The building wasn’t much

The building wasn’t much. The El Monte American Legion Stadium was not a dump; it was several dumps, surrounded by a sea of asphalt. A flagpole skewered the awning in front, like some messy deli sandwich that would come apart when you removed the harpoon.

The building meant a lot, however, in Southern California in the 1950s. Once, you could have plotted a generational handoff happening across America while standing beneath that awning. At the beginning of the decade the stadium was full of World War II vets drinking Lucky Lager and pumping clouds of White Owl cigar smoke and profanities into the air. Voices frayed with the entertainment of the evening—hillbilly singers, roller derby, Mexican boxers, wrestlers like Bobo Brazil and Sputnik Monroe. The venue did okay until those vets had their own kids and going out became a sometime thing. Their kids increasingly took over the place and, by the late-1950s, things went bonkers.

Legion Stadium was one of the few halls where teenagers could dance to live rock and roll in Southern California. Los Angeles, the hulk next door, let the Board of Education decide on a case by case basis when teens could attend public dances (never!)—not coincidentally, this was just when black, white, and brown-skinned kids were starting to gather together in record stores and drive-in restaurant parking lots. Somehow El Monte hadn’t woken to the emerging menace, and Legion Stadium became a spot where dancing, and other stuff, took place in the shadow of the stage.

This past March, right where the Legion shadow once fell, a short, suave, 93-year old dude in a brash purple jacket preened like a roadrunner in the sun. It was Art Laboe Day, the El Monte mayor had proclaimed, and Laboe, in the purple jacket, was soaking up the love of the young folks orbiting him. Born before there was a Legion Stadium, beaming decades after the wrecking ball had returned the structure to the asphalt sea in 1974, Laboe had seen things those around him had not. He was celebrating a revolution he’d helped make, and pop stars he had introduced to the world. Once again, if only for an afternoon, he made this spot seem like the center of the universe.

Legion Stadium, El Monte

They had built a fountain in his honor, in front of a brand new townhouse development. Pictured on its base was a soundwave: the sonic signature of Laboe’s voice.

In conversation he smoothly sums up his broadcasting life in a few deft lines, reaching for fifty-year-old details as if they happened yesterday. He played records live on the air from the parking lot of Scrivener’s Drive-In restaurant in Los Angeles, his voice rising above the squeal of tires and shouted orders for more greaseburgers to introduce “Hey Senorita” by the Penguins or Jesse Belvin’s “Goodnight My Love.” His show brought so many teens to the street that the gendarmes intervened, and Laboe moved on. He teamed up with bandleader and promoter Johnny Otis to put on shows at the Legion. As a radio DJ and rock & roll emcee, Laboe knew where the heat was.

It was happening all across the country: In places where authorities weren’t looking too closely, African-Americans, whites, Asians, and Latinos were mixing on the dance floor, bonding through a music that was barely a decade old. They were fighting, too, with knives and chains at El Monte; but there is bonding in that, as well.

“The audience was very integrated,” says Laboe of the crowds that came to see stars like Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry. “It was mixed, heavily Latino of course in El Monte, black kids coming from Watts, and with a lot of white kids as well, who would come over from Beverly Hills because of the new rock and roll.”

Under a white tent, speaking to folks sitting in folding chairs, Laboe gently steered the crowd back to this spot, 50-plus years before. “If you were listening to the radio in the ‘50s,” he said, you would have heard people who lived and played here, and he mentioned his friend, Ritchie Valens. And then he spoke another name, one that got a bigger round of applause than Valens, though he isn’t nearly as well-known as the singer of “La Bamba.”

“Little Julian Herrera,” he said. “Does that name ring a bell? Little Julian Herrera used to hang around El Monte Legion Stadium all the time. He was here and then he disappeared, we don’t know what happened to him.

Johnny Otis and Art Laboe.

“I get asked a lot, so if anybody knows where he is,” and Laboe left the rest hanging, because the implication was clear: Bring him back to the public. Tell Laboe what you know. “We might make a hit record with him,” he said. The crowd chuckled knowingly.

