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A Change of Key : Cars and '60s fun were once Little Willie G.'s musical emphasis. Now he uses songs to help drug addicts.

August 13, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Let's take a trip down WHITTIER BOULEVARD!"

As lead singer of East L.A.'s Thee Midnighters, Little Willie G. shouted that party cry during the mid-'60s, when cruising lacked the element of risk it can carry today.

"It was a great period," said the 50-year-old singer, who was born Guillermo Antonio Garcia. "Everybody was marking their territory a little bit, but there wasn't the violent gangs that are happening today. Music, cars and girls is what it was really all about. The boulevard was a place to meet and express our likes and dislikes, our mutual ideas, listen to music. It was a great time."

Garcia has seen that change dramatically in the three decades since Thee Midnighters, along with Cannibal & the Headhunters and the Premiers, were part of a vibrant Latino rock scene in the Southland.

A recovered heroin addict who saw his life, and career, bottom out during the '70s because of drug abuse, Garcia became a Christian and a minister who uses his music as part of his work with troubled youths.

Through the evangelical Victory Outreach church, Garcia now spends much of his time on the street, working one-on-one with gang members, drug addicts and prostitutes.

"I do a lot of work with the California Youth Authority, and I know that if I don't see these kids in a rehab home or in church, I'm going to see these same faces going through the [court] system in a few months. That's the tragedy--they have no place to go.

"It's painful to see so many young lives going to waste," he said. "These kids have so much potential, but until we have the support of local, city and county officials to go in and do something constructive, we're just scratching the surface."

He also still sings just for fun, as he'll be doing Wednesday when he opens for El Chicano at the Long Beach Museum of Art's summer outdoor concert series. For such shows, he mixes gospel music with rock oldies, including that horn-drenched instrumental rave-up "Whittier Boulevard" and "Land of 1000 Dances," which Thee Midnighters recorded well before Wilson Pickett made it a national smash.

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"We did that song first," Garcia said. "Then Cannibal started doing it in his shows. He's the one that made the 'Na, na na na na' catch phrase popular with that song. He just forgot the lyrics and ad-libbed it.

"As for Wilson, he was a trip," he said. "He always covered us. We did a version of Solomon Burke's 'Everybody Needs Somebody' and he covered our version of that too. That kind of knocked us out of the box. We had some regional success, but when he released that, it blew us out of the water."

Thee Midnighters--"Thee" was chosen to avoid confusion with Hank Ballard's backup group, the Midnighters--were all boyhood pals who attended East L.A.'s Salesian High School and locked into the burgeoning Latino rock 'n' roll scene of the '60s.

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Despite their local success with "Whittier Boulevard" and "Land of 1000 Dances," Thee Midnighters never got much play beyond the West Coast, and so never developed a national following.

Garcia left the group in 1969 to pursue greener pastures. Thee Midnighters' original bassist, Jimmy Espinosa, has kept the name alive to this day with a revolving lineup of players.

In the '70s, Garcia fronted Wag, which headlined various clubs in L.A., after which he sang with God's Children, probably best remembered for providing the theme song for the ABC-TV series "Matt Lincoln."

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Garcia joined Malo, another California Latino rock group that featured Carlos Santana's brother, Jorge, playing guitar. Malo had scored a Top 20 hit with "Suavecito," but was on the decline by the time Garcia joined in 1974. He toured with the group a year before it split up.

It was at this time that Garcia's life went into a tailspin.

"I started getting deep in trouble with drugs," he said. "I slowly became a coke addict and from there moved on to heroin. It was a big disappointment, not getting a hit with Malo.

"I went downhill for four years," he said. "I was still working, doing jingles and stuff, but the energy and enthusiasm to try and make it seemed to elude me as I got more and more into the drug thing."

In 1980, Garcia became a Christian and hasn't looked back. Today, he considers himself an evangelist by trade. He has recorded an album of original gospel songs that will be released on the independent Orchard Records label next month, but his primary passion remains helping people in trouble.

"Until they turn their lives over to their Lord Jesus Christ, I don't see an out for them," Garcia said. "They have no future and that's frightening. You or I could cross their path on a bad day and become the recipient of the anger they have pent up."

* Little Willie G. opens for El Chicano on Wednesday at the Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd. 7 p.m. $8 to $11. (310) 439-2119.

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