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.

The story of Chicano Soul doesn’t begin and end with San Antonio and Ozuna though. Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Phoenix and other cities in the Southwest had burgeoning scenes at the time as well. But few artists from this era came close to the natural talent and raw soulfulness that Ozuna was able to reflect in his recordings: A legacy not only important for himself and the West Side Sound, but for San Antonio music, Texas music, and America’s rock ‘n’ roll history.

“This is American music,” said Saldaña. “These are guys born in Texas, so Sunny should be remembered for making, as a young man, American rock ‘n’ roll with a Chicano twist.”

Ozuna’s legacy isn’t at the forefront for many, including myself until recently. Though I had heard of Sunny and The Sunliners from chatting up vinyl DJ and KRTU 91.7 general manager JJ Lopez (when he would spin soul music at places like Tucker’s Kozy Korner), it wasn’t until recently that I listened to some of Ozuna’s songs. Tracks like “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and “Should I Take You Home,” which combines the raw textures of drums, bass, keys and horns with rich, passionate vocals to form a sound that isn’t so much technical but emotional; a heavy vintage sound that reverberated on a molecular level and speaks to the spirit – the soul, if you will; and, in contrast to pop music today, didn’t rely on gobs of effects or post-production. The songs were good and made you feel good. And while the classic vibrations of Ozuna’s tracks almost seemed foreign to your typical “San Antonio tejano sound,” in a way they contained the fringes of something familiar because the sounds would heavily influence later tejano sounds we grew up with in the ’90s. What’s also sort of strange is that, unless you really did your research on San Antonio music or loved soul music in general, the magic of Sunny and The Sunliners, sadly, could be easily overlooked.
Those sentiments trascend the tejano experience at least for one Brooklyn-based label owner who’s hoping to turn Ozuna into a household name once again.

“I’m a DJ and record collector,” Danny Akalepse, co-founder of Big Crown Records, said over the phone in a conversation with the Current. “I heard a Sunny record on my buddy’s mixtape in maybe 2001 or something like that. It was ‘Should I Take You Home’ and that’s how it is with collecting records. That was the beginning of the end for me,” he joked.

Akalepse explained that he started “snatching up” all the records from Ozuna he could get his hands on and was looking to sign the singer before launching Big Crown in 2016 with co-founder Leon Daniels. “I saw that nobody had really dealt with [Ozuna] and put his music back into the world since it was [originally released],” said Akalepse.
click to enlarge RAMON HERNANDEZ
Ramon Hernandez
During the process of signing Ozuna that took three to five years (beginning with phone calls to Ozuna’s son and publicist David Ozuna), Akalepse flew to Texas in August of 2013 to meet with Ozuna face to face at the singer-songwriter’s northeastside home. In late 2015, Akalepse eventually signed Sunny and The Sunliners to Big Crown and the fruits of their labor can be found in Mr. Brown Eyed Soul released this past September.

The album, available on Spotify, Apple Music, most streaming platforms, and, naturally, vinyl, is made up of previously released tracks that were first heard in the ’60s and early ’70s including the popular “Should I Take You Home,” “Put Me in Jail” and “Smile Now, Cry Later” amongst some deep cuts that soul-enthusiasts will be pleased to finally have in their collections.

Though there wasn’t an official album release show for Mr. Brown Eyed Soul, Akalepse mentioned trying to collaborate with indie, psychedelic, funk, soul four-piece Chicano Batman to back Ozuna for a show in Los Angeles. “We talked about doing release parties for this compilation, but the timing wasn’t that good,” said Akalepse. “[Chicano Batman] was gonna back him for an LA show, and that’s still something that we might be able to put together.”

Release show or not, the Current caught up with Ozuna this September to talk about his role in the Chicano Soul movement and his recent deal with Big Crown.

The Current: Tell me about what was it like being a part of the whole West Side Sound movement? How did Chicano Soul and your group develop?
Sunny Ozuna: Well, it was kind of strange, ya’ know? I got into the music thing when I was still in high school and we used to have these dances on Wednesday nights at the Tom Heights Recreation Center on the Southside and the music was getting more into my blood. So when we wanted to started playing The West Side Sound kind of just came into its own … We were almost getting to the level of having already gone through the recording studios and “Talk To Me” came along, and things were starting to roll, and then they decided they wanted to call that [era] from where we started “West Side Sound.” I’m from the South Side, to be truthful, but the idea of the music where we used to play in the beginning like Patio Andaluz, and the old VFW out on the West Side, and little places like that that were on the westside of town, and so they just related the whole sound to the West Side … We were amazingly [popular] with the teenagers … and so our audiences were growing through that time. The music was growing, the groups were developing, the airplay was starting to happen, the kids were getting hooked, I mean, we couldn’t seem to do anything wrong, because we were all teenagers and just guessing [what to do next].

