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You can listen to 91 years of El Paso music history via Youtube, or with fewer ads/interruptions on Mixcloud: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
“I always refer to El Paso as a port city — that’s the energy here. Anytime you go to port cities around the world, there’s this raw energy because it’s never on sure footing. El Paso is a port city, it’s just a landlocked port city.” — Jim Ward, El Paso musician of bands At the Drive In, Sparta, Sleepercar, and more.
Throughout El Paso’s rich music history, the raw sonic energy that Ward describes is apparent, cutting across genre and generations, a trademark of the West Texas/border sound. Here, the story of 91 years of El Paso music history will be told through a (not-exhaustive) playlist of music made by El Pasoans, accompanied by personal accounts of local musicians.
Some eras have established themselves as especially potent and explosive: the ‘60s, the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the past five years. Songs included on this playlist are only the tip of the iceberg — the sheer quantity of incredible music to come out of El Paso is remarkable.
Fernie Aceves, a saxophone player who played with El Paso band the Night Dreamers in the late ‘60s, describes this dynamic.
“Through the ‘60s there were a bunch of bands. And they were all good! You could have a battle of the bands with 10-12 bands from all over the area here, and even some from Las Cruces. You had between 2,000 and 3,000 people in the Coliseum — now that’s a lot of people.”
Aceves’ father and uncle both were bandleaders of local orquestas in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and that’s where our musical journey begins.
1920s-1940s: Orquestas, fiddlers, and pachucos
Among the earliest examples of recorded music I could find from El Paso are those of The Lewis Brothers, who won a local fiddling contest; and of the Southwest orquesta tradition, which often featured 16-18 musicians, blending styles from Mexico and the United States. Orquestas would play polka, waltz, tango, and foxtrot, sometimes performing on homemade instruments. Notable El Paso orquestas from this time include Orquesta Típica Fronteriza and Orquesta Tomás Núñez.
As jazz grew in prominence in the 1940s, Pachuco culture emerged. Donning zoot suits and further blending a wide range of musical styles, pachucos were the punks of their time. Fashion and music functioned as a public signifier of resistance and cultural identity, and became a focal point of racial tensions that would then boil over during the Zoot Suit Riots.
The musical transit between El Paso and Los Angeles, a symbiotic relationship that has continued through the present, was evident as pachucos emerged as a dominant Mexican-American subculture. Don Tosti, a bandleader in Los Angeles from El Paso, used Caló, a hybridized Spanish dialect specific to the border, in his song “Pachuco Boogie” to express the vibe of the Pachuco scene. Some trace the origin of the term Pachuco to be connected with El Paso’s nickname, “El Chuco.”
1950s-1970s: West Texas rock & roll and the advent of the discotheque
“Bobby [Fuller] was without a doubt one of the biggest things musically that ever happened to El Paso. Not just because of his superior great success, brought to an end too soon, but also that his sound was so unique. There were a lot of bands that played surf music, but he had a different kind of sound. We call it the West Texas rock & roll. Even some of the Beatles liked the Bobby Fuller sound; they talked about how Bobby Fuller was on the verge of greatness.” — Rick Kern, El Paso musician.
Kern started playing in local bands when he was a junior in high school, and continued through the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when he was a college student at UTEP. Kern talks about how after Bobby Fuller died in 1966 (under mysterious circumstances), many members of Fuller’s band came back to El Paso, including Jim Reese, the lead guitarist from the Bobby Fuller Four, who went on to perform in Kern’s band, The Basic Sound. Kern also was the last drummer of local band The Westhampton Barge — their song “Can’t Come Home” is included on the playlist for this article.
Fernie Aceves also was playing on the scene during this time. He began playing saxophone for the Night Dreamers when he was in the eighth grade, and backed national acts like James Brown and The Shirelles when they toured through El Paso. Aceves recalls recording the song “I Can’t Help It (I Just Do).”
“That was recorded in Steve Crosno’s house. He used to be a local DJ, very flamboyant, very well-liked in this city. He had a studio in his house on Marlow road right off of Trowbridge. That’s where we recorded — I remember it was cold that day, November. And we did that one and the flip side, ‘Mr. Pitiful.’”
