Legendary Chicano vocalist Little Willie G., whose fantastic
musical odyssey began in the early 60’s, has a brand
new CD out on Hightone Records, produced by David Hidalgo
of Los Lobos. It’s entitled “Make Up for
the Lost Time.” He does exactly that on this soulful
collection of r&b, jazz-tinged and gospel-flavored songs
that show that his vocal abilities have continued to evolve.
The musicians are top of the line, including David Hidalgo
and Conrad Lozano of Los Lobos, Kid Ramos and Rev. Charles
Williams, among others. The arrangements are excellent,
done by Willie’s former Midniter band mate, Romeo Prado,
David Hidalgo and others, often in collaboration with Willie
Little Willie G., along with “Little
Ray” Jimenez, were the brightest singing stars in East
L.A.’s golden age of rock & roll, the 1960s.
At a time when several other east side bands enjoyed national
hit records, Little Willie G. and his band, Thee Midniters,
always managed to be the headliners everywhere they performed.
They had the sound, image, showmanship, and charisma to do
so. Their musical style was a mix of r&b, ballads
and British invasion music. Little Willie G. & Thee
Midniters made several albums and many singles that were very
popular, particularly in Southern California. Their
version of “Land of a Thousand Dances” reached
#67 on the national charts and they enjoyed several local
and regional hits. The fact that many of their recordings
have been bootlegged to this day, both on vinyl and CD, is
a testament to the popularity of their music.
Little Willie G. (Willie Garcia)
grew up in South Central Los Angeles at a time when it was
racially mixed. His neighborhood was near the area where
the infamous “Sleepy Lagoon” incident took place
in the 40s. The story was depicted in the Luis Valdez
play and movie, “Zoot Suit.” Willie started
singing at the age of eight with the encouragement of his
older brother “Guero,” who played guitar.
At age nine, Willie won a talent show as part of a singing
group. The prize was $20, which was used to buy cheeseburgers
and 78 rpm records. The experience left him bitten by
the show biz bug. Willie’s first band was called
The Gentiles, whose name came from a Jewish member’s
father who was not happy his son was playing with “those
Gentiles.” The Gentiles played around Los Angeles
and often ventured into Orange County, where they once played
in a battle of the bands with The Spats, who had Bill Medley
and Bobby Hatfield as vocalists that day. (Medley and
Hatfield were later to become the Righteous Brothers).
Willie soaked up all he could from the groups he saw, but
also from his record collection. He learned from the
recordings of r&b artists like Jackie Wilson, Jesse Belvin,
James Brown, and Hank Ballard; Latin artists, such as Pedro
Vargas, Juan Mendoza, Javier Solis and Miguel Aceves Mejia,
as well as popular singers, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat
King Cole and Johnny Mathis. He also learned a great
deal about stage presence and live performing from watching
the great Latin artists of the time at downtown L.A. venues
like the Million Dollar Theater.
When Thee Midniters broke up in 1969,
Willie started hanging out on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood,
where he saw the Doors, Byrds and Buffalo Springfield perform.
He began to do solo gigs at the Ash Grove, Whiskey and Troubadour,
sporting long hair and going by the name Antonio Garcia.
In the early 70s, Willie teamed up with “Little Ray”
Jimenez to form a group called God’s Children.
(They had previously worked together in the early 60s when
Ray did a stint with Thee Midniters). God’s Children,
who were a secular group, recorded for Uni Records and sang
the theme song for the TV series “Matt Lincoln.”
Willie’s next break came when a photographer friend
brought members of the group Malo to see him perform at Kabuki’s
Night Club in Eagle Rock, California. Malo, who were
in town to play at the Santa Monica Civic, were impressed
and asked Willie to join the band. At first he declined
due to previous commitments, but when they asked him again
six months later he was available. Willie moved to San
Francisco and sang lead vocals on Malo’s “Asencion”
album. He toured with the group for a year, sharing
the stage with the James Gang, Rare Earth, Dr. John, The Temptations,
Tower of Power, and Harry Chapin. Willie left Malo due
to road burn out, cocaine abuse, and to assume the responsibility
of his parent’s house.
When he got back to L.A., he rejoined Thee Midniters and began
to use heroin. For four years he used heroin, cocaine,
and abused alcohol. His dreams were abandoned and he
was living in denial. What saved him was a chance gig
at TBN (Christian Television) in Orange County, which led
him to attend various services and hear testimonials.
Willie became a believer after a profound religious experience
and found he no longer wanted or needed to do drugs and alcohol.
He stopped cold and has been clean since 1980. In 1981,
Willie began to minister for Victory Outreach Church and spread
the word to inner city youth. (He went to seminary and
was ordained in 1984). He has recorded two Christian
albums as Willie G. and toured extensively over the last 16
years ministering and singing Christian music. One of
the albums, entitled "Listening For Your Heart,"
has a great version of Bob Dylan's "You Gotta Serve Somebody"
with some new lyrics added by Willie to bring the song's meaning
home to the Chicano community. Willie also sang
on the Grammy Award winning “Mercy” album with
I first saw Little Willie G. &
Thee Midniters at St. Alphonsus Auditorium in East Los Angeles
in 1963 when I was about 13 years old. “Little
Ray” Jimenez was also singing with them at the time.
