Eduardo "Lalo" Guerrero Jr. (1916–2005) is known as the father of Chicano music. His career began in the 1930s and continued on until his death in 2005, contributing along the way to most of the new developments in Mexican-American music in the southwestern United States.
Early in his career, Guerrero composed romantic songs that became successful on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. He recorded big-band swing and music in tropical dance styles. During and after World War II his music played a central role in the Latino youth culture of the Los Angeles area. He recorded a series of hit Spanishlanguage parodies of Anglo-American hit songs, and he wrote and sang topical corrido ballads until very late in his life. And for many Latin Americans, Guerrero remains best known as a children's musician, recording with his group Las Ardillitas, the Little Squirrels. Arizona mariachi musician José Ronstadt told the Arizona Daily Star that Guerrero "was really an incredible man…. To me the most interesting phenomenon about Lalo Guerrero was that different generations knew Lalo through his different expressions of music."
Collected Bottles for Bootleggers
Born on December 24, 1916, in Tucson, Arizona, Guerrero was one of 11 surviving children in his family; many others died in infancy. "It seemed like almost every year there was another little white coffin in the living room," Guerrero wrote in his autobiography, My Life and Music. Guerrero almost died himself when he contracted smallpox, which left him scarred and vulnerable to taunts from neighborhood children. Guerrero's father, like many other Mexican immigrants in Tucson, had been drawn to the United States by work available on the expanding railroad system. Guerrero was given the nickname Lalo and was also known as Eddie after he began to learn English at a Catholic school. The Barrio Viejo neighborhood of Tucson where he grew up was poor but buzzing with activity, and Guerrero earned money by selling fruit or newspapers, and by collecting empty bottles that he could sell to bootleggers for a nickel apiece during the Prohibition era.
Guerrero's mother Concepción, who enjoyed singing Mexican popular songs, taught him to play the guitar. He also received strong musical influences from American movies, trying to emulate the crooner Rudy Vallee and watching the Al Jolson movie The Jazz Singer, the first sound film, over and over again. He began to perform at student assemblies, and a teacher introduced him to classical music. "When it came to music, I was like a funnel," he wrote in his autobiography. "I'd take everything in. I didn't care where it came from or whether it was in English or Spanish. I liked Burl Ives's ballads and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. I learned American songs from the movies and Mexican songs from Mamá's records and both from the radio." He began to dream of making music a career.
With two high school friends, Guerrero formed a trio called Eddie, Manny, and Rudy, which performed in English on Tucson radio station KGAR, and another, El Trio Salaz y Guerrero, that sang in Spanish on Tucson's KVOA. In 1934 the family went to live for a while in Mexico City, accepting a U.S. government offer of a $200 payment to Mexican Americans who agreed to be repatriated. Guerrero brought with him a song he had already written; Canción Mexicana (Mexican Song). A piece written in praise of Mexican music, it quoted melodies from around Mexico, and it later caught on among Mexican vocalists and was recorded by stars including Lucha Reyes and Lola Beltrán. Decades later it was still well known as a kind of unofficial anthem, but Guerrero was never credited as the writer or paid proper royalties. Even so, of the hundreds of songs he composed, he later named "Canción Mexicana" as his favorite.
Mexican audiences did not take to the performances of Guerrero himself, however; they termed him "pocho," or Americanized. Guerrero returned to Tucson and formed another vocal group, Las Carlistas, that did well enough to try its luck in Los Angeles and even performed at the 1939 New York World's Fair. They backed cowboy star Gene Autry in his film Boots and Saddles, and Guerrero, discovered walking down a street by Vocalion records talent agent Manuel Acuña, soon made his first solo recordings.
Zuit Suit and Romantic Style
Guerrero married his first wife, Margaret Marmion, in 1939, and the couple raised two children. During World War II Guerrero worked in an aircraft factory, receiving draft deferments because of his military work and his six-month-old son. Guerrero entertained U.S. troops in nightclubs, leading bands that played swing and newly popular Cuban dance styles. During the "zoot suit" anti-Latin riots of 1942, he was chased by a group of U.S. Marines but eluded them by taking refuge in a darkened movie theater. He was drafted in 1945, shortly before two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and ended the war.
In Los Angeles after the war, Guerrero was signed to make more recordings by Acuña, who had moved to the new independent Imperial label. Forming bands called Lalo y Sus Cincos Lobos (Lalo and His Five Wolves) and El Trio Imperial, Guerrero at first recorded mariachi music. But he soon became aware of the hip "caló" slang that flourished among Latino young people in Los Angeles, mixing Spanish, English, and words that had not previously been part of either language. A quick learner of language and music ever since his childhood, when he watched Mexican street musicians improvise lyrics on the spot and tried to imitate them, Guerrero quickly turned out new songs designed to take advantage of the new Latino youth culture, drawing on the hard-edged boogie and rhythm-and-blues styles that preceded the emergence of rock and roll. He enjoyed hits with such songs as "Los Chucos Suaves" (Cool Cats), "Chicas Patas Boogie" (The Chicanos' Boogie), and "Marijuana Boogie," recording with his Cincos Lobos and several times with black Los Angeles musicians as well. Several of these songs were featured in the play and film Zoot Suit in the late 1970s, and it was only at that point that Guerrero acquired an actual zoot suit of his own.
