Latinos/Latinas/Spaniards/Spanish-Americans and their influence in Classic Rock and Oldies

Latino/as and Spaniards have had a big role in rock and popular music from the late 50s to today. From Ritchie Valens and Tito Puente to Julian Casablancas and Dhani Harrison. Classic rock also has a huge following in Latin America. I am Hispanic and I love classic rock! My mum and my aunt especially love listening to classic rock and when they were teenagers in Venezuela they liked going to nightclubs and dancing to the music there. The acoustic guitar as we know it is a Spanish invention.

Prologue: The 50s

1958: 17-year-old Richard Valenzuela from California is signed to Del-Fi records and became Ritchie Valens. He is known as the first Latino rock star. Many Hispanic/Latino celebrities in the 40s and 50s changed their names due to prejudice and many record labels and movie studios felt that a Spanish name was not as marketable as an Anglo name. Two famous Hollywood examples are Margarita Cansino -> Rita Hayworth and Ramon Estevez -> Martin Sheen (although as far as I know Martin Sheen did not change his name out of fear of prejudice). His best known songs are “Donna” and “La Bamba.” “Donna” made it to #2 in the US and “La Bamba” made it to #22 in the US. “Donna” was an original composition by Ritchie Valens and “La Bamba” came from a Mexican folk song. Interestingly enough, Ritchie Valens did not speak much Spanish.

Joan Baez, who is half Scottish, half Mexican American performs for the first time in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Tequila,” written by Danny Flores (aka Chuck Rio) is a #1 for The Champs. This is a mostly instrumental song, aside from the few times “tequila!” is shouted.

Tito Puente, an American of Puerto Rican descent released the highly regarded album “Dance Mania.” He was highly influential to the Rock en español genre. He was known as The King of the Timbales, a type of drum from Cuba. He mostly played jazz and salsa music. Some rock songs have influences from jazz and salsa.

1959: Ritchie Valens was on tour with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. It was very cold in the Midwestern United States since it was February. The tour bus did not have working heating. It didn’t help that Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were ill. Ritchie had a fear of flying. A coin toss decided his fate and he got on the plane with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. The plane crashed somewhere in Iowa. Ritchie Valens died at 17. Buddy Holly was 22. The Big Bopper was 28. Would Ritchie Valens have collaborated with Carlos Santana or Los Lobos had he still been alive?

“Hippy Hippy Shake,” written by Chan Romero, is a hit in the US, Australia, and the UK. The press describe Chan Romero as the next Ritchie Valens.

The 60s:

1960: Joan Baez releases her first studio album. This album was mostly made up of traditional music.

1963: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan went to The March On Washington. Joan Baez did a lot of activist work. Here is a video clip of them performing there.

1964: Jose Feliciano from Puerto Rico releases his first album, The Voice and Guitar of Jose Feliciano. Here’s a clip of him covering “Things We Said Today” by The Beatles:

1965: “Wooly Bully” was released by Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs. It peaked at #2 in the US. Sam The Sham himself is of Mexican descent.

Mimi Fariña, the younger sister of Joan Baez, recorded her first album with her husband Richard Fariña. Like her sister, she sings folk music as well and did a lot of charity work. One cause she believed in was bringing music into institutions such as prisons, hospitals, and nursing homes.

1966: “96 Tears” is released by Michigan garage rock band ? and the Mysterians. Question Mark, the lead singer, was born Rudy Martinez. This was a Billboard #1. The song was originally going to be called “69 Tears” but that was deemed too controversial for radio. Many cite this song as an early punk song.

“Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” is a top 40 hit for San Francisco folk musician Norma Tanega. The single reached #22 in the Billboard Charts. Norma Tanega is half Panamanian and half Filipina. The inspiration for the song came from the rules of an apartment she lived in in New York. The apartment didn’t allow dogs, but it allowed cats so she got a cat and named it “Dog”. The success of that song got her on American Bandstand and a slot on a tour with Gene Pitney, Bobby Goldsboro, Chad and Jeremy, and The McCoys. The album of the same name is a great album and it’s worth listening to. Some other great songs on that album are “Treat Me Right”, “A Street That Rhymes at 6am”, and “You’re Dead”. At one point Tanega dated Dusty Springfield and they lived together in England for five years. Tanega and Springfield collaborated with Tanega contributing guitar and songwriting for Springfield.

1967: Grateful Dead release their first album, a self-titled debut. Jerry Garcia was their lead guitarist. He was half Spanish. His father was an immigrant from A Coruña, in Galicia. Big Grateful Dead fans are known as Deadheads. Their music had a diversity of influences from rockabilly to surf rock to folk to the blues to jazz. They were very important in psychedelic rock. They were from Haight-Ashbury, in San Francisco – the capital of hippie culture in the 60s.