Things started shifting toward the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Bobby Fuller’s brother Randy veered toward more psychedelic sounds in his releases of the time, songs like “1000 Miles Into Space.” Meanwhile, growing numbers of discotheques changed the opportunities for local bands in town.
“We all played very danceable music — the Motown sound. That died down when the discotheques started to come in,” Aceves said. “There was no need for live bands anymore because it was more economical to go and hire a discotheque and hear the original record.”
And indeed, it’s harder to find music generated in El Paso during the 1970s, with noteworthy releases among former El Pasoans who moved elsewhere (Stevie Nicks), or El Pasoans who worked with major artists based elsewhere, as was the case with Clint Ballard Jr., a singer-songwriter from El Paso who wrote hits for artists like Linda Ronstadt (“You’re No Good”) and The Hollies.
1980s-1990s: cross-pollination and genre-bending
The last two decades of the 20th century yielded a wide range of musical styles by El Pasoans. Did a band with members from El Paso and Juárez contribute to the soundtrack of the beloved cult film “Repo Man”? Yup. Did an El Paso duo melding jazz and flamenco make it onto the Billboard contemporary jazz charts and garner a Grammy nomination? Yup.
In the early ‘90s, popular El Paso bands played in styles as far-ranging as Tejano (Tormenta) to early hardcore (Rhythm Pigs), and many musicians who came up in this scene would go on to be musically innovative and bold free-thinkers.
Julio Moralez, lead singer and primary songwriter for the Tejano band Tormenta, said their musical style was inspired by bigger acts coming through El Paso at the time.
“We were able to open up for a lot of groups that really influenced me: Los Tigres del Norte, Fito Olivares. We opened for Fito Olivares at the Coliseum, and I remember seeing everybody — 6,000 people all the way up to the rafters, everybody was dancing. All at once, it was amazing. I remember seeing this little boy dancing with his aunt, and he was dancing beautifully, knowing how to dance cumbia. I remember saying to myself, that’s where I want to get to. And I’m thankful to say that yeah, I was able to reach that.”
Tormenta scored its first big hit with the song “Muchachita” in 1993, and as Moralez says, from that point on they were “off and running,” soon relocating from El Paso to San Antonio.
Jim Ward, an El Paso musician best known for his role in bands like At the Drive In, Sparta, and Sleepercar, started going out to local shows when he was in his early teens. He credits his high school years as being his introduction to punk rock, but also comments on the breadth of the music scene in El Paso at the time.
“The early to mid-’90s is when I was around this scene the most. I always thought it was great here because you would have a death metal band, a ska band, and a 10,000 Maniacs-sounding band, all those bands played together. I had a band called Self my senior year at El Paso High — that was the first time I played guitar and sang and really wrote songs. We would play backyard punk shows, and then we would go and play UTEP with like six or seven bands. That’s what I thought was great about this scene, there wasn’t a lot of like ‘you don’t belong here.’ I think it comes across, all those bands that were mixing and playing shows together. You get this cool cross-pollination and it creates unique bands. We weren’t trying to be somebody else. As much as I like the Rhythm Pigs, I don’t want to sound like the Rhythm Pigs. I don’t want to duplicate something, I want to create something, and I came from a scene that was very supportive of that.”
Indeed some of El Paso’s most successful musicians got their start in El Paso’s ‘90’s music scene. Ward and former bandmate Cedric Bixler-Zavala came to redefine the border sound with the international success of bands like At the Drive In, The Mars Volta, and Sparta in the 2000s.
2000-2015: “The weirdos leave”
Leo Lara, affectionately known as “Chief,” plays in El Paso bands Nalgadas and Mattox, and reflects on a trend that has characterized much of El Paso’s musical history. When an El Paso band starts to experience a bit of success, they tend to take off, often moving to Los Angeles or Austin. I said to him, “the weirdos leave,” and Lara replied, “That should be your headline.”
“I hate that when I get asked about local music here, my answer turns into kind of shit-talking. But it’s not like that at all. I’ve just always felt that we’re a little bit behind the rest of the country. There’s a lot of talented people here who do really cool stuff, but I think they end up getting frustrated and leaving. We’ve seen the Part Times and the Cigarettes After Sex — you know there’s a lot of people that don’t even know Cigarettes After Sex is from El Paso, and now they’re huge.”