A photo of Julian Herrera from his Legion days

A photo of Julian Hererra from his Legion days: He sports a dimpled chin, his eyes shyly fail to meet the camera’s glance, his whole face radiating a boyish aw-shucks charm. His black hair combed into a V dipping over his forehead, he looks like the kind of bad news it was going to be fun hanging around with, for the duration of a car ride, a night on the town, or the next morning.

Herrera recorded five singles in his heyday, from 1956 to 1958, classic songs like “I Remember Linda” and “Lonely Lonely Nights,” that singlehandedly all but defined an East Side ballad sound: dreamy, erotic, loose and nocturnal. You could hear a Mexican trio tradition, which went back decades, and the rising vocal groups from South Central, kids still in high school. It must have sounded timeless, even in 1958, timeless and never-before-heard.

Something was going on in El Monte. With artists like Herrera and Ritchie Valens, Rosie and the Originals and the Armenta Brothers all playing there, a Mexican American community was seeing itself on the stage. Power—political, consumer, and star power—was coalescing. A Mexican American had been elected to L.A.’s city council, and barrio residents viewed themselves as a community growing in might. Teens everywhere were crossing racial lines, but in El Monte they were also feeling a pride that comes from being different.

It was a mutual sense of belonging that Herera and his group, the Tigers, brought to the Legion Stadium stage. “Julian made every person in the audience feel he was one of them,” explains Laboe. “He knew what he had and who he was. And he was very good on the stage, would dance around and joke with the people, he had a good personality. He just…made that connection.”

Herrera moved easily, and his roguishness was no act—Laboe remembers introducing him one night and, as he walked off the stage, turning back at the singer and spotting a pint of whiskey poking from his pocket.

Except, it was an act, as became clear to everybody soon enough. In 1958 he and two others were convicted of a rape that had occurred in Griffith Park. The others were charged with statutory rape, but Herrera was found guilty of forcible rape of a 17-year old, and he spent several years in jail. A different story quickly emerged: that Herrera was not exactly what he claimed to be.

Here’s the way Johnny Otis, who died in 2012, once explained it to a journalist: "We made a record with Little Julian Herrera and he became the idol of the young Mexican-American community in Southern California. […] Julian got arrested for the statutory rape of a young Mexican girl and the biggest crowd we ever had at the El Monte Legion Stadium was the night we had the 'Welcome Home Julian Herrera' dance after he came out of jail. The place was full of young Mexican girls, they screamed and they loved him.” Then, Otis said, he got a visit from Herrera’s probation officer. “About a month later I got a visit from a cop who told me Julian had hitchhiked from Massachusetts to East L.A. when he was thirteen and wound up with a Mexican family who raised him.”

Fans soon found out his real name was Ronald Wayne Gregory and he was a Hungarian Jew from Massachusetts. And when they did, they had to figure out how much they cared, and examine who he was, ultimately, to each of them. It’s like the face of Jesus discovered in a tortilla: People see what they want to see when they look at Julian Herrera today.

“I don’t care what people say, he was all Chicano,” Johnny Valenzuela of the Velveteens once said. “I always felt he never got the recognition that he deserves.”

There’s reason to think that Herrera didn’t come up with the persona by himself. Johnny Otis was spending a lot of time in East L.A., promoting shows and observing the exploding East Side teenage market. An astute talent scout, he knew the smell of a hit and was the first to sign Herrera, to his Dig label. Herrera would go on to record for Art Laboe’s Starla label. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, both Otis and Laboe were playing identity games of their own: the dark-complected Otis lived in South Central and represented himself as African-American, even ultimately preaching and writing a column in the African-American newspaper the Los Angeles Sentinel--though he was Greek-American and surnamed Veliotes. Laboe, widely considered Latino from his close identification with Eastside music fans, is Armenian. (“I’m not Latino, but my heart is Mexican,” Laboe, born Egnoian, said on Art Laboe Day.) The early days of rock and roll were a time when all kinds of people were redefining themselves, for fun and profit.

Ruben Molina is a DJ, record collector and author of the book Chicano Soul, an overview of Mexican-American rock and roll. He finds meaning in the way that the Gregory was welcomed when he came to town. “I don’t know if this is contrary to what a lot of people believe, but our community is really inclusive. Just the fact that he was a runaway that found someone to take him in in East Los Angeles and take care of him when he was just a young guy in his teens.”

