Pachuco Boogie 

A new collection celebrates bandleader Don Tosti and the birth of Chicano R&B.

When Los Angeles bandleader Don Tosti cut loose on the microphone in the historic 1948 session that would make him a star, popular music everywhere was going through radical changes. As the Second World War ended, so did the recording ban that had funneled vinyl into the war effort. Suddenly, all the pent-up creative growth of the early '40s exploded onto the postwar landscape. The hard-core jazz of the beboppers burned its legacy onto wax, along with newly electrified urban blues, the rustic rhythms of honky-tonk country, and the rowdy new R&B combos that took over where the big bands left off. But while hillbilly bands and African-American groups broke into the mainstream, the innovative efforts of Mexican Americans during the postwar era stayed well off the cultural radar. A new CD collection released on El Cerrito's Arhoolie label, Pachuco Boogie: The Original Historic Recordings, aims to correct all that, gathering together prime examples of the unique style that Latin hipsters like Tosti created -- the pachuco boogie.

A Mexican-American swing player originally from Texas, Tosti added his own distinctive touch to pop music's postwar crazy quilt with a dynamic R&B tune that melded raw, rocking jazz with the Chicano youth culture that had surfaced earlier in the decade. "Pachuco Boogie" was a novelty jive tune -- a bluesy number like those of Slim Gaillard or Louis Jordan -- which featured plenty of slang and a driving melodic beat. But unlike his African-American counterparts, Tosti sang in a rapid-fire, nearly impenetrable Spanish dialect known as calo, a streetwise slanguage he learned as a child in the barrios of El Paso, where he grew up.

"That was the first rap song sung in Spanish," says the 79-year-old Tosti, speaking from his home in Palm Springs. As he recalls the session from five decades back, the jazzman can still sing out all the lyrics. "It's about a guy from the country coming to LA to hang out and be cool: 'Vengo del paciente vez/Un lugar que le dicen El Paso ... I'm coming from El Paso/where pachucos like me come from/I came to LA, man, to show off my new clothes/because it's very cool.' "

Tosti, who counts himself as one of only a handful of Mexican Americans to succeed in the big band jazz scene, had tapped into the powerful new culture of the pachucos, or so-called "zoot-suiters." They were the first wave of young Latinos to assert themselves in American popular culture, adopting the hepcat style and flashy clothing of swing musicians such as Cab Calloway. They cruised into nightclubs and dance halls throughout the Southwest to take part in America's new youth culture. Many pachucos were also in tough, violent gangs, some of which moved into the Chicano neighborhoods of 1940s LA. The zoot-suiters gained notoriety in a series of wartime brawls fought against enlisted soldiers and sailors on leave in the big port city. Although the pachuco subculture met with harsh repression from the city's Anglo establishment, it persisted throughout WWII. By the time Tosti recorded his tune in '48, the scene was still going strong, waiting for something positive to rally around.

With "Pachuco Boogie," Don Tosti delivered the goods. The song is a wild mix of styles, with Tosti thumping the bass while singing in the sly, lusty style of the blues shouters. A second vocalist, Raul Diaz, takes a scat solo, joined by the honking saxophone of Bob Hernandez. Finally, pianist Eddie Cano -- later a pivotal figure in LA's Latin jazz scene -- provides an inventive melodic line based on interlocking chord patterns of Cuban son. Although the small combo hailed from Southern California, they were attuned to the changes in jazz that were brewing back East, like Dizzy Gillespie's collaborations with Afro-Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, and the explosive popularity of the mambo beat championed by Perez Prado and Tito Rodriguez. The ensemble playfully worked hints of Latin jazz into their choppy blues style, creating a new sound that was uniquely American and utterly hip.

The song was a surprise hit, selling nearly a million copies and spawning numerous imitations as well as follow-up records by Tosti and a host of like-minded Latino hipsters. Now, over fifty years later, Tosti's handful of pachuco singles have been collected together into Pachuco Boogie as part of an ongoing series exploring the Mexican-American musical heritage. Although Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz was reportedly resistant to including a set of the rowdy, chaotic pachuco swing into a series dominated by acoustic mariachi and ranchera songs, he was eventually won over by the album's compiler Chuy Varela, an East Bay radio DJ and cultural historian, and occasional Express contributor. After years of nagging the label head, the insistent jazz aficionado persuaded Strachwitz that the pachuco style was a vital part of the Mexican-American music legacy.

