The following Excerpts from the ongoing “Journey to an Alien World” (An Autobiography by Mike Coronado) answer the questions and cover the events and times in a chronological order of the pioneer Latin Rock band The Aliens. This article is dedicated to the memory of my late brother William Coronado, and his family.
……My father, Alfonso Coronado Sr., was a professor in the city of San Miguel, El Salvador. He kept a close eye on the political movement in El Salvador. He had a shortwave radio and listened to the latest news via “Radio Havana Cuba.” After Fidel Castro nationalized all banks and businesses in 1959, my father felt that a civil war in El Salvador was inevitable. He wanted to leave the country, but crippled by a vehicle accident, it became difficult for him to travel to the capital city of San Salvador and pursue permanent residency in the USA. He still kept his teaching schedule, and in the evenings he would spend hours writing letters, and listening to the radio, keeping up with the latest news coming from Cuba. El Salvador had a predilection for communism ever since the 1930s…
…..He was right; it happened. The civil war lasted over ten years and killed more than 700,000 people in a country of roughly three million people. We left El Salvador just in time. We arrived in San Francisco in February 1960 on my twelfth birthday; my father was 77 years old, and my mother Angela was only 36 years old. He had four other sons from his first wife, who had been living in the Bay Area since the 1940s. They sponsored us, and gave us a place to live. My brother William and I were separated for over a year. He went to live with our older brother Carlos in San Jose, and I stayed in the City with our other brother Alfonso Jr. A week after arrival, I had my first job delivering the San Francisco Chronicle. After attending Luther Burbank Junior High, I went to Mission High School.
For William and me, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard – via shortwave radio – were the foreign ambassadors that introduced, and inspired us to American music back in El Salvador. William knew the dial setting for the few American radio stations that played Rock ‘N Roll. Somehow, he knew that someday we would play music together.
It didn’t take long after we were reunited; we started to play music, and to understand the lyrical meaning of the familiar songs we
once had heard back in San Miguel. Music became our “Rosetta Stone” to learn the English language.
San Francisco in the early 1960s:
My father couldn’t find any work at all because the mandatory retirement age at the time was 65. He started making a little money doing home tutoring. We moved to Haight Street in San Francisco because it was affordable. Moving there was probably the best exposure William and I had to different life styles and music. Starting on Haight Street, and Fillmore, we would walk through the entire Golden Gate Park, all the way to The Great Highway by the beach, and then walk back on the other side of the street checking out all the action. A ten mile walk full of new wonders.
The scene in the early ‘60s was different; we would stop in front of the coffee houses and from the sidewalk, folk music and poetry filled the air. We didn’t have a grasp of the English language yet, but were in awe of the beat- generation known as the “Beat-Nicks.”
Then around 1965, we witnessed the whole transformation that went from a pure lyrical and dreamlike ambience – possibly through our rose colour innocence – to reefer smoke-permeated sidewalks; defiant youth focused on (besides getting stoned) fundamental social changes, anti-war rallies, folk-rock and psychedelic music, and “Free
Love”; the contradicting world of
peace, sex, drugs, and Rock ‘N Roll.
The “Summer of Love” in 1967 was the beginning of the end for the Haight Street area. There was a mixture of emotions and energy ranging from peaceful demonstrations to militant style protests, and heavier drug use. We were living in two entirely different universes; all within a few years of our arrival. Besides our own Latino culture, we encountered the conservative, intolerant warring America, flanking the social revolution phenomena of the counter-culture, and the arrival of the flower children; “The Hippies.”
Musically, the local rock bands also reflected the changing moods. In the mid 60s, the “San Francisco Sound” – as it would be later called – was unique. On one end were the terpsichorean concert halls where pioneer electric folk-rock bands played. Some would eventually become San Francisco’s rock royalty. These ballrooms became the place where one could hear many bands all in one scented misty evening. The latent new bohemians were about to explode.
On the other side, the “straights” (at least that was the perception) filled the plethora of nightclubs all over the Bay Area. Here, one could still dance the “Hustle” and the “Hully Gully”. For them, these smaller venues provided the right atmosphere.
1962 – THE CA5:
William and I shared a bedroom on Haight St. He had a collection of LP records, an acoustic guitar, and a small reel to reel tape recorder. He pushed me to learn and practice basic guitar chords. Our cousin Oscar Calderon, also from El Salvador, would come over on the weekends. We would grab a few pan covers from my mother’s kitchen to use as cymbals, and folded newspapers to simulate the snare drum.
We would play and record ourselves until Oscar had to go home, or we were told to stop, whichever came first. For fun we used to go to Howard Street, and window shop at the many pawn shops located there. William bought a little amplifier and a cheap electric guitar. We were
kids just messing around, and then we saw The Beatles on TV; that’s when we thought about
forming our own band.
