L-R: Isaac Rodriguez and the late Oscar VillanuevaPhoto by Jennifer Villanueva, courtesy of Isaac Rodriguez
There’s no such thing as a perfect song, but certain songs might seem perfect to certain people. What are the reasons anyone might find a song particularly brilliant? That’s the simple question posed to musicians and music fans in this new Houston Press feature. The answer to that question is complex and diverse as those who’ve agreed to share their thoughts on the particularly brilliant songs they’ve selected.
Isaac Rodriguez is co-founder and curator of Tejas Got Soul. The Houston-based deejay crew devoted to Chicano soul music has expanded its offerings from regular Sunday sets at D&W Lounge on the east side to live concerts and conferences designed to preserve the music and showcase Houston’s pivotal role in brown-eyed soul. Rodriguez, a.k.a. DJ Simmer Down, didn’t have to search too far for his particularly brilliant song. It came from the city he loves. His choice is “T’Aint No Big Thing,” a 1966 gem from Houston’s own Rickey Vee and the Stardusters.
“If anyone were to ask me what is Chicano soul, I would send them that song right there. Not only because it’s the perfect Chicano soul song but because it’s so Houston,” said Rodriguez. “Those guys were Houston to the bone and a lot of people don’t realize Houston played a big role in that whole Chicano soul movement, not only through the groups that came out of Houston, but the biggest label in the Chicano soul era was Tear Drop Records and that was owned by Huey Meaux. They were based right here in Houston. If a Chicano soul group from Dallas or San Antonio blew up or wanted to take it to the next level, they usually were trying to get signed by Tear Drop Records.”
Meaux, the late Houston recording pioneer also known as “The Crazy Cajun,” ran SugarHill Recording Studios and released records by acts like the Sir Douglas Quintet and Freddy Fender. In the 1960s, he headed Jetstream Records, the label which released “T’aint No Big Thing.”
“It’s the perfect song because it’s about love and heartbreak. Who doesn’t love a song about love and heartbreak, you know? It’s about being a teenager in love,” Rodriguez said.
Most of the reasons Rodriguez loves the song come after its two minute and 15 seconds are up. Those reasons were first found in a box of records Rodriguez inherited from his aunt some years ago. He was playing in punk bands at the time, but this music sounded like his childhood. Many of records were on the afore-mentioned labels. As he read the record credits he noticed many featured Hispanic surnames.
“It was like soul music and R&B. All that stuff blew my mind. I kind of went down the rabbit hole and I started collecting it,” Rodriguez said.
He wanted to spin these hidden treasures for Houstonians and approached Nick Gaitan about putting together a deejay night at D&W Lounge, where Gaitan frequently holds court. Gaitan, one of Houston’s most notable and active musicians, said he had lots of those oldies, too. He joined Rodriguez to form the Tejas Got Soul deejay crew.
“We started playing these Chicano records and these Tejano records, this is ‘60s and ‘70s era, some even late ‘50s. We just kind of threw the flag out there,” Rodriguez said. “We started doing it every other Sunday at the D&W and we just let people know this is what we’re playing, we’re playing early Chicano music from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s flat. We’re not going above that. A lot of people hear the name ‘Tejano’ and they automatically assume a guy in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. And that is what Tejano turned into later on, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but before that Tejano music has roots in rhythm and blues.”
Rodriguez wasn’t content to simply play the songs. He wanted to know about the musicians who created them. He wanted to shake their hands and tell them how much he respected and appreciated their work. He wanted to let them know the music wasn’t forgotten.
“That’s when I started going to bars, walking up to the oldest guy drinking a beer and asking, ‘Hey, do you remember any of these bands?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah! I remember them! They used to play at the Pan-American Ballroom! That’s so-and-so, he comes in here sometimes.’ So, I would go back and meet the guy.”
But the guys he wanted to meet most were Rickey Vee and the Stardusters. He already knew the backstory. The band was actually a trio of brothers, Jesse, Ray and Oscar Villanueva. They’d caught the eye of Sunny Ozuna, a Chicano music legend.
“When Sunny and the Sunglows would come to play the Sunday matinees at the Pan-American Ballroom for the teenagers, that band would open up for them. When they were opening up for Sunny they were called the Rock’n Vee’s. They were called different names at different times, but they’re all the same guys, a group of brothers.”
