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A Contented Little Willie G., Still the Pride of East Los Angeles

Pop Beat * New album from a former member of Thee Midniters blends elements of Latin and rock.

March 25, 2000|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let's take a trip down Olympic Boulevard.

More than three decades ago, Little Willie G.'s invitation involved Whittier Boulevard, a few main drags to the north. That's when he sang for Thee Midniters, part of a cadre of bands that brought both cultural pride and rock 'n' roll to the Mexican American community of East Los Angeles.

And sometimes beyond. "Land of 1000 Dances" made the national singles charts in versions by both Thee Midniters and friendly rivals Cannibal & the Headhunters. Midniters regional hits included "Sad Girl," "The Town I Live In" and the cruising celebration "Whittier Boulevard."

Willie G., who was widely regarded as the best singer on that thriving scene, is now walking down an alley off of East Olympic, pointing out improvements. "This used to be all owned by B.F. Goodrich," he says, beaming like an alderman as he indicates the fancy Tamayo restaurant on one corner and a big office building across the street.

"Willie is like a legend around here," says his manager, Gene Aguilera, as the singer stops to pose for a photographer. "A guy in a truck just honked and said, 'Hey, I know you, how's it going?' Things like that."

Willie Garcia, dressed in black and looking 10 years younger than his age of 53, has an air of intense contentment as he sits down for an interview in a conference room in the Olympic Boulevard office building. It flows from a religious calling that yanked him out of drug addiction 20 years ago. He's been a minister for Victory Outreach International in La Puente since 1984.

But he's still a singer, and he's just released his first secular recording since 1974, when he sang with the band Malo on its "Ascension." The new album, "Make Up for the Lost Time" on HighTone Records, is a set of smooth, traditional R&B that includes new versions of four Midniters songs and material associated with Aretha Franklin, Bobby "Blue" Bland, the Miracles and Bobby Womack.

But "Make Up" is more than Little Willie G.'s return to the fray--it's a meeting of Latin-rock generations. The record was produced by Los Lobos member David Hidalgo.

Hidalgo was too young to attend dances and concerts in those days, but he felt Thee Midniters' impact anyway.

"There were so many bands around East L.A. that looked up to those guys," he says in a separate interview. "We'd see them on TV, hear them on the radio. That was real exciting. . . . They were famous but they were from our side of town--it was like, 'This is cool.' There was a pride thing with that." The admiration is mutual. Garcia, who grew up in South-Central but attended East L.A.'s Salesian High School, where Thee Midniters formed in the music department in the early '60s, especially values Lobos' early, folkloric recordings.

Though Garcia was exposed to traditional Latin music at home, it wasn't a big part of Thee Midniters' sound, which emphasized rootsy rock 'n' roll and R&B, with touches of the British Invasion and a penchant for ballads such as "Strangers in the Night" and "Yesterday." Garcia was a big fan of Sinatra, Bennett and Mathis as well as Little Richard, Jesse Belvin and Jackie Wilson.

"We were a fun band," says Garcia, who reunited with Thee Midniters (active again under original member Jimmy Espinoza) last year for two fund-raisers to benefit a Salesian High scholarship fund. "We really enjoyed what we did. As far as the diversity, it wasn't anything that we planned. If we liked a song we just did it. . . . I get a kick out of some of the descriptions of us as a garage band, pre-punk. We didn't know that we were doing that. We were just having fun."

That eclecticism led Garcia down some surprising paths after Thee Midniters disbanded in 1969: hanging out on the Sunset Strip to check out the Byrds, the Doors and Buffalo Springfield, playing solo at such folk clubs as the Ash Grove and the Troubadour, recording demos for Steve Allen. In the early '70s his group, God's Children, sang the theme song of the Vince Edwards TV series "Matt Lincoln," and he spent a year with the Bay Area Latin rock band Malo, fronted by Jorge Santana, Carlos' brother.

Then he came back to L.A. and spiraled into cocaine, heroin and alcohol.

"I just abandoned my dreams, my goals," he says. "I just started getting into the dark side of things, and drug addiction pretty much won over at that point."

That lasted four years, before friends eased him toward his conversion. He's kept musically active during his time as a minister, using Midniters tunes as part of his evangelism and participating in assorted gospel projects, including two Christian records as Willie G.

But now with a secular album out there, he'll have the pop performer's duties to add to his day job, which focuses on ministering to inner-city youths. His performance plans include the inaugural Chicano Blues Festival, on May 14 at the Green on the Hill in Signal Hill, which also features the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Kid Ramos (who plays on Garcia's album) and the Blazers. He'll also make an appearance at Tower Records' Monterey Park store at 3 p.m. on April 15.

"I think it's important that people see what I'm doing now," he says. "I may even be able to share a little bit about how I got to where I am today. . . . My body may be 53 but I'm only 20."

*

* Little Willie G. plays at the Chicano Blues Festival on May 14 at the Green on the Hill, 27th Street at Walnut Avenue, Signal Hill, 2 p.m. $15 in advance, $20 at door. (818) 367-6614.

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