Co-founder of seminal East L.A. band El Chicano dies

Bobby Espinosa, founding member of the seminal Los Angeles band El Chicano.
Bobby Espinosa, founding member of the seminal Los Angeles band El Chicano.

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Bobby Espinosa, founding member of the seminal Los Angeles band El Chicano has died. Forty years ago, El Chicano turned a borrowed riff someone played during concert breaks into a hit record that catapulted the band from its East L.A. home to national prominence.

In 1969, El Chicano took the seven-year-old "Viva Tirado" by jazz pianist Gerald Wilson and lent it a distinctive Caribbean sound. Bobby Espinosa’s Hammond B3 organ did much of the Latinizing of the song. And that was a formula for success, said Chicano music historian David Reyes. "It was huge, it was No. 1 locally here, local radio stations, AM stations, KHJ, KFWB, KRLA."

The song hit No. 20 on the national R&B charts. Venues from jazz festivals in Ohio to the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem invited the band to play. In an interview last year, Bobby Espinosa said he knew that New York City leg of the tour would be important. "It was moving quick, everything was moving quick. We knew the Apollo was big, going to New York was big for us, you know, Playing the Apollo was almost a frightening thing because we used to hear stories about people throwing cabbages and tomatoes and all that. We knew that we were making history there, you know."

Lots of bands included Hammond B3 organs at the time, said band mate Ersi Arvizu. But Espinosa’s percussive approach to playing, and the instrument’s unusual settings, produced a one-of-a-kind sound. "He was just so unique as an organ player. He played the Hammond B3. He had his own sound."

Espinosa produced, arranged and composed for the band. El Chicano composed the theme song for the 1970s television show “Baretta.” The band released seven records on the MCA label. That was a significant achievement in an era when it and other major labels held the keys to national distribution.

El Chicano band mate Fred Sanchez said Bobby Espinosa’s musicianship made him an icon to many people. "The man was a unique individual with the stylings that he created in that particular piece of equipment comparable to Santana who was from San Francisco with his guitar. Bobby was more than that for the people of East Los Angeles where he came from."

Sanchez, Espinosa and other veterans of his musical generation keep the East L.A. rock flame aglow with reunion concerts and regional shows. Rudy Salas, who played with Espinosa and co-founded another successful East L.A. band, Tierra, remembers Espinosa as a talented musician who struggled to control chronic health issues. They played a concert together in the Inland Empire about a month ago. "He was already having his problems. Still joking around, still loving life."

Bobby Espinosa died on Saturday. Salas and others wouldn’t specify the cause of death. A cremation is planned, Fred Sanchez said, along with a memorial service at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in East L.A. on March 20th.