The Musique Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lalo Guerrero has gone four days without Mexican food, and he can't take it anymore. Tonight, he's passing on p^ate, vetoing les medaillons de veau and deep-sixing fromage, unless it's on nachos.

The 81-year-old father of Chicano music--who hours earlier wowed 800 Parisians with songs of Mexican American pride at the prestigious la Cite de la Musique--is in Europe for the first time, and he's desperate for tortillas.

So on this celebratory evening in the City of Light, the lovable, legendary crooner from the City of Angels satisfies his chops at Ay Caramba, a cantina-cabaret.

Lalo--as he prefers to be called--gets the works, including Tio Nachos, described in French as chips de ble, and beaucoup guacamole, enchiladas, chile con carne, a pitcher of margaritas. And, oui, plenty of soft, warm flour tortillas, just like the ones his mother, Concepcion, used to pat into shape. When he bites into them, the butter drip-drip-drips off the ends.

With every bite, Lalo forgets he is far from his desert home in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs.

"Can you dig this? It feels like East L.A. in here," he marvels, mesmerized by the trappings of an Olvera Street eatery: sombreros, serapes, neon Dos Equis signs on the walls. He is flanked by his sons, Dan, 57, a television executive producer, and Mark, 47, a composer, guitarist and singer.

Both accompanied their dad, who earlier brought the house down at la Cite--a government-funded arts complex--belting out songs about his beloved Chicano culture.

It seems as if all of Paris knows Lalo is in town. Here, the diners--Latinos living in Paris, Spaniards, the French--are buzzing around him. They want photos, autographs, a handshake, a hug. And then comes: "How about a song, Lalo?"

He joins fellow musician Lorenzo Martinez of East Los Angeles on the restaurant's small stage, framed with chili pepper lights. For 30 minutes, Lalo romances women with ballads, befriends men with Chicano blues, the appreciative audience digging his joie de vivre.

"I love all of Paris for acknowledging my Chicano music," Lalo tells the crowd, toasting the city that has welcomed him.

Indeed, everywhere he goes--the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, a guest spot on Radio Nova's weekly Latino show, a cab ride, a stroll along the Seine--Lalo becomes the toast of Paris. On metro station billboards, storefront windows, walls of buildings are posters publicizing his appearance.

And his performance with Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez, which capped la Cite's three-day American music fest, is, well, just another plume in his chapeau.

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For six decades, Eduardo "Lalo" Guerrero has entertained and endeared lovers of Chicano music.

In films, he sang and played guitar beside Jane Russell, Robert Mitchum, George Raft and Gilbert Roland. On Spanish-language talk TV, he was Paul Rodriguez's sidekick. In music, he had five songs in the top 10 in the 1950s and '60s on the Latin and American music charts in the U.S., Mexico and South America. His 1955 crossover hit "Pancho Lopez," a parody of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," launched him as a bicultural musician.

Among his best-selling recordings are 50 children's Spanish-language albums recorded under the group name Las Ardillitas, or the Squirrels, in which Lalo performs the high-pitched voices of Panfilo, Demetrio and Anacleto, encouraging kids to obey their parents and stay in school.

Mexican music legend Lucha Reyes recorded Lalo's "Cancion Mexicana" in 1941; the tribute to the beauty of Mexican music has become Mexico's unofficial national anthem.

Three years ago, Lalo's work with Los Lobos got him a Grammy nod for "Papa's Dream," on which Lalo, who wrote lyrics for several of the folk songs, was the joyful, bilingual singing storyteller.

Well known for his ability to change with the times, Lalo has adapted the musical styles of boleros and corridos, rancheras and salsa, tropical and tejano, comic parodies and children's songs, and everything in between: rock, mariachi, swing.

But it's his songs about the Chicano experience--songs that have chronicled history as well as his advocacy for farm workers, zoot-suiters, immigrants, children and multiculturalism--that get crowds on their feet.

Amalia DeAztlan, a Coachella Valley political activist and community leader, says Lalo's songs "are an inspiration, a powerful voice for our community. He is an old-timer who is not afraid to voice his opinion."

Steven Loza, a UCLA ethnomusicologist who featured Lalo in his book "Barrio Rhythm: Mexican-American Music in Los Angeles" (University of Illinois Press, 1993), says Lalo, by far, is the most important contributor of Chicano music. "He speaks, thinks and composes in both English and Spanish, which represents the bicultural experience of the Mexican American, and he does it with profundity, dignity and humor."

Simply put, says movie producer and friend Nancy Alicia de Los Santos: "He is our First Chicano."

