Los Lobos Celebrate L.A.’s Music Heritage on New Album

Los Lobos are a band I immensely respect for their great musicianship. Admittedly, my opinion is based on a relatively limited amount of their music I’ve heard thus far. Not counting singles, their impressive catalog includes 17 studio albums, four live records, three compilations and a couple of EPs, spanning 40-plus years. When I spotted their new release Native Sons and noticed it was largely a collection of covers, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To say it upfront, I’ve been enjoying this album a lot!

I don’t mind when a music artist or a band throws in some covers on their albums. After all, that’s what two of my all-time favorite bands The Beatles and The Rolling Stones did early in their recording careers. But an entire album of covers? Plus, for a band in their fifth decade one could be forgiven to wonder whether they have run out of ideas or were looking to make a quick buck. Well, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Plus, I’ve read a half dozen reviews and it strikes me they are all very positive.

Los Lobos Announce L.A.-Themed Covers Album, Premiere Two New Tracks -  Variety
Los Lobos (from left): Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, mandolin), Conrad Lozano (bass, guitarron, vocals), Steve Berlin (saxophone, percussion, flute, midsax, harmonica, melodica), Louis Perez (drums, guitar, percussion, vocals) and David Hidalgo (vocals, guitar, accordion)

The overarching theme of Native Sons, which was released on July 30, is that all tracks are by artists and bands who are from Los Angeles originally or found their way there. Apart from 12 covers ranging from popular artists like Jackson Browne and The Beach Boys to lesser known acts such as Thee Midniters and Lalo Guerrero, the album features one original, which is the title track.

“Well, most of the artists we covered were actually people who came to Los Angeles from somewhere else, like me,” explained the band’s longtime saxophonist Steve Berlin during an interview with American Songwriter. “That’s one of the beauties of the city—people come from all different places. But once you get there, you’re there and you know where you’re supposed to be. But the other guys in the band, they’re natives, which is where the title came from.”

Time for some music. Here’s the opener Love Special Delivery by Thee Midniters, a Chicano rock band who like Los Lobos were from East L.A. The song, co-written by lead vocalist Willie Garcia and bassist Jimmy Espinoza, was the title track of their 1966 studio album. “It’s special to me because Thee Midniters were a group that I grew up listening to around my neighborhood in East LA in the ‘60s as a kid, and I just always loved the groove to that song,” Los Lobos guitarist and vocalist Cesar Rosas told Variety. Indeed, a great garage rocker I had never heard of before! Like is the case for all covers, Los Lobos’ rendition stays pretty close to the original, which you can listen to here.

Los Chucos Suaves by Lalo Guerrero is the only Spanish tune on the album. According to Wikipedia, the guitarist, singer and farm labor activist was best known for his strong influence on later Latin musical artists. Guerrero also represents an artist who was not a native Los Angelino but moved to L.A. in the 1940s. Lalo Guerrero Y Sus Cincos Lobos recorded Los Chucos Suaves in 1949, as the explanatory notes of the below clip explain, which add Guerrero is known as “The Father of Chicano Music.” Again, I’m also including a link to the original, if you’re curious. Here’s Los Lobos’ version – just incredible how versatile this band is!

Next up is the great title track, which as noted above is the only original song on the album. Native Son was co-written by Louis Perez (words) and David Hidalgo (music). The lyrics pretty much say it all. An excerpt: …No matter where I lay my head/No matter how far I’ve run/I dream about the day you’ll take me back/I’m your native son…Love that warm sound!

Perhaps the vocal highlight of the album is the excellent version of Sail on, Sailor, a tune by The Beach Boys. Credited to Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Van Dyke Parks, Ray Kennedy and Jack Rieley, the song first appeared as the opener of the band’s 19th studio album Holland from January 1973. It was also released separately as a single later that month, climbing to no. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first of only five U.S. top 50 singles The Beach Boys scored during the ’70s. Their significant ’60s chart success, especially during the first half of the decade, was history. The original is here. Now check out Los Lobos. Apart from being excellent musicians, these guys also can sing!

The last track I’d like to highlight is Flat Top Joint, originally by East L.A. compadres The Blasters. Written by Dave Alvin, the great rock & roll tune was first included on The Blasters’ debut album American Music from 1980. The explanatory notes to the below clip recall a cool anecdote: After a Blasters’ show at The Country Club in Reseda, Los Lobos handed Phil Alvin a cassette. “Hey! We’re a band from East L.A.!” Phil responded: “We’re from East L.A. too!” Later, the Blasters asked the band to open for them at the Whisky a Go Go, which eventually led to Los Lobos’ first label signing with Slash Records. There’s a second connection between the two bands. Steve Berlin was playing with The Blasters before he joined Los Lobos in 1984. Here’s the excellent original. And here’s how Los Lobos covers it. Man, that tune just rocks!

Native Sons, which appears on New West Records and was produced by Los Lobos, is the band’s 17th studio album. Los Lobos have been around since 1973. Four of their five members are original members: Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, mandolin), Conrad Lozano (bass, guitarron, vocals), Louis Perez (drums, guitar, percussion, vocals) and David Hidalgo (vocals, guitar, accordion). As noted above, Steve Berlin (saxophone, percussion, flute, midsax, harmonica, melodica) joined in 1984.

The band is embarking on a busy U.S. tour today in Costa Mesa, Calif. The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; Variety; Discogs; Songkick; YouTube

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube