20 March 2006

Land Of A Thousand Dances, Part Three

A Final Trip to the
Land Of 1,000 Dances
with Donny Jacobs
Land of 1,000 Dances
Volume Three
featuring The Matador, Monkeyin' Around, The Greasy Frog, The Boomerang, The Dip, The Philly Dog, The Jerk, The Temptation Walk, The Boston Monkey, Walkin' the Duck, The Shing-A-Ling, That Beatin' Rhythm, The Broadway Freeze, The Sissy, The Popcorn, The Hook and Sling, The Meditation, The Chicken, The Moon Walk, The Watts Breakaway, The Breakdown, Bumpin' and Stompin', The Hustle 
and The Bus Stop
released in 2004

Dance Rock enthusiasts must've had mixed feelings after listening to Volume Three of this series. A "Special Soul and Funk Edition," its focus is limited to black artists and R & B music. Unlike the previous volumes, this is not an Ace Records release, although Ace is listed as its manufacturer and distributor. The Kent label, known for its R & B reissues, must have seemed a better vehicle for this compilation, so it appears on a subsidiary imprint called Kent Dance. Series originator Rob Finnis is nowhere in sight; his knowledge of and taste for mainstream dance music is sorely missed. Tony Rounce, former head of Westside Records, occupies the deejay's booth this time. For better or worse, his racially exclusive music mix concentrates on tracks that were popular on England's revivalist Northern Soul circuit in the 1970s. No 1950s waxings appear on this CD at all, but a few '70s Disco releases are included. Volume Three turns out to be heavy on boogaloo records, with instrumental sides being its most distinguishing feature.

Every volume of Land Of 1000 Dances includes a version of the song that gave the series its name. Unfortunately, Rounce chose one of the least impressive versions to include here. Rufus Thomas's recording is neither one of the best nor one of his best. He deserves credit for trying to put some New Orleans flavor back into Chris Kenner's composition, but his slow habanera rendition has the unfortunate effect of draining the life out of it. It's just a misstep in Rufus's otherwise remarkable recording career, but here it is on display again, after having been forgotten about for decades . . . past mistakes do have an odd way of coming back to bite you in the ass! "Matador" is not as disappointing, but even the flamenco kick songwriter Curtis Mayfield gives this typically Latinized Major Lance workout isn't strong enough to make it a great dance record. William Bell's lackluster attempt at "Monkeyin' Around" doesn't even have a Latin sensibility going for it. It's just plain boring. Best known for his soul ballads, Bell would've been much better off sticking with them!

Things start to heat up once Jeb Stuart takes the stage. His "Greasy Frog" sounds like a patently uncool dance step . . . had it actually existed, people probably would've avoided dancing it at all costs! Even so, Jeb puts an awful lot of feelin' into his "froggin,'" and Willie Mitchell's backing band really boots. Groove doctor Don Covay could always be counted on to fill a dance floor, and his brass-driven "Boomerang" has everything necessary to have done just that. However, the single was a surprise no-show on the R & B charts. A tasty Latin boogaloo, Dr. Don obviously designed it to appeal equally to the Black and Spanish sides of Harlem nightlife. Next up are the ever-popular Whispers, captured on wax fifteen years before the release of their megahit Disco platter "And The Beat Goes On." Here they offer us "The Dip," a laid-back dance which they teach with much grace and panache. This was just the right step for discothèque patrons who didn't want to get sweat stains on their new bellbottoms!

For rhythm numbers with a hotter groove, step into the Soul Kitchen for a spell. Jerry Williams, Jr, better known as Swamp Dogg, is at the grill fryin' up a sizzlin' Soul cha-cha called "Push, Push, Push" (not to be confused with the Joe Cuba record of the same title). The record has a lot in common with "Shake A Tailfeather" by the Five Du-Tones, and there's more than enough energy in it to stir up cage dancers at trendy clubs like the Whisky A Go-Go. Making their final R & B chart appearance, The Olympics make their swansong single as lip-smackin' good as a ballpark frank. They squirt lots of hot mustard on their "Philly Dog" and load it up with relish, too. Black teenagers wolfed it down in 1966, and for good reason: This foot-long boogaloo couched in a Motown bun is as delicious as can be. Tasty snacks aren't the only thing you find in the Soul Kitchen, though. Leaning against the meat locker in hot pants and fishnets are The Gypsies, bold and sassy Soul sisters who want to get their freeek on! That's obvious just from listening to the first few bars of their Top Forty R & B entry from 1965. These girls are so horny, in fact, they'll dare you to "Jerk It" right in front of them! Just remember to wash your hands before you touch any food!

It's too bad that The Temptations never released a single to capitalize on their famous Temptation Walk. They surely would've put more soul into it than the Entertainers Four put into their less-than-tempting platter. Unfortunately, this "Walk" has too many steps that drag. Billy Butler's "Boston Monkey" doesn't drag, and even though Billy's from Chicago, his swingin' simian step may well have coaxed them onto the dance floor up in Beantown. Still, they'd have gotten more vigorous shoulder action out of "Dirty Water," the legendary dance rocker by Boston's own Standells. That delectable 1966 disk doesn't appear here, of course; The Standells were a white Rock band, so they fall outside the narrow scope of Tony Rounce's compilation. If duck-walking appeals to you more than monkey business does, "Walking The Duck" by The Triumphs will trouble your tailfeathers for a while. This snazzy, Snap-E-Tom of an instrumental wouldn't sound out-of-place on a Booker T & The MGs album. That undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that it was cut in the MG's home base of Memphis, Tennessee.

Compared to the boogaloo, the shing-a-ling was a relatively minor Latin dance craze. Lee Williams and The Cymbals' rendition of "Shing-A-Ling USA" offers a clue as to why that was so. As a dance rhythm, the shing-a-ling had flash but no smoke . . . there was motion, but it didn't really move you. A certain sense of excitement was lacking. There's no lack of excitement, though, in Richard Temple's performance of "That Beatin' Rhythm," a big Northern Soul favorite. Richard's enthusiastic approach to the lyric is so effective, it almost succeeds in hiding the flaws of a song that's nothing but a second-rate Motown Sound ripoff! Sometimes, style really does trump substance. It's easier to understand how British Soul fanatics would go wild for "Broadway Freeze, Parts One and Two." This is one of the funkiest Habanera rockers you'll ever hear, a stone floor-filler if ever there was one. How it missed the American R & B charts has to be one of the great unsolved mysteries; its horn-powered groove was a clear harbinger of Sly and The Family Stone hits like "Dance To The Music."

Northern Soul pilgrims from a Caribbean background no doubt found "Do The Sissy," blues guitarist Albert Collin's hyperactive reggae instrumental very hard to resist. They'd have frowned on Sissy dancing in Kingston, but what the Hell? This wasn't Jamaica, it was swingin' London circa 1969! Can't you just picture those West Indian macho men hesitating for a moment or two before giving in to the rhythm . . . then dropping their wrists, pursing their lips, and wiggling those fine brown frames of theirs? Shake it, rastaman! There's no need at all to hesitate when King James (James Brown, that is) instructs you to "Let A Man Come In And Do The Popcorn!" The Godfather of Soul's music found favor with dance devotees all over the world, from Kingston to Hong Kong to Rome. This greasy groove was the fourth entry in his late '60s quintet of Popcorn dance hits, and you can bet during the last twenty years it's been sampled at least a couple dozen times by Hip Hop musicians. Rappers do love themselves some vintage JB! Eddie Bo's beat-crazy "Hook And Sling, Parts One and Two" sounds like a funky merengue, but is better described as free-form Funk. Whether it has a Latin pedigree or not, it sure doesn't take long to get your hips shakin.' Eddie's salacious commentary will have you snickering in spite of yourself.

