Photo by Torrey Bailey
Melissa Dueñas realizes she's a little obsessive. The local DJ and self-proclaimed "vinyl junkie" becomes visibly emphatic when she starts to talk about her love of "lowrider oldies."
"I made my first mixtapes waiting for certain songs to come on the radio and recording them on a tape recorder," says Dueñas, referring to the long-running Sunday Night Oldies radio show hosted by Xavier the X-Man. "My dad loved oldies, my brother loved oldies too. Definitely got my foundation there."
For those unfamiliar with the genre of "lowrider oldies," don't worry. You're not alone. There isn't even a Wikipedia page to consult. "Lowrider oldies" are songs that mix and cross a variety of genres, but are mostly known for including elements of harmonic soul, doo-wop and even funk. The lyrics, often delivered by pained and pining singers, deal in themes of love, devotion and the sadness that comes with loss. The heyday of the genre was in the '70s, when California lowrider car enthusiasts in the Chicanx community embraced the music as their preferred cruising soundtrack.
It's likely most people have heard the more popular songs that were embraced by the lowrider community. Songs by The Temptations, Al Green and Smokey Robinson are easily recognizable, but it's the deep cuts from artists such as Billy Stewart, Ralfi Pagan and the appropriately named El Chicano that blur the line between tracks considered "lowrider oldies" and ones just considered old-school.
For Dueñas, her love for the genre blossomed into a career. The 29-year-old DJs at the long-running, monthly "Sleepwalking" club night at Til Two Club in City Heights, and also hosts a podcast and online radio show called Lowrider Sundays. Her love of vinyl collecting eventually led her to discover a multi-volume series of records called East Side Story . The series of bootlegged compilation records (12 volumes in all) came out in the late '70s and featured popular singles from the genre.
"When I initially saw them, I just thought they were just cool," says Dueñas "The music on them is great but I always thought the covers were cool, because they have pictures of Chicanos and lowriders with these cool red-and-green borders. It wasn't until later when I thought there was something more to this."
Her inquisitiveness led her to begin the East Side Story Project, a documented project devoted to discovering and reporting the stories behind the cover art and lowrider culture. Through old-school instigative techniques, she was able to track down many of the photo shoot locations, which she shared on the Project's Instagram and Facebook pages. Soon enough, more people began contacting her to let her know that one of their family members was in one of the photos or that they recognized a location. Nine months into the project, she was able to track down the creator of the East Side Story series, the mysterious "Mr. B." With help from a colleague Dueñas scored an interview with Mr. B (at that point she knew little about the man other than his street name and that he was Caucasian).
"I knew that he was removed from the record community because, otherwise, he would have been easier to find," Dueñas says.
Photo by Jose Salvador Sanchez
Melissa Dueñas finds one of the original East Side Story photo locations.
What she found was that Mr. B (he doesn't want people to know his real name for fear he'd be sued by artists he bootlegged) started making the compilations on eight-track tapes (for you youngsters out there, the eight-track tape was a bulky predecessor to the cassette tape), but after selling out of them quickly he realized he could sell them on vinyl. Unable to put them in stores, Dueñas found out that he mostly sold the records at L.A. swap meets.
"I originally wanted to do this for an article for a zine or something, but it got to a point where I thought, how can I even write about this?" Dueñas says. "It's so dense and writing an article just wouldn't do justice to the whole story. To keep going with it, it needed to be something more."
That "something more" will be a web-series produced by Dueñas and L.A.-based filmmaker Gloria Morán. Together, they came up with the idea of a web series. For Morán, she says she was attracted to the project after Dueñas approached her for advice on how to make the project into a film.
"I saw what she was doing and I just thought, 'Oh man, this is amazing,'" says Morán, from her home in the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A. "I was giving her an overall understanding of how to independently produce a documentary. All the things that go into it."
Once Morán joined the project as a co-producer and co-director, they both decided on a more "episodic" format. They've set up a Kickstarter page where they hope to raise at least $15,000 (at the time this went to press, they'd raised a little over half of that amount) to cover expenses. Morán says what many people don't take expenses in these types of projects into consideration—things like music licensing and permitting in the places where they want to conduct interviews.
Dueñas ultimately envisions a series that works in non-chronological chapters, focusing on particular stories within the East Side Story series. She likes the idea of 10 episodes, with public screenings and parties marking the release of each chapter. Right now, she wants to get through the first two episodes. She hopes to raise enough money on Kickstarter, but even if she doesn't she'll still try to do it.
Yeah, she's a little obsessed.
"I have to do it, it's one of those things now," Dueñas says. "I've already invested so much time and energy into this, I have to finish it."
Melissa Dueñas shares her top-5 favorite lowrider oldies
The Fuzz – “I Love You for all Seasons”
“I have fond memories of singing along to this song with my family, cruising down Highland Avenue in our Cutlass after church on Sunday nights. My mom did the leads while the rest of us chimed in as her backup singers.”
Dee Dee Sharp – “I Really Love You”
“I love the abrupt yet magical introduction. It makes the song immediately recognizable. This is definitely one of my go-to tracks when I DJ.”
Thee Midniters – “It Will Never Be Over for Me”
“This haunting and melancholy song provided me with solace after my dad's death. Not only because of the lyrical sentiment, but because of the memories I have of him humming along to it.”
The Sunglows – “It's Okay”
“The sad and eerie laughs in this song choke me up every time. We've all been there, holding back tears and trying to play it off like everything is cool.”
Brenton Wood – “Baby You Got It”
“Brenton Wood is timeless. Period. If there was a lowirder oldies hall of fame, he would definitely be in it.”