Art Brambila: Brown Bag Productions & the Mean Salsa Machine
by Mark Guerrero
Art Brambila was quite busy and
productive in the 1970s. In that decade he created a
music production company called Brown Bag Productions,
through which he was able to help secure major record deals for
Chicano rock artists Tierra, Yaqui, and yours truly, Mark
Guerrero. He created a television show, "The Mean
Salsa Machine," a Latino dance show that during its run
challenged "American Bandstand" and "Soul Train" in the Los
Angeles ratings. He worked for Motown Records, ABC
Television, and Universal Pictures. As if all this
wasn't enough, he also produced an album dedicated to Cesar Chavez
and the UFW, with the proceeds going to the organization,
called "Si Se Puede."
Art Brambila grew up on Clover St. in Lincoln Heights, which is
a district in East Los Angeles. As a teenager he was part
of the Clover Street gang and was kicked out of three schools.
He didn't steal or do drugs, he mainly participated in gang
fights. Art and his homies wore khaki pants, flannel
shirts, and walked the walk and talked the talk of the pachuco
culture of the late 50s and early 60s. Brambila believes
if he hadn't married his sweetheart Susie and moved out of the
neighborhood, he might not have survived. He lived near
the L.A. River in the shadow of the Eastside Brewing Company and
across the street from his sister Margaret, whose sons happened
to be Steve and Rudy Salas, later vocalists for The Jaguars in
the 60s and Tierra in the 70s and beyond. Art played
guitar and sang and on warm summer nights would be on his porch
playing and singing with his friends. Steve and Rudy,
pre-teens at the time, would watch and listen from their bedroom
Art went briefly to East L.A. College and Cal State L.A. before becoming a printer. When he was only 26 years old,
Art's experience as a printer helped get him a job at Capitol
Records in the marketing department, where he was responsible
for purchasing the printing for album covers, inserts, and the
like. He chose Capitol Records because his ultimate goal
was to get into the music business. Brambila knew there
was a treasure trove of unrecognized and untapped talent in the
Chicano community, particularly in East Los Angeles. While
working in the famed Capitol Tower in Hollywood, Art became
friendly with producers and executives, who would sometimes
invite him to recording sessions. In this way, he began to
learn the workings of the music business. Art had noticed
that Capitol scouts and executives would travel all over the
country to hear bands, but wouldn't take the short twelve mile
trip to East Los Angeles to hear the talent available there.
When Art became a scout, he convinced Capitol to give him a
chance to record some East L.A. musical artists. They gave
him 100 hours of studio time to record the bands he found.
Capitol had the right of first refusal on signing any of the
Meanwhile, I was introduced to Art Brambila by a friend, Anthony
Baray, the leader of a very popular East L.A. band called The Emeralds.
I already had a demo and was looking for a record deal.
Art took my demo around to major labels and got some interest
from several, including Lou Adler's Ode Records and Warner
Brothers Records. Art and I decided to go with Lou Adler,
who was a legendary producer having produced hits for the Mamas
and the Papas and Carole King. We were also interested in
Lou because Art had read an
article in the L.A. Times that said that Adler had grown up in
the Boyle Heights district of East Los Angeles. I recorded
a single with Lou Adler consisting of two of my original songs,
"Lila, Love Me Tonight" and "Dare I Touch You, Marylou?" I
had the privilege and opportunity to record with the most
successful rhythm section in L.A. at the time, Hal Blaine on
drums and Joe Osborne on bass, as well as a 20-piece string
section and the Blossoms on background vocals. Lou Adler
produced the record himself and released it in late 1971.
At the time Adler was extremely busy with Carole King's career,
who at the time had the number one album in the country,
"Tapestry." Art and I got lost in the shuffle and moved on
to record a couple more of my songs using the Capitol studio
time. I hired my former drummer and bass player Ernie
Hernandez and Richard Rosas to back me on the new session.
At this time they were playing with two musicians I'd known
previously, John Valenzuela and Steve Verdugo. I also
invited Anthony Baray to come and play Hammond organ.
In March of 1972 we went into Independent Studio in Studio City,
California and recorded "Rock & Roll Queen" and "Lonely." Brambila
presented my two songs, along with recordings he'd done with
Tierra, Yaqui, and others to Capitol and they elected to release
my recordings as a 45 rpm single.
Art was now free to shop his other artists with different record
labels. Lou Adler had told Art that Russ Regan at 20th
Century Records would be a good place to shop his other artists.
