Rosie Mendez Hamlin’s “Angel Baby”, recorded in San Marcos CA by the 15-year-old Latina, debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960 and hit Number 5 a month later, staying on the charts for 13 weeks. The iconic doo-wop song has subsequently been covered dozens, if not hundreds of times, by artists including John Lennon, the Delerons, Linda Ronstadt, Jennie Rivera, and System of a Down. The Chicano Alliance posted a bilingual version on Spotify and last year LA-based jazz/mariachi/fusion singer Nancy Sanchez garnered praise for releasing a bilingual version and video that updated the story to 2018, charged the characters to Latinos who return as helpful angles.
So, with this history in mind, I opened up the video for a new version of “Angel Baby” recorded by one of my most favorite bands, Las Cafeteras. Could they put their stamp on such a familiar musical icon and yet be true to the music of the ‘60s? Yes, they could, it turns out, by being their mischievous selves.
If you know this East Los Angeles band you are familiar with its high energy and joyous remixing of roots music to tell modern-day stories in a vibrant musical fusion that always has a positive message. If you are like me, you love how they mash together Afro-Mexican beats, rhythms, and rock, hip hop, and rancheras, using traditional Son Jarocho instruments like the jarana, requinto, quijada (donkey jawbone) and tarima (wooden tap dance platform), singing in English, Spanish, and Spanglish. Their live performances are captivating, filling stages and venues with energy, joy, laughter, and surprises – especially surprises.
So, it was a happy surprise to see Las Cafeteras as far from their kinetic requinto-powered stage music, playing demurely in a 1920’s era honkytonk, the men dressed in high-toned period suits and ties and the women in embroidered dresses, all smoothly delivering the slow-paced original. But as close to the original as Las Cafeteras’s “Angeles Baby” is, the band’s Latino nuances were there, subtle hat tips to its Latina creator. Instead of a rhythm guitar there was a requinto although it was much subdued; Leah Rose Gallegos forgoes the quijada but adds flavor with Latin shakers, and she and Denise Carlos alternated Spanish and English lyrics.
Even better, Las Cafeteras’ “Angel Baby” is the first of a collection of four 60’s covers from East LA that Las Cafeteras will release celebrating their roots and the music they grew up. They kicked off the celebration by opening for Gypsy Kings at the Hollywood Bowl – where band Member Hector Flores’ mother worked decades ago as an undocumented teen ushering other people to their seats – capping their own jam-packed national tour. “Angel Baby” is familiar yet fresh – another Las Cafeteras gift to music lovers that I am sure makes Rosie Mendez Hamilton proud as she watches from music heaven.
“Angel Baby”, produced by managers Wil-Dog Abers (Ozomatli) and Damon Vonn was released August 2 and is available on streaming platforms and YouTube. Check out their full catalog on Bandcamp and their tour dates at https://lascafeteras.com/