El Gusano

“Fantasia del Barrio is a musical interpretation of expressions and experiences that are felt when one lives there. It is dedicated to the people who year after year journey away from their home to attain better well being for their families. It is about those who wrap themselves in dreams in search of reality. It’s a remembrance of a hellish war that many of our brothers met with by chance. It is also a request about the wants and needs of a people. Their happiness, sadness, downfalls and triumphs. It is in the end for the friends of the world who want to live at peace with themselves.”

– Eugenio “Gene” Jaimez, from the original LP jacket

Nearly 9,000 miles separate Cotulla, Texas from the lush tropical mountains of the Binh Dinh province along the south central coast of Vietnam. For Eugenio “Gene” Jaimez, the small town of Cotulla, which lies halfway between San Antonio and the Mexican border, was home. Like so many young men plucked from their reality and thrust into surreality, Gene was drafted into a psychedelic war at the age of 19. He spent Christmas of 1966 not at the Catholic church where he served as an altar boy growing up, but at a military landing zone along the Kim Son River in Binh Dinh.

At 1 a.m. on December 27, the relative calm of a holiday truce was punctured by the crackling of gunfire. Hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers breached the perimeter of the U.S. landing zone dubbed LZ Bird. After 60 nightmarish minutes, more than 200 North Vietnamese soldiers lay dead. Of the 200 Americans, half were killed or seriously wounded. Shrapnel from a mortar round ruptured Gene’s abdomen, an injury from which he has never fully recovered.

“It was a bad scene for both sides which I don’t care to relive these days,” he says.

Fantasia del Barrio, a deeply personal work of instrumental introspection, is Gene’s meditation on the Vietnam War and the Chicano experience at home. On the original LP jacket from 1975, he dedicates the album to those “that want to live at peace with themselves,” a luxury he has never been afforded himself. The man who spearheaded El Gusano wielding a ‘66 Fender Stratocaster suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. The resulting anxiety makes it difficult for Gene to meet new people and for this release he answered questions in writing, using his son as an intermediary.

After the injury at LZ Bird, Gene finished his tour of duty in Tokyo, Japan, stroking guitar with an R&B band of servicemen in his free time. “I played with a band of soul brothers. I believe the name of the band was The Sensations or something to that effect. We played mostly Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and such.”

Before and after the war, Gene played with local conjuntos, performing Tejano and Top 40 covers in bars from San Antonio to Laredo. A self-taught guitarist, he loved the Westside Sound of San Antonio ñ Sunny and the Sunliners, Freddie Fender, Dough Sahm, Sonny Ace – that reached Cotulla on the airwaves of KTSA and KONO, two of the only radio stations that could be picked up in town.

Born of casual jam sessions and a shared taste in music and recreational drugs, El Gusano formed in 1975. Fantasia del Barrio was Gene’s singular vision, an amalgamation of all the music he loved that somehow sounded like none of it. It was the conjunto of his childhood, the R&B he played in Tokyo and the rock and roll he heard on the radio all rolled into a stunning acid-induced concept record.

“We were all rock and rollers,” boasts El Gusano drummer Sonny Ramirez. “We dug our heritage and we loved Tejano music but if we had a choice we’d play rock and roll and blues.”

The strange brew didn’t convert many Cotullans. Most met the music with a mix of perplexity and disdain.  ”When my daddy heard this album he was so pissed off, man,” Sonny said. Of course, his father had a vested interest. Sonny’s brother Ruben Ramirez, all of 14 years old at the time, played bass on the record. “Nobody understood what we were doing, nobody except the band and a few other friends. Everybody else was in their little conjunto world with their accordion and stuff like that, and we were outsiders.”

The band fit in fine at Juan Tutri 10 PM, the only Cotulla hangout that might pass for progressive. The album track named for that bohemian bar rides Gene’s breezy guitar melody and is the sunniest song on a sometimes melancholic journey; a happy sound for a happy place.

“We could go in there and do whatever we felt like doing and nobody would criticize us and people would just have fun and listen to us,” Sonny remembers.” We loved that little cantina.”

