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Steve Salas, co-founder of the pioneering Eastside Chicano rock band Tierra, dies at 69

Two men stand next to each other.
Steve Salas, left, with his brother Rudy.
(Courtesy of Joanna Salas)
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Steve Salas, a founding member of the pioneering Eastside rock band Tierra and an early-day Chicano rights activist, has died at 69.

Salas, who died Thursday, had been battling myeloma for two years and recently contracted COVID-19, his family said.

The musician was predeceased by his brother Rudy, Tierra’s lead singer and co-founder, who died in 2020, also after contracting COVID-19.

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“Steve and Rudy created the soundtrack for many people’s lives, and we are so grateful to everyone who loved their music,” band and family members said in a statement. “The Salas Brothers left an indelible mark on the history of Chicano music with Tierra.”

The death of the Salas brothers leaves saxophonist Rudy “Bub” Villa, 72, as the lone surviving member of the original group, which formed in 1972.

“Steve was this guy who liked to have fun, not take things too seriously and fool around, which bugged Rudy,” Villa said. “As a musician, he was multitalented and could learn any instrument within a few hours and just had a tone and presence as a singer that was incredible.”

The trio came together in 1972 along with David Torres (keyboard) and Albert Bustillos (drums) to form Tierra. According to Villa, Bustillos “played a few gigs” before leaving and being eventually replaced by drummer Kenny Roman midway through 1972.

Steve Salas, a singer, bass player and percussionist, performed with his brother in some fashion for more than a decade, most notably as the Salas Brothers. The duo worked neighborhood functions, such as weddings and graduations.

The East L.A. guitar hero came of age during the great upheaval of the 1970s — and helped design the signature sound of the Eastside.

Dec. 31, 2020

Steve and Rudy Salas grew up in Lincoln Heights with their mother, Margaret Brambila, and father, Rudy Sr. Their uncle, Art Brambila, lived across the street.

Gathered on Brambila’s front porch, he, his older brother Raul and sister Margaret sang and played songs such as ranchera singer Miguel Aceves Mejía’s “Penas del alma” and Pedro Infante’s “Tres Días.” Brambila said the Salas brothers took interest in the music at a young age.

“From across the street, I could always see those two heads sticking out the bedroom window,” Brambila said. “They were so interested in music. They loved that we were doing this way before they got involved themselves.”

Steve Salas attended Lincoln High School, where he was student body president, and participated in the historic students walkouts in 1968 that helped ignite the Chicano power movement. After graduating, he received a full academic scholarship to Stanford University.

He stayed less than two years before returning to Lincoln Heights and joined his brother as a member of the Chicano R&B group El Chicano. In 1972, El Chicano released “Celebration,” in which Steve Salas and Freddie Sanchez were the featured vocalists in a cover of Van Morrison’s famed “Brown Eyed Girl.” Their version of the song climbed to No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that year, according to El Chicano’s website.

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Later that year, the Salas brothers left and formed Tierra, cutting their self-titled debut album in 1973. The Chicano movement was in full swing at the time, and the brothers had already been swept up in L.A.’s burgeoning civil rights movement.

Brambila said that the brothers’ political activism was cultivated by their father and that their music became a vehicle for fighting discrimination.

“They were one of a few groups trying to push to advance our people in the entertainment industry,” said Brambila, who worked in artist development at Capitol Records. “The Chicano Moratorium was about the police brutality in our neighborhoods, but also about the lack of attention and opportunity in our community.”

Although Tierra cut another album in 1975, it wasn’t until 1980 that the group broke through with its album “City Nights,” which included “Together,” a cover of a song by the soul group the Intruders that hit No. 18 in the Billboard Hot 100. In 1981, Tierra landed two more singles in the Hot 100, “Memory,” and “La La Means I Love You.”

The band went on to play Carnegie Hall and appeared on “Soul Train,” “American Bandstand” and the American Music Awards.

Their success came with a price, however.

Years of in-fighting between the brothers created a divide in the group.

“They were just different characters, different brothers,” said Villa, the saxophonist. “They had their fights but they made up, and nobody thought too much about it because brothers fight.”

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At a Riverside club in 1975, Rudy was in the middle of a solo performance when Steve and Villa ran behind the stage, where they played tag and horsed around so loudly the crowd could hear them.

After the set, Rudy chewed them out.

“Rudy was just screaming at us and telling us to get serious,” Villa said. “That’s who he was. After the concert, everyone wanted to go back to their rooms and sleep, and Steve and I would go out and drink.”

Brambila said each brother shared some blame. He said Steve sometimes showed up late for practices and refused to perform certain songs. And Rudy, he said, could be too controlling.

In a 1998 interview, Rudy said he asked his brother to leave the group in 1996. Steve went on to found his own group, also named Tierra.

Although the brothers occasionally reconciled, it never lasted long.

Joanna Salas, Rudy’s wife, said her husband and his brother loved each other, no matter their differences.

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“Steve was and will always be remembered as a very talented, complicated and rambunctious type of individual,” Joanna Salas said. “He didn’t go by the rules and lived his life the way he wanted.”

Steve Salas was married briefly in the mid-1970s and had no children. He is survived by his longtime partner Mary Alcantar and two brothers, Richard and Robert.

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