and who had stayed on board as they incorporated increasingly innovative textures into their music. But the band has never lost touch with the neighborhood—the barrio fans who had embraced them in the early ’70s as they became the ﬁrst young group in East Los Angeles to explore the traditional music of Mexico and Latin America. The ranks from both camps swelled during the course of their career to encompass three discreet groups of listeners—O.G. East Siders who had slow-danced to “Sabor a Mi” at backyard parties in Montebello; old punks who had rocked out to “Don’t Worry Baby” at Club Lingerie; and their children and grandchildren who had been captivated by “La Bamba” on the radio or pulled the old LPs and CDs off the family shelf.
The Cinco de Mayo concerts also cumulatively charted the remarkable progress of Los Lobos’ music, which over the course of time has come to encompass as many stylistic streams as that of such famous precursors and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Band, the Grateful Dead, and ZZ Top (the latter of whom is the only major American act presently at work that rivals them in terms of longevity, on a continuous basis). Few groups in rock history have demonstrated such expansive reach or creative restlessness.
Many will refer to Los Lobos as a “Chicano” band, but it is in the (today) lesser-used term “Mexican American” that the truest sources of their art may be deﬁned. Though all four of the band’s original core members of the ’70s are of Mexican descent, three of them were born in Los Angeles and were raised in predominantly English-speaking households, and all of them grew up listening to and ultimately playing in American roots styles. They essentially taught themselves the music of their Hispanic forebears when they formed their original folk music incarnation, Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, in the early ’70s, during the height of the Chicano renaissance in the city. However, in the ’80s, they melded those Latino roots with their early electric inﬂuences and made a name for themselves on the post-punk roots–rock scene of Hollywood.
Achieving international fame with the retro commercial triumph of “La Bamba,” they stepped back and—after re-exploring their Mexican American folk roots on a Grammy-winning album—they once again reconﬁgured their sound with a series of exploratory, sometimes wildly experimental recordings during the 1990s that are among the most boundary-pushing works formulated by an American band of the era. After the turn of the millennium, their albums found the Lobos steeping in a noworganic blend of all these styles. They had by then truly returned to their roots, writing and recording their albums independently after decades of work in the U.S. major-label sphere.
Over the course of their four decades together, Los Lobos ranged through virtually the entire breadth of American vernacular music, seamlessly integrating a plethora of inﬂuences in their sui generis sound. Certainly, they were and are at heart a rock ’n’ roll band, but the term in their case spans the history of the music, from rockabilly through sophisticated ’60s rock into primal punk rock. But the music explored all the other major American genre tributaries—blues, R&B and soul, country, folk. Their take on Latin music, the original source of their sound, was similarly catholic in orientation, moving from the son jarocho of Mexico—a song style of the Veracruz region from which the group drew heavily—to the accordion-driven sound of the Texas–Mexico border conjuntos (small bands) to, later, the swaying cumbia of Colombia and Panama. During the ’90s, at the height of their creative powers, they further upped the ante by injecting all the components of their work with a fresh experimental rigor, chopping and channeling the music like an East Side mechanic at work on a lowrider.
Each distinct new chapter in Los Lobos’ musical development arrived organically, essentially as a procession of responses to a series of challenges. Though they were rock musicians in their formative teen years, their ﬁrst manifestation as a Mexican American folk group amid the ﬂourishing of the ’60s Chicano rebirth grew out of a desire to probe the roots of their native culture, which had grown remote to them and to others in their hometown community through the process of assimilation. Later, after their folk music met with an initially violent reaction from the nascent L.A. punk rock community, they took that hostility as a thrown gauntlet and, picking up their electric instruments again, they entered the local rock scene with born-again fervor. After conquering that scene, and ultimately the American record charts, with their roots–punk style, they reclaimed their folk origins. After hitting a creative wall amid the snares of rock stardom, they forged into terra incognita with a series of boldly label-defying recordings that reﬂected the inﬂuence of rock’s most avant-garde practitioners. Their mature style reconciled the many strains and strands of their music.
The sheer length of their reach and the breadth of their sound summon up a long list of questions about Los Lobos’ identity. Their polarities are many. Are they Mexican or American? Hippies or punks? Folk artists or rockers? Traditionalists or experimentalists? Conservatives or radicals? At the end of the day, the answer must surely be “All of the above.” It is the very complexity of Los Lobos’ music, and their unwillingness to be constrained by the world’s notions of what they ought to be, that has sustained the band as a creative unit for forty years, and that makes them such an extraordinary and incomparable force in this country’s music.
In the course of charting Los Lobos’ story, I contacted Tom Waits, a Los Angeles–bred artist of similar artistic orientation, and one who likewise has taken traditional music to the most outré frontiers of popular style. Like the best and most imaginative of Los Lobos’ music, his seems to exist in a kind of rareﬁed dream state.
