Thee Legendary Midniters were among the first rock bands to openly sing about Chicano themes.
Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, Hispanic News Online
Edited By, Mariam Salarian
When you think of Old School authentic Chicano soul music the first name that comes to mind is Thee Midniters.
The band was one of the first Chicano (Mexican-American) rock bands to have a major hit in the United States and without question one of the best known acts to come out of East Los Angeles in the 1960’s
Their cover of the tune, "Land of a Thousand Dances", and the instrumental track, "Whittier Boulevard" in 1965, hit high up the record charts and catapulted the band into the national spotlight almost overnight.
Thee Midniters were among the first rock acts to openly sing about Chicano themes in songs such as "Chicano Power" and "The Ballad of César Chávez" in the late 1960’s. Hit songs also included, “Sad Girl”, “The Town I live in” and “That’s All”. The band was originally promoted by Dick "Huggy Boy" Hugg on local radio station KTYM, then later on KRLA.
One of the first to integrate horns, the band’s unusual combination of trombone, sax, congas, keyboards and electric guitars produced a sound in the same vein as Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
Thee Midniters shared the stage with such notable acts as The Supremes, The Doors, The Turtles, Herman’s Hermits, Van Morrison, The Coasters, and The Drifters in addition to Latin acts such as Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and Jose Feliciano. They performed all the major venues including The Rose Bowl, The Greek Theater, Caesar’s Palace, and The Kennedy Center, just to name a few.
Highly professional and musically sophisticated compared to the surf bands of the day (they were largely school-trained), Thee Midniters were regarded in the East LA of the 1960’s as The Beatles on a smaller scale , though they sounded (and still sound) more like a big, soul-gospel review group with a hefty dose of salsa.
Thee Midniters continue to be impressive with a Greatest Hits CD, and the willingness to make new music and continue bringing the music to the people.
Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez had a unique opportunity to speak with Midniter founding member Jimmy Espinoza, who said he was proud to be a part of “Thee Midniters”. The band’s successful body of work includes 5 albums and 25 singles.
AC: Tell us about your family, where did you grow up?
JE: I was born in Boyle Heights, East L.A., at Lincoln Hospital on Soto Street. We Lived across the Street from Roosevelt High School on 4th Street. My mom, Grace Espinoza, was my lifesaver. She worked very diligently and sent my brother and I to St. Mary's school.
We then attended Salesian High School, unbeknownst to anyone that Salesian High School's Music Department would be fertile soil for the later East L.A. rock scene. Mom was a beautiful woman, stunning inside and most certainly outside!
SHE STILL LIVES AND SINGS IN MY HEART! Thanks Mama (I will be writing an autobiography soon too many "Nuggets" to pass up!)
AC: What did you listen to as a kid? When did you realize that you loved music? Did your parents encourage you?
JE: I was listening to music from the roaring 20’s to the late 50’s due to radio and T.V. resources media formats Xavier Cugat, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Elvis Presley, Spade Cooley, Ina Ray Hutten, Frankie Avalon, Ricky Nelson, The Everly Brothers, Frankie Valle and the 4 Seasons. Mostly what radio stations KRLA, KFWB and KGFJ were formatting as their Top 40. As far as realizing my love for music, it was a homogenous process of me finding cool expression of self, musically, which really addresses all the emotions. Yes, my parents encouraged me.
AC: What was school like? What kind of a student were you? Any other interests aside from music? Sports?
JE: I loved both St. Mary's and Salesian High School. I believe that my Catholic education grounded me for later challenges in life. I was an average to B+ student but that was all purposeful. I basically absorbed some good spiritual guidance and got an investigative education to boot!
AC: Can you remember your first performance, what was that like what did you sing?
JE: Yes, Johnny Gamboa and the Crowns. He recruited me to be a backup singer and bongo player and I accepted. He was the man, very popular and with me in the band? It was way too cool! We did a gig at the American Legion Hall in Montebello, he had taught me the 50’s song, "Just Because" by Larry Williams. He turned to me and said, "This is it! Go!” Center stage, full horn section, sold out show. I was scared because I thought of myself as a backup singer, bongo player, ya know? I sang! What a rush! It was Intoxicating. I later realized that Johnny had seen something in me that just needed development. He is still my guru and best friend today! Thank you John!
AC: Are you the founder of the Group?
JE: Thee Midniters was an amalgamation of a group of East L.A., CYO Club and local high school music affiliations of a series of talented musicians. Although teens were music savvy! The band emerged to be Thee Midniters, the recording group. East L.A.’s finest! There really was no founder. Truth is we found each other and our chemistry trail blazed us to great heights and the story is still unfolding...for "Tommy Tomorrow" is with me!
AC: Tell us about the original members and what they each brought to the table?