Holy Wave moved to Austin. Members of Part Time are split between Los Angeles and El Paso. Cigarettes After Sex is based in Brooklyn. This dynamic has characterized much of El Paso’s music history; Don Tosti in the 1940s relocated to Los Angeles, as did Bobby Fuller in the 1960s.
But in recent years this pattern may be shifting, with a resurgence of hometown pride and El Paso musicians who proudly claim El Paso as the place that inspires and fuels their creative output.
2015-2020: El Paso pride
El Paso’s current music scene is vibrant, sonically diverse, and creatively charged. Many artists proudly emphasize their El Paso roots in their music and draw direct inspiration from the culture, politics, and landscape of the border. Khalid, one of the most prominent new El Paso artists, loves to feature El Paso in his music videos, and frequently references the Sun City in his songs.
“There’s a bunch of people doing really cool stuff here in town. There’s the Neon Rose crowd, they do more of the metal and the punk. Metal has always done well in El Paso, always. Goth is more the up and coming stuff in the past couple years, I was doing the garage stuff, which has kind of died down a little bit. There is a little pocket for everything,” Lara said.
Plenty of genre-bending and cross-pollination is happening in the current scene as well. Bands with as varied sounds as Nalgadas, Soft Sweater, and Mattox share common members. And there is truly weird and wonderful music being made. It’s quite possible that the weirdos are staying, or in my case, are coming back.
I must confess, I’m a musician myself, and have recently returned home to El Paso after many years of playing music in New York. I’m hopeful that the future of El Paso music will be one where outsider perspectives and adventurous music feel welcome here. I think that if 2020 El Paso artists like Tooths, Soft Sweater, and Villian’s Kiss are any indication, then maybe the weirdos will stay after all.
91 years of El Paso music history track list
1929 The Lewis Brothers – Sally Johnson
1934 Orquesta Tomás Nuñez – Las Gaviotas
1948 Don Tosti – Pachuco Boogie
1958 Johnny Garmon and the Shadows – Shadow Dance
1961 Long John Hunter – El Paso Rock
1963 The El Paso Drifters – Close Your Eyes
1965 The Fourth Dimensions – Sand Surfin’
1966 Bobby Fuller – I Fought the Law
1966 El Paso Premiers – Let Me Call You Darling
1966 Danny and the Counts – Ode to the Wind
1967 Night Dreamers – I Can’t Help It (I Just Do)
1967 Vikki Carr – It Must Be Him
1969 The Westhampton Barge – Can’t Come Home
1969 Randy Fuller – 1000 Miles Into Space
1970 The Groove Merchants – There’s Got to Be Someone For Me
1970 Ray Camacho – Pecadora
1971 Buckingham Nicks – Designs of Love / That’s Alright
1972 Lou Pride – Your Love is Fading
1974 Linda Ronstadt – You’re No Good
1981 The Plugz – El Clavo y la Cruz
1985 QID – Everynight
1985 Cruzados – Flor de Mal
1993 La Vienta – San Miguel
1993 Tormenta – Muchachita
1993 Rhythm Pigs – Snuff Flicks
1994 Petal Birds – Answers I Don’t Know
1995 Foss – Rise
1996 The Fall On Deaf Ears – Do You Speak Braille
1999 Pissing Razors – Mass Corruption
2000 At the Drive In – Invalid Litter Dept.
2002 Sparta – Cut Your Ribbon
2003 The Mars Volta – Inertiatic Esp
2008 Sleepercar – A Broken Promise
2012 The Royalty – How I Like Em
2012 Cigarettes After Sex – Starry Eyes
2013 Part Time – I Can’t Get You Out
2014 Holy Wave – Wet and Wild
2015 Nalgadas – What a Waste
2017 The Chamanas – Amanecer
2018 Khalid (feat. Empress Of) – Suncity
2019 Lavell Jones – Forget About It
2019 Mattox ft. Moji Abiola – Anything
2020 Soft Sweater – Tango del Sol
2020 Tooths – Friends
2020 Villian’s Kiss – Hielo
Cover photo: The El Paso band Nalgadas playing in 2013. (Photo by Jasmine Meza)