Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peak at our upcoming show. This week, we hung out with members of San Antonio’s Sunny and the Sunliners.
In 1959, a group of San Antonio Chicano teenagers formed Sunny and the Sunliners lead by Sunny Ozuna. They called it the Highway 90 Sound in reference to the stretch of asphalt connecting New Orleans to their hometown. Playing record hops, the Sunliners wore matching suits and pomaded hair like their R&B idols. But they crooned, sometimes in Spanish, with a distinctively Mexican-American take. The Sunliners took that Highway 90 sound all the way to American bandstand, East L.A. and migrant Chicano communities nationwide. We hung out with keyboard player and singer Little Henry “Lee” Parrillo.
Little Henry Lee: At that time, we weren’t allowed to speak Spanish in school, you had to assimilate or go home, so there was never any contact with the conjuntos and all that, so I was totally drawn to R&B in the sense that I felt comfortable with the music because I felt the emotion, when my mother would play Louis Jordan, you know, “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens,” and all that stuff, you know, I was digging it, you know. I was digging the feel and everything. We couldn’t identify with the Beach Boys, you know, we didn’t have blond hair and we didn’t have, you know, an ocean. And with us it was like comparing the Beach Boys to Bobby Bland, and it just didn’t happen, the feeling wasn’t the same, and so we just identified with R&B.
HL: I had a friend, Chick Willis, who was Chuck Willis’s cousin, and he said, “You know, I’ve never seen no Mexican singing the blues until I seen you,” and I said, “Well, you know, now you have.” And he says, “But it was alright.”
Nick Spitzer: Tell me about some of these songs, the one that actually I guess came from Little Willie John originally, yeah tell me about “Talk to Me, Talk to Me.”
HL: Manuel Guerra was a big producer, band leader for Sunny and the Sunglows, and he had the idea to you know, incorporate our sound and add some strings, you know, to make it sound like a modern production and it just hit. It hit like nobody imagined.
HL: There’s a thing that people called the Highway 90 Sound, from San Antonio all the way to New Orleans, the music just kind of gravitated towards it. Our goal was to make everybody happy by having them dance. You know if you’re a teenager, you want something where you can get close to the girls so we did a lot of those kinds of ballads, and they were always some romantic love theme and everything.
HL: For us, we sent that to East LA because a lot of guys from Texas would go to LA seeking better jobs and whatever. There’s something special, magical, whatever you want to call it, about San Antonio and their music. They would miss that.
HL: We went to East L.A. with the Sunliners, and it was like the Beatles getting there, we were like royalty, and all the Chicanos that lived around there- this is the children of the migrant workers. They weren’t allowed to speak Spanish so they didn’t relate to the Spanish music, they related to what we did.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.