By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Little about the first few moments of "Suavecito" suggests that it's a cultural touchstone: The electric guitar drizzles watery chords over a basic conga rhythm, a trombone moans somberly, a chorus of male voices arrives to sing a few "Laaaah-aah-aahs" as the music swells to a slow, sunny groove. Initially, it doesn't even sound like a hit. It's slow, languid, a little sleepy, especially at the beginning. It doesn't demand your attention at all, it coaxes attention out of you. But then, maybe that's why it became what it did.
The song, released in 1972 by the San Francisco Latin rock band Malo, began as a love poem that singer and timbale player Richard Bean wrote for a girl he had a crush on at Mission High School. (She never read the poem, but she did break his heart.) After its release on Malo's Warner Bros. debut album, "Suavecito" slowly rose to No. 18 on the Billboard singles chart, launching Malo to national recognition. But the band never had another big single, making "Suavecito" a classic one-hit wonder, a '70s obscurity from the Santana era.
For Americans of Mexican descent, however, "Suavecito" is iconic, a core piece of a shared culture. Released at a time when Chicanos were struggling for basic rights and recognition in the U.S., "Suavecito" is a symbol of unity still widely played and enjoyed today. The song — whose 40th anniversary is celebrated with a show at Slim's this week — has even been dubbed the Chicano national anthem.
"It's part of our social DNA," says Eduardo Arenas, bassist in Los Angeles Latin soul-rock band Chicano Batman. "It's like a universal thing. You don't grow up wanting to listen to it — you're already listening to it."
"I don't necessarily know if it's the national anthem, but if it's not, it sure as hell is pretty close," says San Francisco DJ Vinnie Esparza. "If someone said that to me, I'd have a pretty weak argument against it."
The song's power lies as much in the music itself as in its particular history. "Suavecito" means "soft" or "smooth" in Spanish; appropriately, the arrangement melds the easygoing melodies of soul, the psychedelic atmospheres of San Francisco rock, and the traditional rhythms of Latino music into an understated, glowing six minutes. "Suavecito" is ebullient and easygoing; it is, as Chicano Batman's Arenas says, "a Sunday afternoon classic... it's synonymous with the smell of lighter fluid over Kingsford charcoal."
The lyrics are romantic almost to the point of corniness. And that's part of the appeal. "The feeling, the feeling that I have inside for you/ 'Cause ever since the day I met you/ I knew that you were my dream come true," coos Bean, his words still redolent of teenage infatuation. But probably the most memorable vocal in "Suavecito" is the "Laaaah-aah-aah" that begins the first and third verse. You've probably heard them before, whether in the original song or sampled elsewhere. (Sugar Ray made thorough use of them on 1999's pop-rock juggernaut "Every Morning.")
Along with being ridiculously easy to enjoy, "Suavecito" also put Chicano musicians in a place they had rarely been at the time: on the Billboard charts. Santana had landed a No. 13 single in 1970 with "Oye Como Va" — but that's a cover of a Tito Puente song, so its heritage is Puerto Rican. It wasn't written by Chicanos living in El Norte. "Suavecito," when it became a surprise hit, was just that. And it had a Santana on lead guitar — Carlos' immensely skilled brother Jorge — to boot. Malo's debut album, with its wordless cover depicting an Aztec warrior cradling a princess, made the heritage of the group clear.
"There was no denying what that record was," Esparza says. "They basically waved the Chicano flag pretty high. As a fan of music and as someone who happens to be Chicano, I really appreciate that they did that."
Arenas agrees, saying the song is a major symbol of Chicano pride: "That's us, that's our people right there, representing, up in a mix on a big old label," he says.
Bean, who now lives in Hayward, has his own story about the power of "Suavecito" from a large concert he once played at a park in Los Angeles. When his band began the song, two "big guys" went behind the stage and began waving a large Mexican flag. "I mean, it was like huge," Bean remembers. Security tried to interfere, but the men continued waving the flag throughout the song, while the crowd stood and cheered. "It kind of made me teary-eyed," Bean says. "It just meant so much to me when I saw that."
Unfortunately, the singer and co-writer of "Suavecito" didn't last long enough in Malo to get much of a taste of its success. Bean parted with the group before Malo went on its first national tour; he was pushed out, he says, for not being a strong enough timbale player. Thus, "a lot of people never got to see who really sang the song."
That will not be the case at Slim's on Friday. Bean is performing with Sapo, the respected Latin rock group he founded shortly after leaving Malo. While the setlist will include plenty of Sapo songs, the occasion is celebrating the anniversary of "Suavecito" — so expect a spirited version toward the end. Though it was four decades ago, Bean can still remember the first time he heard the song on the radio, in San Francisco on a rainy day.