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The starmaker

To revive a struggling L.A. radio station, Pepe Garza took a field trip to the streets and started airing what he heard. The result: a craze for narcocorridos, banda/hip-hop and a string of unexpected Latino hits.

March 07, 2004|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Garza and his new boss, Eddie Leon, decided Que Buena had to be totally different from its direct competitors in Mexican radio, La Nueva and La Raza. Garza noticed that he didn't recognize any of the artists who were advertised at local nightclubs frequented by Mexican immigrants. So the radio executives decided to do an informal audience survey.

They walked along Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park, the heart of L.A.'s burgeoning immigrant community, and asked people what they listened to. They talked to motorists with tape decks blaring, to clerks in record stores, to people waiting at bus stops with portable CD players.

"We came to realize that the music being heard on the street was not the same as the music heard on the radio," Garza says. "When we started playing all these unknown artists, nobody was expecting it."

Garza says he didn't wait for anybody to bring him CDs, often released by the artists themselves. He bought them at local record stores and just put them on the air. The first song he programmed was called "Se Les Pelo Baltazar" (Baltazar Got Away) by Las Voces del Rancho, a local duo on Pedro Rivera's independent label. "The next day," Garza recalls, "it was the most requested song and I said, 'Eureka!' "

Garza was also struck by the bold male voice that offered a brief spoken introduction on the "Baltazar" record. He asked the label to send the kid over to record a similar promo for the station. It turned out the voice belonged to Lupillo Rivera, who took the opportunity to tell Garza, "I'm a singer too."

Even though Garza had no faith in the wannabe, he took a chance with a tune by Lupillo called "El Moreno," a comical corrido about a town drunk. The song became a smash, Lupillo became an international celebrity, and Que Buena was on its way to becoming the fifth-ranked station in Los Angeles.

"I owe him a lot," Lupillo says of Garza. "They [La Que Buena] were the first ones to play me, and they'll always be in my heart no matter what happens."

A young singer's bravado

Nobody symbolizes Que Buena's grass-roots success -- and the challenges facing it -- more than Lupillo, the biggest star to emerge from L.A.'s immigrant underground.

Garza can't forget the day he first witnessed the charismatic young singer's energy, bravado -- and power to connect with the masses. It was at a station-sponsored Cinco de Mayo festival at MacArthur Park in 1999, when Lupillo was still a relative unknown.

"He gets up on stage and lets out a big belly laugh, like he really loves being there," Garza recalls. "The people start to scream and I don't know what happened, some sort of magic ... as if they had known him all their lives. It was craziness. And I said, "Ay! Where did this come from?' "

The radio programmer and the singer, both with shaved heads, rode that wave of popularity together. Lupillo's yearly arrival on Que Buena's red carpet, with his white Stetson, his fashionable dark suits and his lusty Mexican yells, always created a sensation. But this year, for the first time since the station's awards were launched, Lupillo was not scheduled to appear, the result of a touchy behind-the-scenes dispute.

Garza says the artist agreed to perform -- but only if he could be guaranteed at least two awards. Lupillo denies that and says his beef with Garza started because the station wasn't playing his latest single, ironically titled "Dame por Muerto" (Give Me Up for Dead), from his new live album, his first for the big Univision label.

Whatever the truth, Lupillo told Garza he'd be skipping the Que Buena awards. The singer turned instead to La Raza (KLAX, 97.9 FM), offering a sensational promotional idea to Garza's archrival. Lupillo donated his 1998 Ferrari sports car to be awarded to a lucky listener, one of the most spectacular station giveaways in local Latin radio history. Just days before Que Buena's awards ceremony, Lupillo himself appeared before an estimated 10,000 fans at Plaza Mexico, a Latino shopping center in Lynwood, to give away the car and perform for over an hour, all broadcast live on La Raza.

Nobody at Que Buena pretends that didn't hurt, coming from a singer who owes his initial success to the station. But then came a twist as dramatic as one of Lupillo's songs.

On Dec. 2, two days after the Ferrari giveaway, the singer was involved in a serious car crash driving through northern Mexico with two bodyguards. Lupillo was not gravely injured, but the widely publicized accident gave him a chance to reconsider his snub of his old benefactor. From his hospital room in Ciudad Juarez, Garza recalls, Lupillo called and asked, "Can I come on your show, compa?"

Midway through the awards ceremony, Garza stepped out on stage to announce a surprise guest. From the wings, Lupillo appeared on crutches, his shorts displaying his injured leg in a cast.

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