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Straddling two worlds and sounds

Thee Midniters look forward and back with rock and soulful ballads -- different styles for different communities.

January 31, 2003|Ernesto Lechner | Special to The Times

Because they hailed from the streets of East Los Angeles and enjoyed the support of the local Latin community, Thee Midniters are generally considered the fathers of Chicano rock, paving the way for later bands such as Tierra, El Chicano and Los Lobos.

Thee Midniters' classic 1965 debut album, however, reveals no musical traces of Latin America. Its effervescent version of "Land of a Thousand Dances" and its rollicking instrumental (and only real hit) "Whittier Blvd." evoke the garage roughness of the Animals and the R&B inflections of the Rolling Stones. This was a band fixated on the British Invasion and the Stax Records school of the smoldering ballad, not on cumbias or corridos.

That nostalgia was a constant point of reference during the band's show Tuesday at the House of Blues, a celebration of the first release on CD of its early hits.

Boosted by an expert brass section that included original trombonist Romeo Prado, the 11-piece, modern-day Midniters sounded tight and jazzy. Original singer Little Willie G., now a minister, added touches of gospel to his dramatic singing, while founder and bassist Jimmy Espinoza jumped up and down, the quintessential image of the ageless rocker.

Throughout, the band switched effortlessly between boisterous rockers and soulful ballads -- a duality that developed in its earliest days.

"When we traveled to the white areas of Los Angeles, we used to play all the rock stuff," Espinoza, 57, said during an earlier interview. "That's why most Anglos remember us as a punk or garage band. In the Latino neighborhoods, they asked us to play the slow stuff. It was like a paradox -- who do you want me to be tonight?"

Latinos were definitely onto something. The most memorable moments of Tuesday's show came when the band locked itself in a slow, steamy groove, underscoring the huge influence that black music has always had on U.S.-based Hispanic culture. The velvety introduction to "Making Ends Meet," a Midniters original, was lush and dreamy, echoing the tenderness of a classic Otis Redding record. The group's every move was cheered by a capacity crowd that shrieked in delight whenever Willie G. recalled some of the combo's earliest gigs, including the 1964 show at East Los Angeles College, where the original single of "Land of a Thousand Dances" was recorded.

Thee Midniters disbanded in 1969, following four years of nonstop activity, and were re-formed by Espinoza in 1983. Little Willie G. rejoined the lineup in 1999.

"It's funny how we're more popular today than we were then," said Espinoza, citing the band's regular appearances on the oldies circuit.

The new greatest-hits collection, on Thump Records, initiates a surge of planned releases, including CD versions of the group's four original albums as well as a boxed set. Then comes a new studio album that Espinoza says will probably focus on versions of popular oldies that the group hasn't recorded before.

The '60s, in other words, will continue to be an inescapable influence.

"It was a time of innocence," Espinoza says wistfully. "When people tell you that ours was the love generation, it's true. Back then, it was all about love."

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