Graded on a Curve:
Thee Midniters,
In Thee Midnite Hour!

So I’m cruising down Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. on a Saturday night in a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible lowrider with “Jump, Jive, and Harmonize” by Thee Midniters cranked on the car radio, and the year is 1965 and pretty young chicas in giggling groups are cutting along the neon-reflecting sidewalks past blaring mariachi joints and shuttered pawn shops and hole-in-the-wall taquerias, the musk of perfume and booze and mota thick in the air. Radio tuned to KTYM and Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg is shouting, “We’re in the Land of a Thousand Dances!” as somebody passes me the mota and I take a hit and just when I think I can’t get any more prendido I wake up, back in 2015, and what a bummer, vato, what a royal bummer.

Because Thee Midniters, one of the first and most prominent of the Chicano rock bands to hail from East Los, kicked ass. They worked on all cylinders, covering “Gloria” and producing the immortal “Whittier Boulevard” and the wonderfully bizarre “I Found a Peanut,” the first and only song in the history of rock to underscore the potentially lethal dangers of eating stray legumes. Why, none other than the great Kasey Casem said, “They were the best band I ever hired.”

Thee Midniters were early proponents of the horn-big sound (check out the opening to “Thee Midnite Feeling” and “Love Special Delivery”) that Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears would make famous, but they didn’t suck like Chicago or BS&T because they were far too frenetic and frantic to succumb to big band bloat, thanks largely to trombonist/ arranger Romeo Trado. Thee Midniters were ravers, screamers, and shouters, and their way of playing it cool was by keeping the erotic thermostat turned way, way up. One listen to the guitar rampage by George Dominguez that is “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” should be enough to convince anybody that Thee Midniters really could, as vocalist Willie (aka “Little Willie G.”) Garcia says, “save the whole world.”

Yeah, Dominguez’s guitar sound is fantastic, and the drumming of George Salazar and Danny LaMont is formidable, as the instrumental take on “Down Whittier Boulevard” (they also recorded one with Garcia spieling over it) demonstrates. Dominguez pushes the pedal to the metal, blowing through red lights on his way to the nightclub with the gonest Xicana chicks, fuck the Jura if they can’t take a joke. But in addition to trombone and sax and the great guitar they also brought one cool organ into the equation, as well as congas, and when it all comes together you’ll wish it was 1965 too, and the instrumental “Whittier Boulevard” was playing on your lowrider’s radio. The song opens with somebody shouting “Let’s take a trip down Whittier Boulevard!” followed by a Speedy Gonzalez “Arriba!” and some demented laughter and then just takes off, guitar and organ in sync and going full tilt, building and building to drag-race proportions before ending with a big horn-blaring conclusion. That organ also dominates on “Jump, Jive, and Harmonize,” which features soulful vocals by Willie G., some harmonica, and lots of crazed percussion, all played at well past the speed limit.

Their take on “Gloria” is a winner; Garcia has it going on, and it’s all guts and glory until the tempo slows and he boasts about how Gloria’s cutting down Whittier Boulevard to knock on HIS door. The backing vocals are great, as are the drums, and the horns are saved for the end, a wise decision because this one is garage rock and don’t need no stinking horns. “Never Knew I Had It So Bad” is a redemptive tale of a guy with a dysfunctional family and beat up sneakers who finally finds himself a job at a swinging nightclub, and Garcia takes it out over one ranting and raving guitar by Gonzalez. “Empty Heart” utilizes the horns in a big way, and Gonzalez comes in and out as Garcia repeats, “I want my love!” Then the organ kicks in and I’ll bet you this one went over with the swooning chiquitas swaying to that big Chicano sound. “Hey Little Girl” starts out just like the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” before making a left turn (crowd cheering and whistling in the background) with a cool sax and Garcia coming on with some sweet soul vocals guaranteed to make all the little girls wet.