Molina believes the name was Johnny Otis’s idea, and notes that it, too, is a cultural hybrid: Herrera was the name of the family that took him in; Julian was a nod to Don Julian, a vocal group singer from South Central.

Little Julian Herrera, AKA Ronald Wayne Gregory.

There was something lax and beguiling about the way Little Julian sang; an existence cool and ready that tapped into a whole ballad tradition that thrived in Mexico and lived on with those who left it for Los Angeles. “I always tell people, when they ask what it is about this music—it’s our elevator music!” laughs Molina. You don’t just hear it everywhere. Even today, you see, and you live it. “It’s there in the way we handle our cars, the way people walk, the way people dress. Everything has to be coolness and nothing too herky jerky, nothing too over the top. There’s just a nice, even stride and the music fits.”

Herrera fit in, emphasizes Molina, and nothing mattered as much as that. “That is kind of the way the Mexican-American community is. All my life I have hung out with Filipinos, Japanese, Anglos, various people who kind of inherited our culture. And nobody ever said anything about it or questioned it.”

When he was getting popular, none knew—or cared—that Herrera was anything out of the ordinary, believes Molina. “Maybe when he came off the stage, other artists would catch his accent and hold up,” he wonders. “But the music is exactly the profile of what Chicanos were listening to. So there was really no need to question it—hey, this came from our community, from East Los Angeles.” Pride had power, and pride created its own truth.

In 1963 two freak white fanboys, Frank Zappa and Ray Collins, wrote a song

In 1963 two freaky white fanboys, Frank Zappa and Ray Collins, wrote a song for the vocal group the Penguins that got serious local attention. “Memories of El Monte,” they named it, and among the lyrics were these:

“If I could go back to those days of the past/I’d show you a love, a love that would last/oh I remember those wonderful dances in El Monte.”

By the early 1960s, people were already nostalgically looking back on a scene that was barely over. And a chain of events was being set in motion that would make El Monte seem a very long time ago. In less than a year the Beatles would go on Ed Sullivan Show and launch the British Invasion; surf bands were popping up all across southern California and elsewhere, picking the tempo up. Guitar rock, with white guys leading the charge, was in ascendance. The sound of the Penguins and Julian Herrera was dropping off the charts.

The band Zappa and Collins formed the year of the British Invasion, The Mothers of Invention, celebrated the El Monte sound, and transcended it, too. Others have paid tribute ever since.

In 2005 Guitarist Ry Cooder was putting together a concept album telling the story of Chicano pop, Chavez Ravine, and as he was making it, he fixated on a crazy idea. Cooder had heard the stories about Herrera’s disappearance and diverse accounts of where he might have ended up: that he was a preacher in South Gate, or had gone back to the East Coast, or lived by the Mexican border and just wanted to be left alone. Little Julian must be alive. So Cooder set out to find him, and in an act of ego and ambition hoped to record a duet with him.

Cooder asked Gene Aguilera, a banker and legendary record collector, to help find Herrera. Aguilera knew the music, he knew the musicians. Altogether it was a bit of a noir scenario: A client commissioning an agent to track down the missing man.

Gene Aguilera. Photo by Juliane Backmann

Not that Aguilera needed urging. As the author of books on Latino boxing in Southern California, he is used to running a story down. He came of age right as the Beatles changed everything, including the music of the East Side. He grew up with a transistor radio pressed to his ear, and remembers the first time he heard this fresh voice shouting “Let’s take a trip down Whittier Boulevard!” Whittier was a main street through East Los Angeles, and Thee Midnighters’ 1965 song of the same name was an artery pumping blood through the Chicano pop explosion.

“You could hear this Latino flavor to the song, car horns and somebody in the background going Ariba! Ariba! and this jumping backbeat,” says Aguilera. “And all of a sudden the DJ says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the new record from Thee Midnighters from East L.A…”

Rock and roll wasn’t a sound from the far side of town or across the Atlantic, it was the music of the barrio, too, and it was what Aguilera heard when he walked down the Boulevard with his parents, stopping in at Story Music, the Record Rack, or the Record Inn. And then came Cannibal & the Headhunters, the Premiers, and many more who knew all about the world of Whittier Boulevard. “It put some bounce in our step, puffed out our chests a little bit,” says Aguilera. “And we were proud because our hometown heroes were competing with the best.”

