I’ve been looking for El Chicano’s first record, Viva Tirado, for years. It finally turned up in the dollar bin at The Thrift Box, a thrift store in the Willow Glen area of San Jose, CA. The LP (Kapp KS 3632) is all instrumental covers.
I’ve always loved the hit from this LP, Viva Tirado (penned by Gerald Wilson), but for some reason, I didn’t buy it as a teenager when it was released in 1970. After just one listen to this LP, I realized what I had been missing. I instantly gravitated towards Mickey Lespron’s guitar work. You don’t know Lespron? If you’ve heard jazz icon and guitarist Wes Montgomery’s octave chording, you know what Lespron is like. OK, he isn’t Wes, but I can’t think of another guitarist in pop-rock history who even remotely comes as close as Lespron. Like Montgomery, he is very, very melodic.
Playing the same notes one octave apart is harder than it looks, believe me, I’ve tried. It’s less about speed, more about tasteful licks that seem to grab you, and me.
There are lots of LPs from the 50s and 60s that are guitar dominated covers of hits, showtunes, and TV themes. They’re cool, but El Chicano’s covers are different. Even when Lespron is simply playing the notes of the melody, the octave chording takes those notes beyond the sheet music. The band is tight groove-jammin’ in ways that guitarists like Billy Strange or Al Caiola never do. El Chicano was club tested. They recorded the LP after hours at a L.A. restaurant/club, the Kabuki, where they felt comfortable, after all.
And of course, it’s the band’s Mexican-American roots that further separate them from a typical cover band. Ersi Arvizu’s tambourine, scratch and maraca; Andre Baeza’s congas; and John DeLuna’s jazz-derived drumming drive the tunes in ways that we just hadn’t heard on the radio much back in the 60s, with the exception of Santana. For me, it still sounds fresh.
Then there is Bobby Espinosa’s Hammond B3 playing. Very melodic and listenable. Hurt So Bad is a good example. Espinosa leads off with the melody line, but when Lespron’s guitar steps in, Espinosa doesn’t chop at the keyboard, he plays background chords continuously, smoothly, without interfering. The tune doesn’t fade out at the end, instead it closes the song with 25 seconds of the Doors’ Light My Fire, a great way to pump up the tempo and close on an upbeat note. Smart. Would love to have heard a full version of LMF!
Some people don’t like organ music and sometimes it can be pretty hokey, but not here. I think you can get lost in his playing if you just close your eyes and listen. This LP is close to jazz, but I don’t know if the youth of the era thought of it that way or not. I just recall the title tune being the epitome of some kind of cool that I was too young to understand, but gravitated towards anyway. El Chicano’s cover of jazz pianist Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island is a good example of that.
The song is a great venue for both Espinosa and Lespron to show off their ability to solo without boring, and to sit back while the other guy solos, too. It’s never a war between competing soloists. It just melds.
Coming Home Baby starts with Lespron and Espinosa playing the melody notes in unison. Espinosa takes the right channel lead and works his way through a thoughtful solo. Lespron’s guitar work on this tune foreshadows the band’s second LP, Revolucion. No octave chording on his solo here. Much more reminiscent of something Carlos Santana would play, burning with speed and intensity not heard on the other songs.
Instrumentals haven’t made the charts much beyond the era of the 60s and 70s. What a shame. If you can’t find this LP, CD versions of this LP and others are available on the band’s website only. Viva vinyl!
Got 53 seconds? Here are four tunes from the LP.
Revolucion: MCA-69 (also available as Kapp KS 3640). The band changes direction. Vocals this time, and Lespron, playing less octave chords, burns it up. Hard to find LP, cool cover!