Art did so which resulted in Tierra being signed by 20th
Century. He then shopped Yaqui around and found a deal
with Hugh Hefner's new Playboy Records. So now Art
Brambila had three of his artists with major labels, quite an
accomplishment. Brambila's dream of creating a brown
Motown now seemed a realistic possibility. Both Tierra and Yaqui recorded great albums. They were young, eager,
full of energy to do just that. Meanwhile, I recorded a
second single for Capitol, two more of my songs "I'm Brown" and
"Livin' Off the Land." It amazes me, particularly in
hindsight, that all three artists wrote and recorded significant,
political anthems about being Chicano that live on to this day.
My "I'm Brown" has been enshrined in the Grammy Museum, along
with the original lyric manuscript in 2009 in an exhibit called
"Songs of Conscience," Sounds of Freedom" and continues to be
what I consider my best and most important song and
recording. Tierra created "Barrio Suite," a song that
takes you through various musical styles and genres while
telling the story of life in the barrio. I believe it's
Tierra's greatest record and song to this day as well. One
of Yaqui's lead singers, George Ochoa, wrote "It's Time For a
Change (Es Tiempo Para Un Cambio)," which was used on you tube
to promote Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign and was
re-recorded by Tierra in 2010. "It's Time For a Change" was also included on a
compilation CD in the late 90s called "Raza Rock," which was
released by a subsidiary of Rhino Records.
After my two Capitol singles in 1972, in 1973 I moved on to A&M Records where I
finished an album. A&M also bought the tracks I had done
with Capitol, including "I'm Brown" and "Rock & Roll Queen,"
which were included on the record, along with four other former
Capitol tracks and four new ones recorded at A&M Studios in
Hollywood. A&M decided they wanted
a band concept for me so the band and album were called "Tango."
By this time, Art Brambila and I had a falling out over business
and creative issues.
On September 17, 1972, prior to my split with Art and moving
over to A&M Records, Brambila promoted a concert called "Feria
de La Raza," which took place on September 17, 1972 at the Cal State L.A.
football stadium. The lineup included El Chicano, who was
riding the wave of their national hit record, "Viva Tirado,"
Tierra, Mark Guerrero with the Mudd Brothers (Pre-Tango), Elijah, and Carmen
Moreno. Many consider this to be the first Chicano rock
concert. There had been many other Chicano rock shows
before, but not outdoors with festival seating. Another
difference is virtually all the artists were playing original
material, unlike the mostly cover songs Chicano bands played in
the 50s and 60s. Listening back to all three albums today,
they all still sound powerful and relevant. We were all
playing, singing, and writing our hearts out and our asses off.
What we all created was great, but the record industry and maybe
America was not ready for what we were creating. Looking
at the music business today, in 40 years not much has changed in
regards to Chicanos in the industry. Back in the early
70s, we were pioneering and blazing the trail for Los Lobos and
Los Lonely Boys who came later. We were definitely ahead of our time.
Art Brambila went on to produce a second album with Tierra called
"Stranded," which was released on Salsol Records out of New
York. Art had a great lawyer at the time who made deals so
that Art would own the masters after seven years. Because
of this deal, Brambila owns Tierra's first two albums as well as
Yaqui's one and only album. In the mid-70s, Art helped
Carmen Moreno get a deal with Capitol Records. She
recorded a single called "Have I Told You Lately that I Love
You," (a different song than the Van Morrison song of the same
title). Carmen has a voice that rivals that of just about
any female artist one can think of.
In the mid-70s, Art took a job with the ABC television network. He
was assigned as a unit manager to Rona Barrett's morning show.
He would travel locally with Rona to do interviews with the
stars. Next he got back in the music business,
becoming Director of Motown Latino. In this capacity, Art
signed Jose Feliciano, Pedro Mantero, and Isela Sotelo.
Brambila then took a job with Universal Pictures, where he
started a division to publicize first run movies to minority
audiences, particularly Latino. He worked for Universal
from 1979 through 1986, during which time he also innovated
electronic and Spanish language press kits.
In 1976 Art was watching "Soul Train" on television when it
dawned on him that there was no show like that for
Latino-Americans. He took a yellow legal pad and and
created a format for such a show. Art wrote a proposal and
took it to everyone. Everyone turned him down.
Looking for a sponsor, he took it to Coca Cola where they liked
the idea. Despite them liking the idea, nothing happened.