Juan Tutri 10 PM doubled as a meeting space for members of La Raza Unida Party (RUP), the Chicano political party birthed in nearby Crystal City. Before RUP rocked the status quo in 1970, Mexican Americans had no voice in local politics despite accounting for more than 70 percent of Cotulla’s population. Facing fierce resistance from the political establishment, RUP wrestled control of the city council in 1970 and won seats on the local school board. RUP candidate Afredo Zamora, Jr was elected mayor, defeating Paul Cotulla of the town’s founding family. By the time El Gusano recorded their ghetto fantasy, Raza Unida had lost momentum in much of the Lone Star State but Cotulla remained a stronghold.

“We weren’t like the Hells Angels or anti-American or anything like that,” Sonny explains. “We were just worried about our Hispanic base and about how we were being treated.”

The politics of the time manifest on album opener “Work Your Hand to the Bone,” a loping Minimoog funk jam for workers on every farm and in every factory. The track was recorded in 1975 at the studio of Joey Records in San Antonio as part of the ten-hour marathon session that spawned Fantasia del Barrio. The studio had just purchased a brand new 8-track recorder and, as luck would have it, El Gusano got to break it in. Every song was recorded in a single take, warts and all, with layers of percussion, synthesizers and accompaniment from a 12-string guitar added later.

“It was just a big old party, it wasn’t a disciplined session,” Sonny recalls. “We were there drinking and partying in the studio. We had practiced these songs so much that when we got into the studio the actual recording of it came easy. We made bologna sandwiches there, crashed, woke up and carried on. It was a fun time.”

Gene puts it more bluntly: “I think that we should have been more disciplined and less plastered.”

What the band lacked in sobriety it made up for with ingenuity, crafting high concept music with low budget instruments.

“Whenever you hear chimes on the record they aren’t actually chimes,” Sonny delights. “We were poor and our instruments were poor. I couldn’t afford any chimes. The studio at the time was going through some construction so I walked outside and found a bunch of nails and bolts and stuff like that. I tied them on a string and tied that to a coat hanger and made it into a chime, man! I even used a crowbar. I hung it by a string and was hitting it with a pair of pliers or a screwdriver.”

The band paid for a private pressing of 300 copies of Fantasia del Barrio. Distribution consisted of Gene, Sonny, Ruben and saxophonist Carlos Salazar handing out free copies to their friends. Only a handful of the original LPs were actually sold and fewer still are known to exist today. While El Gusano has remained virtually unknown, Fantasia del Barrio has earned Holy Grail status among the most dedicated diggers of psych and break records. In 2009, Austin musician and record collector Jason Chronis ended the long search for band members by locating Gene.

Sonny, 57, now lives in Victoria, about 40 miles from the Gulf Coast in southeast Texas where he works long hours as a salesman for a beer distributor. Gene, 63, has settled in Laredo and spends much of his time fashioning string instruments by hand. Among his creations are hybrids like the “dulcitar,” a melding of the guitar and dulcimer.

“I think I’ve always wanted to build my own instruments,” he says. “In fact, I might enjoy that more than making music. I’m limited in what I can construct since I only use a jigsaw, a hand drill, glue, sandpaper, stains and, of course, whatever suitable wood I come across.”

Sonny describes Gene’s creations as strange but beautiful. The same could be said for the music of Fantasia del Barrio and Gene’s hand drawn cover art depicting Plaza Florita, a landmark of Cotulla’s impoverished barrio. The plaza sits directly across the street from Welhausen School, a historically separate but unequal institution for the town’s Latino population where a young Lyndon B. Johnson served as teacher and principal from 1928-1929.

Moments before signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, President Johnson said, “I shall never forget the faces of the boys and the girls in that little Welhausen Mexican School, and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor. And I think it was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”

The plight of those living in Cotulla’s barrio sparked Johnson’s quest for social justice at home. As Gene Jaimez’ commander in chief, his decision to escalate the war in Vietnam changed one of those lives forever. Fantasia del Barrio was Gene’s musical therapy, an attempt to come to terms with the horrors he witnessed half a world away. For the rest of El Gusano it represented a journey beyond the confines of Cotulla.

“We were kids, kids that were learning our instruments and trying to escape from reality at the time,” Sonny says. “In Cotulla there was absolutely nothing. You went to school and then you worked on the ranches and that’s all you did. That music was our escape from reality.”