As Anglo-American pop made a transition from swing and jazz dance styles to vocal romantic ballads, Guerrero did the same, recording "Pecadora" (The Sinner) with an orchestra for Imperial in 1948. The song became a major hit in the Latin American market, generating a packed homecoming dance with Guerrero as headliner at Wetmore's Ballroom in Tucson, and spreading his name as far afield as Texas, where he had previously been little known. Guerrero toured the Southwest nonstop over the next several years, writing new material in a romantic style. One of his songs, "Nunca Jamás" (Never Again), was originally written as a response to domestic abuse; with its lyrics sanitized, it became a Mexican pop standard that was recorded by such vocal stars as Javier Solis and José Feliciano.
Guerrero and two Anglo-American partners formed a new label, Discos Real, around 1955 in Los Angeles, and that year he spotted a group of Mexican-American youngsters on the street, trying to sing Spanish lyrics to one of the top English pop hits of the day, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." Inspired, Guerrero composed and recorded a parody with Spanish lyrics about an immigrant named Pancho Lopez, born in Chihuahua in 1903. The song became a hit, not only in the Southwest but all over Latin America; in Mexico it even served as the basis for a film (once again with no royalties paid to Guerrero). Hollywood recording executive Al Sherman suggested that Guerrero record the song in English, promising that he could sell one million copies. "Writing a parody is harder than most people think—especially if the parody is in a different language than the original," Guerrero wrote in his autobiography. "You have to be completely bilingual and bicultural…. To be funny, it has to be different but recognizable." Guerrero was successful in translating his parody into English, and Sherman very nearly made good on his promise, as Guerrero's first English-language hit reached gold-record status with sales of over 500,000 copies. Threatened with a lawsuit by Walt Disney (the copyright holder of the original song), Guerrero settled for a 50-50 split of the considerable profits.
Recorded Satirical Parodies
"Pancho Lopez," which used the word "wetback," was later criticized as derogatory toward Mexican Americans, but Guerrero sometimes added a degree of social commentary to the parodies he continued to write, and record buyers snapped them up. Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never" (itself a parody of an Italian popular song, "O Sole Mio") became the Spanish-English "No Hay Tortillas" (There Are No Tortillas, There's Only Bread); "Tacos for Two" parodied the pop standard "Cocktails for Two"; and in the 1970s Guerrero turned the country hit "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" into "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Busboys," noting that "jobs ain't easy to find, and they're harder to hold." Guerrero's most beloved parody, however, was "Pancho Claus," which imagined a Mexican cousin of Santa Claus.
That song was popular among children, and so were the recordings Guerrero made with his group Las Ardillitas, a trio (Pánfilo, Anacleto, and Demetrio) of electronically speeded-up voices that resembled those of the Englishlanguage novelty act the Chipmunks. Guerrero, in fact, was sued by the originators of the Chipmunks, but he argued that he had devised the idea independently, after his producer accidentally left a speaker on while fast-forwarding a tape. The squeaking sound reminded Guerrero of the speech of Martians in science-fiction films, and the first Ardillitas song was in fact entitled "El Marciano" (The Martian). The suit was dropped, and Guerrero, once again working with Manuel Acuña, succeeded in distributing the Ardillitas records all over Latin America. About 20 Las Ardillitas records were made in all, and some were reissued on compact disc.
Beginning in his Discos Real days, Guerrero had been an adept talent spotter, and in the 1960s he ran a successful nightclub, Lalo's, in Los Angeles. He sold the club in 1972 and moved to the Palm Springs, California, area with his second wife, Lidia. In his autobiography Guerrero called this his "so-called retirement," for he remained busy and productive as a musician. In his later years, Guerrero often used the Mexican-American corrido form, a storytelling ballad, to comment on current events. His "La Tragedia del 29 de Agosto" depicted the death of a Los Angeles Times reporter during a 1970 antiwar demonstration, and Guerrero wrote a corrido honoring Mexican-American farm labor activist Cesar Chavez. His song "La Mosca" was used in California's battle against the Mediterranean fruit fly in the late 1980s. In 1985 Guerrero joined the Mexican-American rock group Los Lobos on their children's album Papa's Dream.
Guerrero received several major awards, including a National Medal of the Arts that brought him to the White House to meet President Bill Clinton in 1995. His autobiography, Lalo: My Life and Music, appeared in 2002, and at its end he announced that he was not through making music yet. He performed for school groups and other organizations until shortly before his death on March 17, 2005, in Palm Springs, California.
Contemporary Musicians, vol. 55, Gale, 2006.
Guerrero, Lalo, with Sherilyn Meece Mentes, Lalo: My Life and Music, University of Arizona Press, 2002.
Arizona Daily Star, December 23, 1996; March 18, 2005; April 21, 2005.
Fresno Bee, March 29, 2003.
New York Times, March 19, 2005.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), January 1, 2005.
Variety, March 28, 2005.
