Little Julian, if you're out there, Gene Aguilera is looking for you. A bank executive in East Los Angeles by day, Aguilera is a passionate devotee of the 1950s and '60s-era R&B-flavored pop still cherished on L.A.'s Eastside.
At his spacious Montebello home, Aguilera's eyes glass over when he describes how he thrilled at age 10 to the vocal sublimities of Thee Midniters on a small transistor radio. "Here were these guys, Chicanos from the Eastside," he says. "They were just like me. And it made me so proud to hear them on the radio." Along with impressive views spanning the southern and eastern edges of L.A. County, Aguilera's hillside home enjoys five functional Seeburg jukeboxes that showcase gems from a vast collection of Latino pop and rock classics. "I'm not happy unless I see a needle touching vinyl," says Aguilera, who estimates he has about 10,000 LPs and 5,000 45s.
The soaring vocal harmonies of doo-wop and groove beats of R&B-tinged rock started with African American performers such as the Platters, the Coasters and the Motown stable, but L.A.'s Eastside gave the story a Latino chapter influenced by burgeoning Chicano consciousness. Aguilera's collection includes Eastside crooners and Chicano rock heroes such as the Romancers, the Blendells, the Premiers and Cannibal & the Headhunters. These "oldies" are especially beloved on the Eastside, long a stronghold for such programming, first at radio station KRLA (now all talk) and now at KRTH. Aguilera's hometown heart beats hardest for Little Julian Herrera, a.k.a. Ron Gregory, a Jewish Hungarian kid who arrived in L.A. as a runaway. Adopted by a Latino family in Boyle Heights, Gregory found local fame in the late '50s as a doo-wop crooner. Little Julian Herrera & the Tigers were discovered by legendary R&B singer Johnny Otis, and scored hits with "Lonely, Lonely Nights" and "I Remember Linda." By the early '60s, the group was poised for stardom, Aguilera says, when Herrera dropped out of sight. "One camp says he's dead, another claims he's still alive somewhere," says Aguilera, who hasn't given up hope.
And Aguilera would be just the man to mastermind a Little Julian comeback. He spent seven years managing the Eastside Latino roots-rocker outfit the Blazers and is now managing Little Willie G. (Willie Garcia), the original lead vocalist for Thee Midniters. Through his Geno Productions, Aguilera, 51, has reconnected with the voice he admired as a boy, when he first heard the band's "Whittier Blvd." on the airwaves. A Christian minister for the last two decades, Little Willie G. has returned to secular music at Aguilera's suggestion, appearing at Midniter reunion shows on the "oldies" circuit. Garcia has also recorded a "comeback" CD produced by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, and he was a guest artist on the band's latest recording, "The Ride." "Here was the greatest voice to come out of East L.A.," Aguilera says. "I told him he had a gift and that he should be sharing it with the world."
He feels as strongly about the voice of Little Julian Herrera. "I just want to know what happened to him, why he stopped singing. If he's no longer here, I'd like to at least put flowers on his grave."