Reggae rhythms show up again on "The Chicken," one of Jackie Lee's follow-ups to his 1965 best-seller "The Duck." This is a much better record than "The Duck," and the same soulful femme trio that graced that earlier hit shows up here, makin' like Rita Marley's I-Threes. Even if these capable ladies had been on hand to help Joe Simon sing "Moon Walk, Part One," they wouldn't have been able to salvage such an awful song. At least the title works . . . its movements are as hapless and ungainly as a Nasa astronaut clomping around on a lunar landscape! This lumbering space flight comes in for a slow and painful crash landing, and it's not pretty. Still, if "Moon Walk" got heavy R & B chart action and club play on both sides of the Atlantic, somebody must've liked it! How nice to know that somebody also liked "The Meditation" by New York City's TNT Band; it crossed over from Latin music radio stations to land in the R & B Top Forty. Produced by the legendary George Goldner and released on his Cotique label, this is one of the very best of the late '60s boogaloo hits. Over a stuttering beat that Tony Rounce correctly notes was borrowed from Archie Bell and The Drell's 1968 chart-topper "Tighten Up," TNT Band lead vocalist Tito Ramos mugs and signifies his ass off. He comes across like a freaked-out combination of black Baptist preacher and Spanish Harlem street thug! Ramos's performance amounts to a musical comedy routine on wax, and calls to mind one of those funky comedy dance sequences from TV's "Laugh-In."

If only radio had responded as enthusiastically to Johnny Otis's "Watts Breakdown!" The man who gave us the fabulous "Willie And The Hand Jive" in 1957 still had what it took to groove the young folks in 1969, and this bodacious boogie track is proof. Johnny and his band's lead singer Delmar Evans break this step down quite nicely with one another, but if they want to keep gossips at bay, they'd better find some foxy ladies to dance with next time! Kicking off a long chart career under their new, improved name, George Clinton's supergroup Parliament (formerly The Parliaments) got its funk aesthetic together early on with great tracks like "The Breakdown." This was a fine warm-up for blockbusters like "Up For The Downstroke" and "Give Up The Funk" that would arrive later in the decade. The hits "Bumpin' And Stompin' by Garland Green, "Makes You Wanna Hustle" by Donald Byrd and "Do The Bus Stop" by The Fatback Band ride us straight into the Disco Era. They sound out-of-place on this boogaloo-heavy compilation, but their inclusion does prove a point. Although denounced in its day as an aberrance by many Pop musicians and Rock journalists, Disco was just part of an urban dance music tradition that had been evolving in Black and Latino communities for a long time.

Since 2004, when the "Soul and Funk Edition" of Land Of 1,000 Dances hit the streets, no additional volumes have appeared. That doesn't mean Ace Record execs might not have another one up their puffy sleeves. However, if they don't, the American Varèse Sarabande label has unintentionally given their series a bang-up send-off. In August of 2005, they reissued Cannibal and The Headhunter's classic Land Of 1,000 Dances album. Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia and his homeboys (with East LA bar band The Blendells backing them up) were to blame for many a ruptured living room rug in 1965. Teenagers couldn't help but want to dance all night once they'd set phonograph needles down on their stomper of an LP. The Headhunters aren't such great singers, and their wannabe bluesman stylings sound awfully comical at times. Nevertheless, they romp through covers of "Boy From New York City," "My Girl," "Shotgun" and "Searchin'" with such a sense of joyful abandon, no group could embody the exuberant spirit of Rock 'n' Roll any better. They give top-notch original tunes like "Don't Let Her Go," "Strange World." "Get Your Baby" and "Fat Man" the same spark. Frankie's wailing vocal on the title track is, of course, definitive. Wilson Pickett's record may be the one most people remember, but the Wicked Pickett knew where to take his musical cues from, and it sure wasn't from Rufus Thomas' record!

Each new generation has its own dance steps, and its own favorite music for dancing. That will never change. However, a strong argument can be made that dancing in the 20th century, especially from the 1920s to the 1980s, was something quite unique. There was a mass mania, a wild enthusiasm, a feeling of collective exhilaration that hadn't existed before, and probably hasn't existed since. People were dying to do The Charleston . . . The Jitterbug . . . The Shag . . . The Twist . . . The Watusi . . . The Funky Chicken! Occasionally, they even died as a result of doing these steps! Civilized people may never have that much fun again. Thank goodness we still have memories of those kooky dance crazes to entertain ourselves with . . . and to keep those memories fresh, we have film footage, scratchy old vinyl records, and great CD compilations called Land Of 1,000 Dances.

05 March 2006

Habanera Rock, Part One

Bless You

South Of Spanish Harlem
The 1960s Habanera Rock Revolution
by Donny Jacobs

Baby, you're a genius when it comes to 
cookin' up some chili sauce . . .

Excerpt from "You're The Boss" by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller,
copyright 1961 Sony/ATV Songs LLC(BMI)

It's Ben E. King weaving a romantic spell around "Spanish Harlem" . . . Soul music pioneer Clyde McPhatter going plumb Latin "Deep In The Heart Of Harlem" . . . Marvin Gaye inviting you to dance the cha-cha-chá with that "Stubborn Kinda Fella" . . . Len Barry dressing up the Latin boogaloo in Motown trappings on "One-Two-Three" . . . The Reflections making like a flamenco troupe on "Just Like Romeo and Juliet" . . . Curtis Mayfield adapting Brazilian rhythms for the urban dance floor on Major Lance's "The Monkey Time" and "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" . . . Joe South slapping a Tex Mex tango arrangement onto Billy Joe Royal's "Down In The Boondocks" . . . Gene Pitney crossing the bossa nova with mariachi horns on "Last Chance To Turn Around" . . . . Elvis Presley rocking the samba in his films Fun In Acapulco and Viva Las Vegas . . . and Diana Ross + The Supremes putting on Spanish airs with "Ask Any Girl."

When musicians called it anything at all, they referred to it as "Jewish Latin," but a more accurate title for the sound is Habanera Rock. It's a potent Pop/Rock/Soul sound from the 1960s that found Cuban, Brazilian, Spanish and Mexican rhythms at the foundation of hits like Steve Alaimo's "Every Day I Have To Cry," Tony Orlando's "Bless You," Neil Diamond's "Cherry, Cherry," Gene McDaniels' "Spanish Lace" and Gary US Bonds' "New Orleans." A highly commercial sound, it raked in huge profits for the North American music industry until the advent of The Beatles and other British Invasion groups (whose early recordings were influenced by it).

There were precedents for this trend in the previous decade: The music of Bo Diddley, and hit records like The Diamonds' "Little Darlin'", Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away", Ray Charles' "Mary Ann" and Johnny Otis's "Willie and The Hand Jive." It was producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who really kicked the trend into overdrive with their groundbreaking 1959 production of "There Goes My Baby" for The Drifters. With The Drifters, their former lead singer Ben E. King, and Jay + The Americans (another Leiber and Stoller-produced group) anchoring the Habanera Rock movement, it spread across the airwaves and into A & R departments all over the country . . . in Nashville, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and even beyond American shores.

Records by artists as diverse as Ral Donner, Johnny Nash, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, Chubby Checker and Eydie Gormé held forth with this sound, and Girl Group records galore (influenced by Phil Spector's productions for Darlene Love, The Crystals and The Ronettes) were resplendent with castanets and habanera rhythms. It was a wonderful red, white and blue sound (red for Latin backbeats; white for classically-influenced melodies; and blue for Country/Blues-based vocal arrangements) that was popularized by a group of East Coast songwriters and producers.  Here at the Pop Culture Cantina, we use "Habanera Rock" as a blanket term to talk about any Rock'n'Roll music produced during the 1950s and '60s that has a Latin rhythm foundation. However, this essay focuses mostly on the kind that came out of New York City in the early '60s.

