Chicano Soul, Brother Manuel Ramos
In 1965 I was seventeen, about to enter my senior year at Harrison High in Colorado Springs while I chased good times in the city of Pueblo with pals from my hometown Florence. Good times meant parties, dances, and admission to clubs with live music, even if we were underage. I’ve written before about how I was into soul music -- Motown or otherwise, including Chicano bands and singers from Pueblo who did their best to emulate the style and sophistication of groups such as the Temptations, Four Tops, Supremes. We partied and danced to local groups whose names I’ve largely forgotten, maybe a reader can help refresh my memory. I recall one group name – Burnt Mill Road, can’t say why I remember that name other than those words are on a sign I’ve seen numerous times on the side of I-25 near Pueblo’s southern city limits.
The Chicano Soul I danced to as a teenager owed a lot to 1960s R&B, but of course there were other influences: Richie Valens and 1950s rock n’ roll; from Texas, Little Joe and the Latinaires, Sunny Ozuna and the Sunglows/Sunliners, Baldemar Huerta (Freddie Fender), Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs; from California we heard Chris Montez, Cannibal and the Headhunters, Thee Midnighters, the Premiers; and many, many more.
I own a CD labelled Pueblo’s Own that features songs by long gone Pueblo groups such as the Stingrays, Ernie Watta and the Steel City Band, Patti Jo and the Teardrops, Richy C and the Casanovas, and several more. It’s an entertaining collection of music, although the recording quality is not the best. I assume that most of the groups were active around the time that I started to travel to Pueblo, and the homemade CD stirs up a bit of nostalgia. There isn’t any information on the CD about the groups. In fact, there’s nothing about who produced the CD or why it was produced. Most likely, the concept of the CD originated with someone about my age who wanted to preserve pieces of his or her youth, and who owned or collected recorded music of the groups from back in the day. Maybe it came from one of the musicians, or a dancer who bumped into me on the crowded dance floor of one of Pueblo’s packed clubs, so many years ago. There is a note that says proceeds from the sale of the disc would be donated to scholarship funds.
To help pay for my good times I found a summer job at Fort Carson, the Army base in Colorado Springs, just a couple of miles from our house. I was hired to be a fry cook in one of the base’s PXs (Post Exchanges), although cook might be a stretch for what I did. I grilled burgers, hot dogs, ham and cheese, and served an occasional salad or cup of soup. I had the lunch shift, and I never cracked an egg or fried a hash brown. The hardest part of the job was cleaning the grill.
My customers were basic grunts, no officers or VIPS. It must have been a PX for enlisted men (I don’t recall any women, but that’s not definitive.) The guys ordering a hamburger, or the ham and cheese (my specialty,) were primarily soldiers of color, usually Blacks from the South or the East Coast. Against a background of sizzling grease and greasy smoke, I heard southern accents and country drawls, urban slang and military jargon. I listened as men complained about women, worthless lieutenants, and bad nights in bad bars.
But the lingering, strongest memory from my summer of sweating over a hot grill was the undeniable popularity of the song My Girl by the Temptations. The song was released for Christmas of 1964, and it eventually appeared on the classic album The Temptations Sing Smokey. The album was a collection of Smokey Robinson songs sung by the Temptations, and it was a major hit. I searched for that album and secured a copy that accompanied me when I left Colorado Springs to continue my education.
I must have heard that song a dozen times each PX shift on the jukebox, but for me it never got old. Between bites of my overcooked government ground beef, PX customers would mouth the words. Sometimes they’d outright sing, doing their best to imitate David Ruffin. Everyone liked that song. It hit deep in the hearts of the young men waiting for their orders to move on. Sometimes it evoked a smoldering loneliness, sometimes a jubilant sense of joy. No matter the emotion, My Girl spoke truth, and the men listened.
In that same year of 1965, the U.S. rapidly increased military forces in South Vietnam as it became obvious that South Vietnam was losing the war to North Vietnam. Conscription into the armed forces in 1965 was 230,991 men, compared to 112,386 in 1964. Protests against the war were larger and more frequent. In March, President Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam. That year, the U.S. military suffered 1928 casualties in Vietnam, up from 216 in 1964, increasing to 6350 in 1966.
My Girl made international stars of the Temptations, and the current edition of the group continues to tour and attract new fans to the classic Temptations soul sound. When I left the PX for college I joined anti-war protests and participated in the Chicano Movement. I still have my copy of The Temptations Sing Smokey.
For more about Chicano Soul music, check out these books:
Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles, Steven Loza
Chicano Soul: Recordings and History of an American Culture, 10th Anniversary Edition, Ruben Molina
Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock 'n Roll from Southern California, David Reyes and Tom Waldman
The Old Barrio Guide to Low Rider Music, 1950 - 1975, 2nd Edition, Ruben Molina