JE: Well that is a broad question! The band was a melting pot, a buffet of black soul, R&B, British R&R, Gospel, Jazz and Latin a la New York and Puerto Rico. Trombonist, arranger, Romeo Prado and Sax man Larry Rendon and I shared a love of Jazz, Latin, Big Band, Sinatra, Bennett, Mathis, with some Tito Puente, and Cal Tjader for flavoring. Willie Garcia brought to the table the Black R&B soul sounds of lush steamy ballad love songs. Roy Marquez, rhythm guitarist, Danny LaMont, bad ass drummer and myself loved the English sound and the surf sound (La Mont and I had been in an East L.A. Surf band called The "Vesuvians".) but we also loved the studio jazz bands like Doc Severinson and Buddy Rich.
George Dominguez, lead guitar, was a natural. He could play every style and absorbed, as did the Band, the contemporary sounds of the day, but we did it or expressed ourselves on our own terms. Ronnie Figueroa, organist and keyboards (Albums 1 and 2) was classically trained and brought an intellect to the band although very understated, this was an offset to his zany "Arriba Ribba" and "Grito" opening on the song “Whittier Blvd.”.
AC: What was your vision for the band? Whose career did you want to emulate?
JE: We sought stardom. I believe that all of us wanted to make it, like the Beatles or Elvis. Each contributing band member had a similar core desire, live your dream!
AC: What kinds of tunes did you do in your set?
JE: As most bands, we did the hits of the day, Motown, Surf, R&R, R&B, and soul music of the early 60’s. That was the popular thing to do. This is what made Thee Midniters different, because we had our own way of musical expression. It was truly our own sound. Many East L.A. bands honored us by adapting "Thee" to their band name, way too cool! We covered songs from Frank Sinatra to James Brown, Henry Mancini, Stan Kenton and Big Bands along with New York Salsa Bands stirred in our musical senses. The first album featured "Whittier Blvd." and as we continued to record we added more original material.
AC: Would you call what you did Chicano Soul music?
JE: No, that terminology was coined after the band had its heyday. I suppose in retrospect you could label it that way, but in 1965 we were on the charts with all the greats! The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra. We covered “Strangers in the Night”, Sonny and Cher, Glenn Campbell, all of them. We were artists, musicians, singers, producers, songwriters, entertainers, celebrities, stars in our own right. Certainly in The City of the Angels, "The Town I Live In", I would offer that in my opinion, these labels are a closer description of our music output. This is why they called it the sizzlin’ sixties. Lots of freedom and growth occurred globally.
AC: When was your first break, how did it come about?
JE: Thee Midniters performed at East Los Angeles College at a Salesian Rock and Roll Show. Our song, “Land of a 1000 Dances” was recorded live to hundreds of screaming girls. KRLA DJ "Huggy Boy" gave “Land of 1000 Dances” its first L.A. exposure and it went on to chart nationally. The feeling was absolutely euphoric; we were living our dream in East Los Angeles!
AC: Who were the primary song writers, did you write from the East L.A. Chicano experience?
JE: Willie Garcia, Jimmy Espinoza, Larry Rendon, Romeo Prado, but really the whole band had everything to do with our songs being very well received, if not hit records. We were good at interpretations, like Sinatra and approached the songs with honesty and integrity like the Chairman of the Board.
AC: Which songs do you never tire of performing?
JE: Our Version of "That’s All" is still a favorite in many markets. We wrote from an artist, musician, poet of life experience, no borders, no prisoners! (e.g. the "Ballad of Caesar Chavez") We do all of the tunes in Thee Midniters Boxed Set Limited Edition, which is now available.
AC: What would you say is the best gig you ever played what was that like?
JE: The Rose Bowl Concert Pasadena, California in 1965 sponsored by radio station KRLA. With 38,000 fans in attendance, the first concert to be held with this attendance turn-out. The bill included Herman's Hermit's, Lovin' Spoonful, and Bobby Fuller Four. The Turtles and Thee Midniters. This was a very exciting high point in our careers and we knew we made it!
We later produced our own L.A. shows; we actually hired acts like Steppenwolf, Van Morrison, The Chantels, and Johnny Guitar Watson. Producing shows was a good endeavor, successful and fun.
AC: Do you think that the British invasion of the late 60’s put a damper on your career?
JE: Not at all, we were riding the crest of it all, absorbing it all internalizing all of it. It was our invasion just as much as a British invasion. We were in the mix! Very exciting times.
AC: What about your Grammy nomination?
JE: Great Honor, just being nominated blew our socks off! No sour grapes at the awards night, everyone was there, all the nominees and the stars of the day. Recording artists to movie stars, to music producers to record CEOs it was intoxicating.
We were recognized by industry standards and that was and still is quite something.
AC: Best gigs?
JE: Hard to say, so many great venues, The Rose Bowl, Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood Palladium Gigs, all were very exciting to places and significant to our rising careers
AC: What happened after ‘69 for the Midniters? Did you break up? Was the band affected by fame and fortune?