– Thomas Fawcett, September 2010, Austin, Texas

The Relatives

On a simmering Sunday morning in a tiny brick church in West Dallas, the Reverend Gean West delivers an ambling sermon to a congregation of 15 people. His gravelly voice competes with the constant hum of the air conditioner as he holds court on Psalm 23, comparing the late Michael Jackson to the biblical King David. The finer points of the sermon are punctuated by notes from an electric keyboard played by a young nephew of the Reverend. In fact, most of the parishioners at God’s Anointed Community Church of God in Christ are related to West, who has eight children and “a whole slew of grandkids,” in one way or another.

Like the phenomenal funky gospel band West fronted for a decade beginning in 1970, The Relatives would be a fitting name for this congregation.

Born in Marlin, Texas on April 3, 1936, God and music have long been guiding – and occasionally competing – forces in the life of Gean West. As a child he would mimic preachers to entertain his parents and neighbors. “I would shout – ‘Hah!’ – because that’s what I thought preachers did,” West remembers. “I would say, ‘My mama’s good! Hah! My daddy’s got the devil!’ They would be laughing, giving me quarters, you know.”

But music came before the ministry. West was singing in a neighborhood boys’ choir at age five and crooning gospel standards on street corners by his teenage years. A night of fighting and cruising through Dallas in a stolen car earned him a five year jail sentence in 1952 and it was after his release – hastened because the warden liked his singing – that West first felt called by God.

“I went up on that alter and I got on my knees and those women were over me telling me what to say. They told me to say, ‘Lord, I give up everything. I give up all my sins.’ I said what they told me to say. This is the truth, man. Something came over me and just went all over my body and went down to the soles of my feet. Them old sisters seen what was happening with me and whispered in my ear, ‘The more you feel him the more you thank him.’ You know what they were talking about was God, the spirit of God. The more you feel him the more you thank him. I just went to thanking him and thanking him and thanking him and kept thanking him.”

After a stint as associate minister at a Dallas church, West began touring with the Sensational Golden Knights in 1958 and a year later was singing with the Mighty Golden Voices. By 1961 the gospel group had settled in St. Paul, Minnesota and West hit the road with the Southernaires, a vocal group out of Shreveport, Louisiana.

relatives2WEBIn the early 1960s the Southernaires camped out in Houston determined to cut a side for Peacock records, Don Robey’s black-owned powerhouse R&B and gospel label. The group caught the ear of a label representative after burning up the stage at a local revue, scoring a subsequent meeting and recording session with Robey.

“Listen, this is the God’s heaven truth,” West testifies. “Don Robey tried to get me to switch to R&B before James Brown got famous with that holler. He tried to get me to do that holler because they told him the way I was hollering at the show. He said, ‘They tell me you act like a monkey on the stage.’ He tried to get me to do that holler and tried to get me away from the gospel group and put me into R&B. That’s before James Brown got famous. That’s the God’s heaven truth.”

Citing a higher calling, West refused to put the pulpit in pop. Less than a decade later, however, he would explode the boundaries of gospel with The Relatives. Robey wanted West to bring gospel-styled shouting to R&B but he did precisely the opposite, poaching elements of psychedelic soul and gut-bucket funk to add to his gospel repertoire.

Formed in Dallas in 1970 by Gean West and his brother Tommy, The Relatives cut three genre-bending singles during their decade-long run that were too freaky for the church and too righteous for R&B radio. Though pioneers of an utterly singular sound, the Relatives never made a splash outside of Dallas and have remained virtually unknown even among serious record collectors.

The Relatives first single, “Walking On,” was released on Shreveport’s Lewis records in 1971. Propelled by a relentless bass line and a fuzzy effects-laden guitar, the track sounds like the Mighty Clouds of Joy on acid. Talk about a higher calling.

The poignant flipside, “Speak to Me,” finds the group in the well-worn shoes of a black Vietnam War veteran, asking God to explain the racial injustices of America. “Back in that time it was tough for a young black,” West says. “We knew friends that had went into the service and gotten out and couldn’t get a job, couldn’t borrow much over a hundred dollars. They went and fought, got cut up, got broke up. That’s why we asked if a black man would go fight for his country what good would that do him when he came back home.”

