West Hills author on the roots of L.A. Music and the Rise of Chicano Rock

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Tom Waldman is an Angeleno, Chief of Staff for LAUSD School Board Member Tamar Galatzan, and an established author with four books under his belt — who just happens to have a deep love for rock music, including Chicano Rock.

So, how did this hazel-eyed Anglo, who resides in West Hills, come across Chicano Rock in the first place? Furthermore, what prompted him to co-author a book, Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll from Southern California, about its history?

Second edition

The second edition of Land of a Thousand Dances was recently released.

The start of this journey takes place in the late 70s at a Tower Records in West Covina where both Waldman and co-author David Reyes worked. The two had a common interest in music of the 50’s and 60’s and became fast friends.

“David [Reyes] had known a lot of these bands and I got to know the Chicano audience and the scene through people coming into the store,” said Waldman.

At the time, Waldman was a budding writer attending the graduate journalism program at USC. “I wanted to write about music. I wanted to write a story that was also Southern California based and about groups that hadn’t been written about.”

Reyes, an avid record collector, had a strong sense of the musical history in Los Angeles. With their mutual interest, the two created an historical account of the rise of Chicano Rock in Southern California.

They started by writing various articles about the Chicano Rock movement and the scene. During the process of researching, interviewing musicians, and hearing stories for the first time, the project evolved into a collaboration — documenting what it was like to be  a Chicano rock and roller in Southern California.

The book, now in its second edition, chronicles the rise of stars, such as Ritchie Valens, the political hostilities that ignited Los Illegals, and the unique success of Los Lobos.

“I think Ritchie Valens is the first Rock and Roll star from Los Angeles. It’s very much a Southern California story,” said Waldman.

(L-R) Co-authors David Reyes and Tom Waldman

(L-R) Co-authors David Reyes and Tom Waldman at an event for their book at Vromans in Pasadena last month. Photo: Karen Young

As the authors indicate in the book, at a young age Valens demonstrated his musical skills by writing the melodies and the lyrics to such favored hits as “ Donna” and “ La Bamba.” Valens died in a plane crash at the age of 17 on February  3, 1959, along with Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson; a historical event memorialized in Don McLean’s “American Pie” as “the day the music died.”

“When you think of Southern California, you think of surf music, the Doors and Gun’N’Roses,” explained Waldman. “Most bands that have made it in Los Angeles have come from other parts of the country that met here in L.A. and played music here. In Chicano Rock, all the musicians are authentic locals who grew up here.”

Aside from tracing the roots of Chicano music, Land of a Thousand Dances also discusses their style of music. “It’s rock, the way it’s supposed to be; simple but passionate,” said Waldman.  In the late 60’s through the 70’s, the Chicano community participated more and more in politics. Chicano groups started to reflect these political times by singing about it, playing at rallies and demonstrations.

Los Illegals joined Tom Waldman and David Reyes at a recent event for their book at Vromans in Pasadena.  Photo: Karen Young

Los Illegals (L-R Jesus Velo and Willie Heron) joined Tom Waldman and David Reyes at at the Vromans event. Photo: Karen Young

This was also the time when Chicano groups began incorporating traditional Mexican melodies and styles into the type of rock they were playing. It sparked a cultural revival within the Chicano community. Groups blended the rock and roll they grew up listening to, with the musical styles of their ethnic heritage.

“Music from the 50’s and the Valens era were all in English with the exception of La Bamba,” explained Waldman, “all of a sudden these songs were in Spanish and took on Spanish names, which was unusual even for the Chicano audience.” This change in style marked a radical shift in the genre of Chicano rock but it also opened the door for groups like Los Lobos, who hit it big nationally with a revival of  “La Bamba.” The flexibility to fuse traditional styles in music, despite the current trend, is the singular contribution from Chicano groups that is made common today.

“I would maintain that this was the beginning in the interest of what we now refer to as World Music,” said Waldman.

Tom Waldman will be featured in Latin Music USA, a 4-part documentary on the influence of Latin music across America. Waldman will be featured in Part 3, on Chicano rock from California and the Southwest, due to air this fall on PBS on October 19. Other books by Tom Waldman —The Best Guide to American Politics, We All Want to Change the World: Rock and Politics from Elvis to Eminem, Not Much Left: The Fate Liberalism in America.
Atina Hartunian’s articles have appeared in the North Valley Community News, The Armenian Reporter, The Pasadena Weekly, as well as current urban development for Fourstory.org. She is also a website content manager and freelance writer: www.atinahartunian.blogspot.com.

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.