The habanera itself is a four-beat rhythm pattern that was born in the barrios of Havana, Cuba during the 19th century. From its island birthplace, it spread throughout Latin America and became particularly popular in Argentina and México. An 1859 habanera song called "La Paloma," composed in Cuba four years earlier by Spanish composer Sébastian Yradier, was a huge hit with the Mexican public. It later sold reams of sheet music in the United States and is believed to be the first Latin composition to achieve hit status in North America. Habaneras next invaded our shores by way of Argentina during the 1910s, when the tango craze was in full blossom. Its four-beat structure lay at the base of the tricky, twisting dance step that earned stardom for Rudolph Valentino when he performed it in the 1921 box office smash The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. WC Handy's famous 1914 composition "St. Louis Blues" is a tango, though often mistaken for a Blues number, and its inclusion in the repertoires of Jazz bands helped embed the habanera rhythm in the public's subconscious mind.

Tango gave way to rhumba in the 1930s, which in turn gave way to mambo in the 1940s and cha-cha-chá in the '50s. All of these dance music styles were Cuban in origin, but the newer ones featured a clave rhythm that differed from the habanera. Even so, the tango beat remained in the North American musical lexicon, especially in Jazz circles. The habanera's close similarity to the three-beat baião, which Leiber and Stoller borrowed from Brazilian music for Pop recording dates, facilitated its re-emergence during the Rock Era.

In fact, many of the so-called baião beats Rock critics refer to when they talk about '60s music are actually habaneras (listen for that fourth beat)! Why the confusion? Well, a fair number of the studio musicians who appeared on early Rock'n'Roll records were Jazz players. The familiar old Cuban rhythm from "St. Louis Blues" probably came more naturally to them than the newer Brazilian one. Leiber and Stoller called it one thing, and musicians may have mistaken it for something else, but whatever communication mix-ups there were, it didn't affect the quality of the music at all.

Songwriters affiliated with Peer International and EB Marks Music were largely responsible for spreading Latin music inside US borders during the 1930s and '40s. Tunesmiths contracted to certain publishing companies in the 1960s performed the same function for Habanera Rock. Most were Jewish, and several plied their trade in Manhattan's Brill Building. There were those who worked under Leiber and Stoller at Trio Music, including Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, George "Shadow" Morton and Tony Powers. There were songwriters like Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, Pete Anders and Vini Poncia, who wrote for Hill and Range Music. There were the writers contracted to Bob Crewe's Saturday Music firm, including Bob Gaudio, Gary Knight, Sandy Linzer, Denny Randell and Crewe himself. Also important were TM Music songwriters like Kenny Young, Artie Resnick and Rudy Clark.

Most important of all were the large stable of writers who worked for Al Nevins and Don Kirshner's Aldon Music(later Screen Gems Music Division): Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka, Howie Greenfield, Jack Keller, Toni Wine, Artie Kornfeld, Roger Atkins, Helen Miller, Russ Titelman and others. Rounding out this influential group were independent and freelance writer/producers like Ben Raleigh, Mark Barkan, Bert Berns, Neil Diamond, Burt Bacharach, Jerry Ragovoy, Johnny Madara, Dave White, Hank Medress and the members of The Tokens, the team of Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gotteher, and Phil Spector.

Most of these composers merely used Latin rhythms as flavorings in their music, nothing more. The fact that one composition might be a samba and another might be a waltz wasn't particularly significant to them. However, a handful were avid Latin music enthusiasts. When Bert Berns, Mort Shuman, Neil Sedaka, Burt Bacharach or Mike Stoller wrote Latin backbeats into their songs, they did so as men with an agenda. They mixed Latin, Classical and Blues/Gospel elements toward the end of creating a new dynamic. Create it they did, dynamic it was, and finely crafted records like Sedaka's "Oh! Carol" and "King Of Clowns," Shuman's "Sweets For My Sweet" and "Save The Last Dance For Me," Berns' "Twist and Shout" and "Hang On, Sloopy, " Stoller's "Down In México" and "Three Cool Cats" (which predate The Drifters' Latin excursions) and Bacharach's "Reach Out For Me" and "Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa" pointed the way for everyone else.

Bacharach's music became so closely linked to the Brazilian bossa nova that at one point, Dionne Warwick is said to have believed he invented the rhythm! Bert Berns was very partial to Mexican music, although the Latin boogaloo (derived from the Cuban cha-cha-chá) seems to have been his rhythm of choice for writing. A casual listen to Phil Spector's output between 1963 and 1966 reveals an obvious affinity for the Spanish pasodoble; its inherent dramatic flourishes certainly worked to the advantage of his "Wall of Sound" production style. Examine the rhythm patterns of early Motown releases, and it becomes clear that somebody in Hitsville USA's A & R department was enamored of the cha-cha-chá. In fact, cha-cha backbeats (no doubt inspired by The Champs' beloved 1958 hit single "Tequila") are almost as rampant in '60s Rock 'n' Roll records as the word "baby!" One of the most famous examples is Roy Orbison's 1964 smash "Oh! Pretty Woman."

Musical arrangers were on hand to translate these fusion sounds to studio musicians, and given that some of the aforementioned writer/producers didn't have formal music training, their contributions were absolutely essential. The best Habanera Rock records cut in New York City and Hollywood had names like Artie Butler, Alan Lorber, Charlie Calello, Bert Keyes, Teacho Wiltshire, Jack Nitzsche, Perry Botkin, Jr, Ernie Freeman, Klaus Ogermann, Jimmy "Wiz" Wisner, Chuck Sagle and (especially) Gary Sherman and Stan Applebaum emblazoned on their labels. Nashville product invariably featured arrangements by Bill McElhiney, Bill Justis, Don Tweedy, Bob Moore or Ray Stevens(yes, that Ray Stevens). In Chicago, Johnny Pate was the man to go to when you needed a little Spanish Fly. Some of these arrangers made their mark as songwriters, too. They were the best in the business, and they wrote charts for everybody, be it Top Forty mainstays like Connie Francis, Brenda Lee and Bobby Vee or relatively obscure artists like Vic Donna, Lou Johnson or Babs Tino. Individually and collectively, they brought a little chili seasoning along with them to every recording session. However, certain artists became more closely associated with Habanera Rock than others.

04 March 2006

Habanera Rock, Part Two

Ral Donner

South Of Spanish Harlem
The 1960s Habanera Rock Revolution
by Donny Jacobs

People bought records by The Drifters, Frankie Valli + The Four Seasons, and Jay + The Americans fully expecting to hear Latin dance rhythms. Largely due to the overwhelming success of "Spanish Harlem," Ben E. King was considered more or less the King of Habanera Rock. A new Gene Pitney record was more often than not going to have a south-of-the-border sensibility; the same can be said for Lou Christie and Chuck Jackson's records, and Dionne Warwick could be counted on every time to give that upstart Girl from Ipanema a run for her money!

Profits from The Shirelles' 1960 smash hit "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" guaranteed that most of their subsequent singles would have some kind of Latin orientation. As indicated in Part One, girl groups and girl soloists like The Shirelles, The Chiffons, The Angels, Lesley Gore and Little Peggy March were some of the most consistent Habanera rockers. However, much has been written about them in recent years, so here's a sampling of Latin-tinged Rock 'n' Roll from some of the most popular male vocalists of the era. To emphasize the broad scope of the Habanera Rock movement, we've chosen several albums that were recorded far from its epicenter in New York City.

