Back From the Past: Remembering the Mystics and Latino Soul in Pilsen

Rodolfo Aguilar Publicado 2017-07-30 07:39:15


The Mystics

“It’s just like heaven being here with you.” The opening lyrics to Rosie and the Originals’ “Angel Baby” are recognizable by many Latinos appreciating lowrider oldies. It captured the essence of Mexican-Americans as consumers and producers of sixties and seventies soul music. Other Mexican-American groups also made successful careers singing primarily soul and garage Rock n’ Roll. East Los Angeles bands like Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midniters contributed to what Steven Loza called the “Eastside Sound” with their versions of “My Girl” and “Dreaming Casually,” respectively.[1]Texas-born Sunny and the Sunliners and the Royal Jesters also released their own renditions of soul music.[2] These Southwestern soul groups indeed pioneered the Eastside Sound. Decades later, the Eastside Sound continues to enjoy a great deal of recognition by any contemporary Chicano and Latino music enthusiast. However, the Eastside Sound extended well beyond the U.S. Southwest region. Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood was home to its own Latino soul talent in the late sixties and seventies with the Mystics.This brief essay attempts to introduce young Latinos and music enthusiasts to the sounds of the Mystics. Like the band’s 1985 album, Back From the Past, the following narrative attempts to resurrect the Mystics’ music and their well-deserved place in Latino popular music.[3]

Soul music was a major force in Chicago and the Midwest during the sixties and seventies. Latino musicians shared their own enthusiasm for the music genre. Soul groups with predominantly Latino band members formed all across the Midwest. The/Los Nombres, primarily Puerto Rican musicians, based in Lorraine, Ohio released numerous 45rpm records with a local record label. East Chicago, Indiana was home to the Enchanting Enchanters. The band consisted of Chicano and African-American musicians. The Enchanting Enchanters are known for the song, “No One in this World.” Like their Southwestern counterparts, the Mystics and the mentioned soul bands contributed to the Eastside sound with a Midwestern approach. By the 1970s, Chicago and the Midwest already held significantly sizable second and third generation Latino populations due to waves of immigration primarily from Mexico and Puerto Rico as early as the 1910s and 1940s respectively. Midwestern second and third generation Latinos became fully-immersed in American Jazz, Rock n’ Roll, Doo Wop, and Soul as communities took shape in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Gary. Traditional Mexican and Puerto Rican music were constantly visible in Chicago in the postwar era. However, second and third generation Latinos in the Midwest consumed English-dominant musical styles in high volumes similar to their West and East Coast counterparts. The sixties ushered a sense of cultural nationalism demanding social justice in Chicago for Chicanos, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans. These social justice movements included organization like the Brown Berets, and the Young Lords. The social justice movements brought Chicanos and Puerto Ricans into closer contact. The close affinity shared by Chicanos and Puerto Ricans in 1960s Chicago also found its way in music form. Chicanos and Puerto Ricans shared housing, employment, and leisure spaces. Soul music became one of many music genres Chicanos and Puerto Ricans produced together in 1960s Chicago simultaneously with their emergent cultural identities. The Mystics are a great example of various racial communities merging together by way of soul music at the same moment the Windy City rejected them.

The Latino soul band, the Mystics formed in the notable Mexican-American Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago by 1967. The Pilsen barrio is noted for being a predominantly Mexican community.[4] By 1970, masses of Mexican residents settled in the area after urban renewal displaced many Mexican, Italian, and Puerto Rican families from the Near West Side near Taylor Street.[5] The Pilsen area or la diesocho is adjacent to downtown Chicago and nearby various industrial zones. Thus, it became a preferred location for Mexican immigrants similar to Eastern European immigrants at the beginning of the twentieth century seeking affordable housing in close proximity to their employment. Newer waves of immigration from Mexico continued to replenish the older generations into the eighties and nineties. Thus, these waves aided in cementing the Mexican presence in Pilsen.

The Pilsen-based Mystics, however, were truly a Latino soul band.[6] The band included several Mexican-American band members from Pilsen and Puerto Ricans from the North Side.[7] The lead singer, the late Rudy Negron, was of Puerto Rican descent whom also was a Pilsen resident.[8]Background vocalists included Mexican-American John Zepeda. Ted Thomas, another local Pilsen native, was also instrumental in the band with his work on music arrangement. The band also held a connection to the adjacent Mexican-American community of Little Village even though most of the original band members resided and held practices in Pilsen. Many of the original band members attended high school at the now-defunct Carter Harrison Technical High School in Little Village. Prior to the opening of Benito Juarez High School due to community pressure, Pilsen and Little Village students merged together at Harrison High School. The Mystics became a product of these two Mexican-American communities who borders each other in Chicago’s West Side.


The Mystic’s 1985 LP, Back from the Past album cover

The band’s musical repertoire included Funk, Chicano Rock, Doo Wop, but with a major focus on Soul music. “That’s the Kind of Love” was the band’s recorded single to reach prominence on the pop charts. It was released on the Teako label in 1970. The song’s opens with a captivating introduction from the band’s brass section. It is then followed with Rudy Negron on lead vocals. The song received significant airplay by local radio stations. Their distinct soul sound awarded the band local recognition at various talent shows, neighborhood dances, and private events. In addition to playing local events in Pilsen for Latino audiences, the Mystics often shared the stage with local African American bands such as the Notations. The band enjoyed significant success during the late sixties and early seventies.