William met two guys from Nicaragua; one could sing the other played guitar. The two guys from Nicaragua that joined the group were Francisco (Frank) Zavala, a known singer and Elvis impersonator back home. The other, Javier Alizaga, played guitar. Javier and I traded playing bass and guitar until Javier settled on the bass.
They joined our trio, and now as a five piece band we started to play private parties, and weddings; we decided to call ourselves “The CA5” (The Central American Five.) The CA5 played every weekend at Gladys Cafe on 24th Street in the heart of the Mission District. Gladys Cafe became The Chinameca restaurant in later years.
At Mission High School, I met a kid in my class who said he also could play the electric guitar; his name was Carlos Santana. We had a couple of classes together, and became friends. I was improving my guitar playing, but Carlos was “supernatural.”
I had wood-shop at school, so I asked my shop teacher if I could strip a bass guitar and paint it. He said OK, and helped me strip it down. In a few days I had painted the bass candy apple red. Carlos noticed my bass, and asked me if I could help him fill in with an after school audition he had for a school function. So after class, we went to the school’s auditorium, I plugged into his amp, and he delicately played an instrumental version of “Harlem Nocturne.” He got the gig, and I was left mesmerized.
I invited Carlos to Gladys Cafe to check out The CA5, and he came a few times. We were packing the place because we played Latin music with a blend of Rock ‘N Roll.
The Aliens name was coined by a remark made by the owner of a popular San Francisco nightclub who didn’t like the band’s name change from The CA5 to “The Spanish Flies” and said we “looked more like a bunch of aliens”, inferring to illegal immigrants. William overheard the remark, and suggested the name change. The club was The Dragon A Go-Go, and the owner was a successful business man of Asian descent. He felt so proud that we converted his snide remark to naming the band The Aliens; he paid for a huge mural with the band’s name on the exterior wall of his nightclub.
In 1965, The Aliens recorded “Wild Love” and “Come Near” for Stilt Records, owned by professional basketball player and member of The Basketball Hall of Fame, Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain. The band had such a busy schedule that we had no time to promote the 45, or take the time to do more recordings. As it was, William wrote the two original songs on the record two days before we went to the studio. The irony was that the record producer wanted The Aliens to come up with English (UK) sounding songs for the recording to cash in on the popular British Invasion sound and less, or none of the ethnic Latin Rock sound we were known for. We recorded the two songs in a matter of a few hours all in one take. We were surprised that the producer left the “Guiro” (gourd) on the final mix.
By 1966, William, Oscar, and I were all already married, and parents as well. Travelling too far to play was getting harder to do. We had enough local club gigs to make a living, but that also limited any other recording opportunities.
Later in 1966, The Aliens were playing the lounge at Bimbo’s 365 club in the City. Orchestra leader Xavier Cugat – featuring his beautiful and talented young wife “The Coochie-Coochie Girl” Charo – were playing the main room. At closing time, William, Oscar and I were told to report backstage. We thought we were going to get fired for being under age, or playing too loud. So we were led to the Cugat’s dressing room.
Mr. Cugat told us he liked our sound, and explained that he wanted to add a fresh new sound to his orchestra. He asked us if we wanted to backup Charo, and travel with his big band. William thanked Mr. Cugat for the huge compliment. We talked it over, and began to realize that something special was happening with our band, so politely we refused Mr. Cugat’s offer.
Oscar and I were nineteen years old in 1967; not a problem when we played in places that served food. William, Frank, and Javier were of legal age to play nightclubs. Oscar and I would try to blend in the background behind the three front guys so we wouldn’t get busted. We never did, but came close a few times.
After The Dragon A Go-Go, The Aliens home base became Marin County on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge at Litchfield’s Bermuda Palms in San Rafael. It was the biggest nightclub north of San Francisco.
At The Bermuda Palms, we introduced the predominantly Anglo audience to Rocking Cumbias, Mambos, and Cha-Chas. We had already merged the Latin sound with the Rock backbeat. The crowd didn’t know many of these tunes, but they liked to dance to the rhythms, so we mixed in a few known cover songs to keep them interested, and dancing.
They had a difficult time requesting the Latin Rock songs, but we already knew what songs they liked by looking at the dance floor. The word spread, and we started attracting a mixed crowd from the nearby Hamilton Air Force Base.
One day at rehearsals, lead singer Frank Zavala introduced us to a guy he knew; they had played music together back in Nicaragua. He was a well known percussionist who had recently arrived in San Francisco. His name was Jose Areas, but went by the name “Chepito,” Spanish for Little Joe. He showed his ability to play percussion, and trumpet.
He wanted to play the trap drums with us, but we already had Oscar who could play solid Rock and Latin rhythms as opposed to Chepito’s Latin Jazz style.
It wasn’t long until Chepito realized that if he wanted to be in the band, he needed to invest in a set of congas, and timbales, which he did. Chepito improved the sound of the band, and fit the group with his charismatic personality.
