The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2022

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OCT 2022 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: Music

21. 1954-1963, Los Angeles

In the mid-1950s, a youthful singer becomes a sensation in Los Angeles’s Mexican-American community for his energetic R&B performances. Switching effortlessly between English and Spanish, he appeals especially to young girls who flock to his performances at the El Monte Legion Stadium, a venue conveniently located just outside the LA city limits and thus not subject to the city’s restrictive racist regulations. When Elvis Presley emerges, some people begin to describe the singer as the Latin Elvis, but his nascent career, which by now includes several hit singles, is derailed when he is arrested and jailed for the rape of a 17-year-old girl in Griffith Park. In the aftermath of his conviction, his real story emerges. In fact, he is not Latino but the runaway son of a Hungarian Jewish family in Massachusetts—leaving home at the age of 13, he hitchhiked across the country to Los Angeles where he was taken in by a Mexican family in Boyle Heights; before long, he adopted a Spanish name and began to pass as Mexican-American. Nontheless, when he gets out of prison a musician-promoter stages a “welcome home” concert for the singer, who draws the largest crowd ever to the El Monte Legion Stadium, but whether it’s because of his criminal record, a changing musical landscape (the British pop-music Invasion has begun) or because of the limitations of his talent (the promoter of his post-jail concert, himself a Greek-American whom most people assume is African-American, remembers him as “a jive, bullshit, rock'n'roll singer who sang quartet ice-cream chord changes all out of tune”), he is unable to reconnect with his earlier success. In 1963, he invites a saxophonist friend to join him playing on some gigs he has lined up in Tijuana. By this time the singer is drinking a lot and after the Tijuana dates and a week of wild parties, his friend has had enough. They part ways in the border town and from that moment on, nothing further is heard of the singer, whether under his original name or in his adopted Chicano identity. Despite the later efforts of scholars, record collectors and journalists, to this day his fate remains completely unknown.

(Little Julian Herrera, a.k.a. Ronald Wayne Gregory; Johnny Otis, a.k.a. Ioannis Alexandros Veliotes; Bernie Garcia)

Contributor

Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.

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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2022

All Issues