European and African traditions only tell part of rock ‘n’ roll’s story. There are many ties to Mexico, as well, as the following gallery of notable Mexican-American musicians shows.
You’ll find early pioneers, including Ritchie Valens and the Sir Douglas Quintet, who served in lasting foundation roles. Artists like Carlos Santana, Robert Trujillo, and Dave Navarro infused the classic-rock genre with fire and intellect from the Woodstock era and the ’70s to end-of-the-century alt-rock through today.
? and the Mysterians and Thee Midniters gave the music a garage-band edge, while the Plugz and the Zeros stirred in punk attitude. Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt helped define the singer-songwriter era, one framing issues of social justice while the other told more personal tales. Later, Ronstadt turned more fully toward her Mexican heritage, releasing a series of well-received Spanish-language albums, including the double-platinum Canciones de Mi Padre.
Santana and Ronstadt, both members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, long ago earned their well-deserved recognition beyond moments at the top of the charts. Trujillo and Navarro remain vital parts of today’s rock scene. But too often the figures featured in the following gallery, as well as their legacies over the years, have been overlooked. Check it all out below, as we examine Mexican-Americans’ contributions to classic-rock history.
From the moment Santana plugged in, it was pure fire. Their leader and namesake, Carlos Santana, has had an incredible career of his own, but that legacy is built on the first three albums by the original band. Their appearance at Woodstock in 1969, and the subsequent film, blew more minds than we can count. Santana debuted a guitar style that was dynamic, powerful, and utterly unique, weaving blues, jazz, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, and Latin styles together in a way that had never been done before. With keyboardist Gregg Rolie, bassist David Brown, percussionist Michael Carabello and powerhouse drummer Michael Shrieve at the core, Santana made believers out of millions. Most of that original band reformed in 2016 to record a new album, Santana IV.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1977, the Plugz were contemporaries of bands like the Germs, Black Flag, and X. The band burst with frantic punk energy on its debut single “Move” and, by the second single “Electrify Me,” they were already incorporating elements of their heritage. Early on, they also covered “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens – who’s found elsewhere on our list of influential Mexican-American rockers. In 1984, the Plugz backed Bob Dylan for an appearance on ‘Late Night With David Letterman.’ That same year, the Plugz called it a day, but were quickly reborn as the Cruzados.
The paternal grandson of Mexican immigrants, Dave Navarro emerged as one of alternative rock’s most distinctive guitarists through stints with Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Along the way, he’s sat in with Tommy Lee, Glenn Hughes, and Nine Inch Nails. Navarro was also featured on the Guns N’ Roses song “Oh My God.”
Joan Baez moved around a lot when she was young, in part because of her Mexican-born father’s work with UNESCO – and that surely helped forge her musical perspective that combined folk-rock, pop, country, and gospel. She holds it all together to this day with a wondrous voice and an unwavering focus on promoting pacifism and equal rights.
Of all the great Chicano groups, Thee Midniters were among the wildest. Not for their lifestyles, but for an unhinged rock and soul that incorporated horns and Latin percussion, making a potent mix of garage-band ravings with Mexican flavor. Singles such as the stomping “Whittier Blvd.,” “Love Special Delivery” and “Jump Jive and Harmonize” were favorites in their native Los Angeles, but failed to make a dent nationally. The band’s cover of “Land of 1,000 Dances,” however, did break into the charts in 1967. Despite the lack of big hits, their legend has been kept alive by rabid fans over the years.
A veteran of the ’70s’ singer-songwriter era, Linda Ronstadt didn’t fully immerse herself in the music of her half-Mexican father’s culture until the Grammy-winning 1987 album ‘Canciones de Mi Padre.’ By then, however, she’d already scored plenty of platinum releases and discovered a little band called the Eagles.
Though they had been kicking around in some form since the mid-’70s, Los Lobos came into public view during the Los Angeles music explosion of the late ’70s and early ’80s. They fit right in as bands like X, The Blasters, and the Long Ryders made their marks with roots-conscious styles. With each new release, critics raved about Los Lobos’ mix of traditional Mexican sounds with pop, rock, soul, folk, and blues, and fans kept adding up. Their breakthrough, appropriately enough, arrived with an homage to Ritchie Valens when they covered “La Bamba” for the movie of the same name. That No. 1 1987 hit is just one highlight in a stellar journey that continues to this day.
