Hirth Martinez is Chicano music’s best kept secret.
I was introduced to him by Gene Aguilera, a mutual friend
who manages vocalist Little Willie G. Little Willie
G. recorded one of Hirth’s early songs in the mid-sixties
when Willie was a member of the legendary East L.A. band,
Thee Midniters. Hirth is a world-class singer/songwriter
and guitarist. His voice can have the smoothness of
Chris Montez, the gruff edge of Bob Dylan, or the bluesy attitude
of Dr. John. His songs run the gamut from Jobim-styled
sambas and melodic ballads to blues and jazz. Hirth’s
resume reads like a drunkard’s dream. His career
as a solo recording artist began with a helping hand from
Bob Dylan. He’s written songs with Donald Fagen
of Steely Dan. His songs have been covered by the likes
of Carly Simon, Paul Butterfield, Manfred Mann, and Julio
Iglesias. He’s performed and recorded with some
of the greats of our time. In the biography of the Band
called "Across the Great Divide" by Barney Hoskyns,
Bob Dylan is quoted as describing Hirth as "extraordinary."
Dylan also once described Hirth as a cross between Howling
Wolf and Dave Brubeck.
Hirth Martinez grew up in East Los
Angeles and attended my alma mater, Garfield High School,
though he graduated a year before I arrived. His father’s
roots go back to Mexico and his mother’s to the Basques
of Spain, from whom the name Hirth originates. During
the sixties, he worked as a guitarist with Latin artists Don
Tosti, Joe Loco, and Sal Chico, jazz artists including Art
Pepper and Joe Pass, and toured with the great Ray Charles.
He was also active as a session man in the L.A. studios, where
he worked with the likes of Barney Kessel and James Burton.
Although he was working all the time, either live or in the
studio, his true passion was songwriting. He spent most
of his time writing songs, amassing a catalog of hundreds
of songs. In 1974, through a simple twist of fate, his
songs came to the attention of Bob Dylan, who liked what he
heard. Bob hooked Hirth up with Robbie Robertson, who
was then leader and chief songwriter with The Band.
Robbie was also impressed and decided to work with Hirth.
After pouring over hundreds of songs, they selected the songs
for Hirth’s first album “Hirth from Earth,”
which Robertson produced. It was released on Warner
Brothers Records in 1975. The album featured thirteen
excellent songs by Hirth and some of the best musicians in
the business, including Russ Kunkel, Chuck Rainey, Ben Keith,
Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm. Although
it didn’t receive the attention it deserved with the
public, word got around the musical community and Hirth got
personal compliments from artists Joni Mitchell, James Taylor,
Paul Simon, and Frank Zappa, who all liked his record.
He received some great reviews, most notable are write ups
by Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times and Mikal Gilmore
for Rolling Stone Magazine. I like every song on “Hirth
from Earth,” but my favorites are the Dylanesque “Winter
Again,” a hilarious funky blues called “The Way
It’s Gotta Go,” the cosmic “Comin’
Round the Moon,” and two soft melodic songs with poetic
imagery, “Silent Movies” and “You Are a
In 1977, Warner Brothers released
Hirth’s second album called “Big Bright Street.”
Once again Hirth did his job and filled the record with fine
songs. For this collection the musicians included, among
others, drummers Steve Gadd, John Guerin, and Jim Keltner,
bassist Max Bennet, Dr. John (Mac Rebennak), and the return
of Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson. The album was
produced by John Simon, who had co-produced albums by The
Band, and featured Hirth consistently using the bluesy and
edgy side of his vocal style. My favorite songs on this
collection are the title track “Big Bright Street,”
“Love Song,” "The Moone Toone," “Valley
of the Music,” the country flavored “The Circle
Song,” “Only In America, Jim,” and the very
funny “Mothman Samba.”
In 1998, Hirth recorded and released
an album called "I'm Not Like I Was Before" for
Japan’s Dreamworks label. It was also produced by John
Simon, some 21 years after Hirth and John collaborated on
“Big Bright Street.” It showcases Hirth
in a jazzier context. His songwriting has continued
to evolve and although it's still pop and accessible, the
sophistication, attitude, and style of the record shows that
Hirth can now be considered a bonafide jazz artist.