Aguilera explained to Cooder that nobody really knew what happened to Herrera, that he’d never made an album, and how his last singles, a remake of “Lonely Lonely Nights” with a Long Beach surf band in 1963 and then “Your Careless Love” circa 1964, were his swan song. And then, in perhaps 1965, he dropped from view.

With Aguilera offering money for information, people emerged claiming evidence of the singer in the new century. One shadowy club promoter told him that Herrera was living in Lynwood and didn’t want to be bothered by folks—he had found the Lord. “I was told, ‘He doesn’t want to dig up his past again,’” says Aguilera. “I says ‘Look I’ll give this guy 500 bucks. I just want to have lunch with him, look at him—you pick the place.”

“I think I can make that happen,” the middleman said.

Stay by the phone, Aguilera was instructed on a Friday. Don’t move, wait for the call. The would-be shamus ordered takeout the whole weekend. By ten that Sunday his table was piled with pizza boxes and cereal, but the connection was never made. “He conned me,” says Aguilera.

Then a promoter from San Diego declared, “Oh yeah, I can get ahold of him. He’s living in an apartment down here.”

“Just go to his apartment, let me talk to him,” Aguilera urged. “And believe it or not he had me talking to a guy who said he was Little Julian Herrara, but he was stuttering all over the place, kind of rambling…”

Aguilera was not convinced: send me a picture, he said. He received a photo of an old guy in pajamas. He couldn’t tell. But Aguilera knew there was a tattoo on Herrera’s left arm, and said he would pay once he had seen a photo of the left arm.

“The picture [of the tattoo] never came. The word must have gotten out that I was handing out $500 and it just brought out some iffy people and their claims…”

The way Aguilera sees it, Herrera’s downfall was caused both by his own excesses and the onset of rock and roll. The singer’s laconic, sly style was wiped out by the electric guitar, by the Beatles and Thee Midnighters and everyone else. Herrera hung in there for a while, but he was falling. “He went from headlining at the El Monte Legion Stadium to sleeping in the locker room and playing dives along Whittier Boulevard,” laments Aguilera.

In the mid-sixties, he says, Herrera packed up and moved to neon strip of Tijuana, where he sang for peanuts in Avenida Revolución bars and gradually fell off the map. A saxophonist Aguilera knows got a call around then from Herrera urging him to come down and party with him—“there’s free room and board and any chick I wanted for free,” he said. The guy went down and realized it was the kind of fun that was going to kill him if he stayed. “This was probably the last guy to have contact with Little Julian Herrera,” the collector says today.

“He’d be 79 this year. I’d just like to know if he was alive or dead,” he says. “I checked prison records, nothing, I couldn’t flush him out.

“I think he probably died in Tijuana. They don’t have records over there like we do and it’s almost impossible to find out. They probably buried him in an unmarked grave,” he speculates. “We made enough noise over here that it would have probably have flushed him out. But, nothing. Not one peep.”

Carlos Arévalo, the guitarist for contemporary SoCal band Chicano Batman

Carlos Arévalo, the guitarist for contemporary SoCal band Chicano Batman, clicks on his laptop keyboard and pulls up Herrera’s “Lonely Lonely Nights.” A teenage voice crackles over the line.

We were talking about Chicano Batman, which was formed in 2008 and is the de facto house band for neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Echo Park, Highland Park—the gentrified places where Latinos and hipsters share an uneasy social space. Their sound touches on Brazilian tropicália, Peruvian chicha, and Ohio funk, but they center on a light and greasy soul groove that harvests the kind of 45s that would have blasted out of an open window overlooking Whittier Boulevard between 1965 and 1985. A compact band whose grasp is great, Chicano Batman broke through with their 2017 album Freedom Is Free.

As Herrera plays in the background, the talk turns to Chicano Soul—as a music, and something larger than music. “Well, to me it means oldies,” he begins. “Sunday afternoons, when growing up you would hear Art Laboe on the radio. Still do!

