Photo Exhibit: Roots of the Eastside Sound 1955-1965
Opening reception: Thurs, Nov 12, 2015 | 7 – 10pm. On display thru Feb 14, 2016.
FREE and open to the public. No RSVP required.
Location: The Jean Deleage Art Gallery at CASA 0101 Theater
Collection of Photographs and Memorabilia from the Collection of David Reyes
Curated by: Jimmy Centeno and David Reyes
CASA 0101 Theater will be closed for the holidays Dec. 24 – January 3rd. The gallery will be re-opened Monday, January 4, 2016.
In the spring of 1981, David Reyes and I interviewed three members of the Thee Midniters for a story that would be published several months later in Goldmine, a magazine geared toward record collectors. At the end of a lengthy conversation, David asked for a couple of photos of the group, taken during the mid-1960s, to be included in the article. The request was granted without hesitation.
Starting with that interview, David over the past three+ decades has amassed an extensive collection of East Los Angeles rock and roll memorabilia; photos, posters, flyers, and hand-written notes, mostly from the period 1955 to 1975.
For the first time, David is putting a sizeable portion of this fascinating and in some cases quite rare collection on public display. The exhibit, entitled “The Roots of the Eastside Sound, 1955-1965,”will open in the gallery of Casa 0101 Theatre in Boyle Heights on November 12 and continue through February 14. It coincides with the January 15, 2016, world premiere at Casa 0101 of “Eastside Heartbeats,” an original musical about the East LA rock and roll scene in 1965. The musical is scheduled to run Friday evenings, Saturday matinees and evenings, and Sundays from January 15 to February 14.
David’s collection includes photos and memorabilia of performers that experienced various levels of national success, including Ritchie Valens, Cannibal and the Headhunters, the Premiers, and the Blendells, along with artifacts representing groups that were popular exclusively in East LA and nearby communities, such as the Atlantics and the Emeralds. These items vividly recount the story of a community that fell hard for rhythm and blues and rock and roll. In the mid-1960s, you couldn’t walk more than a couple of blocks in East LA without hearing the sound of electric guitars, strutting bass lines, joyous harmonies, and crisp drum rolls emanating from garages and backyards. Even 13-year-olds were putting on fancy suits and ties and forming bands.
“What I intend to accomplish with this exhibit is to show the origins of the Eastside sound and showcase its early rhythm and blues influences,” said David. “I also want to convey the development of a full-blown Eastside sound between 1960 and 1965.”
“Some of the stuff that I acquired had special importance to me because I played in bands during the mid-60s,” added David. “I felt that if it was important to me it must be important to other people who grew up during that era. I started to collect anything I could find with this in mind.”
Many years before he started building his collection, David had been purchasing 45s and LPs featuring black rhythm and blues and soul artists and Mexican-American performers. Trivia buffs will be interested to learn that the first single David ever bought recorded by a Mexican-American artist was the Mixtures’ “Olive Oyl.” His first rhythm and blues 45 was “Try Me” by James Brown. The Casa 0101 exhibit will display records from David’s collection, as well as offering musical samples from the vibrant era between “Earth Angel” and “Whittier Boulevard.”
Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, as David and I worked on what would eventually become the seminal book “Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock and Roll from Southern California,” we discovered to our delight and surprise that Mexican-American musicians and producers are an extremely generous lot. They willingly and enthusiastically loaned or in many cases gave David at no cost various treasures from their days as local rock and roll and rhythm and blues stars. It quickly became apparent to us that they were as eager to have their stories told as we were eager to tell their stories.
The exhibit will give guests a sense of how rock and roll and rhythm blues landed in East LA in the 1950s, which was different from other parts of the United States and England. Among the elite performers of the 1950s, Mexican-American youth only went crazy over Little Richard. His manic performing style, threatening appearance, crazed vocals and turbocharged piano playing tore a hole through mid-century American pop culture. To an emerging generation of Mexican-American kids, many the children of recent immigrants, Little Richard represented the consummate outsider who obliterated societal norms.