JE: Yes after 1969, Camelot was over, the band was greatly affected by fame and stolen fortunes. Common for 60's groups without proper honest management or legal backup geared to the artist’s best interests! It has been traditionally the opposite.
AC: What kinds of things have you done while the Midniters were sidelined from the music business? I understand you become involved in Classical Music?
JE: I have always been involved in my continuing music education and have been a professional musician, self-employed as an artist, bassist, singer, and entertainer for well over forty years. I did and still do music consulting, teaching and session work.
Performing with L.A.’s finest club acts. The Playboy Club Circuit, Harrah's Reno and Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, Cruise ships. I am grateful for all of it. Now to connect all these dots and assume the position to the toppermost of the poppermost…
AC: I understand you play classical?
JE: Yes, I was First Chair Bassist at Cal-State L.A. Symphony Orchestra. I studied the upright bass with Ray Brown, famous Jazz Poll winner, Ralph Pena, another great bassist, studio jazz musician with Frank Sinatra. I studied classical bass with James Ammond, bassist, Pasadena Symphony Orchestra. I later became bassist for the Gerald Wilson Jazz Orchestra. Legendary jazz trumpeter for about two years playing the world famous Shelly's Manne Hole in Hollywood.
I studied voice, Bel-Canto (Italian system taught at La Scala, Milano, Italia) and became a professional teacher, trainer, coach and vocal producer. I thank God for all the inspiration to "Keep on Keeping On" and my efforts are aimed at leaving a legacy to be proud of.
AC: Why do you think the Midniters were not a real commercial act, like many of your contemporaries?
JE: We actually were commercial in my opinion. We did have limiting management. When the time comes to multiply your gains and go national and international stronger and also you need savvy management and a good publicist!
AC: What do you think the biggest misconception of the Midniters is?
JE: I might say that the band was primarily a Chicano band. It wasn't. I might say that the band was and is an American Root's Rock n' Roll Pop phenomenon with black, R&B, Gospel, Jazz and Big Band influences and not a Chicano Soul music experience only. It is certainly true we fit that label today, with the term Chicano in today's marketplace being in common usage such as the Chicano Soul Legends Concerts that we perform on working with the legendary L.A. DJ Art Laboe. He is famous for his "Oldies But Goodies" Record Company..."Original Sounds"...and ever popular radio "Request and Dedications" Show.
This show is very popular with Chicanos everywhere and that would mean Mexican Americans. American Mexicans, however you choose to slice it centered on la 1950's to1960’s culture and the old school sound, Doo-wop, Soul and R&B Love Ballads.
|Little Willie G (Willie Garcia)|
AC: There was a time a few years ago when The Midniters became more of a Christian act, can you tell us about that spiritual renaissance?
JE: Original singer, songwriter Willie Garcia is a Minister of the Gospel, an Evangelist at Victory Outreach Ministry and Willie G Ministries. He re-joined the group from 2003 to 2008. We played our catalogue and included Christian material from Willie's repertoire. We performed at many Christian functions and performed our hits as well. It would be welcomed in some circles and frowned upon in some who wanted a more organic Thee Midniters delivery.
AC: What kinds of things are you involved in and is there any chance of new music?
JE: To market the band nationally and internationally and perform at the major venues and reintroduce the band and connect the dots to this band's amazing creative force as an American Roots Rock Band. "Whittier Blvd." is the ultimate car cruising, party rock, surf pop song. Relevant in Any town, U.S.A., but with a catalogue of music history reflecting society’s norms, values and lifestyles and many influences of the sizzlin’ sixties.
AC: I understand you have your own media company?
JE: Yes. I have a music performing arts production and consulting company. The Stargate Entertainment Group, firstname.lastname@example.org, working with industry professionals. We are creating new visions, business opportunities, and venture capital with products and services catering to the Hispanic market in California and the southwestern states. This is a demography I helped create as an artist and successful recording musician, bassist, singer, songwriter producer. I have three new cd's in the works.
AC: New Music?
JE: One new from Thee Midniters...and two solo projects in English and Spanish some interest in filming my colorful art walk!
AC: What are some things still on your bucket list?
JE: Bucket list? Here goes, Campaign Manager for a politician who can't be bought. Record live at Martha's Vineyard produced by Paul McCartney. Have Donald Trump invest in The Stargate Entertainment Group to empower the rising populace of Hispanics in the USA, a good political move while creating jobs. Have a Jimmy Espinoza Disneyland E-Ticket ride created by Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, and finally, sing at the White House…
Me, Gracie’s kid! How's That?
In all honesty, I am currently dematerializing paradigms (histories of oppression that aren't beneficial to our rich culture) and installing a new technology of software that will create an artistic legacy of pure music art and entertainment to uplift all its recipients, this is what I do and love.
AC: What would you like your legacy to be?
JE: To be remembered as a brother and friend and thank you for the opportunity to tell my story! Blessings to all! To the People! Jimmy Espinoza, Artist.