The Stone Poneys with Linda Ronstadt (part Mexican) on vocals release two albums, a debut and a follow up. Linda Ronstadt later went onto a solo career in 1969 and she released albums throughout the 70s. “Different Drum” is from The Stone Poneys’ second album. The song was written by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees.

1968: Three Dog Night release their first album. The best known single from that album is “One,” a Harry Nilsson cover. Three Dog Night’s version reached #5 on the Billboard charts in 1969. Chuck Negron was one of the lead singers of the band and sang vocals on “One” and “Joy to the World,” two of their best known songs. He is half Puerto Rican, half British.


The Fania All Stars release their first live album Live At The Red Garter Volume 1 . Johnny Pacheco from The Dominican Republic is the bandleader.

1969: Santana release their first album. Much like the Grateful Dead, they have jam band elements to their music and have many different influences from jazz to folk to Latin and African music. Carlos Santana was born in Mexico and was inspired by Ritchie Valens. His family later moved to San Francisco. Santana played at Woodstock. My personal favourite albums of theirs are Santana and Abraxas.

The 70s:

1970: Santana release Abraxas. Abraxas had covers of Fleetwood Mac songs “Black Magic Woman,” a Gabor Szabo song “Gypsy Queen,” and a Tito Puente song “Oye Como Va.” All of these songs were strong moments in the album. 

Rodriguez, of “Sugar Man” fame releases his first album, Cold Fact. This album did not succeed in the United States, but it became a hit in South Africa and Australia. He didn’t know about his success in South Africa until after the fact. He did get to perform in Australia in 1979 and 1981.

Redbone, a band made up of primarily Native American and had some Mexican American musicians, release their first album. The Vegas brothers are part Mexican and part Native American (Yaqui and Shoshone). Tony Bellamy is Yaqui of Mexican descent.

1971: “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night goes to #1 in the US and Canada.

1974: Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” is a hit and peaked at #5 on the Billboard charts. You may remember that song on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack.

Fania All Stars perform in Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of The Congo) with Celia Cruz, a Cuban Salsa singer. Here’s one of their best known songs “Quimbara”

1975: Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar plays guitar on the David Bowie album, Young Americans. He contributed guitar to other well known David Bowie albums like LowStation to Station, and Heroes. Other famous musicians Carlos Alomar has worked with include Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Iggy Pop, and James Brown. He was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City and he is a self taught guitarist. Here is an interview he did in 1997.

1976: Los Lobos (The Wolves in English) release their first album Si Se Puede! (Yes We Can!). This album was a charity album benefiting United Farm Workers of America.

The Slits form in London. Drummer Palmolive is originally from Spain. The band released their debut album, Cut, in 1979. Palmolive wrote the songs “Shoplifting”, “Number One Enemy”, and “New Town”. While Palmolive didn’t play on their debut album, these songs are on the album.

1978: Palmolive joins punk band The Raincoats.

1979: The Raincoats release their self-titled debut album. By the time the album was released, Palmolive left the band.

The Influence:

A few bands without Latin American or Spanish band members took influences from Latin American and Spanish music:

In 1962, The Beatles recorded a demo of a song written by Mexican musician Consuelo Velásquez called “Bésame Mucho” (translates to “Kiss me a lot”). Velásquez was young when she wrote the song and didn’t have her first kiss yet, which explains the innocence of the lyrics. Before recording this demo, The Beatles performed this song live in Hamburg. The Beatles version is translated to English, only retaining the words “bésame mucho”. This wouldn’t be the last time the Beatles sang in Spanish.

Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Keith Moon, and Nicky Hopkins all played on the song “Beck’s Bolero” which took influences from “Boléro” by French composer Maurice Ravel which was influenced by Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia.

“Push Push” by The Doors was a jam they made that wasn’t released until later and is a bonus track on reissues of The Soft Parade.

War were a band from the late 60s and early 70s that Eric Burdon from The Animals was part of for a short period of time. They weren’t just influenced by Latin American music. Funk and Soul had a huge influence in their music. You can really hear the Latin American influence on “Spill The Wine,”  “Low Rider,” and “Ballero.” “Low Rider” is the theme song for George Lopez. Here’s a video of the Soul Train line dance to “Ballero”

Led Zeppelin had a Latin influenced song called “Fool In The Rain.” Many think that Led Zeppelin only made hard rock, but in actuality they had a lot of different kinds of songs taking influences from all genres of music, but their biggest influence was the blues. This song was from their 1979 album In Through the Out Door. Where you can really hear the Latin influence is at 2:25 in the video.

