The Legacy of Sunny & The Sunliners and Their Contribution to American Music

To the outsider, and even the undiscerning local, San Antonio doesn’t scream R&B and soul mecca. Since the advent of tejano in the 1970s (which flourished into the ’90s with Selena at the helm), San Antonio would be known as a hot spot in the genre – an amalgamation of polka, pop, rock, R&B, conjunto, mariachi, and ranchera.

Opposite to tejano, but with a timeline almost parallel to it, was the explosion of all things metal here in the Alamo City. Thanks to then-DJ-curated metal-playlists broadcasting over the air via 99.5 KISS FM, San Antonio would be christened Metal City, USA. And even in 2017, when bands like Metallica, Megadeth and (insert other popular metal or hard rock band from the ’80s) come through, San Antonio shows up in the tens of thousands.

But if we go back even further and revisit the Alamo City circa 1960, you’ll find groups like Little Jr. Jesse and His Teardrops, The Commands, The Royal Jesters, and Sunny & The Sunliners. Bands who were influenced by the sounds of R&B, ’50s jazz and rock ‘n’ roll from listening to the radio and sneaking into places like Eastwood Country Club and Bel-Air Club to catch the popular black acts of the day like James Brown and B.B. King. The mixture, influence and imitation of these artists would conceive a sound that would eventually be dubbed Chicano Soul.

First popular at teen dances since many of the acts, including Sunny & The Sunliners were either in or barely out of high school, the Chicano Soul sound (a rock ‘n’ roll reaction to the traditional norm of Mexican ranchera, norteño and conjunto) was heard reverberating over dance floors at places later like Patio Andaluz, the Keyhole, the Tiffany Lounge and the Northside Lounge while gaining a rapid and loyal following.

In 2007, the late music journalist and South Texas Popular Culture Center co-founder Margaret Moser wrote in the Austin Chronicle that essentially, Chicano Soul was “the largest puzzle piece missing from history books about rock ‘n’ roll.”

And for us folks whose introduction to rock ‘n’ roll was through bands like Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana or even The Doors and Black Sabbath, it’s easy to forget that, when rock ‘n’ roll was learning to crawl, the type of music these Chicano Soul cats were playing in the ’50s and ’60s was a radical statement and viewed as rebellious and even Satanic.

Hector Saldaña, Texas Music Curator at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University told the Current, “The thing is, in their day, in their era, [Chicano Soul artists] were like the indie rockers of today – the punk rockers. They were doing something that was sort of ostracized anyway. Rock ‘n’ roll was seen as the devil’s music at the time especially. Then you can imagine these Chicano kids wanting to get in on this, too, and putting their twist on it.”
One of the key players in the Chicano Soul or West Side Sound movement, was Ildefonso Fraga Ozuna, better known as Sunny, frontman for Sunny and The Sunglows (later The Sunliners). Born in 1943, Ozuna was raised on the Southside of San Antonio and attended Burbank High School where his fascination with music began. In 1963, Ozuna (still a high school student at this point) and his band Sunny and The Sunliners made an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand with his chart-topping single “Talk to Me” (a cover of a Little Willie John song written by Joe Seneca) and became the first tejano musician to make it on the show.

“Sunny and The Sunliners were coming up in a world where they don’t think a Mexican-American guy can make it,” said Saldaña. “Talk to Sunny or talk to Sauce (Arturo Gonzales — leader of The West Side Horns, who played briefly with Sunny), and they’ll tell you when they showed up there to Dick Clark’s that [the producers] were expecting an African-American act – they were expecting a black soul man. They didn’t know what to do with these brown-skinned guys.”

American Bandstand was just the beginning though, as Ozuna would continue to write a number of hits, release 69 albums, and continue playing shows today.

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