If “Speak to Me” asks the man upstairs for answers, “Don’t Let Me Fall,” the Relatives’ second single from 1971 on Hosanna records, desperately pleads for his help. The crushing ballad is sprinkled with the weeping notes of guitarist Charles Ray Mitchell as West begs, “Here I am Lord, don’t let me fall.” An emotional hurricane, the song evokes faith as the only source of light during life’s darkest depths. The slow build crescendos with a lyrical gut-punch: “Life is a cancer as big as the world…don’t let me fall!”

“Don’t let me fall, I’ve been as far as I can go,” West explains of the song. “Man’s extreme is God’s opportunity. I can’t go no further. I’m at a crossroads. I don’t know whether to go right, left, backwards or forwards. All I can do is put my trust in you. I got enough faith in you to know that whatever you do, that’s gonna be the thing to do. So here I am. Don’t let me fall.”

The B-side mixes holy and secular sounds like few songs ever have. “Let’s Rap” kick-starts with a strutting James Brown-styled jungle groove before marching straight to church, then sneaking out the back door again on the way to the juke joint. If there were a funkier song about Jesus, angels would be doing the boogaloo in heaven.

In 1975, a shakeup of The Relatives lineup saw Tommy leave the band while several ex-Southernaires were brought into the fold. The new Relatives, still led by West, recorded five songs with prolific Dallas-Fort Worth producer Phil York. Among them was “This World Moving Too Fast,” a message song released as a single with “Free At Last,” a tribute to the slain Martin Luther King, on the B-side.

West may have clung to gospel but he didn’t always live by it. “No sir,” he confesses. “I’ve been so bad it’s pitiful. We were out there playing clubs with The Relatives and you know I wasn’t no preacher with that. I started running around, man, meeting these different women. I just tell it like it is. My life has been raggly!”

After a decade of musical proselytizing at local clubs, hotels and auditoriums and touring the gospel circuit with the likes of the Staple Singers, Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Relatives hung up their instruments in 1980.

With only a few hundred platters ever pressed, The Relatives left little evidence of a legacy. Until now. Four decades removed from their inception and 30 years after their breakup, Don’t Let Me Fall collects all of the known Relatives recordings on the band’s long-delayed and much-deserved full-length LP.

The Reverend, of course, considers the resurrection nothing short of a miracle. “I just felt like it was some of God’s doing. I felt like couldn’t nobody else do this but God. Man, that’s been 35 or 40 years ago. I never would have dreamed that it was gonna happen like this, but it did. I just put it in God’s hands.”

–Thomas Fawcett

LFSB: Leroy Franklin Starbird Band

‘Star Bird’ took full flight in the mind of Leroy Franklin before he’d even recruited the musicians to realize the track in the studio. In 1981, Franklin drew upon the talent he knew in San Antonio to put together a one-shot studio band and booked them for two sessions.

The pool of talent he drew on was deep. At the time, he was working in Mel Waiters’ crack R&B outfit, Mel Production Band, who were known for their tight, funky sound and outstanding live performances. Some San Antonio’s Latino musicians also factored into the ‘Star Bird’ session including conga player, Alonzo “Tibo” Gonzales, and a horn section whose names have been lost to time. Dissatisfied with the first horn section Franklin had hired for the session, legendary studio engineer Manny Guerra told him he could call up a ‘ringer’ of a horn section that day, “but it’ll cost you 50 bucks.” Franklin never met the horn section, but you can hear the exemplary results for yourself.

leroyWEB2With Guerra at the controls, Leroy Franklin and his hired guns launched into the soaring, funky groove that is ‘Star Bird.’ Jeanine Love’s soulful vocal lays down a stone message while the band keeps one foot in the Funk and the other in the spiritual. When Love didn’t show up to cut her vocal for the B-side the next day, ‘Star Bird II’ was born. With hip hop still in it’s infancy (“Rapper’s Delight” less than two years old),

Franklin’s excellent anti-drug rap over the instrumental track to ‘Star Bird’ may be the first hip hop single recorded in Texas.

While ‘Star Bird’ played well locally, it never broke onto the national scene. Leroy Franklin continued his studio work, cutting an unfinished session with Mickey Foster of the legendary Mickey and the Soul Generation, and recording another single under the name Chinook. Seeking a more stable income, Franklin stepped away from the music business in the mid 1980’s. While he’s never returned to music professionally, Franklin plays often and keeps his chops well-honed.

After almost 30 years, the genius of ‘Star Bird’ shines brighter than ever.