Exclusive Book Excerpt: The Missing Man Who Co-Founded Los Lobos

By on September 4, 2015

My new book Los Lobos: Dream in Blue will be published by the University of Texas Press on Sept. 8. It’s the first full-length critical history of the East Los Angeles band. Three-time Grammy Award winners and Latin Grammys Lifetime Achievement Award honorees, the group will receive another Lifetime Achievement acknowledgement at the Americana Music Awards in Nashville on Sept. 16.

This exclusive Night Flight excerpt from the book takes a look at the founding of the band, in their original early-‘70s incarnation as the acoustic folk unit Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles. The little-viewed YouTube clip above is the earliest known footage of the group from that era.

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Fans will recognize most of the players – Cesar Rosas, Louie Pérez, Conrad Lozano, and David Hidalgo. But only longtime Lobos associates will be able to identify the fifth player, who takes most of the lead vocals and serves as the MC at the 28-minute-long show, recorded at East Los Angeles College in 1975 for the public TV series “La Cultura.”

In those days, he was known as Frank Gonzáles, and he co-founded Los Lobos and served as the group’s original musical director. His crucial role in the formation of the band has been largely ignored. This passage from my book looks at the beginnings of Los Lobos in an East L.A. living room.

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One bright summer afternoon in 1973, fate strolled by Cesar Rosas’ front door.

“I was hanging out in my garage,” Rosas says, “and all of a sudden midday one day I saw this guy walking right in front of my house on the sidewalk. He was walking around playing the mandolin. He was going to the store. He was passing by. He looked inside the garage. We looked and kind of waved… I said, ‘What are you up to?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m going to Pomona College.’ I said, ‘I see you play mandolin and all that.’ He was getting into Mexican music, playing traditional music.”

The rotund, mandolin-strumming 20-year-old with a drooping bandito mustache was named Frank González, and he lived two doors down the street from Rosas.

Like the rest of his soon-to-be band mates, González was raised in East L.A. His father had emigrated from Mexico at the age of 4, returned to his home country at the age of 15, and came back to Los Angeles with a young bride.

The last of seven children and known as Frank from boyhood, he grew up in a musical household. “My father had been a professional singer, a trained singer,” González recalls. “I have posters him doing some zarzuela [Spanish opera] at theaters in downtown L.A. during the ‘40s. He was a tenor.” His brothers both played guitar, and his four sisters sang. He began playing autoharp and harmonica in the first grade, and started formal training on trombone in third grade.

After developing an allergy to the metal in his mouthpiece, he took up the upright bass, which he played throughout junior high. At Garfield High School, he met another budding bassist, Conrad Lozano. Gonzáles formed his first band, Boojum Snark – its name drawn from a backwoods spirit mentioned in a blood-brother oath on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ – with another Garfield student, his longtime friend David Hidalgo. The guitarist notes that even as a youth, years before Rosas saw him playing on the street, Gonzáles favored performing alfresco.

“We had met in elementary school,” Hidalgo recalls. “He lived about five or six blocks away from where I lived. Around fifth or sixth grade, [I saw him] walking down the street with his guitar or something…I went over to his pad one day, and he was sitting in his Boy Scout uniform, playing Bob Dylan songs.”

Like Hidalgo’s other early bands, Boojum Snark never emerged from the garage. González graduated from Garfield in 1971 and enrolled in Pomona College in Claremont, then something of a hotbed for the Chicano arts, to study music and musicology. Always eclectic in his tastes, he played country music (he had become facile on the Dobro), performed classical works, and worked as a bassist with such avant garde jazz lions as saxophonist David Murray. But, he says, “Everything that I was doing, it was always everybody else’s [music].”

His musical revelation arrived via his classmate and roommate Gustavo Gil, a Colombia-born pianist whose father had an extensive collection of Colombian and Mexican folk music. He became entranced by a folk dance style popular in the country’s northern provinces.

“The first time I started getting into a huapango and actually playing it,” González says, “it was like in The Wizard of Oz, when it goes from black-and-white to color. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I was in a whole different world, and it just blew me away. Especially when I realized that I could sing it and I could play it.”

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González’s enthusiasm for Mexican folk styles burgeoned rapidly. He began acquiring information on the music’s instrumentation from Charles Chase at the Claremont Folk Music Center. In 1972, González and Gil journeyed to Mexico City and Veracruz. “That was the first time I saw jarocho music [the regional style of Veracruz] played live. It really blew me away,” he says. “It was like Mexican bebop, and I loved bebop.”

