The Stones met Sly Stone when Little Willie G. stepped up to the microphone in the late 1960s/early 1970s to assert ‘Chicano Power’
In the mid-to-late 1960s, the sound of East L.A. was thriving, blending soul and rock with some throwback doo-wop and up-to-date British Invasion influences. Thee Midniters were the best of those acts, covering a great deal of musical territory in the last half of the decade. Over the course of several LPs and numerous 45s, they tried everything from sweet soul and stomping Stonesy garage rock to mariachi and psychedelia. They even ventured into “Chicano Power” on one of their final singles.
Thee Midniters broke up by the start of the ‘70s, never breaking out nationally, though they remain legends in East L.A. Imagine, however, if another band had taken their baton and updated their eclectic stew, adding some funk, gospel, orchestration, and Sly Stone-ish attitude in varying doses. What would that have been like?
We don’t have to imagine any more – or, at least, imagine as much. For after leaving Thee Midniters, singer Little Willie G. helped form God’s Children, who were very much in the above-detailed bag. They only got to issue two obscure singles, neither of which did justice to their vision. But the recent Minky anthology Music Is the Answer: The Complete Collection documents that vision by surrounding those 45s with numerous previously unreleased 1971 recordings, even if the band didn’t record or last long enough to truly fulfill their potential. (Also included are both sides of the 1969 single Little Willie G. did shortly after departing from Thee Midniters, “Brown Baby”/“Lonely Lullaby.”)
God’s Children had a multi-ethnic, mixed-gender lineup unusual even in an era when Sly & the Family Stone was breaking huge ground in that regard. They featured three lead vocalists—Little Willie G. (given name Willie Garcia), fellow young East L.A. veteran Lil’ Ray, and Lydia Amesqua—as well as other musicians and, at one point, two other women singers. “I think at the time, most people looked at us as like a Chicano Fifth Dimension, or a Three Dog Night with chicks,” says Garcia when I speak to him shortly after the album’s release. “We were big on Sly & the Family Stone, that type of concert visual, and a lot of choreography.
“Our vision was just to work and create good music that people could relate to. We were hoping our lyrics would resonate with people; that they would get a hold of it and say, ‘Hey man, this is cool. They’re speaking our language.’ We could pretty much open up for anybody, and stand our ground. It was a great group.”
Although comparisons to the Fifth Dimension and Three Dog Night carry some weight on the surface, in truth God’s Children were hipper than those groups, if not nearly as commercial. The title track to Music Is the Answer perhaps came closest to reflecting God’s Children’s goals, its grinding basic funk-rock guitar riff goosed by ethereal organ and Garcia’s anthemic ode to music’s positive powers. Lil’ Ray’s “It Don’t Make No Difference” almost sounds like a Sir Douglas Quintet outtake, especially with its high-pitched burbling organ.
“If You Ever Go Away” is the only number on the album on which Amesqua takes lead vocals, and is a highly accomplished pure soul tune, on the cut that comes the closest to recalling a somewhat funkier Fifth Dimension.
The male-female vocal ensemble interaction, and somewhat less conventional soul-rock lyrics and songwriting of acts like Sly Stone, are more evident on “I Just Wish,” again featuring Lil’ Ray. Little Willie G.’s back on lead for the more wistful ballad “Dream,” which he and Lil’ Ray co-wrote. “I was hoping to try to get Willie Nelson or somebody to like that song,” chuckles Garcia—though it’s doubtful Nelson would have kept the unexpected brief burst of psychedelic reverb that concludes the tune.
All of these tracks appear for the first time on this compilation, and for that matter, “we had more material than what actually got recorded. Actually, a large part of what’s on this project were demos. Ray’s on keyboards, I’m on guitar, and a couple of my friends that I grew up with, Alan Flores and Steve Gutierrez—Steve was on drums, and Alan was on bass. We pretty much just sat down and played this stuff raw; one-take stuff.”
Either separately or together, Garcia and Lil’ Ray (under his given name Raymond Tito Jimenez) were responsible for writing all of these songs. The material amounts to less than half an album, however, and God’s Children never got to complete an LP during their lifetime. Their two singles came out on a sizable label, UNI, then riding high on a series of Neil Diamond smashes. But the company neither grasped nor pushed the multicultural diversity that should if anything have been a big selling point, at a time when Sly Stone and Santana had just become superstars.
“…most people looked at us as like a Chicano Fifth Dimension, or a Three Dog Night with chicks. We were big on Sly & the Family Stone, that type of concert visual, and a lot of choreography.”
“Unfortunately, the powers that be that came into control of the actual finished recordings had a distorted perspective, I guess, of our vision,” Garcia feels. “I mean, ‘Put Your Head on My Shoulder’”—a cover of the 1959 Paul Anka hit chosen as the group’s second single—“how in the world did that ever get in the mix? It’s a cool song and everything, but…who knows what the suits are thinking when they meet you and come into the studio and see what you’re doing, that just blindly causes ‘em to say, ‘Here, do this.’
“Only two [of our] songs, I believe, actually got recorded by UNI. Which was ‘Music Is the Answer’ and ‘If You Ever Go Away.’ I don’t even think UNI considered any of the other stuff we wrote.”
