Thee Midniters are one of the many groups featured in a new exhibition at the Grammy Museum called "Trouble in Paradise: Music and Los Angeles, 1945 to 1975." It's part of the Pacific Standard Time’s art collaboration throughout the city, and explores L.A.'s music, from folk in Laurel Canyon, to Central Avenue jazz, to East L.A.'s Chicano rock.
The exhibition's narrative begins when soldiers were returning from WWII to a newly industrialized Los Angeles. According to Josh Kun, professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School and co-curator of the exhibition, people flocked to the city of angels for job opportunities.
"You had populations moving in from the U.S. south, especially African Americans, Mid Westerners coming in, Mexican immigrants coming in in record numbers," he explained.
Many of those L.A. newcomers had idealized the city, which is why Kun said he named the show "Trouble in Paradise."
"There was from the start, 1945, the kind of quintessential Los Angeles contradiction between its promise as a wonderland and it’s reality as a city of injustice and inequality."
Kun added that the L.A. musicians began expressing the tension of these contradictions through their music. Amid racial inequality, artists like Hadda Brooks, Cecil Grant, Johnny Otis and Lionel Hampton carved out a space on Central Avenue, "where black artists were, in their music, responding to these conditions in so many different ways. Where black night clubs and black entertainment circuits became so important as hubs for building all kinds of cultural identity," Kun continued.
Jazz musician Lionel Hampton with "Central Avenue Breakdown":
Long-time Los Angeles disc jockey pioneer Art Laboe has been on air for over 60 years, even coining the term "oldies but goodies." He discussed how he contributed to the richness of the city's music scene during this time, being the first DJ to play rock 'n' roll and blues:
"It was like this giant tidal wave just swept everything in front of it, because prior to that, we were playing ballad singers. All of a sudden, here’s this ‘dum dum dum dum’ you know? Come on the air and say 'Here comes Art Laboe and his devil music,” he chuckled. “And the kids just grabbed it and it was like ice cream, you know? And here I was, the only one doing it. The other stations didn’t catch on for years."
He'd air songs like Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll":
Also on display are the amplifiers that blasted East L.A.'s Thee Midniters. Front man Willie Garcia, also known as "Little Willie G," had a smash hit with "Land of 1,000 Dances":
According to Garcia, the hook should be instantly recognizable, even today. "You hear it at football games, marching bands are playing it, and everybody knows that," he said.
Garcia and his band were forging a new style with other bands like The Premieres, and Cannibal and the Headhunters:
"Our influences from a Mexican ranchera and bolero got mixed with the British sound. The Memphis soul sound. Stax. Motown. All that sort of lent itself to what eventually became the East L.A. sound," he said.
Curator Kun said that even though the exhibition ends with 1975, he doesn’t think the L.A. music scene is any less relevant today.
"One of the reasons why L.A. is here is to be a place where as many dreams fail as come true, and as a result, we get pop music and pop culture that is born out of the frustrations and pleasures and desperation and dreams that get trampled on and realized in the space of those things," he said.
Many other stories color the Grammy Museum's new show; on display you’ll also find a fringe jacket owned by Arthur Lee of the band "Love," lyrics to "La Bamba" inked by Ritchie Valens himself, lots of pictures and posters – even a jukebox stacked with over a hundred vintage LA songs (though it plays mp3s).