The Drifters’ original 1961 version of “Sweet for My Sweets” has a distinct Latin feel – which brings to mind a piece of writing by Dave Marsh that I found to be illuminating some years ago, still do.
In his 1984 article for the Boston Phoenix – “Rock and Roll’s Latin Tinge” – Marsh recounts how, in his frustration over failed attempts to convince a colleague that Latin forms were, indeed, a significant factor in the evolution and development of rock and roll, he compiled (with the help of John Storm Roberts‘ The Latin Tinge) this somewhat detailed list of rock & roll’s Latin roots and influences:
+ Bo Diddley’s beat (derived from the mambo);
+ Professor Longhair’s piano rhythms, which extend to New Orleans pianists from Fats Domino to Allen Toussaint;
+ Chuck Willis’ “C.C. Rider” & Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” (both grounded in the rhumba);
+ The Drifters and their use of the Brazilian baiao rhythm;
+ Ritchie Valens (whose big hit, “La Bamba” was a Mexican folk song);
+ “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians, a band of Chicano migrant workers;
+ “Land of 1000 Dances,” both because Chris Kenner was a Longhair disciple and because Cannibal & the Headhunters, who did the best version of the song, were Chicanos from East LA;
+ Surf music, whose entire guitar style, the raison d’etre of the form, can be said to derive from “Malaguena” and similar Mexican-American standards;
+ The Premiers’ “Farmer John,” an impeccable frat-rocker written and performed by another East LA band;
+ Such doowop groups as The Teenagers and Harptones, all of which had key Latin members;
+ The Sir Douglas Quintet and the rest of the Tex-Mex bands;
+ The boogaloo (based on the Latin bugalu, which was popularized in 1966 by Joe Cuba’s instrumental version of “Bang Bang”);
+ Santana (Woodstock’s breakout stars who famously fused rock and Latin American music);
+ War’s low-rider rock and its trickle-down effect on Stevie Wonder’s midseventies records;
+ The slick psychedelicized salsa of Earth, Wind & Fire during their “Serpentine Fire” period;
+ And finally the disco movement, which continues to adapt Caribbean rhythmic accents and arrangements.
In 1958 one Latin-flavored instrumental went to the top of the pop and R&B charts – “Tequila” by The Champs. What a long and healthy life that song has lived, as indicated by the number of cover versions on Wikipedia (e.g., George Benson having recently visited the tune on 2011’s Guitar Man). Of course, there were near-covers, as well, such as “Cerveza” by trumpeter Shorty Rogers using the alias, Boots Brown.
“Cerveza” Boots Brown & His Blockbusters 1958
The Accidental Hit: “Tequila” was written by Dan Flores (the one who also played the “dirty” sax solo), but because he was already under contract with another label, the songwriting credit is attributed to alter ego, Chuck Rio. “Tequila,” however was originally a fun jam song that was recorded impromptu at the end of a recording session at Hollywood’s Gold Star Studios for Dave Burgess (a rockabilly artist under contract to Gene Autry’s Challenge label) by his backing musicians. The song was originally the B-side to Dave Burgess’ “Train to Nowhere” – a single that was (ironically, perhaps) not going anywhere until DJs began playing the flip side, thus making “Tequila” the first pop instrumental to hit number 1 on the Billboard charts (and, according to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, “the first instrumental group to go to the top spot with its first release”). What’s funny is that “The Champs” didn’t exist until this song unexpectedly blew up large, at which point one had to be created in order to tour off the success of that song’s sales.