Even as streaming has collapsed the distance between regions — making it easy for listeners in Boise to hear what’s popular in Boston or Barcelona or Bogotá — Texas remains stubbornly idiosyncratic. “For a long time Texas artists were confined to Texas,” explained George Cook, director of operations and program director for the Dallas hip-hop and R&B stations KKDA and KRNB. “What’s crazy about Texas is it’s so big, you can create a career here and do pretty well for yourself.”
Cook was speaking about rappers in the state, but a similar principle applies in country music — unlike any other state, Texas has its own regional radio charts in the genre — and Tejano music, a format that melds Mexican styles like Norteño with rock, country, blues and more. Within Texas, and maybe bordering states, this music is huge; 1,000 miles away, though, it’s sometimes given short shrift.
A new album aims to explore a different but under-examined corner of Texas’ musical history. A collection of fresh songs with a vintage twist, Look at My Soul: The Latin Shade of Texas Soul demonstrates the rich history of interplay between Latin artists in Texas and classic strains of rhythm and blues. Featuring a multi-generational cast of local soul singers, it’s the brainchild of writer-producer-multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada — a former member of the bands Grupo Fantasma and The Echocentrics, plus a contributor to records by Los Ángeles Azules and Deer Tick — who has been hoping to make an album like this for nearly 15 years.
The initial jolt of interest came from a conversation with Ruben Ramos, a veteran who has won a Grammy for his work in Tejano music. Though Tejano artists are walled-off into their own state, Ramos told Quesada he grew up with a steady diet of R&B. “Early on, a lot of those singers were doing what they called brown-eyed soul or chicano soul,” the producer says. “Even when they were starting to develop the sound known as Tejano music, they were still tempering it with a soul song here and there, a funk song here and there.”
This album seems natural in the context of the remarkable increase in soul music scholarship that has taken place over the last 15 years. In pop music, history is largely told by hit-makers with access to national distribution networks. But many small labels thrived making great R&B cuts that were only heard locally. Recently, various institutions have emerged dedicated to elevating regional music that may have been overlooked. “A lot of the stuff the Numero Group has done has really helped tell those stories,” Quesada says. Since starting in 2004, Numero has released albums focusing on, for example, the Deep City label in Florida, the Big Mack label in Detroit, and the Tragar and Note labels in Atlanta.
As the spotlight widened to encompass more narratives in R&B, it began to reach some of the Latino musicians who dove into soul music and sparked regionally. Quesada points to the reissue of music by Sunny and the Sunliners, a San Antonio-based group that enjoyed hits in the first half of the Sixties. Chicano Soul: Recordings & History of an American Culture, the first historical exploration of the ways R&B influenced Latin musicians and vice versa, came out in 2007.
Developments like those made Quesada’s vision — for a new album that also connected historical dots — start to seem more attainable. Coincidentally, Tomas Cookman, founder and CEO of Nacional Records, a lauded indie label that supports a wide range of Latin acts, had also started working towards a similar concept for a project: “The Tejano world has been misunderstood for such a long time,” he says. “I always remember there being so many classic songs [from Latin artists in Texas] — you go into Freddy Fender’s catalog or the songs that Flaco Jiménez played on. There were tons of artists who were basically 45-only type of artists on small labels. It was a different version of so many of these soul labels from the Northeast, but this was a Texas story, and to me, a Latino story.”
Cookman earned Amazon’s support, impressed that the company’s “Originals” program, which creates exclusive tunes for Amazon Music listeners, had helped acts like the gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama. (Blind Boys of Alabama were nominated for a Grammy this year with an album they made for Amazon.) And Cookman put in a call to Quesada — the two had worked together on albums by the Echocentrics and Elastic Bond — whom he calls “an amazing musician, and amazing producer and [for this project, just as important] one based in Texas.”
Initially Quesada and Cookman weren’t entirely sure what The Latin Shade of Texas Soul would look like. “The idea of the album went through so many different phases,” Cookman says. “First we said, ‘let’s reach out to more Tejano older guys!’ Then we said, ‘let’s get some mainstream folks who are based in Texas!’ So we reached out to Demi Lovato and others.” “A lot of the old-school guys, I wasn’t on their radar, and they maybe weren’t into what I was trying to do,” Quesada adds. “Mainstream folks” also did not end up participating.
But importantly, Quesada got a commitment from Ramos, “the person who made the wheels spin for me about 15 years go.” “I was like, as long as I got Ruben, whatever happens from here is good,” Quesada continues. “Also in the search process, I started to find younger singers who are carrying the torch, and then led me to people like Jonny Benavidez, who was originally from California but had just moved to Texas. Those were my two anchors.”
The California-Texas connection made sense: “A lot of the music [older Chicano soul] found some of its biggest audience in California,” Quesada says. The producer also tracked down Johnny Hernandez, who sang in the Sixties group Little Joe & the Latinaires, fronted by his brother, and had relocated from Texas to California. There were a few other out-of-staters involved, like Aaron Frazer, the drummer for Durand Jones and the Indications, and Cookman himself. But almost everyone else who worked on The Latin Shade of Texas Soul was based in-state; the vinyl was even pressed locally. “We’re honorary Texans for this period,” Cookman quips.
The Latin Shade of Texas Soul is an extension of the musical conversation that Ramos remembered from his youth. The album tours classic rhythm and blues: Here you’ll find cutting funk, full of driving, dive-bombing horns; bright, guitar-first mid-tempo tracks like those made in the famous Muscle Shoals studio in the late Sixties; and the aching, post-doo-wop sound often labelled lowrider soul.
Frazer shows off his remarkable falsetto in “One Woman Man,” a rueful ballad where the singer slips closer and closer to infidelity. Ramos sings with husky power in Spanish during “Boogaloo en Monterrey,” where the brass evokes James Brown in 1964. And Hernandez interjects pretty fillips into his lead on “Ain’t No Big Thing,” which insists on shrugging in the face of life’s troubles: “I’ve got a feeling that I am losing you/ But what’s the use, why worry, when there’s nothing I can do?”
During the earlier wave of Texas soul music by artists of Latin descent — Quesada collects a lot of it on vinyl — distribution was a constraining factor. “A lot of the stuff released out of San Antonio was all this one guy, a real estate magnate named Abe Epstein who had a bunch of small labels,” Quesada says. “There were limitations of where they were regionally and in terms of the resources to get the music out.”
But in the streaming era, with a boost from Amazon, The Latin Shade of Texas Soul does not face that problem. And so for listeners from outside of the Texas Latin soul scene, Quesada hopes his new album will serve as a gateway of sorts. “Hopefully from here you get turned on to somebody you didn’t know about, whether it’s the Latinaires records or Aaron Frazier on Durand Jones,” Quesada says. “Hopefully this opens doors for other people the way it’s opened doors for me.”