TERRY GROSS, host:
Louie Ortega isn't the name which springs to mind when the subject of Mexican-American contributions to rock n' roll history comes up, but for some people he's a legend based on a band he put together in Prunedale, California in the late 1960s. Now an anthology from Bear Family Records collects all their recordings, including tapes of their long-rumored unreleased second album.
Our rock historian Ed Ward has been a fan of Louie and the Lovers since he first heard them many years ago.
(Soundbite of song, "I Know That You Know")
LOUIE AND THE LOVERS (Rock band): (Singing) Last time you just wrote me a letter, telling me that you might be gone. Last time you just wrote me a letter. I know that you that you know that Im wrong. I know that you that you know that Im wrong.
ED WARD: In 1970, I worked at Rolling Stone magazine and got to know Doug Sahm, the eccentric Texas rocker and leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet. He was living in Marin County, California; he was uneasy in what he considered the big city. One day, he vanished, and I was told he'd gone to Vancouver. But it wasn't true. He called me out of the blue and said he'd discovered a great band out where he was living now: Prunedale. This turned out to be about five miles north of Salinas, smack in the middle of what was then violence-ridden agricultural country, where Cesar Chavez was organizing the farm workers and meeting resistance from the big growers.
Doug wasn't telling the strict truth. In fact, it had been his wife Violet who'd discovered Country Fresh, as they were themselves, a band that had formed in high school around Louie Perez's songwriting talents, Frank Paredes' guitar, Steve Vargas' bass and Albert Parr's drums. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Louie Ortega, not Louie Perez.]
Vargas knew someone who knew Violet Sahm, and so she got a copy of a tape the band had made to help them get gigs. One listen and she knew she had to get Doug to listen to it, which wasn't easy.
Once he did, though, he flipped, and started agitating to get them a deal. Epic Records took the bait, and Doug told the band he'd rechristened them Louie and the Lovers in the course of contract negotiations. He hustled them up to Columbus Studios in San Francisco, where he was also recording the Sir Douglas Quintet, and he produced a mammoth 18-hour session that resulted in their first album, "Rise."
(Soundbite of song, "Rise")
LOUIE AND THE LOVERS: (Singing) Rise to the sound of Malihe(ph) won't say goodbye. Rise, yes, my eyes they are weeping. These are my eyes. If you have such say I'm up here (unintelligible). But now you throw me the (unintelligible).
WARD: Doug saw to it that Epic didn't release the album until the four boys graduated from high school, but then nothing happened. Two singles, "Rise" and "I Know That You Know," were released, and the latter was praised by Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone. There was no tour, but I saw them play at Keystone Berkeley one night, and it was a magnificent show until Doug decided he'd make it even better by jumping onstage, plugging in and turning up to 11, drowning out the band.
But Epic believed in the guys enough to fund another album, which Glen Kolotkin co-produced with the band. A single survived from this, and it's pretty good.
(Soundbite of song, "Tomorrow Just Might Change")
LOUIE AND THE LOVERS: (Singing) Today, I'll just waken to what yesterday was tomorrow. Today my life feels more complete. I dont feel quite as hollow, as when I feel when I'm all year round or when life is one long bound. Today and tomorrow just might change.
WARD: Little Georgie Baker and "Tomorrow Just Might Change," showed that Louie was still writing memorable melodies. Doug had disappeared back to Texas, but since Louie and the Lovers were a big deal in and around Salinas, they worked a lot.
Then, legendary producer and co-owner of Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler, came on the scene. He was crazy about Doug and signed him to Atlantic, and Doug raved about this band he knew in Prunedale. Wexler sent his private jet to fly them to Florida to record - the first time any of them had flown. And when they got there, they found not only Doug, but the Memphis Horns and another friend of Doug's, the legendary San Antonio accordionist Flaco Jimenez on his first trip out of Texas.
(Soundbite of song, "Ya No Llores")
LOUIE AND THE LOVERS: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)
WARD: To my ears, that was about the best thing on the session. The rock stuff sounds crowded, what with all the talent in the room. And even though the vocals for the entire album were re-recorded in Hollywood, after spending tons of money on it, Atlantic shelved it. Back in Prunedale, two of the guys left for day jobs, and Louie and Frank Paredes soldiered on playing around Salinas and making a living at it.
One day in the early '80s, Louie found himself at a Doug Sahm show at the Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles, and Doug called him on stage to sing "I Know That You Know." Shortly thereafter, Louie got a call from Doug asking if he could go on tour. The next day, he was on a plane to the Midwest. From then until Doug died in 1999, Louie played not only in the various versions of the Sir Douglas Quintet, but later in the Texas Tornados, the supergroup Doug formed with keyboardist Augie Meyers, Freddie Fender and Flaco Jimenez.
He's still writing and recording songs, living in San Luis Obispo. As he told me a few years ago, he can work seven days a week if he wants to. Cesar Rojas of Los Lobos is a fan. Me, too.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the South of France. He blogs at wardinfrance.blogspot.com.
You can hear three songs by Louie and the Lovers, including "Tomorrow Just Might Change" on our website freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.