Unfortunately, life took its course on the band. Some of the original members parted ways to experiment with salsa and other Latino music genres. Military service also interrupted the band’s progress when Ted Thomas was drafted into the service. Years passed until the Mystics resurfaced. Rudy Negron collaborated with his cousin, Angel Torres in 1985 to relaunch the group. Their collaboration culminated with the release of their 1985 full length LP, Back from the Past. The LP was independently released with financial support from friends and colleagues. The groups’ name also changed with time because Rudy Negron was the only original member to work on the LP in the eighties. The band returned as the Chicago’s Very Own Mystic Band. Back from the Past contained a new rendition of “That’s the Kind of Love.” The second rendition of the band’s popular song was extended in duration. It maintained the same melodic structure to the original version pressed on the Teako label. However, the most significant difference laid in the choice of instruments. The second rendition opened with synthesized keys rather than a brass section. More importantly, Back from the Past introduced new original music written by Rudy Negron and Angel Torres. The song, “I’ll Never Forget You” returned the band to its earlier soul influences. The album also included a variety of Latin Rock and jazz formats. The band pressed a limited amount of album copies on vinyl. Their full length LP would be the last of recorded music put forth by the Mystics. Rudy Negron, and other band members, continued performing until his untimely death in 2011. Efforts to preserve The Mystics’ music have been made Rudy Negron’s family and band members. Record collectors pay high prices for their vinyl records. Lastly, the late Bob Abrahamian interviewed Rudy Negron and Ted Thomas about the Mystics and the band was featured in Ruben Molina’s book, The Old Barrio Guide to Lowrider Music, 1950-1975.

Like the DJ, the role of the music scholar is to blend numerous sounds together for multiple audiences. This essay highlights the Mystics’ original sound in the attempt to merge Latino Pilsen and soul music. The Midwest produced numerous Latino soul bands. Many of them were inspired by African American soundscapes and their reinterpretations derived from the Eastside Sound. Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood became one of many centers for Latino soul to emerge due to increase migrations from Mexico and Puerto Rico. The Mystics emerged in Chicago during drastic changes. Pilsen had become the center for the Mexican community while also becoming home to few Puerto Rican families. Thus, Latinos found themselves sharing high schools, neighborhoods, and various informal social spaces. The Mystics symbolize this change by displaying how Latino youth in 1960s and 70s Chicago appreciated and produced soul music, which they adopted from African Americans, rather than enforcing musical boundaries.

 

DEDICATION

Like music albums, this article wishes to offer many thanks to various individuals who offered their invaluable support and input. I dedicate this article to the late Rudy Negron. May your story and the Mystics live on. I also wish to thank Janet Grippo-Negron and the Negron family, Angel Torres, Ruben Molina, Dr. Juan Mora-Torres and the BeiSMan editorial board.
 

 
Ticket stub from 1971 dance in Pilsen including the Mystics as headlining group.

 

________________________________

[1] The Eastside Sound was the Chicano rendition of adopted African American R&B, Soul, Doo Wop, Rock n’ Roll, Funk, Salsa, and Mexican musical genres. See Steven Loza, Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 95.

[2] For a comprehensive list of Chicano and Latino soul groups, see Ruben Molina, Chicano Soul: Recordings and History of an American Culture (La Puente, CA: Mictlan Publishing, 2007); Also, Ruben Molina, The old barrio guide to low rider music, 1950-1975 (La Puente, CA: Mictlan Publishing, 2002).

[3] The title for this essay is inspired by the song of the same name from their 1985 LP release. See Chicago’s Own Mystic Band. Back From the Past. A.R.T. Productions SS-110. 1985.

[4] Scholarship on Mexicans in Pilsen continues to emerge. Please refer to Louis Año Nuevo Kerr, “The Chicano Experience in Chicago: 1920-1970 204.” PhD Dissertation, (University of Illinois at Chicago, 1976); Lilia Fernandez, Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[5] Louis Año Nuevo Kerr, “The Chicano Experience in Chicago: 1920-1970,” 192.

[6] The late Bob Abrahamian interviewed Rudy Negron and Ted Thomas for WHPK’s Sitting in the Park radio show in 2007. This interview serves as a great oral history of the band. It also aided with the writing of this article. http://www.sittinginthepark.com/interviews.html.

[7] Puerto Rican communities emerged in various locations in Chicago’s North side after the displacement of Taylor Street. For histories of Puerto Ricans in Chicago, see Merida Rua, A Grounded Identidad: Making New Lives in Chicago’s Puerto Rican Neighborhoods (Oxford University Press, 2012); Gina M. Pérez, The Near Northwest Side Story: Migration, Displacement, and Puerto Rican Families. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004).

[8] Puerto Ricans were a small minority compared to Mexicans in 1970 Pilsen. See Kerr, “The Chicano Experience in Chicago: 1920-1970,” 198.

 

 

Rodolfo Aguilar, Ph.D. is currently an independent scholar. He is a Chicago native with roots in Pilsen but raised in Cicero, IL. Rodolfo holds a B.A. in Latin American & Latino Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a PhD in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. His dissertation examines sonidero and community formation in various Chicagoland’s Mexican communities. Dr. Aguilar has taught college-level courses at UIC, University of Minnesota, and Macalester College.

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