Spanish Harlem
Ben E. King
The monarch displays his crown jewels on this fine collection of Latin standards, assembled into a theme album for the purpose of showcasing his first hit single. Truth be told, it's not really Rock 'n' Roll, but it swings, and it's a virtual textbook of Latin styles. Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and the incredibly gifted Stan Applebaum guide King Benny through a musical smorgasbord of cha-cha-chás, sambas, tangos, boleros, pasodobles and Latin Jazz rhythms. (Ironically, the title track is the only baião to be found in the set.) While His Majesty's readings of big orchestra numbers like "Granada" and "Perfidia" are merely competent, he sizzles on romantic items like "Sway," "Bésame Mucho," "Come Closer To Me" and "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps." The supremely silly lyrics of "Sweet And Gentle" (an English translation of the Cuban song "Me Lo Dijó Adela") don't prevent it from being the best version sung by a non-Latin vocalist. Benny's own attempt at penning a Latin song, "Love Me, Love Me, Love Me," is quite respectable.
A Leiber-Stoller Production
Arranged and Conducted by Stan Applebaum
released in 1960

Songs Of The Big City
Clyde McPhatter
Clyde McPhatter founded The Drifters back in 1953, but he didn't stick around long enough to benefit from Leiber and Stoller's Latin Soul stylings. Here, with arranger Alan Lorber's help, he comes to terms with the habanera and baião rhythms his former group has been spreading all over Pop radio. The stunning "Deep In The Heart Of Harlem" paints a spare but richly textured urban tableau; lyrically, it could almost be the male answer to The Crystals' "Uptown." Clyde's fragile tenor lends a bittersweet flavor to covers of Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem," Sammy Davis, Jr's "The Shelter Of Your Arms," and The Drifters' "On Broadway" and "Up On The Roof." He gets the chance to express some tongue-in-cheek humor (perhaps a little too cheeky) with amusing novelty items like "A Suburban Town," "Coney Island" and "Chinatown." The latter tune, more of a pseudo-Asian music pastiche than a Habanera rocker, must surely be the worst thing Howie Greenfield and Helen Miller ever wrote! With its stereotypical ching-chang, a-ching-a-ling-a-lang coda, it's just plain embarrassing. Whatever could they have been thinking?
A Shelby Singleton Production
Arranged and Conducted by Alan Lorber
released in 1964

Freddie Scott Sings, And Sings, And Sings!
Freddie Scott
This is one of the most coveted Screen Gems Music productions. Especially hard to find in stereo, Gary Sherman's sublime Latin charts make it well worth the expense of seeking out. With Ray Charles' favorite girl group The Cookies backing him up in the studio, the late Freddie Scott spoons his rough-hewn Blues vocals over creamy Pop ballads and juicy sambas and bossa novas. The flavor is absolutely delectable! "Hey, Girl" was the culmination of everything Gerry Goffin and Carole King learned from Leiber and Stoller; it blanketed Pop radio and quickly became the only break-up ballad anybody wanted to hear in the summer of '63. Freddie's powerful rendition of "Where Is The Girl?," an obscure but frequently waxed Leiber and Stoller baião, is easily the best version of this song. Maestro Sherman revamps the folk standards "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and "If I Had A Hammer" with breezy Caribbean rhythms, and the resulting tracks are simply gorgeous. Every cut of this album is superb, and you really hate to hear it come to an end.
Arranged and Conducted by Gary Sherman
Produced by Gerry Goffin and Carole King
under the supervision of Don Kirshner
released in 1963

Spanish Lace
Gene McDaniels
This Kansas City native damn near usurps Ben E. King's crown with his highly polished renditions of Spanish, Cuban, Mexican and Brazilian standards. Although recorded in Hollywood, this is arguably a better Latin Pop album than Spanish Harlem, whose title track is covered marvelously here. With Tommy "Snuff" Garrett at the production helm, you shouldn't wonder why. Garrett was fanatical about Latin music and culture, and the dozens of albums he cut with his instrumental studio group 50 Guitars contained Latin songs far more often than any other kind. Members of 50 Guitars (including Phil Spector session stalwart Tommy Tedesco) played on dates for Gene McDaniels, Bobby Vee, Johnny Burnette and most other Liberty Records artists. Their authentic Spanish strumming make these twelve sides sound like they might've come from a 1940s movie musical starring Desi Arnáz. Gene's hit single "Spanish Lace," later cut by The Drifters, hails from the Pomus/Shuman songbook.
A Snuff Garrett Production
Arranged and Conducted by Ernie Freeman
released in 1962

Terry Stafford
This rare stereo album, produced in Hollywood for one of the more talented Elvis Presley clones, features the fruitiest Latin arrangements you're ever likely to hear! Crusader Records prexy John Fisher serves up a tangy bowl of Pop/Rock menudo filled with bubbly Farfisa organ playing, popcorn bass accents, breathy femme vocals and a crisp echo that makes the tracks sound like they were cut in your brother-in-law's garage! Tangos, rhumbas and sambas are the Latin rhythms on tap here; highlights include "Invitation To A Kiss," "Pocket Full Of Rainbows," "Kiss Me Quick!"(like the title track, penned by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and originally waxed by Elvis), and the delicious "Margarita."
Arranged and Conducted by Bob Summers
Produced by John Fisher
released in 1964

Dobie Gray Sings For In-Crowders That "Go-Go"
Dobie Gray
Years before the release of his signature song, the Pop/Country rocker "Drift Away," Dobie Gray was a stone Country singer. He emphasizes the down-home side of Soul music on most of this album's selections, which even include some bonafide Country tunes. However, the hit singles "The In-Crowd" and "See You At The Go-Go" are Spectorized Latin boogaloos arranged by Gene Page, the guy who also did the honors on Phil Spector's magnificent Righteous Brothers record, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin." Those singles, as well as the rest of this album's tracks were recorded at Hollywood's Gold Star Studios where Spector cut most of his sessions. While Dobie may sound like he belongs on a "Grand Ole Opry" telecast, he's plenty versatile enough to sing boogaloos, and he puts across a convincing tango rocker, too. He turns in excellent habanera readings of Jackie DeShannon's "Blue Ribbons" and of his self-penned songs "In Hollywood" and "Walk With Love."
An Atlas Artists Production
Produced by Fred Darian
under the supervision of Harry Maselow
released in 1965

Every Day I Have To Cry
Steve Alaimo
One of the most versatile and underrated vocalists of the 1960s, future record executive Steve Alaimo sang with such heavy African-American inflections, calling him a "blue-eyed soul" singer is almost insulting! By 1962, when he waxed this teary-eyed theme album in Nashville, he already had considerable A & R experience under his belt. He knew enough to latch on to the latest Pop trends, and he delved into Habanera Rock without hesitation. Here Steve mixes 1950s-style Rock ballads and jazzy torch songs (the best of which is a smoldering rendition of "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying") with baiãos ("She Cried"), tangos ("Cry Myself To Sleep"), pasodobles ("I Don't Want To Cry"), New Orleans-style rhumbas ("I Cried All The Way Home"), and soulful bossa novas (his self-penned "Don't Cry"). Even his cover of "Every Day I Have To Cry", the biggest hit single of his career, bounces along to a jaunty Latin rhythm, in this case the cha-cha-chá. His go-go dancer-friendly interpretation no doubt surprised the Hell out of people who were familiar with Arthur Alexander's slow and bluesy original.
Arranged and Conducted by Bill Justis
Produced by Steve Alaimo
released in 1963

Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um
The Best Of Major Lance
Curtis Mayfield's songs and productions frequently feature Latin rhythms. Judging by the evidence of records like Jan Bradley's "Mama Didn't Lie," The Impressions' "Gypsy Woman" and his own "Super Fly" theme, it's clear that he loved the sound of them! This Chicago-produced album (despite its title, not a greatest hits collection) for which Curtis wrote every single selection is a virtual cornucopia of Habanera Rock. Johnny Pate's lush bossa nova, tango, rhumba and boogaloo arrangements wash over it like high tides on Ipanema Beach. No wonder Major Lance's music was so good for dancing! Covers of "Gypsy Woman" and "It's All Right" are here, along with his own "The Monkey Time" and "Mama Didn't Know," an answer to the Jan Bradley hit. The next chart single Curtis Mayfield would compose for him was called "The Matador." Latin-influenced? Why on Earth would you think so? If Major had posed for his album covers wearing flamenco costumes, it wouldn't have been inappropriate given the way his music sounded.
Arranged and Conducted by Johnny Pate
Produced by Carl Davis
released in 1964

