Born Eduardo Guerrero Jr. on December 24, 1916, in Tucson, AZ; died on March 17, 2005, in Palm Springs, CA; married twice; children: two sons, one stepson, one stepdaughter.
Often called the "Father of Chicano Music," Lalo Guerrero enjoyed a 60-year career that in many ways paralleled the development of Mexican-American culture in the Southwestern United States. Other musicians from the region became bigger stars at various times, but none recorded music in the sheer profusion and variety that Guerrero did. Lalo Guerrero composed romantic ballads that became standards in Mexico. He recorded in Mexican regional as well as in tropical dance styles. He led swing bands that crossed over to popularity among European-American and African-American audiences in the Los Angeles area where he lived for most of his life. And he was a key figure in the Mexican-American pachuco youth culture that sprang up in Los Angeles during and after World War II. He recorded a string of hit parodies that cleverly pointed up the fault lines between Mexican and American cultures, and he composed corridos, traditional-style ballads of Mexican-American life. On top of all this, he is lovingly remembered as a children's musician. In the words of Mexican-American vocalist Linda Ronstadt, as quoted in Variety, "Lalo is the first great Chicano musical artist and the historian and social conscience of that community."
Eduardo Guerrero Jr. was born on December 24, 1916, in Tucson, Arizona, and grew up in the Barrio Viejo neighborhood there, called by the diminutive nickname Lalo in order to distinguish him from his father, who had emigrated to Arizona from La Paz in Mexico's Baja California state four years earlier. Guerrero was one of nine surviving children in the family; many other Guerrero children died when they were very young. "I suppose you could say we were poor, but we always had enough to eat and clothes to wear, because my father earned a good salary with the Southern Pacific railroad," Guerrero (speaking Spanish) told Antonio Mejias-Rentas of the Los Angeles newspaper La Opinión. His mother, Concepción, who loved to play and sing Mexican popular songs, taught him to play the guitar when he was a teenager.
During the Depression of the 1930s, Guerrero headed to Los Angeles and was quickly brought into a recording studio by producer Manuel Acuña, who spotted him on the street. It was the beginning of a career that lasted almost until Guerrero's death in 2005. Guerrero, who first learned English in school, admired American singer Bing Crosby and tried to sing in the crooner's style. But he found that American audiences at the time wouldn't give a fair chance to a pop singer of Mexican descent. In 1935 Guerrero traveled to Mexico City to record, having already written "Canción Mexicana" (Mexican Song), sometimes known as the unofficial Mexican anthem. The song became a hit after it was recorded by Lucha Reyes, and it found its way into the repertoires of mariachi bands everywhere. Another Guerrero composition, "Nunca Jamás" (Never Again), a hit for Guerrero himself in 1956, likewise became a standard repertoire item after it was recorded by the Trio Los Panchos, the great Mexican balladeer Javier Solis, and modern crooner José Feliciano, among many others.
But Mexican audiences likewise discriminated against the American-born Guerrero, whom they termed "pocho"---Americanized. Guerrero returned to the United States and formed a group called Las Carlistas, which performed at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Guerrero married his first wife, Margaret, that year. During World War II Guerrero worked in a bomber plant and led bands that entertained American troops, mixing swing sounds with popular Latin rhythms like the rumba and the mambo. He began recording for the Los Angeles label Imperial, a scrappy independent in touch with roots styles, and soon he became one of the prime movers behind pachuco music, a mostly Spanish-language variant of the highly charged rhythm-and-blues that was rock and roll's direct ancestor. Such Guerrero hits as "Chicas Patas Boogie" and "Marijuana Boogie" were later incorporated into the 1978 film Zoot Suit, set amid the disruptive World War II era.
With the hit song "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" (from the Disney Studios film Davy) riding high on pop charts in 1955, Guerrero recorded a Mexican-American version of the song, replacing the American frontiersman with a Mexican named Pancho Sanchez from the state of Chihuahua. The song gave Guerrero a gold record for sales of 500,000 copies after he re-recorded it in English, and it became the first of a string of hit Guerrero compositions that parodied earlier hits by other artists. "No Hay Tortillas" (There Are No Tortillas) was sung to the tune of Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never" (which was based on the Italian standard "O Sole Mio"), while "Pancho Claus" became a durable Southwestern holiday favorite. Some of Guerrero's parodies had a satirical thrust, such as "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Busboys" (a parody of the Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings country hit "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"), which pointed out that "jobs ain't easy to find, and they're harder to hold."
