The father of Chicano music, Lalo Guerrero was the first artist to wed Spanish-language lyrics and slang to swing and R&B, creating a bilingual boogie-woogie sound that articulated and illuminated the Latino experience in 20th century America. Born Eduardo Guerrero, Jr. in the impoverished Barrio Viejo neighborhood of Tucson, AZ, on Christmas Eve 1916, he was one of about two dozen children, several of whom died before he was born. His mother taught him to play guitar, while relatives in Mexico encouraged him to begin writing songs. After dropping out of high school at 17, Guerrero settled in Los Angeles, where a chance meeting with arranger/producer Manuel Acuña resulted in his first recording session. The resulting "Canción Mexicana" is now considered in some quarters the unofficial Mexican national anthem. He quickly assembled a band, los Carlistas, and began playing the Los Angeles nightclub circuit, building a dedicated fan base comprising almost as many white and African-American listeners as Latinos. Not only did Guerrero sing in both Spanish and English, but his backing musicians were remarkably elastic, spanning genres from salsa, norteño, and mambo to rock & roll, jazz, and blues.
After representing the state of Arizona at the New York World's Fair of 1939, Guerrero and los Carlistas toured military camps and hospitals abroad during World War II. Upon returning to L.A., he began a longterm headlining residency at the nightclub La Bamba and signed to Imperial Records, recording as a solo artist and with the Trio Imperial; Guerrero cut about 200 sides for the label in all, most famously classics like "Marihuana Boogie" and "Vamos a Bailar," songs written for and about the zoot-suited pachuco culture then in vogue among the Mexican-American community. These songs -- essentially a Latino riff on traditional swing boasting lyrics peppered with pachuco slang, or Spanglish -- constitute the most transcendent and influential chapter of Guerrero's long and varied career, representing some of the very earliest Mexican-American music created independently of traditional Latin lyrics and melodies. Guerrero grew so popular that he appeared in a handful of feature films, among them the Gene Autry vehicle Boots and Saddles and the Robert Mitchum/Jane Russell cult classic His Kind of Woman, and during the 1950s he led his own orchestra, for years headlining L.A.'s Paramount Ballroom; he also toured extensively throughout the Southwest, where his experiences playing rural farming communities directly inspired a series of "corrido" ballads documenting the plight of migrant laborers and the efforts of farmworkers' rights leader Cesar Chavez.
Guerrero crossed into the pop mainstream in 1955, when his "The Ballad of Pancho Sanchez," a parody of the hit Walt Disney theme "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," sold 500,000 copies; he followed with a string of bilingual parodies like "Pancho Claus," "Elvis Perez," and "Tacos for Two." During the 1960s, Guerrero also masterminded a string of children's novelty records credited to las Ardillitas, a trio of chirpy-voiced singing squirrels. The first Ardillitas record appeared at roughly the same time as the animated Alvin & the Chipmunks, inspiring creator Ross Bagdasarian to sue, but a judge threw out the suit when Guerrero proved he invented his characters first. With the proceeds from these records, he opened his own nightclub, Lalo's, where he and his band regularly headlined; after a decade, he sold the club in 1972, relocating to Palm Springs and entering semi-retirement. He nevertheless continued touring and recording, often in tandem with son Mark, and in 1979 experienced a flurry of renewed interest in his music when several of his songs were featured in the smash musical Zoot Suit. In 1994 Guerrero earned his first-ever Grammy nomination collaborating with los Lobos on the children's record Music for Little People and three years later received the presidential Medal of the Arts from Bill Clinton; in 2002, he published an autobiography, Lalo: My Life and Music. Shortly after collaborating with guitarist Ry Cooder on the LP Chavez Ravine, he died at an assisted living facility on March 16, 2005.