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Lalo appreciates the adulation but says all he has ever wanted to do with his craft is "call attention to certain things that should be corrected." A week before his Paris trip, he's in his Cathedral City studio, where he answers all his calls and rarely turns down a gig--especially if it's for his people.

He speaks passionately about immigrants working for meager wages, kids in conflict, families fighting their way into the middle class.

He wants a better image for them. He wants kids to learn English, the language of good jobs. He wants his people to register to vote, become citizens if they desire, buy homes, plant roots and fight the fight for Chicanismo.

He does it all with music, "my most powerful muscle," he says. He grabs his guitar, and to the Willie Nelson tune, comes: "Mexican Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be bus boys / Don't let them pick lettuce and other crops / Let them be doctors or lawyers or cops."

Then he sings on another cause:

"I think that I shall never see any Chicanos on TV / It seems as though we don't exist and we're not ever even missed. . . . Script writers never write for us / I think it's time we made a fuss."

"I'm sounding like a social activist. But I'm not militant. I'm a peaceful protester," he says. "My songs are about truth."

Hung with pride in his home are accolades, including lifetime achievement awards from Nosotros, the Mexican Cultural Institute, Teatro Campesino and the United Farm Workers.

His most treasured are letters from Presidents Clinton, Bush and Carter--and photos of them and the first ladies with the First Chicano.

Last year, Lalo received the National Medal of the Arts from Bill and Hillary Clinton at a White House ceremony with 10 other honorees, including playwright Edward Albee, bandleader Lionel Hampton, actor-filmmaker Robert Redford and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

In 1991, President George Bush honored him with a National Heritage Fellowship, also from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Smithsonian Institution has declared him a "National Folk Treasure," and he is a Tejano Hall of Fame inductee.

In April, the Palm Springs area, where streets are named for Bob Hope, Gerald Ford and Frank Sinatra, will get Lalo Guerrero Avenue. In May, Lalo will present his Paris show at the Getty Center.

His former grade school in Tucson will be named after him in the fall. And in the works is a Lalo Guerrero School of Music in Los Angeles.

Lalo recently semiretired from a 24-year headlining gig at Las Casuelas Nuevas Restaurant in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs, where in his heyday he serenaded Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Red Skelton, Milton Berle and Hoagy Carmichael.

And then, out of the blue, Paris called, via Roxanne Frias, a transplanted Chicana from West Covina who hosts a Latino radio program and suggested Lalo as the festival's finale.

Two days before his concert, Lalo's one and only wish for Paris--to tour Notre Dame--is fulfilled.

Before a modest painting of la Virgen de Guadalupe, donated to the cathedral by Paris' Mexican community, Lalo lights a candle, kneels and bows in prayer. Rays of sunlight from a stained-glass rose window splash his back.

Outside, he is clearly moved by the experience. He hadn't expected that Paris would have a vibrant Mexican enclave. He leads his entourage on a winter's walk across gothically stark grounds and takes in the panorama of the Seine. He says he wishes his mother were there. He talked to her in his prayer before la Virgen. Every night before he goes to bed, he kisses the guitar she used to strum.

"To know me," he says, "is to know my mother."

Lalo was born in Tucson on Christmas Eve in 1916 to Concepcion and Eduardo Guerrero, who met and married in Sonora, Mexico, and immigrated to Tucson in 1906.

His mother gave birth to 27 children, including triplets and double sets of twins, most of whom were stillborn or died in infancy. Lalo is one of nine who survived, the fourth oldest.

Concepcion, a tall, attractive woman who always wore braids, was a guitarist who sang her own corridos (folk songs) and later recorded them for the University of Arizona's Southwest Folklore Center archive. She taught her son to play the guitar--and to love it, to wrap his heart around it.

His father was a boilermaker for steamboats in the Mexican Navy. He found work in Tucson with Southern Pacific Railroad. He died at 87 in 1972, Concepcion at 85 in 1974.

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"My mother was the one who gave me my talent," Lalo says at his home before the Paris trip. "She was the musician, playing her guitar. She had a great voice, too. And she would do these beautiful Spanish dances with castanets and kick her legs up. She learned it from watching the Mexican movies."

He reaches for her guitar--a gift from him to his mother 30 years ago--and kisses it. When she was in the hospital with Alzheimer's disease, she played it all the time.

"My mom was singing all the time," he says. "If she was in the kitchen cooking, she was singing. If she was planting flowers, she was singing. In the midst of all that poverty, she remained happy. And the neighborhood loved her. 'Don~a Conchita' they used to call her."

