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LOCAL

Eastside record label still spinning out the music

Hector Gonzalez straps a five-string bass guitar over his belly inside a music studio on a dreary stretch of Monterey Park. He plays as a smooth, prerecorded tenor joins a funky accordion through his headphones.

Trying to bite a bullet, or sometimes count to 10,

For the sake of argument, let's just pretend,

We both agree to disagree.

Gonzalez is helping a silky-voiced old bandmate record a nostalgic-sounding soul album. But in a larger sense, the 59-year-old music producer is trying to keep alive a legacy he inherited 18 years ago.

Gonzalez is the head of Rampart Records, which earned a measure of fame in the 1960s as the originator of the "West Coast Eastside Sound" — and whose founder dreamed of its becoming a Mexican American Motown.

That was Eddie Davis, who produced bands from Boyle Heights, East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley with names like the Blendells, the Romancers, the Premiers, and Cannibal and the Headhunters. The last group toured with the Beatles in 1965 after scoring a big hit with "Land of a Thousand Dances."

Rampart's stable of musicians consisted of kids from the barrios, often discouraged by their parents from speaking Spanish because they were afraid they would be discriminated against. Their role models were often black artists. One weekend they might share the same stage at the El Monte Legion Stadium with Chuck Berry or Ray Charles, and the next vie with mariachis for gigs at baptismal parties, quinceañeras and weddings.

But by the 1970s, with immigration from Mexico booming, the distinctly Mexican American sound that Rampart championed — almost all of it sung in English — became overshadowed by Mexican music, which appealed to both the American-born and the immigrant.

Even though several Mexican American bands, including East L.A.'s Los Lobos, have gained fame since, Gonzalez believes most acts are largely overshadowed by Spanish-language artists, particularly from Mexico, who get to tap into a colossal media network including TV giants like Univision and popular Spanish-language radio stations.

"The Mexican American isn't seen as being as profitable, man," he says, revealing an undercurrent of tension between the two groups. "The immigrant is more profitable."

That hasn't stopped him from trying to resurrect the dream of a Mexican American Motown, re-releasing classic albums, making the music digitally available in scores of countries and signing new acts.

He knows it won't be easy. But he believes it's his destiny.

"I figured I'm going to try to be the guy, even if I end up homeless."

::

Gonzalez is sitting in his Rampart Records office in a squat stucco cottage in Santa Fe Springs, across the street from a gentlemen's club and conjoined to a smog-testing business.

It's a cave of an office, about the size of a cruise ship cabin, packed with vintage Vox amplifiers, recording equipment, vinyl albums, master tapes and promotional material from the '60s and '70s, and random toys like the monster from Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic "Alien." A promotional pamphlet Davis conjured up in 1970 proclaims: "The Sound of a New Generation, Chicanos are Happening!"

The office doubles as his home, with a fridge and a sink. In a back room, an oversized guitar — or guitarron — hangs over his bed, along with a poster of Robert De Niro from "Taxi Driver" and a painting of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. He likes to work on his music at night, when the noise outside on Norwalk Boulevard ebbs.

Nothing in the office suggests that a would-be music mogul occupies it except Gonzalez's energy. Stocky, with a robust mustache and a baseball cap, Gonzalez drives a pale olive green '65 Thunderbird with a rust-marbled top and talks in fast superlatives.

"My whole thing was to keep the legacy and the voice of the Mexican American going," he says. "The musical voice of us."

Gonzalez is telling the story of how he met Davis, a music impresario who was a former child actor turned restaurant owner. Davis had started his career as a music mogul in the late 1950s, producing both black and white artists. As a child his family moved to Boyle Heights, and by the early 1960s, he was a committed producer of Mexican American rock.

It was a good time to do this. Ritchie Valens had inspired many young Mexican Americans, and elsewhere, other Mexican American acts were making their mark, including Michigan's Question Mark and the Mysterians ("96 Tears") and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs ("Wooly Bully").

Gonzalez had never heard of Davis while growing up in South L.A. and then Bell. But after starting a soul band with some friends, he began to ask older musicians for advice on breaking out, and they told him to go find Eddie Davis. He tried, but it wasn't easy.

"I went through the Yellow Pages. It was impossible to find him," Gonzalez says. "Finally, I found him. He was under Record Manufacturer. He had an office in Hollywood."