Brambila decided to jump the gun and go directly to Capitol
Records. He got a meeting with Don Zimmerman, whom he had
known while working there. Art told Zimmerman that he was
going to do a television show and needed a theme song to open
and close the show. Art said he needed a single for the
show that was to be called "The Mean Salsa Machine." It
was a bluff because Art only had the concept and no deal at the
time for the show. Zimmerman asked Art who the artist was
which caught him by surprise. He didn't think he get this
far so fast. Off the top of his head he said "Johnny
Martinez." Johnny Martinez was a well-known and respected
Latin band leader in Los Angeles. Art had never met him
let alone have him lined up to record. Don Zimmerman
immediately made a call and got Art $8,000 to record the single.
After the meeting, Art contacted Johnny Martinez and set up a
lunch meeting across the street from the legendary Capitol
Records tower for effect. He asked Johnny if he would be
interested in recording for Capitol Records. Martinez
replied enthusiastically in the affirmative. Art said he'd
see what he could do. Of course the session was set up and
Johnny Martinez recorded "I Like The Way You Do It."
Now Art had the music, but no show. As fate would have it,
when he got home that day the phone was ringing. It was
Danny Villanueva, former place kicker for the L.A. Rams and
president of KMEX-TV. Art had met with him a year before
about his idea for a television show and had been turned down
because KMEX was a Spanish language station. Art's show
was to be an English speaking show with some Spanish language
music. Villanueva told Art that some people who worked for
Gladys Knight were trying to get her on KMEX. He explained
to them that it was a Spanish language station, but told them
about Art and his idea for a Latin-American dance show.
They liked the idea and wanted to meet with Art. After the
meeting they agreed to put up the money to do a pilot episode of
the show. Art secured Freddy Fender and Tierra to do the
pilot. He also heard that Tito Puente was in town at the
Ambassador Hotel. Fearless at the time, Art went there and
told Puente about his pilot, hoping he would also be a guest on
the show. Tito told Art that he was scheduled to leave for
New York the next day. Somehow, Art convinced him to stay
in town and do the show.
The show was taped at the Starwood on Santa Monica Boulevard in
Hollywood. It's the same building that housed the
legendary PJs in the 1960s, where Trini Lopez recorded his "Live
at PJs," which went to number one on the national charts.
The Starwood is also where Van Halen gained attention in
Hollywood as the house band. (Unbeknownst to Art until
years later, the owner of the Starwood, Eddie Nash, with whom
Art dealt with in renting his facility, was
to be a convicted gangster and
drug dealer, best known for his involvement in the
quadruple Wonderland Murders.) Art now needed a director
for the pilot show. Art asked Mike Lundy, who had been a
DJ at KDAY, if he knew a director who could do the show.
Mike happened to know Bob Barnett, director for Dick Clark
Productions no less. Art spoke to Barnett and he amazingly
agreed to do it. Brambila opened up offices in the
penthouse in the same building on Sunset Boulevard that housed
the Motown offices. Art hired Glena Loya, a choreographer,
to recruit dancers from clubs in the L.A. area. Art's
instructions were to get well dressed Latinos only, which she
did. A newscaster on L.A.'s NBC affiliate, David Ochoa was
hired as host. The pilot show was shot and now Art needed
Brambila had read somewhere that Cesar Chavez, the already
legendary United Farm Workers president, had a relationship with
the Coca Cola company. Art, having nothing to lose, called
Cesar Chavez out of the blue. They agreed to meet in
Fresno, California at the annual convention of the UFW.
Things were hectic there so Cesar invited Art up to his
headquarters in Keane, California for a meeting the next day.
Once in Chavez' office, Cesar closed the doors and told his
secretary not to take any calls. An orange crate and a VCR
were brought into the room so they could view the "Mean Salsa
Machine" pilot. Cesar and the others in the room enjoyed
the show with it's distinctly Latino flavor and responded
enthusiastically. Chavez asked "What can I do for you?"
Art told him about his experience with Coca Cola and asked Cesar
if he could call them on his behalf. Three days later Art
got a call from Coca Cola wanting to sign contracts. With
a major sponsor in hand, KHJ (Channel 9 in Los Angeles), bought
the show for 13 weeks. Three shows were shot every third
Sunday. The show became very popular and actually beat
"American Bandstand" and "Soul Train" in the local L.A. ratings
Brambila was able to book major acts for
the show including Donna Summer, Rick Springfield, Al Green,
Morris Alpert of "Feelings" fame, The Four Tops, and Latin music
stars Ray Barretto, and Ralphi Pagan. Due to it's good
ratings the "Mean Salsa Machine" was picked up for a second 13
week run. At this point Art knew that he had to get the
show syndicated in order for it to move forward and survive.
