If you happen to have gone to high school in Southern California during the early to mid '60s especially in the eastern part of L.A. County through which Whittier Blvd. throbs from downtown to the Orange County line this retrospective of Thee Midniters will be a major flashback. If, for reasons of age or geography, you missed out on this local phenomenon, Thee Midniters Greatest
offers some pretty great music, a window on a world that's gone forever, and a rare chance to check out one of the earliest and most influential East L.A. Latin-rock bands.
Thee Midniters were for some years the kings of local dance concerts; their cover of Chris Kenner's "Land of 1000 Dances" managed to hit #67 on the Billboard
singles chart in 1965. But their biggest claim to fame was their original, still-classic cruising anthem, "Whittier Blvd.," an instrumental accompanied by much wacky laughter and falsetto yelps of "Arriba!"
Collected from the group's LPs and spanning a five-year period from 1965 to 1970, Thee Midniters Greatest
is old-school analog dance music through and through. Especially in the later tracks, as the band's matured a bit and honed its horn-and-organ-driven sound, the album conjures up visions of the youth of yesteryear, dancing themselves to ecstatic frenzy without benefit of DJs and electronic gizmology. And, most definitely, in couples intertwined in the dark, steamy ballrooms as tightly, sinuously and inextricably as the seductive croon of singer Little Willie G. (Garcia) wrapped itself around the ballads.
Included in the liner notes of Thee Midniters Greatest
is the list of Southland AM station KRLA's top 30 singles for the week of June 29, 1965, on which "Whittier Blvd." is #10 (rock on FM was still a couple years away). The chart shows a mix of styles that would be inconceivable in today's formatted-to-death industry. At #1 are the Rolling Stones, with "Satisfaction." Dylan had just gone electric and was about to hit the pop chart big time, but three versions of his songs by other artists are in the Top 30: Cher at #3 with "All I Really Want to Do," The Byrds with "Mr. Tambourine Man" at #15, and The Turtles at #28 with "It Ain't Me, Babe." The Beatles are at #8 with "Help!"; the Righteous Brothers, who had utterly stolen the show from them at the Hollywood Bowl the previous summer, are at #17 with "Unchained Melody." Herman's Hermits have two singles on the chart, as do the Four Tops. Motown is well represented, as are Hollywood-brat bands with Dino, Desi & Billy and Gary Lewis and the Playboys. The Beach Boys are there with "California Girls," and the Lovin' Spoonful are just breaking through at #30 with "Do You Believe in Magic."
Swimming in these musical waters, Thee Midniters boyhood pals who formed a band while attending East L.A.'s Salesian High School started out doing covers, putting their own stamp on the ubiquitous "Land" plus a selection of contemporary hits, leaning toward R&B and Rolling Stones. But, as the later tracks on this CD show, they soon developed originals that showcased their distinctive sound and charismatic stage presence. While "Whittier Blvd." bears an uncanny resemblance to "2120 South Michigan Avenue" (not surprising, as Garcia explains in the liner notes that it evolved from riffing on the Stones tune), the later tracks, especially such standouts as "Jump, Jive and Harmonize" and "Chicano Power," are very much their own, and irresistible.
Thee Midniters disintegrated not long after Garcia left in 1969. He went on to a brief stint with S.F.'s Santana-influenced Latin rock band Malo, then vanished from the scene, succumbing to hard drugs and other hazards. Finding religion, he became an ordained minister and took up a new recording career in Christian music. In 2000 he released his first secular album since his Midniters days, Make Up for the Lost Time,
. Produced by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and featuring an outstanding cast of supporting musicians, the album still garners praise from critics and fans. Since reuniting not long ago to play a benefit for their alma mater, Salesian, Thee Midniters are now performing again.
Aside from being a total nostalgia-fest for Angelenos of a certain age, Thee Midniters Greatest
is of particular interest to fans of Los Lobos and other East L.A. bands who have come to prominence in later years. As with many greatest-hits collections, some tracks are stronger than others; being, according to the liner notes, taken from the best vinyl recordings to be found, some of them have less than pristine sound, and some suffer a bit from the recorded-in-a-bathtub quality that plagued many releases of the time. But there are enough stellar tunes to make the album worth seeking out, and it's never less than fun.
Also, creators of today's dance mixes could do a lot worse than to work "Chicano Power" in particular into their repertoire, as its ability to make the most sedentary listeners leap from their chairs and join the pulsating hordes remains undiminished by time and space.