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Event Spotlights Houston's Key Role In the Rise of Chicano Soul

A Fistful of Soul celebrates eight years this week.
A Fistful of Soul celebrates eight years this week.
Photo by Brian Cannon/Courtesy of A Fistful of Soul

Chicano soul music has some early and important roots in Houston, and this week Houstonians who have long been hip to this sound will participate in several events that coincide with the national resurgence of interest in it.

A Fistful of Soul, the popular R&B/soul dance party and Mid-Main fixture, will focus on Chicano Soul with a special event tonight and by spinning some of its classics Friday during the DJ group's eighth-anniversary celebration. But first, AFOS and the Center for Public History at the University of Houston present a panel discussion and musical performance to commemorate the 10th-anniversary reissue of the book Chicano Soul: Recordings and History of an American Culture, considered the quintessential tome on the music. Its author, Ruben Molina, will be on hand to discuss the music’s history and future. Oscar Villanueva, a Houstonian who made some of that music, will be part of the panel, which also features AFOS DJ Alex La Rotta as moderator. After the discussion, Villanueva and a live set by the Allen Oldies Band. The free event begins at 6:30 p.m. at MECA Houston, 1900 Kane.

The Houston Press asked LaRotta about the music’s renaissance, one that has had media outlets like NPR and The New York Times re-telling the story of music that was being made in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He said heightened interest from record-collecting circles and compilations from niche labels like Numero Group in Chicago and Big Crown in New York have helped, but he sees a general revival of all forms of soul music as key.

“Soul music in general has had some good years recently and I think fans are becoming more aware of the original groups, particularly as the narrative of early pop music shifts away from conventional stories of black R&B bands and white rock-and-roll bands — there was a lot of in-between, to simplify it that way,” he notes. “Molina's Chicano Soul book introduced many people to the magnitude and diversity of Mexican-American soul/rock/R&B recordings from the '50s to the '70s, so there's that, too.”

LaRotta is a cultural historian at UH. He wrote a foreword for the book’s 10th-anniversary edition and says anyone interested in the subject should not miss the chance to hear Molina speak.

Chicano Soul is one of my favorite books, and was really influential on my pursuing music as a topic of history," he says. "I'm currently writing my dissertation on San Antonio's West Side Sound at UH — it's an oral-history project based on some of my previous work which definitely finds inspiration in Chicano Soul. So yeah, personally speaking, I'm really excited to have him here and to be able to talk to him about writing the book and the stories he'll share about the people and music he encountered along the way.

“He's got a really impressive collection of great and rare soul music that fits in perfectly with A Fistful of Soul," La Rotta adds. "He travels around the world spinning soul music, so we're really happy to have him here in Houston for his first time."

Asked about Houston’s mark on the music, LaRotta mentioned some classics, but also pointed directly at one of tonight’s panelists.

“I'd say that our panelist, Oscar Villanueva, and his two brothers, Jesse and Ray, were among the earliest and most prolific of groups in Houston," he says. "The Villanueva Brothers collectively recorded dozens of 45-rpm singles, and a few LPs, under various groups including Little Jesse and the Rock'n Vee's, Los Stardusters, Villa Stars, Ricky Vee, and their most well-known group, Sunny and the Sunliners.

”Jesse and the Crystals' ‘Tell Me’ on the local Geno label is a great example of the city's burgeoning doo-wop sound in the early '60s," continues La Rotta. "Rocky Gil and the Bishops were among the most prolific Chicano bands in Houston, producing several LPs and soul singles on the local Tear Drop label, including A Fistful of Soul favorite 'Soul Party.' Neto Perez and the Originals were pretty popular on the local scene during 'La Onda' — they were the house band at Neto's short-lived Stardust Ballroom on Fulton Street and produced several LPs and singles, including their deep funk classic, ‘Oily.' Manuel Mendiola and the Exiles and Big Lu y Los Muchachos were also active in La Onda in and around Houston, dabbling in soul and rock and roll and other regional styles.

A Fistful of Soul DJ Alex La Rotta wrote the introduction to the 10th-anniversary edition of Chicano Soul.
A Fistful of Soul DJ Alex La Rotta wrote the introduction to the 10th-anniversary edition of Chicano Soul.
Texas Tech University Press

“Local producers like Genoveva Ponce [Geno Records] and Jesse and Nacho Garza [Discos Jesna] were pioneering these sounds in makeshift studios and house labels as early as the early 1960s,” LaRotta continues. “For example, Little Joe and the Embers' cover of The Bar-Kays' early funk hit ‘Soul Finger’ was produced in a two-car garage on Houston's East End on the Jesna label. Los Statics, another local group, released their sought-after ‘To Love, To Love' single on Jesna as well.”

AFOS fans can expect to hear some of these hits Friday at the party’s anniversary event at Continental Club. Molina will be on hand spinning singles from his own vast collection. LaRotta said Chicano soul has some strong local proponents that AFOS has worked with in the past; it’s a labor of love for these DJs and musicians to alert Houstonians of the music’s local heritage.

“We haven't done an exclusively Chicano soul-themed show at Fistful per se but we do mix a lot of this music into our sets regularly; we generally spin a lot of local soul music," he says. "So we won't be spinning only Chicano soul at the anniversary party at the Continental Club. We're friends with Felipe Galvan of Pachuco Boogie and Isaac Rodriguez and Nick Gaitan of Tejas Got Soul and I've had the pleasure to spin with them. In fact, Isaac will be spinning some records at the event [tonight]. They work really hard to promote this culture and history with their DJ nights and they're doing some really amazing things. I'm definitely inspired by them.”

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A Fistful of Soul is an inspiration, many would say. The dance party has drawn national and global acclaim and is one of the country’s longest-running events of its kind. Recently U.K. photographer Brian Cannon – who’s worked with Oasis, The Verve and the Beta Band – came to town to shoot AFOS for a photo documentary on Northern Soul dance parties around the world.

“I've been in the group for half the time it's been around — I joined up right around our fourth anniversary," La Rotta says. "It's been a lot of fun. We've had the pleasure of welcoming guest DJs from around the world; I've shared the stage with Jello Biafra and Pete Rock, which were definitely personal milestones. I've seen it grow from the Big Top to our current home at the Continental Club next door, and it all started at the Mink before that.

“We're all dads now so some things have definitely changed: we're all rushing home at the end of the night since we're on early morning baby duty!" he adds. "But it's a simple formula that's worked pretty well: we show up with hundreds of fun and energetic soul 45s and spin them consecutively, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., and we've done that every third Friday for eight years now! We're grateful people still love it as much as we do.”

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