Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero Jr., who for 60 years created songs in Spanish and English chronicling the Mexican-American experience, including Pachuco music later used in the play “Zoot Suit,” has died. He was 88.
The man President Clinton called the father of Chicano music died Wednesday at an assisted living facility in Rancho Mirage, Calif., said his son, Mark Guerrero.
Lalo Guerrero was named a national folk treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in 1980 and received the presidential Medal of the Arts from Clinton in 1997.
Guerrero was born in an adobe house in the poor Barrio Viejo neighborhood of Tucson, Ariz., on Christmas Eve 1916. He was never sure how many children his mother had, but he estimated the figure at 16 to 24, including many who died before he was born.
He had no formal musical education but his mother taught him guitar, and during periodic trips to Mexico, relatives inspired him to write songs.
After dropping out of high school during the Depression, Guerrero drifted to Los Angeles, where arranger-producer Manuel Acuna saw him on a street, asked if he was a musician and had him in a recording studio the next day.
“It wasn’t planned. I didn’t have an agent,” he told the Associated Press last year. “It just never occurred to me.”
Guerrero went on to create more than 700 songs and sold millions of records in both Spanish and English in a bewildering number of styles, from swing to protest songs, cha-chas to rock’n’roll. His Spanish hits included “Nunca Jamas” and “Cancion Mexicana,” which has been described as Mexico’s unofficial national anthem.
He also wrote ballads in the Mexican “corrido” style that honored Robert Kennedy and farmworkers’ rights leader Cesar Chavez.
He already was a star in Mexico and the Southwest for his traditional songs when he crossed into the mainstream charts in 1955 with a parody of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” from a Walt Disney movie. He replaced the pioneer frontiersman with a Mexican called Pancho Sanchez; the track reportedly went on to sell 500,000 copies.
There followed a string of hit parodies in both English and Spanish with names such as “Pancho Claus,” “Elvis Perez” and “Tacos for Two” (to the tune of “Cocktails for Two”). Some took satirical swipes at discrimination, such as “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Busboys.”
Guerrero also made a series of children albums featuring Las Ardillitas, a trio of squeaky-voiced talking squirrels that became wildly popular in Mexico and the Spanish-language community. He created them the same year that a song featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks came out in the United States. Alvin’s creator sued but a judge threw out the case after Guerrero said he thought up his characters first.
Some of Guerrero’s boogie woogie-influenced Pachuco songs were used in Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit,” about a notorious 1942 riot in which servicemen attacked Mexican-American youths wearing the distinctive baggy clothing. The popularity of the play, which reached Broadway, and the 1981 movie reignited Guerrero’s career and led to an international tour.
As previously reported, Guerrero’s last work was to record three of his songs for guitarist Ry Cooder’s new album, “Chavez Ravine,” due June 7 via Perro Verde/Nonesuch.
Cooder told Billboard.com in late 2003 that he’d hoped to tour the project with Guerrero’s assistance. “It can be done, because everyone is alive and well so far,” he said. “I just talked to Lalo yesterday. He’s 87 but he is totally rocking and waiting for something to happen. Everybody who got involved with me in this on the music level, they really liked it because they could see it was their story and their chance to tell it. It’s not junk, corny or cheeseburger nostalgia. This is really neat stuff.”
Guerrero lived in the East Los Angeles area for many years and had a popular nightclub there. He later moved to Cathedral City, near Palm Springs. Even into his 80s, he continued to perform hundreds of free concerts at schools and senior citizen centers.
The artist is survived by his wife Lidia, two songs, a stepson and stepdaughter, two grandchildren, three sisters and two brothers. Funeral services will be held in Palm Springs, Tucson and Los Angeles.
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