He traveled around the country trying to drum up interest from
advertisers and television stations. He needed at least
one more market to cover the costs of the show. Despite
his efforts, he could not get the advertisers he needed.
He believes they weren't ready for a show of this type with it's
Latino demographic, especially outside of Los Angeles. As
a result after 23 episodes the show's run ended. The "Mean
Salsa Machine" still stands as quite an achievement in
Latino-American music and television. It succeeded in the
second largest media center in the country, was on an English
language television station, and eighty percent of the people
who worked on the show were Latino.
In 1976, as a result of meeting Cesar Chavez and wanting to do
something for him in return for his help in securing sponsorship
for the "Mean Salsa Machine," Art Brambila got the idea to do an
album called "Si Se Puede!" ("Yes We Can") in support of the
United Farm Workers, with the proceeds going to the UFW.
Brambila had a meeting with Herb Alpert, musician and co-owner
of A&M Records. Art pitched the idea of the album to
Alpert, who agreed to donate studio time, engineers, and
recording tape for the project. This benefit project with
artists donating their talents to a cause pre-dated other
benefit shows that were to follow such as "Band Aid" and "We Are
the World." Brambila had already written a song called "Mañana
Is Now" and received 110 songs about farm workers, unions,
strikes, etc. from ethnomusicologist Phil Sonnichsen for
consideration for the album. Art next gathered musicians
and singers for the project including Los Lobos (years before
their major record debut), Steve and Rudy Salas of Tierra,
Carmen Moreno, Geree Gonzalez, and Tiguere Rodriguez. One
of the highlights of the album was a version of the traditional
"De Colores." Art wanted to have a children's chorus sing
on the record and found the one he needed at a Catholic school
in East L.A., Santa Isabel. As it turned out it was a
great decision because this version has been used by the UFW at
various events ever since and it's also been on several
Musically "Si Se Puede!" was a triumph.
Carmen Moreno wrote and sang two of the songs, "Corrido de
Dolores Huerta #39" and "Sangre Antigua." Carmen also sang
lead on "Huelga En General," written by Luis Valdez (of Teatro
Campesino fame) and Baldemar Gomez. Ramon "Tiguere"
Rodriguez wrote and sang "Yo Estory Con Chavez" and "Chicanita
de Aztlán." Geri Gonzalez Logan beautifully sang Art
Brambila's "Mañana Is Now." "Mujeres Valientes" was sung
by Art's brother Raul Brambila. "Telingo Lingo" was sung
by Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos. "No Nos Moveran," a
traditional union song was sung by Geri Gonzalez Logan, Steve
and Rudy Salas, Carmen Moreno, and Conrad P. Lozano of Los
Lobos. There is a statement written by Cesar Chavez on the
back of the album which reads "This album mirrors the spirit and
vitality that have sustained the farm workers through good times
and bad for more than a decade. It celebrates the love and
solidarity we share as a people united in a common struggle.
It is a tribute to the artists who donated their talents to
support the cause. It will be cherished within the
movement, and it will help bring our message to friends and
supporters everywhere." -Cesar Chavez
Despite all his accomplishments of the 1970s, Art Brambila is
disappointed his dream of a brown Motown was not realized.
He feels even though we had the energy, belief, and talent,
perhaps we didn't have the experience in the music business to put it all
together at the time. We also needed a bilingual market
that although it may have existed, no one knew how to tap it
successfully, least of all the record companies. Nevertheless, Brown Bag Productions and it's
artists made some great and meaningful music and the evidence is
there in the recordings and radio and television shows we did.
It clearly shows that we were there in the arena fighting the
fight as pioneers of Chicano rock and ahead of our time.
This article is
based on an interview with Art Brambila by Mark Guerrero on
August 25, 2011.
Cesar Chavez & Art
"Si Se Puede!" CD cover (This is the reissue of the album. The
original record album cover was solid red
with the title "Si Se Puede!" in yellow in the same
position as it is above)
Art Brambila (1972) (Independent Studio, Studio City, California)
(left to right- Richard
Rosas, B.B. Cunningham (engineer), Phil Sonnichsen
(ethnomusicologist), Art Brambila,
Mark Guerrero, Ernie Hernandez, and John Valenzuela)