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The Phillips Music Store, where Jewish and Mexican music mixed

The Phillips Music Co.
The Phillips Music Co.
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Boyle Heights was once known as the Ellis Island of the west. In the 1930s, '40s and '50s it was a neighborhood where Jewish and Mexican cultures mixed. One store at the heart of this cultural crossroads was the Phillips Music Store, a musical meeting ground that helped spawn wonderfully original sounds. This weekend a free concert celebrates the legacy of the store.

Josh Kun is the director of the popular music center at USC Annenberg's Norman Lear Center. Kun curated the concert and has studied the history of the Phillips Music Store.

He says it was founded by L.A. musician Bill Phillips in 1936 and opened on Brooklyn Avenue in a spot that is now part of Cesar Chavez Avenue. Kun says when it started it wasn't your traditional music store.

"He sold records. He sold instruments," Kun explains. "For a while he sold appliances and TVs and refrigerators."

It eventually became a hub for Mexican-American and Jewish-American musicians. The two groups started sharing musical styles - blending Mexican and South American songs with Klezmer instruments and Yiddish vocals.

Kun points to a song by Mickey Katz and his Kosher Jammers as a perfect example of this fusion. The song, Tico Tico, was written in Brazil but Mickey Katz reinterpreted it by mixing Spanish, English and Yiddish vocals under a Klezmer beat. It was a popular single at the Phillips Music Store where fans dubbed the Jewish singer "Miguelito Katz."

"It was the most diverse city in America," says Kun of Boyle Heights in the '30s and '40s.

"You had all these populations, predominately immigrant populations finding ways to live side by side to create alliances and coalitions, to mobilize politically, to just be good neighbors."

After World War II, Kun says the Jewish population started moving elsewhere in Los Angeles, but the Phillips Music Store stayed put until it closed in the 1980s.

Even though the store is gone, Kun says you can hear still hear the music it helped create today in local bands like Ollin who will be performing at the concert this weekend.