Varela has been a fan of Don Tosti's work since he first heard the song in the 1980s, when he worked on "La Onda Bajita," KPFA's long-lived low-rider show, which concentrates on the doo-wop, soul, and rock oldies favored by California's Latino cruisers. Speaking by telephone from his office at San Mateo jazz station KCSM, where he now works as the music director, Varela recalls the thrill he felt when he first laid eyes on the Tosti singles. A friend had taken him to prowl through the dusty bins of Jack's Record Cellar, a tiny San Francisco music shop famous for its huge collection of rare 78 rpm singles.

"We were just digging, and all of a sudden I find this thing that says 'Pachuco Boogie,' and also one called 'El Tirili' and 'Guisa Gacha.' I thought, 'Wow!' because this was the language I had grown up hearing when I was a kid. We went over to my friend's house where he had a 78 set up, and we went crazy."

Soon after that, Varela heard Strachwitz, another KPFA DJ, playing other pachuco hits by Lalo Guerrero, an East Coast hipster whose novelty drug song "Marijuana Boogie" is perhaps the most infamous of the pachuco swing tunes (due in no small part to a revival on hippie-era underground radio). For Varela, hearing this music was an epiphany, revealing a bridge between the jazz age and the rock and doo-wop classics that he and his friends were playing on the radio. "All of a sudden I found this connection, this missing link, between Richie Valens and the groups in the '30s that were putting the acoustic corridos into a modern context," he says. "I began tracing how Mexican Americans in particular got enamored with African-American popular music, and how the oldies fed into low-rider culture."

Varela says that the pachuco music was the first instance of Mexican-American culture bursting into the mainstream, and being heard on its own terms. Throughout the 1930s and '40s, deep shifts took place within Mexican-American immigrant culture, as the traditional accordion-led bandas began absorbing the influences around them. In Texas and the Southwest, Mexican music cross-pollinated with country and blues, as well as the Cuban rhythms that sparked dance crazes throughout the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. Varela says this was all a natural outgrowth of America's cross-cultural blossoming, although the innovative pachuco bands were frequently dismissed because the musicians were Chicanos. "A lot of people used to put it down and say it was kind of a wannabe thing, but as it went along, they refined the music and made it into something unique."

Still, Varela knew from the strong response to his radio shows that there was an audience eager to rediscover these recordings. So he approached Strachwitz about adding an album of pachuco swing to the already-eclectic Arhoolie catalogue. The collaboration brought together some of the rarest 78s from the 1948-52 heyday of the nearly-forgotten Chicano R&B scene, including several Lalo Guerrero singles and the irresistibly bizarre "Frijole Boogie," recorded by Bay Area jazz guitarist Jorge Cordoba.

While Varela gathered the swing tunes, Strachwitz dug into his huge archive of Tex-Mex 78s to add several rare recordings of lesser-known Texas conjuntos that blended blues riffs into their border music. Equally striking are topical ranchero songs, such as Lydia Mendoza's "Los Pachucos," which deplored the zoot-suiters as a bunch of lazy potheads tarnishing the good name of hard-working Latinos everywhere. Like the Chicano student activists of the '60s, the unapologetic, euphoric outlandishness of the pachucos generated bitter tension inside the Mexican-American community. A split developed between assimilationists who struggled to keep a low profile, and younger Latinos who wanted to assert themselves in the face of the mainstream culture.

This rift was familiar to Don Tosti, who attracted constant criticism as a famous musician who embodied the new youth culture. He ruefully recalls how actor Leo Carrillo, who played the thickly accented, stereotypical Mexican sidekick Pancho in the Cisco Kid adventures, once approached him at a gala event in Los Angeles. "I was at the Olympic Auditorium in 1948, and Leo Carrillo came up and cussed me out because I was 'downgrading' the Mexican people," he says. "I just looked at him and smiled -- I smiled because I wasn't going to tell him to go fuck off -- he was older than I was and I wanted to respect him. But I was just a kid playing original music that represented my perceptions of youth, and, hey, I was part of America, too."