C: It’s really cool to hear how this all just happened organically. Like obviously, the general goal for any young musician starting out is to say, “Hey I wanna make money playing music, hang out with my friends and continue to do it as long as I possibly can,” and y’all really seemed to do that.
SO: And it was so much fun! To be truthful, the money didn’t become important [for] like the next four or five years. As teenagers were just anxious to get from one [gig] to the other, ‘cause all our friends from school were gonna be [at our gigs], all our fans were gonna be there, and we were anxious to just get up and play. We were young. Money wasn’t the reason we were doing it in the beginning. Until it became a business and the word “bills” came along (laughs).

(Laughs) What’s something that a lot of people don’t know about you and your band?
Well, I don’t know if people don’t know this but we got [involved] with lowriders. Back then, the car clubs wound up being a huge thing here in San Antonio, and they were having the dances all the time. If we were going to do La Villita downtown for the Gear Grinders, they would tell all the other car clubs in the city from miles around that they were gonna have [a dance] and [the other car clubs] would help them sell tickets. Then two weeks later, The Cruisers would have [a dance], and they would put out the word, then everybody [the other car clubs] would put out the word and so you can imagine this thing was just [growing and growing].

C: You guys were really innovative with your sound, introducing horns, etc., were you annoyed or flattered by other groups imitating some of the stuff y’all were doing?
SO: I think we were too lost in the good feelings … After a while, they copied the way we play, the way we dress, the equipment that we were using, the new lighting that no one had seen before. We had as many musicians and people in the industry in these crowds just to see what we were gonna do next. We found a tailor that would do all our suits – Dukes Tailor Shop in Houston. And every time we went there, we took the new up-and-coming designs out of Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine (GQ) and we would run it up to Dukes. And we stayed ahead of everybody … and we did the same thing with our music. Once I got the wind of songwriting, which I never thought I was gonna like as much – I’m still doing it today – what happened was, once I did “Smile Now Cry Later” and “Just a Moment,” “Golly Gee,” and “The One Who’s Hurting Is You” and I said ‘You know what? This must be a way of life for me, this is so easy.’ And the songs were all fires, different sizes naturally. The huge one in R&B was “Talk To Me” but not missing it by much was “Smile Now Cry Later” and “Put Me In Jail” and the list goes on. But what I finally realized is that songwriting, if I could come up with one large fire (song), I was pretty much done for that year, ‘cause that was gonna keep us busy with teenagers wanting to come hear the new song. And then, of course, we were doing the same thing to the clothing, the equipment … For us, [this has] always been a full time job.

C: Speaking of songwriting, how many albums have you actually written?
SO: Around 69. Well, I didn’t write all of them, and the idea, even for day one, was that we were going to be a cover band. And we were listening to the radio and loving everything that the kids were loving and listening to Top 40. Then, of course, we had a Spanish radio station that was on fire for the kids, for the Hispanics here in San Antonio called KUKA back in the day. And so between those two, it was easy for us to write. For each of our CDs, what happened is that if we included a few [cover songs] and gave it our flavor, that would help the sales and they were ready to listen to whatever new original was [on the album]. Because they won’t come straight to the original stuff, it would have to grow on them from hearing it over and over on the radio then your “Smile Now Cry Later” would grow. And your “Put Me In Jail” would grow. But to answer your question, I included [songs] that I thought I could cover and give it a little bit of what I was doing it. But that’s when we included our originals. As we went through the years, we would add more and more originals because we could, once we started to become established.

C: How do you feel about hooking up your new label Big Crown Records?
SO: He [Akalepse] is going to [get] us into markets that we have never traveled or performed. He’s coming from up north and that is virgin territory because we never got out that far … Some of those places we didn’t get to reach – Philadelphia, because of American Bandstand, was about the only exception, but we didn’t do New York, New Jersey, nothing all the way across the top [of the U.S.]. Most of our business has been from the level of New Mexico, Colorado … the last 53 years. [Big Crown] is going to be [treating me] like a brand new artist and they don’t mind going that route since it’s actually helping what they’re trying to create. And so, it’s one more generation that we’ll be able to reach.
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