"Bless You" and Eleven Other Great Hits
Tony Orlando
Tony Orlando was Gerry Goffin and Carole King's personal demo singer, and his demos served as templates for several of The Drifters' biggest hit singles. His sprawling, Blues-tinged baritone, combined with baby-faced charm and a gregarious personality all but guaranteed Tony a shot at having his own singing career. He got it when a Goffin and King pasodoble called "Halfway To Paradise" became his ticket to early '60s stardom. The public's enthusiasm for that song and for "Bless You," an infectious bossa nova written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil justifed the waxing of an album. That album is a sparkling gem, blessed with the evocative arrangements of Carole King and Alan Lorber. Standout cuts include Tony's kick-ass tango version of the Bobby Darin classic "Dream Lover," a Jack Keller tune called "The Lovin' Touch" whose pasodoble movements are even more thrilling than those on "Halfway To Paradise," and a beautiful treatment of Goffin and King's first Habanera Rock hit, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." Tony's part-Puerto Rican heritage and attendant familiarity with Latin rhythms gave him an edge over most other artists singing these kinds of songs.
A Nevins-Kirshner Production
Produced by Jack Keller
released in 1961

03 March 2006

Habanera Rock, Part Three

Terry Stafford

South Of Spanish Harlem
The 1960s Habanera Rock Revolution
by Donny Jacobs

For your listening pleasure, here are nine more long-playing male vocalist gems released during the heyday of Habanera Rock:

Len Barry
This debut LP by the former lead singer of The Dovells is considered one of the great pseudo-Motown recordings, and not without good reason. Producers Johnny Madara and Dave White probably had copies of the latest Supremes and Four Tops singles stashed in the studio control room for quick reference! However, listen closely and you'll hear the Latin boogaloo hammering away underneath that imitation Holland-Dozier-Holland brass section. This 1965 album and the aforementioned one by Dobie Gray feature some of the earliest appearances of boogaloo, predating by a year the Joe Cuba Sextet's million-selling "Bang, Bang." If you doubt the Latin connection, just listen to those bongó-laden breaks on the title track and "Like A Baby," rock to Lenny's rave-up rhumba interpretation of "Treat Her Right," and dig the smokin' samba groove of "Happiness Is."
A Madara-White Production
Arranged and Conducted by Jimmy "Wiz" Wisner
released in 1965

Dance 'Til Quarter To Three
Gary US Bonds
Over the years, numerous critics have remarked on how Gary US Bonds' early '60s singles tend to convey a rather . . . inebriated sensibility. That's no surprise, since Gary has admitted that he and his backing musicians The Church Street Five were often drunker than country skunks when they hit the recording studio! Regardless of how friendly they may have been with Jack Daniels, Frank Guida's crackerjack sessionmen never had any trouble pounding out the Habanera Rock numbers he gave them to play. A former Calypso musician, Guida adored Caribbean/Latin music, and the songs he wrote reflected his tastes. Gary's début album, recorded in Norfolk, Virginia, sounds like it was cut in New Orleans' Latin Quarter. The Big Easy has always been a main port of entry for Latin music, so it's fitting that the Rock 'n' Roll classic which bears the city's name is a rhumba. "One Million Tears," "Cecelia" and "That's All Right" are also rhumbas, the old-fashioned swingin' kind that New Orleans Jazz bands have been playing for decades. "Quarter To Three," "School Is Out," "Not Me" and "Trip To The Moon" all have a cha-cha-chá rhythm foundation (and in fact, they have enough backbeat to be called primitive Latin boogaloos). The 1984 stereo reissue of Dance 'Til Quarter To Three features a pair of bonus tracks that also rock the cha-cha, "What A Dream" and "Time Old Story."
A Frank Guida Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gene Barge
released in 1961

Takin' Care Of Business
Ral Donner
Ral sports a bolero jacket on the sleeve of this album, but he's not just making a fashion statement. It's a danger sign that means "beware of concealed Latin Music influence"! There are deadly habaneras coiled and ready to strike in almost every groove. The deadliest by far is "She's My Baby," a track distinguished by its stark background and intense Jazz drumming. "I Didn't Figure On Him To Come Back" and "For Love Nor Money" are also fairly potent examples. Both of Ral's best-known hits, "You Don't Know What You've Got" and his cover of Elvis Presley's "Girl Of My Best Friend" appear on this deluxe fourteen-track LP, and both feature the tango beat. The remainder of the album is taken up by Rock ballads, but just to prove that Ral isn't a one-trick pony when it comes to Latin influences, a song called "With You Now" gives him a chance to show off his pasodoble technique. He moves confidently in the bullfighter's ring, and that red matador's cape sure does look hot with his bolero jacket and skintight pants! Steve Alaimo bagged one of his first A & R credits producing this set, which was cut at the legendary Criterion Studios in Miami, Florida.
Arranged and Conducted by Alan Lorber
Produced by Steve Alaimo and Artie Ripp
under the supervision of George Goldner
released in 1961

Solitary Man
The Feel Of Neil Diamond
He may or may not be a big Latin music fan, but during the 1960s, Neil Diamond definitely had a knack for writing catchy tangos, bossa novas and cha-cha-chás. (Jay + The Americans got hold of one called "Sunday And Me" and rode it into Billboard's Top Twenty.) With the encouragement of Bang Records CEO Bert Berns, he filled the better part of an album with them, and for his trouble he was rewarded with four hit singles: The brooding "Solitary Man," its flipside "Do It!" (which charted belatedly four years after its initial release), "Oh, No No", and the fabulous "Cherry, Cherry." With its wicked Cuban guajeos (vamps) played on piano, organ and guitar, handclappings by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich that explode like firecrackers, and exuberant backing vocals from Jeff and Ellie, this record proved impossible to resist. Neil's undeservedly obscure début LP also features the exquisite "Love To Love," later covered by The Monkees, his sizzling cover of "New Orleans", and a great, Gospelly remake of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba," one of the first and most important Habanera Rock hits.
Arranged and Conducted by Artie Butler
Produced by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich
released in 1966

I Must Be Seeing Things
Gene Pitney
Of all '60s Rock stars, Gene Pitney was Ben E. King's closest rival for Habanera Rock dominance. Time and again he offered up marvelous Latin rockers that were usually written by the best Brill Building scribes: "Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa" (Bacharach and David), "If I Didn't Have A Dime" (Bert Berns), "It Hurts To Be In Love" (Greenfield and Miller), "Princess In Rags" (Atkins and Miller), "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday" (a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards original that Gene Latinized himself). All of his Musicor albums have some degree of chili seasoning, but this 1965 platter is the spiciest of them all! Gene moves effortlessly from the dramatic pasodoble sweep of "If I Never Get To Love You" to the brisk bossa nova swing of "Down In The Subway" and the bubbly merengue mood of "Don't Take Candy From A Stranger." Moving into tango territory, he rips into the fierce "I Lost Tomorrow Yesterday," then slows down long enough to savor "If Mary's There," a melancholy canción ranchera. "She's Still There" and "There's No Livin' Without Your Lovin'" (later issued as the flipside of "Looking Through The Eyes Of Love") also make excellent use of the habanera rhythm. The title cut, arranged by Alan Lorber, is a classic Rock'n'Roll baião worthy of The Drifters. Much of this LP boasts the strong mariachi flavor that distinguishes so many Gene Pitney recordings.
A Past, Present and Future Production
Produced by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold
Additional Production by Gary Geld, Pete Udell, Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan
released in 1965