Waits had recorded a song with the Lobos, “Kitate,” which appeared on the band’s 2004 album The Ride. I was curious about his experience working with them, and passed some questions along through his publicist. Being Tom Waits, he chose to respond with his own impression of the band’s music. It seemed to hit the sweet spot. It read in part:
I would love one day to sing “La Golondrina” with them. Or “Guadalajara Nunano” or “Alla En El Rancho Grande” or “Volver.” They have so much range. You can trace their inﬂuences like the rings of a tree. They are Traditionalists, Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and muralists. They all have chops and range and surprise and a profound depth of vernacular ﬂavor and accent.
Listening to Los Lobos I hear fossils and fragments of pottery. One moment they are barefoot on a dirt ﬂoor and I hear babies crying. Next they are Link Wray, Howlin’ Wolf, Fred McDowell distortion box. They abracadabra the world. They are the master chefs creating new cuisine. It sounds sometimes like they are trying to recreate the sounds they heard in all the rooms they ever lived in.
Los Lobos are best played loud at a carnival in a vacant lot with generators moaning like tractors and bells from game booths ringing. They are consummate musicians and you can be nourished by listening and learning. They are not “like” anything, they are Los Lobos. It’s hard to drive around Los Angeles and not think of them.
What follows is a critical history of Los Lobos’ musical journey. It should not be considered biographical; the focus is on the musical progress of the band, as deﬁned principally in their recording career. Biographical details about the group’s members are restricted to information that has some bearing on their creative work. It may be worth noting here that all of the musicians are family men of long standing (though Cesar Rosas lost his wife of seventeen years in 1999), and all are fathers.
The band’s story will be told here primarily through their own words, though several key collaborators were also interviewed. I myself have been following that story as a journalist and a fan since 1980, and I would not have undertaken the writing of this project without a long-standing admiration for their music; I have allowed myself to enter the narrative at a couple of key junctures.
I ﬁrst heard Los Lobos’ music in the Hollywood clubs, where they began to attain their renown in the early ’80s. But their music had its genesis years earlier, in a corner of Los Angeles that was obscure and even exotic to some. It is on that compass
point that we must begin.
“A useful cultural history that is sure to please fans and musicologists. ”
“Morris’ critical history will find a hungry audience.”
“Morris is the ideal teller of this tale, drawing on decades of his own fandom and reportage and a wealth of experience in both consumer and trade journalism (including long, distinguished runs at the Reader, the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard). . . . Morris writes with care and insight about each Los Lobos record, providing rich geographical, cultural, and historical context along the way.”
The Huffington Post
“How Los Lobos navigated the move to performing electric in front of the Mohawk-hair generation, enjoyed success with the soundtrack from La Bamba, dealt with music business missteps and never stopped experimenting and collaborating is a fascinating tale. The book was a fast read for me; I was unable to put it down. Morris excels at keeping the storyline moving with equal measures of factlets and anecdotes. . . . Dream in Blue brings into sharper focus a truer narrative of what growing up and being successful in America looks like.
“Writer Chris Morris’ new biography, Los Lobos: Dream in Blue, offers overwhelming evidence that the band deserves to glide its way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. ”
Los Angeles Times
“Both informative and engrossing . . . Chris Morris is to be commended for putting the story of this most American of bands to paper, and Dream In Blue will satisfy the most ardent of fans. Highly recommended. ”
The Big Takeover
“The best books about music and musicians are a direct reflection of their subjects and Chris Morris' chronicle on Los Lobos, Dream in Blue, is just such a book.”
All About Jazz
“Few musical acts have been as well served by their chronicler as Lobos are with Dream In Blue by Morris, a veteran Los Angeles music journalist who has seen the Wolves perform and followed their music since their first gig . . . Dream In Blue may be a short and quick read, but in its tight, fact-based richness, Morris gives Los Lobos the smart and insightful book this distinctive and distinguished musical act merits.”
Best Classic Bands
“Morris writes in such a way that you can almost smell and taste the smells and tastes of East L.A. in the boom of the psychedelic era and its aftermath.”
“[An] insightful and affectionate history.”
“A dream of a read for fans of the Lobos.”
“Chris Morris’s Los Lobos: Dream in Blue gives both fans and critics a satisfying chronicle of Los Lobos’ journey through critical and popular successes, failures, and artistic responses to the challenges faced by the ever-evolving, genre-defying group.”
Southwestern American Literature
“Los Lobos is a slice of pure East L.A. that I never even knew existed. Chris Morris is a wildass ethnomusicologist, social critic, raconteur, and L.A. music bon vivant for the new millennium. Viva Chris—El Gato de East Los.”
James Ellroy, author of Perfidia and The L.A. Quartet
“With the exception of U2, no other band has stayed on top of its game as long as Los Lobos. . . . This is what happens when five guys create a magical sound, then stick together for thirty [now forty] years to see how far it can take them.”
Previous review, Rolling Stone
“ . . . pioneering border fusionists, multiple Grammy winners, and one of the two indisputably most influential Chicano musical acts in history, along with Ritchie Valens.”
Previous review, Los Angeles Times
“These peerless musicians created nothing less than the soundtrack of the Mexican American experience.”
Charles Ramírez Berg, author of Latino Images in Film