Standout songs on this album are “5/4 Samba,”
"The Girl," “These Days,” "Somewhere
In the Power of Her Love," and the humorous “Busy
Man.” Due to the success of his latest album,
as well as the reissue of his previous albums, Hirth is well
known and appreciated in Japan, where he tours and performs
to enthusiastic fans. In April of 1999, he recorded
a live album in Tokyo entitled “I Love To Play For You,”
which was released in 2000. It contains songs from all
his albums and includes three previously unreleased original
songs. One of them, "Alarming the Stillness," was
done "live" and the other two are new studio recordings
featuring Valerie Carter, singing duets with Hirth, and Van
Dyke Parks on accordion. Most of the album is Hirth
performing solo, while on several tracks he's accompanied
by John Simon on piano and John Hall on guitar. He also
does four covers including John Sebastian's "Daydream,"
Bob Dylan's "Down Along the Cove," and the classic
"Bye Bye Blackbird." In 2001, Hirth contributed
two tracks to "Hoagyland: Tribute to Hoagy Carmichael,"
also on the Dreamworks label. The songs were "In
the Cool Cool of the Evening" and "Baltimore Oriole,"
which features the harmonica of John Sebastian, formerly of
The Lovin’ Spoonful.
Hirth’s influences come from
many genres. Some he mentioned include songwriters of the
40s, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Van Heusen;
country music’s Don Gibson, Doc Watson, and Willie Nelson;
from jazz, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker; from pop/rock,
Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Harry Nilsson, Van Morrison,
Randy Newman and Ray Charles; from folk, Tom Paxton and Phil
Ochs; from Latin, Carlos Jobim and Lalo Guerrero. (In
case you're wondering, he included my dad with no prompting
from me). Hirth Martinez has musicians on both sides
of his family, which gave him some musical DNA with which
to work. Add to that the inspiration he derived from
the people mentioned above, and Hirth has evolved into a unique
artist. He is a great songwriter, both musically and
lyrically. His melodies and chord structure can be elegantly
simple or very sophisticated. His lyrics are intelligent,
quirky, sometimes cosmic, sometimes humorous, and other times
sensitive and soulful. It borders on the criminal that
his recordings are not currently available in the American
market. However, you can get all his albums as Japanese
imports. His first two albums are also available as
imports on amazon.com. If you want to order any or all
of his albums from a store, here are the serial numbers: “Hirth
from Earth,” Warner Pioneer Corp., WPCP-4916 (Japan
1992); “Big Bright Street,” Warner Pioneer Corp.,
WPCP-4917 (Japan 1992); “I’m Not Like I Was Before,”
Dreamsville Records, YDCD-0001 (Japan 1998); and “I
Love To Play For You (Live in Japan)”, YDCD-0030 (Japan
2000). I highly recommend you buy one or more of these
CDs and enter the wonderful world of Hirth Martinez.
I've had the pleasure of playing guitars with Hirth on a
couple of occasions in his living room and can tell you first
hand, he's a great talent and an interesting and humorous guy to
be around. I particularly enjoy accompanying him on his
songs, which to me are nothing short of phenomenal. Hirth has two websites of his
own, which you can access from my "related links"
was based on an audio taped interview by Mark Guerrero with
Hirth Martinez in East Los Angeles on November 27, 2001.
Mark's interview with Hirth by clicking the link in the
Mark Guerrero plays selected recordings by
singer/songwriter Hirth Martinez from his Warner Brothers
albums of the 70s though his CDs of the late 90s. Hirth
is in studio with Mark discussing how he was "discovered"
by Bob Dylan, produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band, and
his popularity in Japan. Click here to
hear the show, which was originally broadcast on crnlive.com in May and
June of 2007. (91 minutes 11 seconds)
Recordings Featured on the radio show
1. All Together Alone
2. Winter Again 3. Comin' 'Round the Moon 4.
That's the Way It's Gotta Go 5. You Are a Star
6. Big Bright Street 7. The Moone Tune 8.
The Mothman Samba 9. Old Friends 10. 5/4 Samba
11. The Girl 12. Busy Man 13. These
Days 14. Somewhere In the Power of Her Love
For more information on Hirth, visit his official
You can also purchase Hirth CDs from the amazon.com link at
the bottom of this page.