In 2008, the Grammy Museum featured singer-songwriter Mark Guerrero’s 1972 watershed Capitol Records single, “I’m Brown”, in an exhibit called Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom. A Chicano-pride song with a humanist heart, the song acknowledges pride in one’s background/ethnicity while also recognizing, to quote the lyric, “I’m first a member of the human race.” The nod from the Grammy Museum regarding this philosophically inclusive song is a fitting crowning achievement for Guerrero, a unique artist who has largely gone unnoticed by the masses, though he has been making music, both on major labels and DIY style, for five decades.
The son of the late, legendary Chicano songwriter Lalo Guerrero, Mark Guerrero began his career at age 13 with Mark & the Escorts, an East LA band who shared bills with “Eastside Sound” legends like Cannibal & the Headhunters and Thee Midniters. After a stint leading a group called The Men From S.O.U.N.D., Guerrero went on to record two singles for Capitol (the aforementioned “I’m Brown”, and “Rock & Roll Queen”) Later, he signed with A&M Records and released one album in 1973 with his group Tango (check out the dramatic back-story about Tango, written by Guerrero himself, here). Later, Herb Alpert , the “A” in A&M, Records, would go on to record Guerrero’s song “Pre-Columbian Dream” on his 1983 album, Noche de Amor. Guerrero has remained active and prolific over the past three decades as well, releasing several albums, lecturing and consulting on various Latino-focused exhibits, shows, and concerts, and performing regularly with various groups, including his own.
Listening for the first time to Mark Guerrero’s earlier songs, especially the stuff from the ‘70s, is like tapping into a parallel reality; a reality where this East-LA bred Chicano artist found ready acceptance in the music industry and topped the charts with his confident, effortless songcraft and vocals. Mix some Mark Guerrero songs up in your digital player’s shuffle and I guarantee you’ll end up running to check the artist name when one of his songs pops up and something about it seems strangely familiar, yet altogether new at the same time. It’s a blast from the past you never heard.
My personal favorites of Guerrero’s early work is the B-side to “I’m Brown”, “Livin’ Off the Land”, a feel-good rocker that sounds just like the AM radio classic it should have been, and “Hang On”, a poppy, keyboard-driven tune that was left off of the Tango album. Both songs are available on the compilation CD Mark Guerrero Solo and with Tango 1972-1974, which is a great way to get acquainted with Guerrero’s work (it’s available on Guerrero’s website). From there, interested folks can easily jump back to his rarer earlier recordings and forward to his more recent work.
What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
“I Want You I Need You I Love You” by Elvis Presley. When I was about five years old, I had access to my teenage brother’s record collection. I remember hearing this one over and over again on my little children’s 45 rpm record player with Alice and Wonderland characters emblazoned on it. The 6/8 romantic doo-wop ballad is a great sounding record, with fantastic background vocals (a trio with a pre-Jordanaires Gordon Stoker), great band (Elvis regulars Scotty Moore on guitar, DJ Fontana on drums, and Bill Black on bass, along with Marvin Hughes on piano and Chet Atkins on guitar), and Elvis at his best on lead vocal, run through a cavernous echo chamber. The sound and emotion of the music coming off the grooves was nothing short of magical. I did play the song in a band in recent years. It was fun playing it and it brought back the memory of hearing it as a child. Whenever I hear the record now, it still has the magic.
Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Hirth Martinez, a singer/songwriter who happens to be a friend of mine. He recorded two albums for Warner Brothers in the mid-‘70s. Hirth got his record deal as a result of Bob Dylan hearing his songs and hooking him up with Robbie Robertson of the Band. Robbie took him to Warner Brothers (Records) and produced his first album Hirth from Earth,using the best musicians L.A. had to offer. Hirth’s a phenomenal songwriter and guitarist. His lyrics are unique, poetic, and often have humor in them. His songs are in different genres, ranging from sambas to jazz, blues, and rock, and the melodies and chord structures can be very sophisticated, yet totally accessible. In the late ‘90s, he recorded a great album for release in Japan called I’m Not Like I Was Before, which is more on the jazzy side, but also still accessible to the pop listener. I would also put (the author of this column) PC Muñoz on the list and with all due modesty, yours truly.
Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
The late great author Kurt Vonnegut. His books and short stories are very imaginative and funny, but at their core very profound and moralistic. Because of this, he’s been compared to Mark Twain, even considered by many to be the Mark Twain of the 20th century. Songs can also get some profound messages across using humor and other devices that candy-coat them, making the good medicine go down easy.
Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
It’s a calling. It’s also in my DNA since my dad, Lalo Guerrero (considered the “Father of Chicano Music”), was a great and prolific songwriter. I’ve been writing songs since I was 16 years old and continue to do so. I’m a singer and musician, but I’ve always considered myself fundamentally a songwriter.
Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
I don’t think I can name one song that stands out that dramatically by itself. There are some contemporary artists that have talent as singer/songwriters such as Norah Jones, Jason Mraz, John Mayer, and Alicia Keys, but I don’t see talents now that are in the same class as the greats of the ‘60s and ‘70s; Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Elton John, Sting, Carole King, Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, etc. I don’t see that kind of genius and innovation today, but there’s always hope for the future.
In addition to his work as a songwriter and musician, Mark Guerrero maintains an extensive collection of information, memorabilia, and writings on Chicano music and musicians on his website (including lots of information about his father), featuring photos, links, reviews, and interviews. Check out Mark’s music and much more at markguerrero.com