Pachuco Boogie 

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

Page 2 of 3

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.

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