At that show, I witnessed one of the half a dozen or so times
they did the following routine: The curtains opened
to the sound of Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green
Onions” with the dark-suited and glittery-masked Midniters
in step to the music. At the conclusion of the bluesy
instrumental they threw their masks into the audience, which
was very effective in bringing the audience to a near frenzy.
Within a year or so, my bands, Mark & the Escorts and
later the Men from S.O.U.N.D., would be sharing the stage
with Thee Midniters many times over the next few years.
We played east side venues such as the Big and Little Union
Halls, St. Alphonsus Auditorium, Montebello Ballroom, Kennedy
Hall, Boulevard Theatre, and even in the parking lot of Jonson’s
Market on Whittier Boulevard. The most memorable was
at the “West Coast East Side Revue” at the Shrine
Auditorium in Los Angeles. East L.A.’s most popular
bands performed, but Little Willie G. & Thee Midniters,
in particular, inspired a “Beatlemania” kind of
response. Little Willie G. was only in his teens during
Thee Midniters' heyday, yet he already had a mature voice
and a Sinatraesque relaxed command on stage that is extremely
rare in someone so young.
I reconnected with Willie after meeting
his manager, Gene Aguilera, at a Chicano music conference
at U.C. Riverside in the summer of 2000. We set
up a meeting with Willie at Gene’s house in Montebello,
California, where we did the interview for this article.
Willie was articulate, candid, and had a tremendous memory
for details of events that transpired throughout his life.
His new CD is getting good reviews in the U.S. and Europe
and he’s performing live to promote it while continuing
his work with Victory Outreach. Some of Little Willie
G. & Thee Midniters’ recordings are available on
Rhino/Zyanya Records on vinyl. “The
Best of Malo” is available on GNP Crescendo Records and
includes five songs sung by Little Willie G. His
current CD “Making Up for the Lost Time” is available on Hightone Records.
If you want to hear one of the great voices in Chicano music
history, pick up his new CD and while your at it, check out
some of his previous recordings.
was based on an audio taped interview by Mark Guerrero with
Little Willie G. in Montebello, California on May 15, 2000.
Little Willie G. is once again performing with Thee Midniters
on an occasional basis. To celebrate the release of
"Thee Midniters Greatest" on Thump Records, Little
Willie G. and Thee Midniters performed together at the House
of Blues in Hollywood on January 28, 2003. They were
phenomenal and brought down the house. You can read
about the event and the compilation CD in article
11 on my "Miscellaneous Writings" page.
My band, Mark Guerrero & Radio Aztlán, performed on the
bill with Thee Midniters with special guest Little Willie
G. at the 2003 Latin Oldies Festival in San Bernardino on
November 1, 2003. Click here
to read about that show.
In 2004, Little Willie G. was featured as the lead vocalist
on a track entitled "Is This All There Is" on an
album by Los Lobos called "The Ride." Little
Willie G. is also featured on several tracks of a new CD by
legendary guitarist/producer Ry Cooder called "Chavez
Ravine." Released in 2005, it also features my
dad, Lalo Guerrero, Ersi Arvisu (formerly of The Sisters and
El Chicano), Don Tosti, and other Chicano musical artists.
I also helped on my dad's sessions for a couple of days.
It's a great album which will further advance Willie's career,
as well as the cause of Chicano music in general.
In late 2006, Little Willie G. was a guest on my "Chicano
Music Chronicles" internet radio show. We played
recordings from throughout Willie's career and talked about
both the recordings and his career. The show is archived
on the "Chicano Music Chronicles" page on my website
to hear at your convenience. A high speed internet connection
is recommended. Click here
to get to the page. On November 11, 2008, I performed
on the bill with Little Willie G. & Thee Midniters on
a taping of a PBS television special called "Trini Lopez
Presents Latin Music Legends," which will air in March
of 2009. Also on the bill were Trini Lopez, Tierra,
El Chicano, and the Greg Rolie Band.
In 2012, Little Willie G and I were invited by Louie Perez of
Los Lobos to perform as guest artists in a show which followed a
performance of a play Louie co-wrote called "Evangeline- The
Queen of Make Believe." The play, which is inspired by Los
Lobos' song "Evangeline," is about an East L.A. devoted daughter
by day and Hollywood go go dancer by night. The story
takes place in the 1960s amid the political turbulence of the
Viet Nam War and the East L.A. student walkouts, featuring the
songbook of Louie Perez and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos.
The play and our performances took place at the Bootleg Theater
in the Echo Park district of Los Angeles. Willie and I
were backed by the band Cava.
You can purchase CDs by Little Willie G and by Thee Midniters
featuring Little Willie G from the amazon.com links below.
All - Little Willie G. with Thee Midniters 1964