He recalls being a skinny, barefoot kid, running to an irrigation ditch for a swim. As a teenager, he would stand outside windows and serenade the girls; if the house lights switched on and off, he could play another song.

But his childhood memories always take him back to his mother, the woman who would crank up the Victrola and sing love songs to her family. "She taught me to embrace the spirit of being a Chicano," he says. "She would always say she was 'pura Chicanita.' "

He sings "Barrio Viejo" ("Old Neighborhood"), which he wrote for his mother and father and the memory of their friends, who were like family.

He loved his neighborhood--especially before nightfall when the aroma of Mexican food wafted out of kitchen windows, when amigos sat on their porches and greeted each other, when he would play his guitar.

As a kid, Lalo dreamed of becoming the next Rudy Vallee or Al Jolson, and later, as a teenager, the next Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra. He dreamed of breaking into the American music mainstream, but says he couldn't get hired "because of my dark, ethnic looks."

After high school graduation in 1937, he headed for Los Angeles and recorded his first songs a year later. He returned to Tucson briefly and then hit Mexico City, hoping to find stardom.

He impressed record executives with his songs, which were fresh, new and different from anything they had heard.

"I was in the prime of my career. I considered myself as good a tenor as anybody," he recalls.

But to Mexicans, Lalo was a "pocho," or a turncoat, because he was born in the United States and spoke Spanish and English.

"They discriminated against me. So I got it on both sides of the border."

He returned to Tucson, married his first wife, Margaret, in 1939 and had his first son, Dan. Mark came nine years later.

During World War II, he took a job at San Diego's Consolidated Aircraft Corp.--today known as Convair--building B-24 Liberator bombers. It was then that he and other employees formed a band and played at Army and Navy stations, Lalo singing Latin tunes. Immediately, the USO nabbed him for a touring band.

After the war, he moved to Los Angeles and landed a job as a vocalist at downtown's La Bamba Club, where he was discovered by an Imperial Records talent scout. He signed on as a soloist.

With a band, he toured throughout the Southwest and the Northern states, performing for farm workers and Chicanos.

Seeing despair and injustice, Lalo made his music a personal crusade for Chicanismo. In the 1940s, he wrote music for zoot-suiters who were victims of racial attacks. Years later, four of these songs hit Broadway and then movie theaters in Luis Valdez's 1978 play "Zoot Suit."

In the mid-'50s, with money made from "Pancho Lopez," Lalo opened Lalo's, a popular East L.A. club his wife helped operate. But the rigors of club life led to their divorce, he says, and he sold the club in 1972.

He remarried a few years later, started a family with his second wife, Lidia--they have a daughter, Patricia, 29, and a son, Joe, 32--and decided to open a new club in Tucson. On the trip there, he stopped to visit a booking agent friend in Rancho Mirage who was looking for a singer for a hot new restaurant.

On the spot, Lalo signed a six-month contract that led to 24 years. He quit Las Casuelas last year as the main act. But he's never been busier.

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Before the impromptu concert at the Mexican restaurant, the crowd in Paris is dancing in the aisles at la Cite.

For almost an hour, Lalo takes his audience through a musical Chicano experience: "Cancion Mexicana," written in 1937; "El Corrido de Delano," a song for Lalo's friend Cesar Chavez, composed in 1966; "Tacos for Two," 1956; zoot suit tunes "Chicas Patas Boogie," "Muy Sabroso Blues" and "Los Chucos Suaves," "El Chicano" 1980.

His full-bodied voice has never been better, says son Dan, fighting back tears as his father charges up the crowd with mariachi, blues, swing and ranchera rock.

Then comes Lalo's signature "Barrio Viejo." In a guayabera and dark trousers, he sits, dramatically, under a single spotlight. The concert hall is hushed. Lalo, the king of the corrido, tells his story, shows his story as his hand moves from his guitar to his heart to his guitar.

At song's end comes a near-two-minute standing ovation. He sings another and another followed by "Bravos!" People jump to their feet.

"Viva Mexico! Viva America! Viva Paris!" Lalo tells the crowd, taking his bows, blowing kisses. "I'm 81 years old, and I love Paris! Viva yo! Viva vous!"

With that, he exits, overjoyed. His sons can't wait to hug him, and when they do, Lalo unleashes a flood of emotion.

"They loved 'Barrio Viejo.' Can you dig that?" he says backstage. This song--a creed for all things Chicano--"puro Chicano" as his mother would say--has meant more to him than anything he has ever written.

And now--voila--it means something to Paris.

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