Composer's Choice
Johnny Nash
Anybody who thinks of Johnny Nash as nothing more than "that Reggae singer who did 'I Can See Clearly Now'" should listen to his ABC-Paramount and Argo albums from the early '60s. He was a Pop balladeer par excellence, and beginning with his 1959 set I Got Rhythm, he demonstrated considerable skill at singing Latin Jazz. His fiery English-language version of "Bésame Mucho" (from the 1960 album Studio Time) simply cannot be bettered. In 1964, Johnny briefly left New York to cut sides in Chicago for Chess Records, but he took his Latin chops along with him. On this, the first of his many self-produced albums, all of the up tempo numbers feature Latin Jazz arrangements. Johnny's breezy tropical cover of Arlen and Mercer's "One For My Baby" is wonderful, but his funky tango treatment of Irving Berlin's "Always" is the real keeper for Rock'n'Roll fans.
Arranged and Conducted by King Fleming and Will Jackson
Produced by Johnny Nash
under the supervision of Esmond Edwards
released in 1964

Down In The Boondocks
Billy Joe Royal
This album, at least partially recorded in Atlanta, Georgia, is an excellent showcase for its superb title track. "Boondocks" is possibly the finest Rock 'n' Roll tango ever recorded. Joe South, conducting Billy Joe Royal's backing band, delivers a deep habanera that reverberates up from the bottom of a cavernous-sounding echo chamber. Most of the other tracks have a Merseybeat flavor, and there's a Country tune here, too (Willie Nelson's ominous "Funny How Time Slips Away"), but Billy Joe's cover of The Dells' "Oh! What A Night" and the original songs "Leanin' On You," "Pollyanna" and "Heartaches and Teardrops" also rock to a tango beat. In addition, South's productions of "I've Got To Be Somebody" (one of the follow-up hits to "Down In The Boondocks"), "Railroad Tracks Inbetween" and "King Of Fools" show how Leiber and Stoller's baião recordings were still exerting a strong influence.
A Joe South Production
under the supervision of Allen Stanton
released in 1965

That Stubborn Kind Of Fellow
Marvin Gaye
Marvelous Marvin Gaye . . . the king of sexy Soul . . . a Habanera rocker???!! Yes, since at this early stage in his career, Motown staff writers like Mickey Stevenson, Norman Whitfield and Marvin himself are filling up his songbook with cha-cha-chá and bossa nova numbers. This album is absolutely dominated by them: The title song, "Hitch Hike", "Hello There, Angel", "Get My Hands On Some Lovin'", "Wherever I Lay My Hat" and "It Hurt Me, Too" all have solid Latin underpinnings. Marvin's brand of salsa is so appealing, he could have gone over big performing these tunes at New York's Palladium Ballroom on a bill with Tito Rodríguez, Machito and Tito Puente! Yes, that's Martha Reeves + The Vandellas singing spiritedly in the background on the title track and a few other cuts.
A Mickey Stevenson Production
released in 1963

Fun In Acapulco
Original Soundtrack Album from the Paramount Motion Picture
starring Elvis Presley
Rock critics have long detested Elvis's '60s soundtrack recordings, but they really need to lighten up! If he'd only dressed in black leather and sang dirty Blues numbers like "One Night," he would've been awfully one-dimensional. The King of Rock'n'Roll, guest backing vocal group The Amigos and his regular Hollywood session musicians have a blast romping through these lively faux Latin tunes (though, believe it or not, a couple of them are authentic). A real rhumba band from Cuba couldn't make "México" swing any harder than it does. "Fun In Acapulco" is a grand 1920s-style tango that would've done Xavier Cugat proud. "You Can't Say No In Acapulco" shows that the King was no slouch when it came to singing bossa nova ballads. He indulges his well-known operatic leanings with impassioned treatments of "El Toro" and the mariachi anthem "Guadalajara." "Bossa Nova Baby" is more like a samba than a bossa nova, but who cares? It's a killer track that eats The Clover's original version for breakfast. "Vino, Diñero y Amor" sounds like a poor cousin to "Viva Las Vegas," but with The Amigos carousing like borrachitos behind a mugging Elvis, it's nothing if not a fun track to hear. There's not much you can say for awkward incidental numbers like "No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car," though . . . they work far better on film than on wax!
Arranged and Conducted by Joseph Lilley
Produced by Joseph Lilley and Elvis Presley
released in 1963

Very few of Habanera Rock's writers and performers were Latinos, but the ascendancy of Latin Rock reversed that dynamic. Inspired by cultural initiatives like "Chicano" Pride, and spearheaded by Santana in the early 1970s, the Latin Rock movement was a logical and necessary evolution of earlier fusion efforts. However, once Soft Rock became a record industry catch word, Latin music's influence on Rock' n' Roll began to wane. It didn't disappear completely; you could still occasionally hear a Habanera Rock waxing like Bobby Bloom's "Montego Bay", RB Greaves's "Take A Letter, María", BW Stevenson's "My María," Mungo Jerry's "In The Summertime" or Tony Orlando + Dawn's "Candida"(penned by Brill Building vets Toni Wine and Irwin Levine). Compared to the high volume produced in the '60s, though, it was just a trickle.

Fortunately, the Latin strain remained quite active in Soul music. You can hear it in '70s releases by War, Earth, Wind And Fire, LaBelle, and the roster of artists signed to Holland-Dozier-Holland's Invictus and Hot Wax labels, among others. It also played a prominent role in the Disco explosion, judging from the evidence of hit singles like Santa Esmeralda's remake of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", Donna Summer's "Heaven Knows," Pattie Brooks' "After Dark," Debbie Jacobs' "Don't You Want My Love?", Ann-Margret's "Love Rush", La Flavour's "Mandolay", The Gibson Brothers' "Cuba", Patrick Hernandez's "Born To Be Alive," Barbara Law's "Take All Of Me", The Gibson Brothers' "Cuba" and just about anything by KC and The Sunshine Band . . . and there's a strong argument to be made that Disco music's successor, Hip-Hop, has as much Latin as African-American influence in it.

During the late 1990s, the United States saw numerous Latin music artists achieve mainstream popularity, and the fusion records they released brought the movement full circle. There can be little doubt that Ricky Martin's 1999 chart-topper "Livin' La Vida Loca" is Latin Rock; ditto for Carlos Santana's comeback hit "Smooth" from the same year. Periodic album releases from Los Super Seven (a shifting lineup of old-school Latin, Rock and Country performers) have featured a kind of New Wave Latin Rock that's heavily influenced by Mexican norteño music. With the San Angelo, Texas-based group Los Lonely Boys and genre-hopping Country singer Raul Malo carrying the fusion banner into the 21st Century, the future of Latin-influenced Rock'n'Roll seems secure . . . but what about its past?

Old records featuring the classic Habanera Rock sound still air regularly on a dwindling number of Oldies radio stations, and from time to time Rock historians write about them in a Brill Building Pop or Girl Group context. However, no one has ever really attempted to identify these records as a distinct Rock 'n' Roll subgenre until now. Music scholars need to recognize it as such! It's high time to acknowledge the profound importance of Spanish and Latin-American styles to our popular music tradition. Ritchie Valens and other early Latino rockers weren't cultural outsiders! They were insiders who contributed as much to the development of Rock'n'Roll as a Carl Perkins or a Chuck Berry did.

Many years ago, the great Jelly Roll Morton stated, "If you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish (music) in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning . . . for Jazz." At the Pop Culture Cantina, we believe those "Spanish tinges" he spoke of are just as essential when it comes to writing, playing and producing authentic Rock'n'Roll. Without Latin rhythms, or a reasonable substitute, a Rock record is bland and uninteresting. It's like Tequila without lime, paella without onions and garlic, tortilla chips without salsa. No tiene sabor . . . it lacks flavor!

Producers and songwriters in the 1960s knew what many of their counterparts today seem to have forgotten. Just like you need condiments at a cocktail bar, or a spice rack in the kitchen, you need Latin influences in American music. Otherwise, you end up with Rock that just doesn't have enough Roll! That winning combination of red with white and blue musical heritage makes all the difference.

Muchísimas gracias to Jeff Barry and Bobby Bloom for writing The Archies' hit "Sunshine", the first Habanera Rock song I ever fell in love with. Special thanks to Chuck Haddix, host of National Public Radio's "Saturday Night Fish Fry" for his invaluable assistance.
Dedicated to the memory of Jack Keller.