“Looking Out a Window” opens with a crash like the police knocking down your door with a battering ram; guitar and horns and organ all come at you, then Garcia comes in all frenetic while that organ figure gets repeated and the song builds with Garcia complaining that all he does is sigh and he’s looking out a window as he goes crazy and the whole band builds to a staggeringly great climax. The old standard “Money” gets the organ and guitar treatment, and boasts great backing vocalists and is played at high velocity. And as for Gonzalez’s solo it’s extraordinary; the tone is clear as a bell and the tempo is frantic, and the song just kicks along in search of filthy lucre until it finally comes to a stop. As I mentioned, instrumental “Thee Midnite Feeling” opens with some huge horns and turns into a mad rave-up, with the guitar pounding out humongous power chord while the bass plays a great riff. Then there’ a tremendous guitar solo by Dominguez followed by an organ solo that is every bit as monumental, and after that Dominguez plays a second solo, one of the best it has ever been my pleasure to listen to. These guys may have wanted to be the next Beatles but they were better in my opinion, at least when it comes to making you do the hip shake, baby.

“Devil With a Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly” rocks and rolls while Willie G. screams and there’s some funky piano and Garcia sings, “She’s a real humdinger and I like it like that” before the segue. Garcia really owns this one, which features another short but extraordinary guitar solo by Dominguez. “Dragon Fly” opens with the horns alternating with the organ, then the horns take over, followed by a guitar (or guitars) that’ll cut through your brain to its pleasure centers like it’s butter. The horns are a bit too prominent in my opinion, at least until the midpoint when the song speeds up and Dominguez takes over and Little Willie G. tosses in lots of interjections. “Do You Love Me” is pure Chicano funk, with Garcia, a former wallflower, boasting about all the dances he can do, while a horn plays a short solo and that wonderful, wonderful guitar plays a long solo. Then Willie G. gives out a big scream, tells his girl to work it out, and that’s it, song over.

The “with vocals” version of “Down Whittier Boulevard” is an n invitation to “join the parade” going down East L.A.’s hippest thoroughfare. Garcia speaks the vocals, inviting his girl to ride with him down the boulevard where everybody is “uptight, alright, and out of sight” and you can “dig the lights/So bright/In the night.” “We’re parading baby,” he sings as Dominquez kicks in with a frantic little solo, and then the song builds, guitar kicking it, until the song ends. As for the instrumental version of the tune it’s just as great; it generates the same sense of the promise of Saturday night when anything can happen. Dominguez is more prominent, and I can’t say enough about the sound he produces, so clear and ecstatic and ready to propel you into a time warp where you can cruise the main strip, make out with some real gone chick, get fucked up on mota and Mescal, and then hit the best club on the boulevard, all promises fulfilled.

The strangest song on the LP is “I Found a Peanut,” which Kid Congo Powers thought was so great he recorded a cover of it. It’s pure weirdness; to a thumping soul groove and a great Dominguez riff Willie G. sings about walking down the street so hungry and out of sorts he’s reduced to eating a peanut he finds on the street. Too bad said peanut has a ringworm in it and he gets sick and dies. I don’t know what’s cooler; the story itself, or the goofy voice Garcia employs to sing the chorus (“And thennnn”), or the way the song builds and builds, great organ going wild over magnificent guitar, background vocalists coming in shouting “I found a peanut” and screaming before the song closes on an organ note. “Welcome Home Darling” is a bouncy soul number, with the horns jumping in and dueling it out with Dominguez, who proceeds to play a mind-bending solo. Meanwhile Garcia sings the tune with incredible swagger, before the tune closes in a flourish of horns.

Thee Midniters put a Chicano spin on lots of rock and soul standards, and gave us some truly brilliant tunes in “Whittier Boulevard,” “I Found a Peanut,” “Down Whittier Boulevard,” and “Thee Midnite Feeling.” And there are other great Thee Midniters songs out there that didn’t make it onto this anthology, particularly the soulful “The Town I Live In” and that pair of Chicano-themed tunes, the instrumental “Chicano Power” and “The Ballad of César Chávez.” Thee Midniters were Los Lobos sent back to the mid-sixties in a time capsule, and if you find yourself hankering for a compilation of everything they ever recorded no hay bronca, because Micro Werks released an all-inclusive compilation, Thee Complete Midniters: Songs of Love, Rhythm and Psychedelia, back in 2009.

Me, I’m satisfied with In Thee Midnite Hour!, and whenever I find myself wanting to take an imaginary cruise down the Whittier Boulevard I put it on and crank up the volume, and if any of my neighbors complain I shout, “Grow some huevos, culeros—Vales verga!” Which may mean grow some balls, asshole, because you’re worthless. Or may not. Hey, I gave it my best. It’s not like they offered a course in Chicano slang in my high school!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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