Rodriguez said Ozuna got signed to Tear Drop but the Sunglows didn’t want to relocate from San Antonio to Houston. So Ozuna tabbed the Villanueva brothers to back him, giving birth to Sunny and the Sunliners. They backed him for about a year. Ozuna went back to his original band the Villanuevas regrouped as Rickey Vee and the Stardusters.
“I was on a mission. I wanted to meet these guys. I was almost obsessed,” Rodriguez admits. “I looked on Facebook and what do you know, he was on Facebook, Oscar Villanueva. And I messaged him.”
He got a reply some months later. Oscar, who is the lead vocalist on “T’Aint No Big Thing,” was the lone surviving brother of the group. One of the first things Rodriguez did after talking with Villanueva was to dedicate a block of time to the Stardusters on a KPFT radio show he was hosting.
“After the show he was like, ‘Hey man, that was so great to hear our music back on the radio, I had no idea anybody cared about us anymore. I did this a long time ago.’”
Rodriguez was invited to a family barbecue to meet Villanueva.
“I was a little nervous because I barely knew him,” Rodriguez said, “but I showed up and I brought my records and a portable record player and man, the family welcomed me in the house with open arms. They offered me a plate and beer and they let me lay out my record player. I took my records and Oscar was signing them. It was an amazing afternoon that I’ll never forget. I finally got to hang out with him and talk with him as a person and a friend.”
Tejas Got Soul has expanded its preservation efforts thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and in conjunction with organizations like Buffalo Bayou Partnership and East End Foundation. They present live shows which feature panel discussions. Newer members like Texas folklorist Pat Jasper, artist Angel Quesada and accordionist extraordinaire Robert Rodriguez III are lending their talents to the mission. Since COVID, the live sets at D&W are on hiatus but the bar has allowed Tejas Got Soul to record the musicians it loves in the venue for streaming concert events. The next stream debuts on Tejas Got Soul’s Facebook and YouTube pages December 24. It will feature Los Monarcas, also a local family band with a Conjunto music legacy dating back to the 1940s.
Villanueva was set to appear at a Tejas Got Soul event but passed away before it was held. The event became a tribute. When it was done, Villanueva’s daughter approached Rodriguez with a copy of Sunny and the Sunliners’ crossover hit “Talk to Me.” Rodriguez had given the record to Villanueva upon learning he hadn’t kept any of the records he’d recorded.
Rodriguez said Tejas Got Soul's mission is to keep Chicano soul alive for newer generations of listeners.
Photo by Jessica Rodriguez, courtesy of Isaac Rodriguez
“She said, ‘I appreciate everything that you did for my dad. You really made him feel like he was alive again. He was really grateful for what you were doing,’” he recalled. “She pulled out the record and said, ‘I want you to have this back. I know he would want you to have this back.’”
In the end, Rodriguez said, “T’Aint No Big Thing,” is a big thing because it’s about family. The Villanuevas, his own family and lots of other families like them.
“The music has always been in the background of my life. My parents got married at the Pan-American Ballroom during that era. When my aunt showed us a picture of her quinceañera at the Pan-American Ballroom, now I see the bands in the background and I can name the guys,” he said. “The music was always there. I grew up in a house where we considered ourselves Chicano, but it took me to go explore everything before I turned around and realized I needed to go back and find out who I was. And, it took me having a kid to do that, too. I was into punk rock, I was into Jamaican music, everything else except for what was my roots.
“When I had a son, I kind of settled down and became more about family and tradition. I noticed myself turning Tejano on when I’m outside barbecuing instead of Operation Ivy,” he said. “I started doing that because I wanted my son to have those memories of that music being played in that scenario.”
And at the top of that playlist? The perfect song, Rickey Vee and the Stardusters’ golden oldie, “T’Aint No Big Thing.”
“The horn section kicks in after that drum roll and it’s just a beautiful song. Even today in the record collecting world, when it comes to Chicano soul or northern soul, that record right there is highly sought after. There’s actually a modern band in San Antonio that covers the Stardusters’ version of ‘T’Aint No Big Thing.’ It’s a song that’s lasted throughout the years.
“Even though it’s from Houston, I think it would be kind of rare to most Houstonians,” Rodriguez said. “They probably haven’t heard it. That’s exactly why we do Tejas Got Soul.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.