Cine Mexicano

Las Interesadas

Cuando Quiere Un Mexicano
The Wonderful World of Classic Mexican Cinema
by Donny Jacobs
Handsome and virile charros with smoking hot pistoles in both hands; snake-hipped México City temptresses wiggling to a frantic mambo beat; zany Spanish-speaking comedians whose rubbery facial expressions unfailingly provoke fits of laughter; hulking masked wrestlers rushing to the aid of busty Latin damsels in distress. A noisy arena for staging peleas de gallos. Young couples taking romantic gondola trips down the beautiful river canals of Xochimilco. A smoke-filled cantina jammed to the rafters with rowdy people throwing back shots of Tequila. Guitar-strumming mariachis serenading shy señoritas. Ancient Aztec mummies on the rampage! Fresh flowers laid at the feet of the Virgen of Guadalupe. ¡Qué viva la raza! Nothing but big sombreros, colorful serapes, white lace rebozos and bushy black bigotes as far as the eye can see. All this and more can be found in the fascinating films made in México during that country's Golden Age of Cinema, a twenty-year period that ran roughly from 1936 to 1956.

During the middle years of the 20th century, Mexican films were hailed across Latin America and the world for their style and quality. Before then, they were a pale shadow of their North-American counterparts. While the United States was producing many movies of high artistic value in the Silent Film era, México was still recovering from its bloody revolution of 1910-17. Under-funded and plagued by poor technical equipment, its film industry limped through the 1920s. Only after the first Mexican sound feature, Santa, was released in 1931 did fortunes begin to change. In 1936, millions flocked to Mexico City movie houses to see the first box office smash, Allá en el Rancho Grande. This film, directed by Fernando de Fuentes and starring Tito Guízar, established lighthearted rural stories filled with colorful folkloric references as a staple of Mexican cinema. The profits Rancho and other movies like it generated in the 1930s shifted México's nascent film colony into high gear. However, events following the outbreak of World War II in Europe would shift the colony into overdrive and officially usher in the Golden Age.

The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt began promoting cultural exchange with Latin America as part of its wartime Good Neighbor Policy. For México, this meant not only an increase in foreign aid, but partial funding of its film industry. Hollywood sent shipments of prime film stock, new equipment and technical experts who stayed for extended visits. During this period, the Mexican government began subsidizing film production as well. Buenos Aires had been Latin America's film capital in the 1930s, but the flush of Yankee cash allowed México City to claim that title between the years 1941 and 1945. The construction of Estudios Churubusco, the de luxe soundstage facilty where most of the great Mexican movies of the '40s and '50s were made, was a joint venture between México's Banco Nacional Cinematográfico and Hollywood's famous RKO motion picture company.

For many years, these studios were considered state of the art when it came to producing Spanish-language films. The Churubusco era saw several gifted Mexican film directors come to prominence, among them Emilio Fernández, Raúl de Anda, Juan Bastillo Oro, Fernando Soler, Miguel Zacarías and Ismael Rodríguez. Leading the way, however, was Spanish emigré Luis Buñuel, who won international acclaim for incorporating elements of surrealism into his pictures. Cameraman Gabriel Figueroa and others elevated México's standard of cinematography. The first full-length Mexican film to be shot in color, Así Se Quiere en Jalisco, appeared in 1942 (unfortunately, the color print has been lost). However, México became famous for its soft-focus black-and-white and smoky sepia-toned movies. Their breathtaking images rolled elegantly across the screen like polished Rolls Royce touring cars.

As they grew in popularity, Mexican films split off into seven or eight different categories. There were películas de folklore, films with heavy folkloric trappings that might be comedies, dramas or pageants. There were películas religiosas based on Bible stories, and películas historicas based on important events in Mexican history. Películas de cabaretera were a uniquely Mexican genre focusing on the lives and loves of cabaret singers and showgirls. These stories turned on themes of prostitution and organized crime, and usually ended tragically. There were películas de melodrama, characterized by over-the-top acting, white knuckle angst and endless sobbing; these films are the direct ancestors of the telenovelas that have recently come to dominate Spanish-language TV.

Películas myteriosas were mystery and horror films, and their motley assortment of maniacal murderers, mummies, vampires, scorpions and giant tarantulas proved quite popular internationally. Películas de comedia featured madcap humor and sight gags tailored to Latin-American tastes. In later years, the popularity of stories about lucha libre masked wrestlers and Zorro-style costumed heroes established an action film category called películas de aventura. There was crossover, of course, but the categories remained fairly distinct, and each claimed its own roster of stars.

Tito Guízar, who soon left the country to make film and concert appearances in the United States, was the first true Mexican film star. However, most of the major superstars didn't appear until the 1940s. Regal María Félix was the epitome of the fiera, a woman of fiery temperament who challenged men at every opportunity. She was nothing less than a Mexican Bette Davis. Holding forth in such notable melodramas as Río Escondido (1947), Maclovia (1948) and El Rapto (1953), she reigned as Mexico's greatest female star. Jorge Negrete (who later married Félix) was the noble yet hot-tempered singing charro. Negrete represented the ultimate symbol of Mexican tradition and machismo in folkloric films like El Fanfarrón (1938), Tal para Cual (1952) and the Cinecolor remake of Allá en El Rancho Grande(1948).

His successor Pedro Infante added to this characterization a bare-chested sex appeal and a little boy petulance that female fans went wild for. Blockbusters like Los Tres García (1946) vaulted him to fame, and the dramatic trilogy Nosotros los Pobres(1947), Ustedes los Ricos (1948) and Pepe el Toro (1952) made him a superstar. In such comedy films as Hay Muertos que No Hacen Ruido (1946) and El Rey del Barrio (1949), Germán "Tin-Tán" Valdés was the homely-but-lovable urban thug, a half-androgynous, half-macho clown who sported zoot suits, loved American Jazz and, despite his perpetually leering demeanor, always managed to win the girl. However, his best showcases were satirical tour de forces like La Marca del Zorrillo and Simbad el Mareado (both from 1950), where he and his sidekick Marcelo used brilliant musical comedy schtick to twist popular legends beyond recognition.

Mario Moreno "Cantinflas" Reyes, who was hailed as México's Charlie Chaplin, played a bumbling country bumpkin and comic provocateur in a series of highly successful films. Adalberto "Resortes" Martínez brought formidable dancing skills to bear on roles in comedic films like Rumba Caliente (1952). Ninón Sevilla, the Cuban-born enfant terrible of Mexican cabaretera films, was the strawberry-blonde bad girl with a bratty pout on her face; starring in movies with titles like Coqueta (1949) and Perdida (1950), she played the "fallen woman" who usually ended up dead . . . but not before slipping into a sequined Carmen Miranda costume and shaking her nalgas in a big production number!

Arriving at the tail end of the Golden Age, legendary wrestling champion Santo (Rodolfo Gúzman Huerta) became the undisputed king of lucha libre adventure flicks. Other box office draws included romantic leading man Arturo de Córdova (who also starred in North-American films), Rosa Carmina, David Silva, Pedro Armendariz (whose flawless English made him a natural for roles in Hollywood westerns), Lilia Prado, singer/actor Luis Aguilar, Antonio Badú, Sara García (in feisty matron roles), Hollywood imports Dolores del Río and Ricardo Montalbán (who became bigger stars in México) and the comic sidekick of countless films, Fernando "Mantequilla" Soto.

With México serving as the Hollywood of Latin-America during the 1940s, actors from countries far and near traveled there to make Spanish-language films. Some, like Argentina's Libertad Lamarque, Czechoslovakia's Miroslava Stern and Spain's Lola Flores and Sarita Montiel became major stars. Others, like Spokane, Washington-born exotic dancer Yolanda "Tongolele" Montés, landed mostly featured roles in the films of established stars like Tin-Tán. However, the icon who appeared on Mexican movie screens more than any other wasn't from Latin America or Europe. The Virgin Mary hailed from the Middle East! Classic Mexican films nearly always had strong Catholic overtones, and scenes of characters praying to la Virgen abounded. Often, such pious scenes would be followed by a hot mambo number!

