Chicano rock is the distinctive style of rock and roll music performed by Mexican Americans from East L.A. and Southern California that contains themes of our cultural experiences. Although the genre is broad and diverse, encompassing a variety of styles and subjects, the overarching theme of Chicano rock is its R&B influence and incorporation of brass instruments like the saxophone and trumpet, Farfisa or Hammond B3 organ, funky basslines, and its blending of Mexican vocal stylings sung in English.
The famous pioneers of the genre are Ritchie Valens -- the first Mexican-American star and one of The Beatles’ major influences, who died at 17 in the 1959 plane crash that also claimed Buddy Holly -- and Sunny & the Sunglows, who formed the same year Valens died. Teenage Chicana vocalists like Rosie Mendez-Hamlin of Rosie and The Originals inspired the likes of John Lennon with her hit “Angel Baby.”
Chicano rock, like early rock and roll music, adopted the rhythm and blues-based style of African American music and utilized a then little-known new instrument, the electric guitar. It also melded influences from Latin American music and included themes of the Chicano culture of the southwest.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Don Tosti and Lalo Guerrero used jump blues as a platform to develop what would become Chicano rock. In the early 1960s scores of teenaged bands with dreams of becoming as famous as Valens practiced their chops in weekly battle of the bands hosted at churches, high schools and union halls. Noting the unique Latino feel to the way these bands played R&B, manager/producer Eddie Davis dreamt of creating a Latino-flavored Motown on their Rampart Record label. The label bore three Chicano rock national hits: “Farmer John,” “La, La, La, La” and “Land of a 1000 Dances.” These hits, including “Whittier Boulevard” by Thee Midniters, influenced garage bands around the country and popularized the inexpensive farfisa organ used by other Mexican American-led bands like Michigan-based ? (Question Mark) and The Mysterians.
In the 1960s and '70s, Chicano popular groups like The Cannibal and The Headhunters, The Premiers, The Blendells, Sir Douglas Quintet, Thee Midniters, Los Lobos, El Chicano and others sustained the Chicano rock genre.
Evolving over the years, it is still present in many forms today from more traditional groups reminiscent of the early pioneers, like Los Lonely Boys to progressive artists like Quetzal, Rage Against the Machine, Mars Volta, and Texas-based Girl In A Coma among others. In its multiple incarnations, Chicano rock remains at the forefront of popular rock and roll music.