Tosti's career move into R&B came after years of being one of the most successful Mexican-American jazz artists. A child prodigy, Edmundo Martinez Tostado grew up in El Paso's tough El Segundo barrio, the birthplace of the American pachuco gangs, and his single-parent mother pushed him to pursue music as a way out of the ghetto life. Classically trained, he played the violin with the El Paso Symphony when he was only ten years old, but when the Tostado family moved to Southern California in the late '30s, the teenager discovered a new passion -- jazz music -- and organized his first dance band while attending LA's Roosevelt High School. Somewhere along the way he adopted the stage name of Don Tosti ("I wanted it to sound more Italian," he laughs, "because no one thought Mexicans could play jazz") and gained a reputation as a solid player on the local scene.

By chance, the legendary trad-jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden heard Tosti perform during the early days of World War II, and offered him a gig playing bass in his touring band. Although Tosti had planned to finish college, the $250 a week Teagarden offered him -- a princely sum back then -- was too good to pass up. He went on the road, stayed with Teagarden for a few years, and then worked with several of the leading big band orchestras. After the war, Tosti became part of Les Brown's Band of Renown and in 1948 found himself playing a gig at UC Berkeley's Pauley Ballroom, where he decided to try and find his estranged father, a traveling soldier who had abandoned Tosti's mother decades before. The young musician cracked open the local phone book and easily spotted his father, Don Ramon, who lived in Oakland along with Tosti's two previously unknown younger siblings, both from a later marriage. Although they had never met, Tosti thought for sure that his dad would be impressed to find his son playing in one of the hottest dance bands in the country. Instead, Don Ramon chided him for not leading a band of his own. "My father talked me into writing Latin music," recalls Tosti. "He said, 'Hey, it's great you're in this guy's band, but you should be making your own stuff instead.' "

But Don Ramon turned out to be right. When "Pachuco Boogie" became a hit, Tosti became a top draw on the booming Latin circuit, headlining at the fabled Hollywood Palladium, as well as huge venues in the Bay Area such as San Francisco's Latin-American Union Hall, El Centro Social Obrero, and Sweet's Ballroom in Oakland. At the time, Cuban dance music was a nationwide craze, and Latin jazz was being pioneered by fiery bebop combos of Machito and Dizzy Gillespie. Don Tosti and his pachuco contemporaries offered something different from these island-based styles -- a vibrant homegrown style that reflected the culture of the Mexican-American immigrant community. When Tosti played the Palladium, fans would drive in from as far away as the Imperial Valley just to see their hero play and to cut loose at a pachuco hop.

Tosti rode the wave for as long as he could, but as the pachuco boogie scene petered out and the mambo and rock crazes of the '50s gathered steam, he returned to his first love: jazz. Tosti recorded a few more records under his own name, and worked steadily as an arranger for various bands and TV shows throughout the decade. Perhaps the highpoint of his post-pachuco career came when he worked as a bassist on two of Perez Prado's best-selling albums, Voodoo Suite and Havana 3am. That's Tosti you see silhouetted with a stand-up bass on one of the album covers, and he helped arrange much of the music as well. Later, Tosti retired and moved from LA to Palm Springs, where he now lives, not far from his own plaque on the desert city's glitzy Walk of Stars.

Now, decades after the youthful, freewheeling recording sessions of the Pachuco era, Tosti says he's delighted to see his old songs back in print, and to have them appreciated by a new generation of music fans. He looks to the success of old-timers like Ruben Gonzales in Cuba after the release of the various Buena Vista Social Club albums and wonders if a similar revival of LA's Latin blues scene might also be around the corner. "It's very flattering," he laughs, "especially after being dormant for so many years. You know, Lalo Guerrero is still appearing in the zoot suits and singing the songs, and he's 85 years old. I can't do that -- I did it when I was young, and I did it well. But that was how I heard music, how I wrote it, and how I recorded it. So I'm glad that people are becoming aware that the Mexicans had that kind of influence and had high-class swing. Just listen to it: it may be a 52 year-old song, but it swings its ass, baby! It's sure better than a lot of the shit they're doing now!"

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