There was no such thing as a Mexican musical, per se. That's because every film had music in it! You wouldn't sit long in a México City movie theatre before mariachis, mambo bands, guitar trios and/or bolero singers appeared on screen. There were always plenty of opportunities for singing stars like Pedro Vargas, Lola Beltrán, Toña la Negra, Miguel Aceves Mejía or Trío Los Panchos to get movie exposure. Cuban expatriate Pérez Prado, later to be known as America's Mambo King, had cameos in dozens of Mexican films, and he served as music director for dozens more. More often, though, musical direction was handled by native-born maestros like Manuel Esperón, Raúl Lavista, Antonio Diaz Conde or Agustín Lara.

The first husband of María Félix, Lara was the most acclaimed composer in México during the Golden Age. His music featured prominently in 1931's groundbreaking Santa. By no means handsome, but earnest and compelling on screen, he was also an actor who co-starred in numerous cabaretera flicks. The music and dance scenes Lara and others scored for Mexican films were elaborate and exciting; 90% were shot in black-and-white, but they rivaled Technicolor musical numbers produced by Hollywood studios in nearly every respect. (Someone should seriously consider marketing a series of Mexican That's Entertainment-style documentaries.) Members of the highly respected Ballet Folklorico de México appeared in many of these productions, but foreign dance troupes like José Greco and His Spanish Ballet or North America's Katherine Dunham Dancers might also show up unexpectedly on screen.

Mexican films during the Golden Age were far more violent and had much franker sexual content than their North-American counterparts. Female nudity began appearing as early as 1955. Dancing was suggestive and sometimes (gasp!) interracial. Alcoholism and drug abuse, both major taboos in 1930s and '40s Hollywood films, were depicted regularly. Some examples: In the 1941 film ¡Ay, Jalisco! No Te Rajes, Jorge Negrete puts a bullet through a man's head at close range. In the 1955 film Amor y Pecado, a man kisses a woman's crotch right after she injects heroin into her bare thigh! In the 1951 blockbuster A Toda Maquina, Pedro Infante comes very close to fondling a woman's breasts through her blouse. 1949's La Mujer del Puerto (originally filmed in 1933) includes a scene where a pimp proposes three-way sex between himself, a "john" and cabaretera María Antonieta Pons.

The most (in) famous classic Mexican film is arguably Ninón Sevilla's Mulata, in which dozens of nude women gyrate across the screen and Pedro Armendariz exposes a woman's breasts. There's occasional homo-eroticism, too, sometimes beneath the surface (in charro pictures) and sometimes explicit (in prison melodramas). Children and elderly people are victimized, beaten and/or killed. In addition, countless suicides, incestuous rapes, steamy bedroom seductions and grisly auto accidents are on display. Sex, violence and sensationalism are not legitimate reasons to see these films, however. They should be seen, and appreciated, for their wonderful Latin ambiance, their idyllic scenery, their dazzling musical sequences, and the highly-charged emotional performances from the actors.

Mexican film posters (carteles) are also worth seeking out. Garish but beautiful, classic Mexican one-sheets are a riot of color and motion. Standard elements are cartoon graphics, exaggerated facial expressions, sexy, semi-clad women, dramatic use of light and shadow, ghostly images haunting the background, traditional Mexican costumes, of course, and frequently, smiling skeleton heads (no doubt borrowed from Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations)!

Lobby cards with similar aesthetic attributes were produced as well. These stunning pieces of art outstrip most of their US counterparts in visual appeal; original copies of posters for films like Cuando Quiere Un Méxicano (1944), Doña Diabla (1949) Las Interesadas (1952) and El Mariachi Desconocido (1953) sell for hundreds of dollars on the collector's market. The most important Mexican poster artists were Ernesto García Cabrál, Francisco Rivero Gil, Juanino Renau Berenguer and his brother Josep, Juan Antonio Vargas Briones, Arias Bernal and José G. Cruz. Many others produced their work anonymously for advertising agencies like Ars-Una and Vargas. Sad to say, their names are forever lost to history.

Once the War ended, US funds to México began to dry up, as did shipments of free film stock. It signaled the beginning of the end of the Golden Age. It didn't have to end so soon, but the Mexican film industry had failed to re-invest its profits wisely. As serious a problem as that was, a worse one was the greedy and selfish business practices that had developed. What funding remained was largely pocketed by a small and powerful clique of producers. Profit, not creativity, became the main concern of these men. Projects by newer, younger talents were passed over, and fresh ideas were stifled. As a result, the product became stagnant and ticket sales dropped off.

Other major setbacks occurred in the '50s. The peso was devalued. The industry's biggest box-office star, Pedro Infante, burned to death in a 1957 airplane crash. Then television and Rock 'n' Roll music captured the imagination of the Mexican public, and ticket sales went into a nose dive. The last great film of the '50s is widely agreed to be Tizoc, starring María Félix and Pedro Infante. Filmed in 1956 and released after Infante's tragic demise, this tale of doomed interracial love won a raft of Mexican Oscars (Arieles), a Hollywood Golden Globe and a Silver Bear award from the Berlin International Film Festival. However, instead of being symbols of triumph, those awards ended up symbolizing nails in the coffin lid of the Mexican film industry. By 1958, three of Mexico City's most successful movie companies had gone out of business. Not unlike that aforementioned Aztec mummy, Cine Mexicano did manage to rise from the dead. Every now and then it produced another great movie, but forty years passed before quality Mexican films appeared again with any degree of consistency.

The Golden Age of Mexican cinema is long-gone, but the advent of home video and DVD technology makes it accessible to today's film buffs. Companies like Laguna Films and Alterfilms distribute many classic Mexican movies inside the United States. Most public libraries maintain a collection of Spanish and Latin-American DVDs and, depending on what part of the country you live in, so do many video stores. You can also catch Golden Age flicks on Spanish-language cable TV networks like Telemundo and Univisión. Don't worry if you can't speak Spanish; the action in these films is often so broadly drawn, you can follow the storyline without having to understand what the actors are saying. In addition, video and DVD boxes sometimes contain story synopses in English.

Try either version of Allá en El Rancho Grande, if you can find copies. Sample classic Mexican melodrama with 1948's Angelitos Negros, a Pedro Infante film that deals with sensitive racial issues. Rent 1956's Adan y Eva, and you can enjoy an authentic Biblical story with daring nude scenes! You'll catch Tin-Tán at his farcical best in 1947's Músico, Poeta y Loco. See the whiplash hips of Yolanda Montés take a star turn in 1948's Han Matado a Tongolele. Ninón Sevilla's 1950 box office smash Aventurera is a must-see movie, as is the Arturo de Córdova murder mystery El Hombre sin Rostro from the same year. 1952's Huracán Ramírez is one of the most famous of the masked wrestler adventure films. México Lindo y Querido may be the closest you'll ever come to finding a true Mexican musical; this 1958 movie (like Así Se Quiere en Jalisco, originally distributed in color) overflows with patriotic pageantry and traditional music.

Also recommended is the book Cine Mexicano(Chronicle Books, 2001), a collection of classic film poster reproductions taken from the Harlingen, Texas-based Agrasánchez Film archive. A fabulous 2002 calendar of the same title features 24 poster reproductions from the book, and is worth tracking down as well. Ven allá, amigo . . . ¡no seas un baboso! Don't be a gringo snob! Free your mind and your nalgas will follow. Persuade yourself to step outside of your own culture long enough to try something totally fresh and different. If you do, you may find yourself falling in love with the rustic charm, romantic passions, intoxicating music and Latin razzle dazzle that is classic Mexican cinema.

Cine Mexicano