Mexican-American youth were the first in the rock and roll era to identify an LA sound, distinct from other parts of the country. Five years before Southern California suburban kids discovered surf music, the East LA audience embraced a cadre of local artists, all of them African-American, including Chuck Higgins, Joe Houston, Big Jay McNeeley, Don Julian, Johnny Guitar Watson, the Penguins and Richard Berry. These listeners prized sax solos that continued long into the night, oblivious to curfews and fatigue; heartfelt ballads that took seriously the much-ridiculed phenomenon known as teen romance; and songs such as Berry’s “Louie, Louie,” which incorporated Latin rhythms and phrasing into rhythm and blues. David’s collection includes classic photos of these artists.
Still, it wasn’t always the music coming from LA that captivated Mexican-American kids. On February 9, 1964, television sets in East LA, Boyle Heights, and City Terrace were tuned to the Ed Sullivan Show, which on this particular Sunday night featured a group from England called the Beatles. East LA immediately succumbed, like seemingly every other community across the country. As can be seen in numerous photos from David’s collection, groups carefully emulated the look of the Beatles, down to the Cuban-heeled boots. The sound, however, remained black-based; cover versions of obscure and semi-obscure rhythm and blues songs, including “Farmer John, “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.”
By 1965, Mexican-American rock and roll had created its own decade-long history, which both paralleled and deviated from what occurred with youth in other parts of America and Europe. As David noted, in summing up the theme of his collection:
“The music had a purpose for all involved, whether they were fans or musicians, and I was fascinated how it evolved with the times. Rhythm and Blues was a factor not only musically but socially in Mexican-American communities throughout Southern California.”
Tom Waldman is co-author with David Reyes of “Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock and Roll from Southern California” (University of New Mexico Press, 1998, second edition, 2009). He is also author of the book for “Eastside Heartbeats,” an original rock and roll musical opening at Casa 0101 in January 2016.
The Resurgence of the East Side Sound: Photography, Memory and Memorabilia
In curating the photography exhibition I could not help feel the aura of each and every image. For each poster, photograph and memorabilia had a special encounter:
The presence of a unique message it had, the weight of memory, the weathered edges and surfaces of posters, album covers, photography and documentation is magical.
The exhibiting documentation serves as tangible testimonies that we too Mexican Americans contributed to the world of music. It departs from local and particular experiences that of East Los Angeles. The preservation and documentation in the exhibition holds open time for a truth to be discovered. It is through preservation our history comes into being. It invites us to imagine the local dance halls and churches rock and rolling to the local East Side Beat. It is our East Side Sound community photo album that boomerangs decades later rich with history.
The silver pigmentation negative imprints capture silver local moments of youthful and energetic talented performing singers. It was the beginning (1955-1965) of an ‘intercultural’ experience between the East Side Los Angeles and the vibrant music scene of Watts. It became the Mexican American Music Renaissance. The exhibition is a rare and one of a kind collection. It pries open the rusty gates of history reaches across time cuts a slice of a music historical moment and brings backs memories of the Cannibal and The Head Hunter, the Premiers, The Blendells, The Sisters, and many more local bands. It is a curating act that attempts to sustain a documented memory into the future… a treasure of images of a “once upon a time” aged “into a past” resurfacing again into a “new future” which we call today.
The “intercultural” activity between both East Los Angeles and Watts musicians and singers at The Jean Deleage Art Gallery brings us all the missing chapter of our Mexican American and Chicano music history. It was all those dreamers who made this history possible who sang, organized and put everyone on the dance floor. The exhibition is deserving of all our love for our homemade and home ground legends from East Los Angeles and the Watts community. It is not a historical fragment to a moment but a link to many moments that restore dignity and participation. In the age of instant reproduction tangible images continue to exercise the unique rebellious spirit of The East Side Sound as a fountain of inspiration.
January 15, 2016