“You would hear a lot of soul dating from the ‘60s and ‘70s—black soul music and then Sunny and the Sunliners, Thee Midnighters. And then ‘Chicano Soul’ makes me think of lowrider culture—the cars and the lowrider album compilations, essentially they were these bootleg records they would sell at swap meets that featured amazing soul music often from Chicano artists. They became incredibly influential. It’s just that beautiful sound that we’re inspired by as a band. And that whole aesthetic and vibe that you only get if you’re from California or the Southwest.”

Chicano Batman

Arévalo heard the music of East L.A. organically, by living his life: it reached him through everything from hip-hop samples to college classes he took in Chicano and ethnic studies. Today Arévalo thinks it might be a little harder today for an artist to win a Chicano audience by faking an identity within the culture. “I think right now, this is a time when disenfranchised people and people of color are experiencing an awakening. And it’s important for consumers and fans to see people like them doing things in the mainstream.

“Cardi B, she represents her Latina side as well as her black roots and that’s something really beautiful,” Arévalo says. “Traditionally maybe it wasn’t a good idea to flaunt your Latino roots if you were trying to break out—it might have pigeonholed you and not get you to that next level. But now,” he pauses, “Now it’s just where people are going.”

“Lonely Lonely Nights” ends. Arévalo has read Ruben Molina’s book on Chicano Soul, and describes from memory a photograph in it, a classic album cover: Art Laboe’s I Remember El Monte. The rest of the album’s title is at least as interesting: “The Best of L.A.’s Rock and Roll.” Just rock and roll, not Mexican-American rock and roll.

He can see the cover before him: “People in the dance hall, looking up at the camera, and you see what is primarily a Latino audience,” he notes. “When people think of Latinos”—and by people, I think he means white people—“a lot of time mainstream people don’t understand those are all American kids from the 1950s. People sometimes conceptualize immigration as something immediate, as others who just got here. But in Los Angeles, Latinos were here before it was the United States.” So, who are the real immigrants? And: Who’s glad they didn’t build a wall back then?

The audience in the picture is well put together: a joker wearing a king-sized sombrero, couples dressed up for a Saturday night, a schmear of pomade and skinny ties. “That photo is so diverse, there are black folks, white folks too, people coming together over this popular culture,” says Arévalo. “The lines in the sand are left behind and everyone’s here to dance.”

And down in the bottom right corner, popping his fingers and looking America in the eye, is your Armenian-Mexican-American master of ceremonies, Art Laboe. The photo was taken in 1960, and a sea of faces pushes behind and beyond Laboe, past the edge of the album cover. Spilling out past the hall, past Whittier Boulevard, past the city of Los Angeles and the Land of 1000 Dances. The capacity of El Monte Legion Stadium was 3000, but the number of people actually contained here is larger than that. Indeed, there’s a sense in which it is infinite.

Just outside the frame are kids getting ready to attend Salesian High School. At Salesian, in Boyle Heights, band director W.A. Taggert will book a dementedly impressive all-star cast of the next generation of local legends like the Blue Satins, the Goofy Six Plus One, Ronnie & the Casuals, released locally on three live albums that are group portraits of the next generation. The couples waving behind Laboe had kids, who grew up and hung out at the Vex and in backyard beer parties in the late 1970s, forming Chicano punk bands and creating their own scene serenaded by bands like the Zeros, the Brat and the Plugz. “Not pictured in the photograph,” as the expression goes, but very much there.

Look closely, and maybe you’ll even spot Little Julian Herrera.

Gene Aguilera knows exactly what he would say if he was lucky enough to cast his eyes up him at this late date. “I’d say ‘Little Julian, I’ve spent many years looking for you, what a great artist you were, you influenced me so much. You know you weren’t an angel, but all is forgiven. Come back, I want to throw you a big party in East L.A.

“And you know what? After that, you can go back to wherever you came from. We just want to know what happened. It’s an L.A. mystery.”

RJ Smith is a journalist based in the Midwest. His books include American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank (Da Capo, 2017) and The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (Gotham, 2012). His work has appeared in GQ, SPIN, The New York Times Magazine, Vibe, and Yeti. He is currently working on a biography of Chuck Berry.