Another set of songs that made Guerrero a household name were those he recorded with his group Las Ardillitas (The Little Squirrels). Las Ardillitas sang in squeaking, electronically speeded-up voices like the popular Alvin & the Chipmunks, whose first recordings appeared in the same year as those of Las Ardillitas. Guerrero, in fact, was sued by the creators of the Chipmunks' concept, but Guerrero claimed that it was he who first devised the idea, and the suit was eventually dropped.
In the 1960s Guerrero operated a successful Los Angeles-area nightclub called Lalo's, then sold it in 1972 and moved to Cathedral City, California, near Palm Springs, with his second wife, Lidia. Retirement, however, was the farthest thing from his mind. Indeed, the music Guerrero made later in life was purpose-driven; beginning with pieces honoring slain presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and Chicano farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez, Guerrero often recorded corridos and other topical songs on contemporary themes. In the 1980s he wrote "La Mosca," the song used in a campaign to warn Californians about the threat posed to the state's agriculture industry by the Mediterranean fruit fly, and as late as 1996 he composed a theme song for the Latino Vote '96 election-year effort.
Continuing to forge a special bond with young listeners, Guerrero joined the Mexican-American rock group Los Lobos, whose members he had profoundly inspired, on the Grammy award-nominated children's album Music for Little People. His autobiography, Lalo: My Life and Music, co-written with Sherilyn Meece Mentes, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2002.
Until shortly before his death in Palm Springs on March 17, 2005, Guerrero was making new music; he recorded three songs for the 2005 Chavez Ravine album by guitarist Ry Cooder. Among Guerrero's many honors were his designation as a National Cultural Treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in 1980, and his National Medal of the Arts award in 1995. The California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives at the University of California at Santa Barbara includes a collection of Guerrero materials, which contain a wealth of untold stories about his music and about the lives of Mexican Americans in general.
by James M. Manheim
Lalo Guerrero's Career
Made recordings in Los Angeles and Mexico City, mid-1930s; with Los Carlistas, appeared at New York World's Fair, 1939; worked in bomber plant, San Diego, CA, and toured USA, 1941-45; recorded Latin boogie "pachuco" music for Imperial label, 1940s; recorded "The Ballad of Pancho Sanchez," 1955; recorded other parodies, 1950s-1960s; recorded corridos in traditional style; formed group Las Ardillitas (The Little Squirrels) and recorded children's music; wrote songs used in film Zoot Suit, 1978; with Los Lobos, recorded children's album Papa's Dream, 1985; with Sherilyn Meece Mentes, wrote autobiography, Lalo: My Life and Music, 2002.
Lalo Guerrero's Awards
National Cultural Treasure award, Smithsonian Institution, 1980; National Medal of the Arts, 1995.
- Selected discography
- (With Los Lobos) Papa's Dream 1985.
- Vamos a Bailar: Otra Vez with Lal Guerrero Break Records, 1999
- Lalo Guerrero: El Chicano Inolvidable Musiteca, 2002.
- Feliz Dí del Niño EMI Latin, 2004.
- Lalo Guerrero y Sus Ardillitas Dimsa-Orfeon, 2005.
- Guerrero, Lalo, with Sherilyn Meece Mentes, Lalo: My Life and Music, University of Arizona Press, 2002.
- Arizona Daily Star, December 23, 1996, p. B4; March 24, 2005, p. B1.
- La Opinión (Los Angeles, CA), July 27, 1992, p. D1.
- La Voz (Denver, CO), October 9, 1996, p. 2.
- Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2005, p. B10.
- New York Times, March 19, 2005, p. A13.
- Orange County Register, March 25, 2005, cover page.
- Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA), August 22, 2002, p. E1.
- Times Union, December 26, 2004, p. I3.
- Variety, March 28, 2005, p. 56.
- "'Father of Chicano Music' dead," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com (March 21, 2005).