Soon after, original bassist Javier Alizaga left the band and went back to college. Bernie Peoples replaced him.
Bernie was an accomplished Rock and Blues bassist, and had played with Wayne “The Harp” Ceballos, and “Aum”. It didn’t take Bernie long before he picked up on the Latin syncopated rhythms, and integrate his own blues/rock bass lines.
On Latin Rock:
The Aliens didn’t create Latin Rock, “The Blues” didn’t arrive from England with the British Invasion like many embryonic listeners thought at the time, and the “Hipsters” didn’t invent the electric “Folk-Rock” of the mid 1960s. Music is a dynamic life form, always evolving. The Aliens resuscitated and recharged Latin Rock; we gave our music-genre some gusto, and fed it back to a new audience. Our Central American heritage, the tropical Latin rhythms, and the Elvis style of Rock ‘N Roll helped form our own sound.
After Richie Valens laid the foundation for Latin Rock with his recording of “La Bamba” in 1959, there was a void in Latin music. In the early 1960s, there were songs by Mongo Santamaria “Watermelon Man”, Ray Barretto “El Watusy” and The Sandpipers “Guantanamera” to name a few records that played on the radio.
Other recording bands in the early ‘60s fronted by Latinos had huge hits: “? Mark & The Mysterians “96 Tears”, Los Bravos “Black Is Black”, and Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs “Woolly Bully”.
We included some of these songs in our repertoire, but we added a pinch of Cumbia, a splash of Cha-cha, or a taste of Mambo to the mixture, and when people heard them, they would rush to the dance floors. The exotic rhythms became the base ingredients for The Aliens sound. People never knew what sound would come out next, and to what song it would be applied. The
element of surprise was part of the fun.
Too Latin to be Rock, too Rock to be Latin: In the early 60s when popular music was intertwined with mixtures of Rock and Folk-Blues-R&B-Country-Surfing, together with the onslaught of the British Invasion sound, The Aliens were playing a Latin Rock mixture that first appealed to only a few.
Still, we recognized the value of our heritage and began to hone in and started developing our Latin Rock sound. Accepting who we were forced us to expose our blend of music to younger audiences and become more than just background music at local restaurants.
We developed a distinctive sound, different than any other bands in the area. We could never have predicted how popular it would become. We were a band in the fullest sense of the word. With The Aliens, it wasn’t about the lead singer, the electric guitars, the screaming Hammond organ, the vibes, or the heavy Latin rhythm section; it was about our commitment to the sound and playing the songs.
At an earlier time, The Aliens tried hard to sound like an Anglo rock band to get gigs, but we all had heavy Hispanic accents, and just couldn’t pass the first impression check. Lead singer Frank Zavala would learn songs phonetically as he had when he impersonated Elvis Presley back in Nicaragua. Frank could sing any style of music, from Elvis to Jose Feliciano to Wilson Picket. He had tremendous vocal range. Bottom line, we weren’t a salsa, or a rock band; we were an interesting mutation.
Even though we had a heavy rock sound, we appeared too straight for the ballroom circle, but not conventional enough for the Latin crowd. We played a few gigs at Cesar’s Club in North Beach, but we were too Rock to really fit in with their established clientele.
By the mid 1960s, the “San Francisco Sound” was getting National attention, and record producers were signing many local bands. Also very important was “the hip look”; the long hair, the Afros, or a combination of all. This was a time when just growing a moustache made a statement. We let our hair grow, but refused to “let it all hang out.”
The Nite Life:
Johnny Cortade, the owner of the San Francisco nightclub “The Nite Life” came to see us and noticed the band’s large following, so he offered us an extended contract to play his club. The Nite Life soon became our home base for years. We played five nights a week. On the weekends, the parking lot was jammed, and people lined up outside the club waiting to come in.
Then, in 1968, came the surprising news that Chepito was recording with Carlos Santana’s new group simply named “Santana”. They were playing Latin Rock, and had a big time Rock promoter Bill Graham backing them up. We hadn’t seen Chepito for a while. Months later, he showed up at the Nite Life with a box of Santana’s first album and handed them to the band. I still have mine. Chepito had left The Aliens because he had an opportunity to record, and travel. Santana had an invitation to play Woodstock in New York. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Frank had an older brother Julio. He worked at a car dealership with Cliff Anderson selling cars. So when Chepito left The Aliens in 1968, Julio introduced us to Cliff, who auditioned, and became the band’s new Latin percussionist.
We also missed Chepito’s trumpet fills, so we hired fulltime trumpet player, Roy Murray. Later, both Cliff and Roy would play with the very successful band “Malo.”
After Woodstock, and after the success of Santana’s second album Abraxas, there was now a great demand for Latin Rock bands, and of course, people at the clubs were now requesting “Oye Como Va”, “Evil Ways”, etc.