Often called the "Father of Chicano Music," Lalo Guerrero enjoyed a 60-year career that in many ways paralleled the development of Mexican-American culture in the Southwestern United States. Other musicians from the region became bigger stars at various times, but none recorded music in the sheer profusion and variety that Guerrero did. Lalo 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."
Eduardo Guerrero Jr. was born on December 24, 1916, in Tucson, Arizona, and grew up in the Barrio Viejo neighborhood there, called by the diminutive nickname Lalo in order to distinguish him from his father, who had emigrated to Arizona from La Paz in Mexico's Baja California state four years earlier. Guerrero was one of nine surviving children in the family; many other Guerrero children died when they were very young. "I suppose you could say we were poor, but we always had enough to eat and clothes to wear, because my father earned a good salary with the Southern Pacific rail-road," Guerrero (speaking Spanish) told Antonio Mejias-Rentas of the Los Angeles newspaper La Opinión. His mother, Concepción, who loved to play and sing Mexican popular songs, taught him to play the guitar when he was a teenager.
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. It was the beginning of a career that lasted almost until Guerrero's death in 2005. Guerrero, who first learned English in school, admired American singer Bing Crosby and tried to sing in the crooner's style. But he found that American audiences at the time wouldn't give a fair chance to a pop singer of Mexican descent. 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.
But Mexican audiences likewise discriminated against the American-born Guerrero, whom they termed "pocho"—Americanized. Guerrero returned to the United States and formed a group called Las Carlistas, which performed at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Guerrero married his first wife, Margaret, that year. During World War II Guerrero worked in a bomber plant and led bands that entertained American troops, mixing swing sounds with popular Latin rhythms like the rumba and the mambo. He began recording for the Los Angeles label Imperial, a scrappy independent in touch with roots styles, and soon he became one of the prime movers behind pachuco music, a mostly Spanish-language variant of the highly charged rhythm-and-blues that was rock and roll's direct ancestor. Such Guerrero hits as "Chicas Patas Boogie" and "Marijuana Boogie" were later incorporated into the 1978 film Zoot Suit, set amid the disruptive World War II era.
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."
Another set of songs that made Guerrero a household name were those he recorded with his group Las Ardillitas (The Little Squirrels). Las Ardillitas sang in squeaking, electronically speeded-up voices like the popular Alvin & the Chipmunks, whose first recordings appeared in the same year as those of Las Ardillitas. Guerrero, in fact, was sued by the creators of the Chipmunks' concept, but Guerrero claimed that it was he who first devised the idea, and the suit was eventually dropped.
In the 1960s Guerrero operated a successful Los Angeles-area nightclub called Lalo's, then sold it in 1972 and moved to Cathedral City, California, near Palm Springs, with his second wife, Lidia. Retirement, however, was the farthest thing from his mind. Indeed, 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.
For the Record …
Born Eduardo Guerrero Jr. on December 24, 1916, in Tucson, AZ; died on March 17, 2005, in Palm Springs, CA; married twice; children: two sons, one stepson, one stepdaughter.
Made recordings in Los Angeles and Mexico City, mid-1930s; with Los Carlistas, appeared at New York World's Fair, 1939; worked in bomber plant, San Diego, CA, and toured USA, 1941-45; recorded Latin boogie "pachuco" music for Imperial label, 1940s; recorded "The Ballad of Pancho Sanchez," 1955; recorded other parodies, 1950s-1960s; recorded corridos in traditional style; formed group Las Ardillitas (The Little Squirrels) and recorded children's music; wrote songs used in film Zoot Suit, 1978; with Los Lobos, recorded children's album Papa's Dream, 1985; with Sherilyn Meece Mentes, wrote autobiography, Lalo: My Life and Music, 2002.
Awards: National Cultural Treasure award, Smithsonian Institution, 1980; National Medal of the Arts, 1995.
Until shortly before his death in Palm Springs on March 17, 2005, Guerrero was making new music; he recorded three songs for the 2005 Chavez Ravine album by guitarist Ry Cooder. Among Guerrero's many honors were his designation as a National Cultural Treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in 1980, and his National Medal of the Arts award in 1995. The California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives at the University of California at Santa Barbara includes a collection of Guerrero materials, which contain a wealth of untold stories about his music and about the lives of Mexican Americans in general.
(With Los Lobos) Papa's Dream, 1985.
Vamos a Bailar: Otra Vez with Lal Guerrero, Break Records, 1999
Lalo Guerrero: El Chicano Inolvidable, Musiteca, 2002.
Feliz Dí del Niño, EMI Latin, 2004.
Lalo Guerrero y Sus Ardillitas, Dimsa-Orfeon, 2005.
Guerrero, Lalo, with Sherilyn Meece Mentes, Lalo: My Life and Music, University of Arizona Press, 2002.
Arizona Daily Star, December 23, 1996, p. B4; March 24, 2005, p. B1.
La Opinión (Los Angeles, CA), July 27, 1992, p. D1.
La Voz (Denver, CO), October 9, 1996, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2005, p. B10.
New York Times, March 19, 2005, p. A13.
Orange County Register, March 25, 2005, cover page.
Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA), August 22, 2002, p. E1.
Times Union, December 26, 2004, p. I3.
Variety, March 28, 2005, p. 56.