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Don Tosti, 81; Inspired Latin Music Craze

August 04, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Don Tosti, the bandleader who helped spark a Mexican American musical craze half a century ago with his tune "Pachuco Boogie," has died. He was 81.

Tosti, who was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in May, died Monday at his home in Palm Springs, his sister, Marylin Martinez Wood, told Associated Press.

Recorded in 1948, "Pachuco Boogie" became one of the first million-selling Latin songs. It caught on immediately with pachucos -- also called zoot-suiters for their clothing -- who were the first wave of Mexican Americans to embrace American pop culture and make it into their own. They eschewed old-fashioned Mexican music and absorbed the sounds reverberating in barrios.

Pachuco music, recently defined as Latino "street music" by Arhoolie Records President Chris Strachwitz, had something of a revival in 1978 because of the popular play by Luis Valdez, "Zoot Suit."

Although Tosti's "Pachuco Boogie" was not used in the play, it was included in a 2002 compilation of pachuco tunes using Tosti's title. Strachwitz produced the compilation for Arhoolie from songs by various artists recorded primarily in Los Angeles between 1948 and 1954.

"They were rappers in a way," Strachwitz said at the CD's release. "Half of it is talking, and all in this low-life lingo."

In assessing the compilation album, Times writer Agustin Gurza wrote: "This is fusion music before the term was invented. It's a blend of the popular styles of the day -- swing, boogie-woogie and jump blues -- with mambo rhythms and a Mexican touch. Because the lyrics are in Spanish, spiced with the lively, hep-cat brand of pachuco slang called calo, some consider pachuco music a precursor of today's rock en espanol."

Tosti was born Edmundo Martinez Tostado in El Paso, where the pachuco craze started. He studied music as a boy and by the time he was 10, he was playing violin with the El Paso Symphony. He also studied piano but had to give it up because of an injury he sustained in a knife fight over a girl, he told The Times in 2002.

He moved to Los Angeles as a teenager and began playing the upright bass. At 19, he was hired by trombonist Jack Teagarden to play in his orchestra. Tosti, who was one of the few Mexican Americans to play in the popular big bands of the 1940s and 1950s, worked with Les Brown, Charlie Barnet and Jimmy Dorsey.

Tosti formed his own band, the Pachuco Boogie Boys. In the 1960s, he moved to Palm Springs, where he became an orchestra leader at hotels and taught piano.

A widower with no children, Tosti is survived by his sister.

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