Not unlike its closest musical forefathers The Band, Los Lobos have always had an outsider approach in embracing American roots music while infusing plenty of their own cultural perspective into the mix. Both acts feature an interchangeable cadre of multi-instrumental frontmen who swap places in the studio and on stage. Whereas the aforementioned group featured five Canadians anchored by the time-keeping and singing of Arkansas-born Levon Helm, the latter sextet are all second or third-generation Mexican-Americans, (with the exception of Mexican-born Cesar Rosas and Anglo multi-instrumentalist/producer Steve Berlin). And while Robbie Robertson and company have rightly been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Los Lobos have been roundly overlooked despite being a relevant and prolific recording/touring outfit for decades.
David Hidalgo, Rosas, Louie Perez and Conrad Lozano were classmates at Los Angeles' Garfield High School back in the early 1970s. When the foursome got together and played music as Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, it was a mix of contemporary rock and roll and the folkloric Mexican music favored by their parents—corridos, rancheras son jarocho and norteños. It's a musical versatility that proved useful at a time when the foursome fed their musical jones by playing various acoustic gigs including weddings, restaurants, backyard parties and quinceañeras. Given the familiarity Los Lobos had with this obscure swath of folkloric music, it's no wonder that this proficiency landed them in a 1975 PBS special and inspired them to cut 1976's Si Se Puede!, a charity album of all-traditional music with the proceeds slated for the United Farm Workers of America.
Shortly after independently releasing its 1978 sophomore effort, Just Another Band from East L.A. (a.k.a. Los Lobos del Este de Los Angles), Los Lobos plugged in and started incorporating nods to a number of the band's mainstream influences into its sound including Los Angeles-affiliated blues artists Percy Mayfield and Charles Brown, Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and The Grateful Dead. This plugged-in version of the band caught a break opening for Johnny Lydon's Public Image Ltd. at the Olympic Auditorium. A chance encounter with Phil Alvin of The Blasters became kismet when he remembered them from the aforementioned PBS program (Berlin was in the Blasters at the time and later joined Los Lobos). The band soon started playing on bills with fellow outsiders X, The Germs, Circle Jerks and Dwight Yoakam. Los Lobos was quickly scooped up by forward-thinking label Slash Records, cut the 1983 EP …And a Time To Dance, won a Grammy and followed it up with its critically-acclaimed full-length major-label bow, How Will the Wolf Survive?
In the ensuing years, Los Lobos hit the top of the charts with the soundtrack to the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba, confounded everyone by following that up with La Pistola y El Corazón (an acoustic full-length featuring Spanish-sung Mexican folk songs), bounced between labels, ceaselessly toured the globe, played at the White House and even recorded a couple of kids' albums: 2009’s Los Lobos Goes Disney and1995’s Papa’s Dream with the late Lalo Guerrero, the “Father of Chicano Music”. Showing no signs of slowing down, Los Lobos released Tin Can Trust in 2010, featuring an eclectic cover of the Grateful Dead's, "West L.A. Fadeaway". It's all part of a solid legacy that continues to thrive in the face of here-today, gone-tomorrow lightweight musical talents crowding the pop-culture landscape.
From the biographical article, “Not just another band from East L.A: Los Lobos keeps fighting the Great Musical Fight,” by Dave Gil de Rubio and originally published in the Urban Latino Magazine. Permission to include this article in the American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music website courtesy of Dave Gil de Rubio.