The music producer Gonzalez met in 1975 had slowed down considerably by then. He didn't seem eager to listen to Gonzalez's band, whose name, Vavoom, he instantly disliked. But Gonzalez pestered him into it, and Davis had the name changed to the Eastside Connection. He had the band record a disco version of "La Cucaracha," and the group later scored some moderate dance hits, especially back East with hustle beat tracks like "You're So Right for Me."

Rampart never notched many really big hits, but more than two dozen of its songs, including a couple of Eastside Connection ones, were sampled over the years by rap and hip-hop artists, including LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Grandmaster Flash and the Beastie Boys. That meant royalties. Still, by 1980, when Gonzalez embarked on a career as a TV soundman, Rampart Records' golden age had ended.

Tom Waldman, coauthor of "Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock 'n' Roll," says the music embodied by Mexican American artists in the 1960s was both an act of assimilation and rebellion. But neither Davis nor others in the scene really did much to cultivate original songwriting, a key ingredient in the development of great and long-lasting bands, Waldman says.

Max Uballez of the Romancers was one of the few regular songwriters who worked with Davis. The importance of good songwriting was a lesson Chuck Berry, whom he described as regal in bearing, hammered home when they met during a show at the El Monte Legion Stadium.

"I went into his dressing room, which was cloth draped over some pipes, and he was there sewing buttons on his shirt," Uballez recalls. "I told him I was doing original stuff and he said, keep it up. That's what you should be doing, your own stuff."

Gonzalez says Davis would hint about leaving him Rampart Records when he died. When Davis became ill with cancer, he brought it up again.

Davis died in 1994 and left Rampart Records and all the other associated labels to Gonzalez, along with photos, master tapes and memories from the 1960s.

"He left behind a lot of treasures," Gonzalez says. "Things from the Beatles tour, gifts Paul McCartney, who had him on a special mailing list, had sent him."

He took a corporate buyout from CBS, refinanced his home and set about becoming a music producer.

::

Gonzalez stared out through the open screen door of his home one day in 1999 and saw a most curious-looking Japanese man standing outside. He wore a blue and black Pendleton-type shirt, a goatee and dark shades. He looked like a homeboy from the Eastside barrios, Gonzalez recalled.

Shin Miyata told him he wanted to release the Rampart Records songs back in Japan, where there had been an interest in Chicano and "lowrider" culture. He used to live in L.A., Miyata explained, and had come to love Mexican American music.

Three years later, Miyata released the first Rampart Records album, by the Village Callers, in Japan.

Eventually, Rampart songs and records made it to roughly 50 other countries, including Spain, Britain and the Netherlands. A couple of years ago, Gonzalez inked a deal with a global digital distributor for independent artists and record labels that's now part of Sony Music Entertainment. It allowed him to start a hip-hop label, Eastside Soul Records, focused on Mexican American artists — and to sign Mexican American acts in several genres.

Gonzalez believe the only way to get "Mexican American Motown" more attention is to keep pushing. He partnered with UC Santa Barbara to preserve and display Davis' collection of photos, scrapbooks and other memorabilia from his Rampart Records heyday. He thinks there could be a good movie in the story of Cannibal and the Headhunters, Eddie Davis and the Beatles tour.

The music business has been far from lucrative for Gonzales. Most of the record stores that sold the label's albums, especially on Whittier Boulevard along the Eastside's spine, are gone. Things were better for a time when CDs were the primary way people acquired music, but that has given way to digital downloading, which he says doesn't bring in as much.

Money comes in from time to time from the use of Rampart Record songs on shows like the HBO comedy "East Bound & Down" and the 2006 HBO film about the Chicano movement, "Walkout." But Gonzalez has done other work to make ends meet and help finance his musical pursuits, including teaching for a while at East L.A. College.

Over the years, he's also taken to acting.

In an episode of "The Young and the Restless" soap opera, he played a Mexican restaurant owner and musician. "I had to speak with a very heavy Spanish accent," Gonzalez says. "That was a challenge."

In fact, he invariably plays Mexican characters, not Mexican Americans.

"Yes, it is ironic," Gonzalez says. "But I guess that I play Mexican characters fairly well."

hector.becerra@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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