To the new audience, The Aliens were just another of the many Latin Rock bands that sprouted almost overnight.
Meanwhile, William was back at work adding more vibraphones to go along with the Hammond organ to keep the sound of the band fresh. From the start, The Aliens always had their own sound. We were not a Santana-like band, and Santana didn’t copy The Aliens. Carlos liked the style of music we played, and was inspired by the raw power of The Aliens. The fact that he took Chepito with him was a tribute to our sound.
However, Chepito’s transformation after leaving The Aliens was striking. One night at The Night Life, here comes Chepito styling an Afro that was as wide as he. We tried hard to keep a straight face; with his trendy clothes and big head (literally & figuratively) we recognized that he was well on his way to stardom.
The Bristlecone Orchestra:
It became harder and harder to make a living playing music, so William went to work for Southern Pacific. Oscar worked for private industry in Santa Rosa CA. William and Oscar kept The Aliens going; they went back to the Latin roots, and changed the sound to salsa and Latin jazz. Keyboardist Rudy Luehs joined The Aliens. They opened for Eddie Palmieri, and Cal Tjader when they came to San Francisco.
In 1971, we put The Aliens on hiatus, and the three of us played together with a couple of other local bands. We joined a Latin rock/jazz band called “City” with keyboardist Rudy Luehs, drummer Eddie Anderson, and lead singer Will Staples. The band played a few gigs. After that, we joined forces with guitarist Robert Santiago, and became “Christian Black.” We opened for “Tower of Power” at The Bo-Jangles, and “The Doobie Brothers” at Homer’s Warehouse in Marin County.
In 1972, the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation offered me a permanent job taking care of a Redwood forest in Sonoma County.
In 1974, I met Michael Chapman, a gifted blues guitar player and song writer. We started playing music together. Our personal and musical cause was to preserve and protect Mother Earth. We needed to add a driving rhythm to our music, so I called William, Oscar, and Rudy to join the band. They came and added the Latin flavour to our new project: The Bristlecone Orchestra named after the Bristlecone Pine, the oldest single living organism on earth. We played mostly original material, and when we added a horn section, the sound was a spacey Latin Rock; kind of Pink Floyd meets Willie Colon.
The Bristlecone Orchestra made a successful run in Northern California during the early ‘70’s. At The Reunion nightclub in San Francisco, known Cuban percussionist Armando Peraza would come and listen to us when we were in town.
The Aliens and Santana
Without Santana’s global success, few people would be interested in The Aliens; the pioneer Latin Rock band who might have influenced Carlos Santana.
Nevertheless, the ensemble of gifted musicians that played with Carlos in Santana: Chepito Areas, Gregg Rolie, Michael Carabello, Mike Shrieve, and the late David Brown, brought world attention to Latin music with their interpretation of Latin Rock.
The Aliens should be remembered as innovators who had a positive cultural impact by restoring and transforming Latin Rock for a new generation to identify and retain. People still remember the place and times where that sound started.
For William, for me, and for Oscar, our failure to make it big in the music industry was a blessing in disguise. The three of us enjoyed fruitful careers while still playing music on the side. We kept very close family relationships, and above all, we managed to keep our sanity. We did what we loved to do, playing music and preserving our loving family unit.
When asked? I sometimes use this palatable analogy: ……The Aliens were like the typical “hole-in-the wall” family run restaurant, serving good and affordable Latin food: we had the recipe, the spices, the ingredients, and the kitchen to put it all together; serving it hot and tasty to our solid clientele.
Santana served it gourmet. And to his credit,
Carlos is still dishing it out.
So, in its own emotional fairness, The Aliens to this day remain a mystery, as it should be. Our disappearance from the scene was as peculiar as our arrival; we rode the musical mother ship as far as she would go; out of fuel, and with heavy hearts, we dispersed.
The Aliens made an indelible impression back in a day; there are still a few folks out there who remember hearing this alien band playing an amalgamated mixture of Latin rhythms and Rock ‘N Roll. Our distinct sound was born out of necessity. Music is the universal language, and in this foreign land where we landed in 1960, music became our passport and communication vehicle while still connected to the chord of our heritage.
My brother William later moved to St Louis, Missouri and retired to the Bay Area after a 30 year career with Union Pacific. He passed away peacefully in January, 2009 in the company of his family he loved so much.
Oscar is enjoying retirement in Northern California with his family. To this day, Oscar and Rudy Luehs are still performing together.
I spent 36 years taking care of some of California’s most beautiful State parks. I’m playing music for pure enjoyment, recollecting the great times we spent together, and currently writing my memoirs. Someday maybe others will know the impact our sound had in the music history of Latin Rock.
Tags: Aliens, Bimbo's 365 Club, Chepito Areas, Voices of Latin Rock