Lalo Guerrero was born Christmas eve in Tucson in 1916, auspicious timing some believe. His musical career began in the '30s and continued to entertain admiring audiences—giving his last public performance in Tucson in October '04—only months before his death in March '05 in Rancho Mirage, California.
"Lalo was really the first guy, the first Chicano artist who really stuck his head up and said look this is who we are," said Linda Ronstadt, in Lalo Guerrero: The Original Chicano documentary film. In short, Guerrero was a trendsetting musical revolutionary in Latino music whose influence is still resonating today in artists like Los Lobos, Quetzal, El Vez, Linda Ronstadt, and many others on both sides of the U.S. Mexican border.
In fact, the composer, musician and band leader Guerrero internationally recognized as the "Father of Chicano Music" in a career that spanned more than 60 years; one that took him from the from a dusty downtown Tucson barrio to glittery Broadway where his music was featured in Luis Valdez's play Zoot Suit, and then The White House. After being named a National Folk Treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in 1980, then receiving an NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1991, Guerrero went onto receive the Presidential Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997, the first Mexican-American to receive our nation's highest honor in the arts.
A masterful storyteller and a revolutionary-in-song, Guerrero recorded over 700 songs since his first in 1939 and sold millions of records in both Spanish and English in diverse styles from swing, R&B, corridos, protest songs, boleros and cha-chas to rock 'n' roll. (The Tucson legend will be honored this week at the historic El Casino Ballroom.)
There was a spoon, most assuredly, but silver it was not. Eduardo "Lalo" Guerrero grew up in a Barrio Viejo adobe house poor as a church mouse. Back then Guerrero earned money selling newspapers and fruit, and by collecting empty bottles that he'd sell to bootleggers to refill with moonshine during Prohibition.
Life was tough. "It seemed like almost every year there was another little white coffin in the living room," Guerrero wrote in his 2002 autobiography, Lalo: My Life and Music. He was one of 11 surviving children; several of his siblings died during infancy.
Guerrero's father, like many Mexican immigrants when the Southern Pacific Railroad broke ground in 1856, ventured north to the United States to work on the railroad and raise a family. Inspired by '20s teen idol Rudy Vallee, and Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the young Guerrero got hooked on music. His mother taught him guitar, and a schoolteacher introduced him to classical music.
"When it came to music, I was like a funnel, I'd take everything in ... English or Spanish," Guerrero wrote in his autobiography. "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."
Soon Guerrero began performing in a trio called Eddie, Manny & Rudy while in high school, and then El Trio Salaz y Guerrero. Both outfits received local media exposure on early Tucson radio station KGAR.
In 1934, his family relocated to Mexico City. There "Canción Mexicana," a song Guerrero penned but was never properly credited for, eventually caught on, becoming a sort of anthem, recorded by Mexican superstars Lucha Reyes and Lola Beltrán. Before long, Guerrero returned to Tucson—after getting resistance from Mexican audiences that found the singer's repertoire too Americanized. Around 1936 he formed a vocal group called Los Carlistas.
Like any good band name that creates an illusion but is absurd, Los Carlistas, had an edge to it. (The song is a reference to the political movement (1833-1936) that challenged the legitimacy of the Spanish throne as well as the very pillars upon which Spanish society was erected; asking the fundamental question, "Do governments derive their power from a god or from human beings?")
Built in the early 1930s, Tucson's Plaza Theater was the nonpareil of West Congress Street—the only Spanish language theater in Southern Arizona, its auditorium had a 650-seat a capacity—and Los Carlistas often performed there.
"They [The Plaza Theatre] used to show two serials—one cowboy movie, Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or Tom McCoy. And one Spanish movie," Ruben Moreno said in Stephen Farley's 1999 book Snapped on the Street: A Community Archive of Photos and Memories from Downtown Tucson, 1937-1963. "Then you had the stage show which were amateurs. Lalo Guerrero was there with his group [Los] Carlistas. They were dressed in peons outfits because they couldn't afford charro suits."
Yet, despite humble beginnings, Los Carlistas persevered and appeared in a scene with cowboy matinee idol Gene Autry in the 1937's Boots and Saddles when the bright lights of Hollywood beckoned. They performed at the 1939 New York World's Fair too. Legend has it Guerrero was strolling in Los Angeles and "discovered" by a Vocalion Records talent agent who guided Guerrero to a solo career.
"I only wrote about what I saw." Guerrero, being a master storyteller, often used traditional Mexican song forms—boleros and corridos—to comment on current events and chronicle struggles faced by Mexican-American folk heroes, from farm labor activist Cesar Chavez to Los Angeles Times reporter Rubén Salazar, who was a key annalist of the Chicano civil rights movement.
In the corrido "La Tragedia del 29 de Agosto," Guerrero depicted the 1970 death of Rubén Salazar, who was killed under mysterious circumstances. Salazar was covering the National Chicano Moratorium protesting the Vietnam War for the Los Angeles Times. Artist Frank Romero immortalized this tragedy with a storied mural in an East L.A. called Death of Rubén Salazar; Lalo Guerrero did the same in song.
Guerrero's own sense of humor came out in his wickedly funny cultural song parodies, such the mid-50s releases "Pancho Claus," "Elvis Perez," and "Tacos for Two."
His beautiful ballad "Nunca Jamás" became a hit in 1956. The song has been covered by internationally famous Trio Los Panchos, Mexican balladeer Javier Solis, José Feliciano, and others.
Tomes could be written about his body of work and accomplishments. Allegorically, in ways not unlike Charles Dickens who brought characters with hardscrabble childhoods to life, Lalo Guerrero, through his songs, storytelling and endearing personality became an ambassador to the world in a true to life tale of rags to fame.