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It's the pulse of true brotherhood

A couple of L.A. guys see a way to bring back the neighborly ties between Latinos and blacks -- with music.

March 31, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Amid all the talk about racial hatred and gang violence between Latinos and blacks, two men are stepping forward to spotlight the common ground that has long linked the two communities, especially in Los Angeles. Chicano DJ Frankie Firme and R&B singer Marvin "Rip" Spencer were so dismayed by the recent spate of interracial violence in this city that they came together to stage a concert called "Peace in the Street," scheduled for Sunday at the Montebello Inn. The idea is to remind everybody that blacks and Latinos are not only neighbors but also cultural cousins.

"All you hear about is Chicanos and blacks killing each other in jail and on the streets," says Firme. "Yet we listen to each other's music, chase each other's women, play sports with each other and go to war with each other. We've got to show young people that there's another way, and the way they know best is through music and dance."

From the jitterbug embraced by Chicano zoot-suiters to the roots of hip-hop in the Bronx, blacks and Latinos have always made music together. In fact, without blacks in Latin America, there would be no salsa, no samba, no son jarocho. And in Los Angeles, there'd be no Eastside Sound, the Chicano soul fusion of groups such as Thee Midniters and Tierra.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
'Peace in the Street': An article in the March 31 Calendar section about a "Peace in the Street" concert at the Montebello Inn referred to Bassett as a neighborhood in La Puente. Bassett is in an unincorporated area of the San Gabriel Valley near La Puente.

"The music has always played that role, bringing us together," says Spencer. "When you snap your fingers, tap your toes, bob your head and shake your booty, you're all just on the floor enjoying yourselves. And there's no room for prejudice there."

Firme, 51, and Spencer, 68, grew up on opposite sides of the Southland.

Firme ran with a Chicano gang called the Night Owls from the Bassett neighborhood of La Puente in the San Gabriel Valley. Spencer hails from the Midwest, and has lived in South Los Angeles since he was 8.

The recent violence -- much of it born out of racial hatred -- has hit close to home for both of them.

Spencer lives just blocks from the site where a 14-year-old black girl was killed by a racist Latino gang from the Harbor Gateway area. And Firme's family was recently devastated by the shooting death of his wife's 25-year-old nephew, which he believes was gang-related, though no suspect has been found.

The crime wave led police and city officials to denounce the trend and announce a crackdown. And it pushed Firme and Spencer closer together.

The two men met about a year ago when Firme interviewed Spencer for his Internet radio show, "The Second Time Around." After the shootings, the two men sympathized with each other. They reminisced about the old days, wondering where the world was going wrong. And they turned to music to heal.

Sunday's lineup is composed entirely of R&B and oldies acts, including the Coasters ("Yakety Yak") and Spencer's own group, Marvin & Johnny ("Cherry Pie"), with backing by Billy Cormier & the Imposters. There are no Chicano acts on the bill, but that's the point. It was this music, the smooth soul and doo-wop sounds of the '50s and '60s, that Chicanos embraced as their own. In fact, the Penguins' 1952 R&B classic, "Earth Angel," is a virtual Chicano anthem.

"They're the ones keeping this stuff alive," says Spencer, whose uncle was the original Marvin in the 1950s Marvin & Johnny duo.

This was music made for slow-dancing at garage parties or cruising on the boulevard -- Whittier, not Sunset. It was the music playing in barrios and ghettoes as kids came of age and stole their first kiss. When they were drafted, it was the music they took with them to war.

Firme, a Vietnam vet whose real name is Frank Arzaga, remembers it as "a magic time" when the songs seemed to tell their stories. Nobody had money, he recalls, but "everybody looked good and smelled good" for the garage parties. The guys wore khakis with razor-sharp creases and slicked back their hair with Tres Flores pomade. Las rucas wore hot pants and hoop earrings, with enough makeup to resemble Cat Woman. It was the girls who bought the records, mostly 45s that were three for a dollar.

By the time Firme was 16, he had been shot and stabbed, and he still has the scars to prove it. He lifts his shirt to show the large tattoo of an owl over his heart, the emblem of his gang, which nicknamed him Smokey.

The Night Owls had a couple of black members, including one nicknamed Midnight, a son of Cuban immigrants who owned a bakery. But blacks, outnumbered in town, had their own gang, the Greenberry Boys, named after their street.

Regardless of race, they all adhered to one inviolable rule: You don't ruin a garage dance by fighting.

One night, Firme got in trouble by dancing too close with the sister of a black guy, nicknamed Popeye. "I gave her a big squeeze and I kissed her on the neck," he recalls. "Big violation!"

When Popeye called him outside to fight, Firme played on their commonalities.

"Hey, man, we play Little League together. We're both All-Stars. I don't want no trouble."

"But that's my sister," Popeye protested.

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