In mid-1973, González says without elaboration, “it was a very, very dark time for me,” so he took a medical leave from Pomona College. It was at just that point that he encountered Cesar Rosas. The two young musicians quickly discovered they both had an affinity for Mexican folk music, and González was surprised by the somewhat younger musician’s knowledge of the repertoire.

“I invited him over to the house, and we got to know each other,” Rosas says. “He was playing the mandolin, and he played me a riff from a song. He said, ‘Do you know this song?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know that song.’ I was a rural Mexican guy — I knew all about all the folk songs. I said, ‘Yeah, I grew up with that. I know what that song is.’ I sang it to him a little bit. He was slightly impressed. I said, ‘That’s what I listen to every morning when I get up to go to school, on the radio.’ So we were talking the same language.

“It didn’t take too long for us to start talking about music and sharing music. He was on vacation and I was on vacation. The next day he invited me over for a beer, and I took over my Spanish guitar. We started jamming together on traditional songs. We were just learning the songs. Of course I grew up with them, but I really didn’t know how to play them. Playing that type of music requires a certain type of strum. It’s the huapango rhythm – it’s the way you strum the guitar for a lot of those old songs. He kind of knew how to play the rhythm, and he showed me how to play it. Before you know it, he and I were playing two or three songs together. There we were, singing and harmonizing and playing guitar, and he was playing the mandolin parts. We’d make it to the middle of the song, and then it’d fall apart. Then we’d start it again.”

Rosas and González began getting together regularly in an attempt to teach themselves the fundamentals of the Mexican folk styles. There was a great seriousness of intent on González’s part.

“I was very active in the Chicano movement,” he says. “One of the things that struck me as kinda weird was, everybody was [saying] ‘Chicano power,’ but then they’d go listen to Santana or Tito Puente, and that was being Chicano. We were surrounded by Mexican music, but we didn’t want to identify with that. That was [for] the wetbacks, that was not us, right?…There was only two ways we were allowed to identify. You could play white rock ‘n’ roll, or oldies, stuff like that, East L.A.-type music, or if you wanted to be [singing in] Spanish, you had to be dressed up in your monkey suit and be a mariachi. The young kids were being told what to do by a coterie of mainly white guys, telling them how to play Mexican music. Mariachi music was acceptable, because that was middle class. But the norteño stuff, that wasn’t cool. The tejano stuff, that was not cool.”

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González and Rosas quickly recruited their mutual friend David Hidalgo and his close buddy Louie Pérez to join them. With bassist Richard Escalante, the newly christened Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (“The Wolves of East L.A.”) made their debut in late 1973 at a VFW hall in Watts. In early 1974, Conrad Lozano – then bassist in the popular East Side band Tierra – replaced his pal Escalante in the lineup.

By 1975, Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles had attained local renown in their home community, playing traditional Mexican folk music at parties, college shows, and weddings. But tensions developed between the hard-drinking taskmaster González and the other members of the group. After a blowout argument at the band’s rehearsal space in late 1976, he abruptly exited the group, which decided to continue on as a quartet. They issued their self-released folk debut LP Just Another Band From East L.A. in early 1978.

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González – who professionally adopted his given name, Francisco — has led a busy musical career in the intervening years. For a time he was musical director for El Teatro Campesino, the theater company led by director Luis Valdez (whose 1987 film La Bamba would rocket Los Lobos to international stardom).

A master of the Veracruz harp, González released a beautiful album of solo performances, The Gift (El Regalo), in 2009. The collection was produced by bassist Harvey Brooks, noted for his work on Bob Dylan’s ‘60s releases and as a founding member of Mike Bloomfield’s “American music band,” the Electric Flag.

Based in Tucson today, González is a frequent collaborator with Michael Ronstadt, brother of Linda Ronstadt, who fronts the traditional music band Ronstadt Generations. He is also collaborating on the autobiography of Mexican jarocho harpist Mario Barradas Murcia.

Editor’s note: Gates of Gold, the first Los Lobos studio album in five years, will be released Sept. 25 by 429 Records. Chris Morris will appear with the band at a special sold-out event at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on Sept. 27.

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About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).