I thought I knew the story of Los Lobos (formerly known as Los Lobos del Este – after the famed norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, or Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, which is a mouthful). These guys got together at Garfield High in East LA, the alma mater of my late friend David Okuma. While they were rock and roll fans, they began playing traditional music for their mothers before electrifying and hitting the big time for a short period. While still playing 50 years later, they have not reclaimed their fame of the mid-80s – our loss.
What I didn’t know was the guy who brought them together: their original lead singer, who played harp and mandolin. Francisco (then known as Frank) Gonzáles left the band in 1975, before their first self-released recording Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (Just another band from East L.A.) in 1978, but not before local PBS affiliate KCET aired a video of the band. (The album was re-released on CD in 2000.)
Gonzáles first teamed up with César Rosas, then added David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, and Conrad Lozano. He left the group in 1976, according to the LA Times, to continue to play traditional music. He went on to become musical director of El Teatro Campesino and found a company to make strings for traditional instruments.
Los Lobos made only one major personnel change after that. In 1984 Steve Berlin left The Blasters to join Los Lobos after joining them onstage at the Whisky A Go Go, where Los Lobos had opened for The Blasters. Berlin had appeared on the 1983 Los Lobos EP “…And a Time to Dance”.
David introduced me to the EP in 1983 and gave me a copy when he saw how much I liked it. In 1988 he called and asked me to meet him in Monterey, CA for a concert with Los Lobos, David Lindley, and the Grateful Dead. He didn’t have to ask twice. The fact that he had backstage passes was just icing on the cake. A Los Lobos concert at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco was the site of my first date with my future wife that fall.
They released the critically-acclaimed “How Will the Wolf Survive?” in 1986. (The single “Will the Wolf Survive?” reached #26 on the Billboard rock chart and Waylon Jennings’ cover reached #5 on the country chart.) My favorite, “By the Light of the Moon” (which I consider their masterpiece), followed in early 1987. Neither the critics nor the record-buying public agreed with me, though Ted Cox, in the “Chicago Reader”, agreed at least in part when he said ” By the Light of the Moon is an album that asks the big American questions.”
The film “La Bamba” (starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens – real name Valenzuela but changed for crossover appeal) was released six months later and catapulted Los Lobos to fame when the Valens family recruited them to perform Valens’ music. The soundtrack album reached #1 on the charts. They followed up with the all-acoustic and mostly traditional “La Pistola y El Corazón”. While winning a Grammy (for “Best Mexican-American Performance”), it probably skewered their chances of a major career as a rock band. (Of note, they previously won this Grammy for “Anselma” from the EP “…And a Time to Dance”. Other winners in the category include Flaco Jiménez – an acknowledged influence on Hidalgo’s accordion playing, Los Tigres del Norte, and Los Super Seven, which featured members of Los Lobos.)
With the changes evident from the first two videos above, it should be clear that Los Lobos were not ones to rest on their laurels. They teamed with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake to take their sound in a new direction. “Kiko” was both a critical and (minor) commercial success in 1992. They released the children’s album “Papa’s Dream” in 1995 and wrote and performed the score for the Robert Rodriguez film “Desperado” (starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek). The members of Los Lobos appeared on the albums of Los Super Seven, which also featured Flaco Jiménez, Rick Treviño, Freddy Fender, Ruben Ramos, and others. Los Lobos continues to record and perform today. The title track to their 2015 album “Gates of Gold” was dedicated to the memory of our mutual friend David Okuma.