Steve Howe from Yes was inspired a lot by Spanish guitar. “Mood For a Day” off the 1971 album, Fragile had a flamenco sound to it.

Steve Howe also played Spanish guitar on the Queen song “Innuendo.” You can hear his guitar contribution at 3:20

In 1977, ELO released their best-known album Out of the Blue. “Across the Border” has a mariachi influence to it and you can hear it throughout, but especially at around the 2:40 mark.

In 1979, The Clash recorded and released the song the song “Spanish Bombs”. This song was written by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones and the song was inspired by ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, a Basque nationalist and separatist group) bombings of hotels in the Costa Brava (translates to Wild Coast), a popular tourist destination in Catalonia, about 60 km from Barcelona. Joe Strummer felt that the bombings in Spain were similar to Provisional IRA terrorist attacks in the UK. Also, Joe Strummer’s girlfriend at the time, Paloma Romero, also known as Palmolive, was from Andalusia. You’ll hear references to Andalusia, Costa Brava, and Granada. You’ll also hear some Spanish lyrics sung in a very Anglo accent, which is really amusing, especially if you grew up with the language. The lyrics they sing in Spanish are “Yo te quiero infinito, yo te quiero, oh mi corazón”, which translates to “I want you forever, I want you, oh my heart”. However, Joe Strummer said in the liner notes for the 25th anniversary edition of London Calling that in the Clash dialect of Spanish, he meant “I love you and goodbye. I want you, but oh my aching heart”.  Because of the accent, I couldn’t catch it for quite a few listens.

Epilogue: The 80s to the Present

In 1987 Los Lobos covered Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” for the biopic of the same name. The lyric “yo no soy marinero, soy capitán” translates to “I am not a sailor, I am a captain.”

In 1988, British synth pop band, The Pet Shop Boys, released the Latin-influenced song “Domino Dancing.” The video was filmed in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

In 1989, Madchester band The Stone Roses, filmed a couple of music videos, for “Fools Gold” and “I Wanna Be Addored” in Lanzarote, Canary Islands. The Canary Islands are an Autonomous Community of Spain. The filters used in the music videos make Lanzarote’s desert landscape look like Mars. Out of this world! On John Squire’s official website, you can see stills of the music video and pictures of Lanzarote’s landscape with and without the filter.

Also in 1989, Selena Quintanilla, known as just Selena released her first album, a self titled debut. My favourite songs of hers are “Fotos y Recuerdos” (Photographs and memories) – A Spanish reworking of The Pretenders’ “Back On The Chain Gang” and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” both from her 1994 album Amor Prohibido (Prohibited Love). In 1995 Selena made an English language crossover album called Dreaming Of You. David Byrne from Talking Heads had a role in producing the album and sang with her on “God’s Child (Baila Conmigo)” (Dance With Me). The song has both English and Spanish lyrics. In 1995 she was shot and killed by her fan club president Yolanda Saldivar.

In 1991, Shakira (from Colombia) releases her first album. Her first few albums were entirely in Spanish. Her first album was recorded when she was just 13. A little over half the songs on that album were written by her. She made her English language crossover in 2001 with the album Laundry Service – the biggest hit on that album was “Whenever, Wherever.” She did the Official 2010 FIFA World Cup song “Waka Waka (This Time For Africa) with Freshlyground, a South African band.

In 1993, the first version of “Macarena” was released by Los Del Rio, an Andalusian pop duo. The remixed version with some English lyrics we all know and love was released in 1996.


Los Lonely Boys started in the 90s and made it big in 2004 with the song “Heaven” that went to #1 on the US Adult Contemporary charts.

In 2001, The Strokes, with lead singer Julian Casablancas (half Spanish-half Danish American), release their first album Is This It. Two of the most famous singles from it are “Last Nite” and “Someday.” Last year, Julian Casablancas + The Voidz released an album called Tyranny.

Dhani Harrison (Half English, half Mexican), the son of George Harrison and Olivia Harrison, after going to Brown University decided to pursue a music career. He sings in bands like Thenewno2 and Fistful of Mercy. Here’s a song that Dhani did with Thenewno2:

In 2012, a documentary about Rodriguez was released called “Searching For Sugar Man.” This was made because of South African fans of Rodriguez trying to get in touch with him and finding out if he did commit suicide according to rumours, or if he is still alive, what became of him. It won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.


If you liked this post about Hispanic musicians, you might like this newer post: Despacito: Topping the charts, but is it really that impressive?