Carlos Santana wasn’t the only guitarist in the family. Brother Jorge also played and formed Malo in 1970. Instead of merely following in his older brother’s footsteps, he took his own musical path. Malo operated with a full horn section and percussion ensemble, adding to the Mexican flavor. Less guitar-heavy, than Santana, and more centered on melodic songs, the band veered back and forth from a Chicano groove to straight-ahead pop. In 1972, they broke big with the Top 20 single “Suavecito,” their only visit to the chart.
? and the Mysterians
Rudy Martinez is one of the craziest characters in rock ‘n’ roll. Long before Prince changed his name to a symbol, Martinez became simply, and legally, ?. Hailing from Michigan, ? & the Mysterians were all of Mexican descent, a first for the pop charts. In the fall of 1966, the band topped the U.S. chart with the classic “96 Tears,” and its classic Farfisa organ riff. The song’s driving rhythm helped define teenage rock ‘n’ roll for many, inspiring countless garage bands throughout the years. They’ve since reformed, toured the world, and made new recordings.
It’s still sad to think that we lost not one, but two of rock ‘n’ roll’s early greats on one tragic day. The 1959 plane crash that took the life of Buddy Holly also claimed Ritchie Valens — both were early visionaries. In less than a year, Valens – who was born Richard Steven Valenzuela – had five charting singles, including the smash hits “Donna” and “La Bamba.” From gentle ballads to all-out rockers, Valens had it covered. Fifteen or so years later, the Ramones would take the blueprint of “Come On Let’s Go,” crank up the volume, and inspire a new generation to rock. Valens was only 17 when he died.
The Champs burst onto the music scene with their debut single “Tequila,” which topped the Billboard chart for five weeks in early 1958. Seven more hits followed over the next four years, but they never again reached No. 1. Ultimately, it didn’t matter: “Tequila” took on a life of its own over the years, featured in countless commercials, TV shows and movies. Written by the band’s sax player, Danny Flores, “Tequila” was originally the B-side of the Champs’ first single, a fairly standard ’50s rock ‘n’ roll instrumental. Fans and disc jockeys flipped the record over, and “Tequila” became the hit.
Of both Mexican and Native American descent, Robert Trujillo rose to fame with Suicidal Tendencies before becoming Metallica’s bassist. He originally met his future bandmates during a tour in which they shared the bill in 1993. Trujillo was also a member of Ozzy Osbourne’s band in the ’90s.
Formed in 1985 out of the ashes of the Plugz, Cruzados refined the approach into a more commercial rock ‘n’ roll sound. Their 1985 self-titled debut had critics raving, but sales never added up. A nod to their Mexican roots became less pronounced, though never fully abandoned. Cruzados made only two albums, as various members ended up working with everyone from Social Distortion to Roger Daltrey and Neil Young.
Sir Douglas Quintet
A blended group, the Sir Douglas Quintet helped build a foundation for the Tex-Mex sound. The band originally hailed from San Antonio, but their early recordings failed to turn heads. A move to California in the mid-’60s finally led them to gold with “She’s About a Mover.” That organ-driven rocker gave a taste of what the band was about, and subsequent songs such as “Mendicino” would feature stronger elements of their distinct Tex-Mex style. Key members Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers later formed the Texas Tornados with roots legend Freddy Fender in the ’90s, earning a Grammy along the way. Sahm and Fender have since died, but Meyers keeps the flame alive.
Another band with ties to Los Angeles’ punk scene, the Zeros signed to Bomp! Records in 1977 and then issued the single “Don’t Push Me Around” backed with “Wimp.” A couple more Ramones-influenced singles followed before they disbanded. Guitarist Robert Lopez would reinvent himself as El Vez, performing an Elvis Presley tribute act of sorts that merged the King, his Mexican roots, and a dash of punk. Check out his version of “Feliz Navidad,” where Lopez mixes in some Public Image Ltd. for good measure.
Whatever happened to these guys? Alice Bowie – a musical alter ego of comedians Cheech and Chong performing with Canadian artist Gaye Delorme – stormed the music world back in 1974 with the Top 10 hit single “Earache My Eye.” Later, the song was covered or referenced by the likes of Soundgarden, Rush, and Gov’t Mule – among many others – though no one could ever quite capture the riffy hilarity of the original.