Garcia does, however, like their first single. Placed with UNI after it was co-produced by Eddie Davis (who’d put out a Willie G. solo single on his Gordo label in 1969), “Hey, Does Somebody Care” was used as the theme for the forgotten TV series Matt Lincoln, broadcast for one season in 1970-71.
“When we were sort of formulating the group, we had a house gig at Caravan Inn in Bakersfield,” Willie explains. “Eddie Davis gave me a call one day and said, ‘Are you gonna be in town anytime soon?’ I said ‘Yeah, I’m coming down to visit my parents for a few days.’ He says, ‘I got something I think you might be interested in.’ He played me a folk version of ‘Hey, Does Somebody Care’”—co-written by top jazz musician Oliver Nelson with one Linda Perhaps. (Perhaps this was a misspelling on the label of the name of Los Angeles-based Linda Perhacs, who issued a rare 1970 singer-songwriter LP, Parallellograms, which eventually generated a sizable cult following.)
“He said, ‘I’d just like to bring you in the studio and maybe get a few acoustic guitars, and do it as a folk-type song,’” Garcia continues. “I told him, ‘What if I could get Lil’ Ray and we use the group that I’m in right now?’ And he says, ‘Could you do that?’ I say, ‘Yeah, but I wouldn’t to do it as folk. I’m hearing it more as an orchestrated thing, something really big.’
“He ran with that, and I had no idea that he had contracted Arthur Freeman to write a score for it. When we came back to L.A. to do the session, we were just like blown away. There’s this 40-piece orchestra. They ran it down, one take, and at the end of the tune, the whole orchestra stood up and applauded Arthur Freeman’s arrangement. We walked in right after that to do the vocals, and it was just exciting and exhilarating. The atmosphere was just electric that day.
“I was hoping for more of that. Some of those songs, I think…if we were gonna do ‘Put Your Head on My Shoulder,’ I would have preferred it with the 40-piece orchestra, you know?” On that recording and some others—including remakes of “Music Is the Answer” and “”If You Ever Go Away,” as well as a cover of Billy Preston’s “That’s the Way God Planned It”—they were backed by studio musicians from the Wrecking Crew, including Leon Russell and bassist Carol Kaye.
By that time, two other women singers in God’s Children—Fawn Rymal and Stacy Rymal—were no longer in the band. In fact, as Garcia notes, “Hey, Does Somebody Care” is the only God Children’s recording on which they sing. The Rymals did, he confirms, take some lead vocals on their live gigs, as “everybody had a solo or two in the group. I think what it evolved to was eventually Fawn and Stacy just not being in the group anymore”—another dilution, perhaps, of God’s Children’s original vision.
Like the Thee Midniters, God’s Children had an extraordinary stylistic range that in retrospect ranks among their chief assets, but at the time might have worked against their commercial prospects. “I think that stems back to our formative years, before God’s Children,” responds Garcia when I bring up the comparison. “We were a working band, and you wanted to please everybody in the crowd. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Such was their versatility that “Thee Midniters were one of the only rock bands that ever did salsa and Latin gigs with Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. We were thinking we needed to go up there and do Latin-style stuff. The promoters would always say ‘No, be yourselves. The audience enjoys hearing and seeing you for who you are.’”
However, both God’s Children and Thee Midniters covered so much ground that it could be difficult for onlookers to say exactly who they were, at least if it came to giving their music a label. As Thee Midniters rhythm guitarist Roy Marquez told me in a 2000 interview, “I remember a review we got. They said, ‘We can’t understand. How can these guys be such great musicians, such a tight group, and yet, they don’t have direction?’”
Eighteen years later, Garcia brings up a similar story to illustrate the same point, recalling how a Los Angeles Times writer “said, ‘Thee Midniters, a band in search of a song.’ That was his take on our performance at the Hollywood Bowl with [Latin acts]. I kind of enjoyed that take of us. That’s the adventure of creating. I mean, you’re searching for a song that’s gonna touch people’s hearts.” And in God’s Children that, “subliminally, was always there for us, that aspect.”
God’s Children broke up after their two singles failed to gain a wide audience, Garcia joining Malo as lead singer on their 1974 album Ascención. He’s still active in music today; indeed, when I spoke to him in early May, he was anticipating making a guest appearance with Los Lobos in Tucson that very evening. He’s “just finished a gospel project, and still doing side projects. There’s a small indie band out of Santa Ana called the OC Hurricanes; my son and I are gonna produce a couple songs for them. We’re in the studio constantly trying to develop our ideas and keep it relevant. Some of the stuff may never see the light of day, but maybe it’ll be like the God’s Children project. One day somebody’ll hear it or see it, and give it a listen, and go ‘Wow! Why isn’t this out there?’”
As for God’s Children, “In retrospect, it was a really wonderful time, creatively. And development-wise, too. I learned so much from Lil’ Ray. This guy is just such a creative individual. He understands harmony and textures, and I really miss that collaboration a lot. I still have it today with my son, who is an extraordinary musician and producer. But that aspect of those years for me was just an eye-opener, and gave me a real sense of fulfillment. I miss that a lot.”
A brief history of Chicano rock & roll in East Los Angeles, featuring Little Willie G: