There are so many venues around the nation where bands have played for years, where people danced until all hours of the night, and where a band’s reputation could be made or broken unmercifully quick.
One of these was the massive Rendezvous Ballroom adjacent to the Pacific Ocean in Balboa, California. Built in 1928 and rebuilt even larger in 1936 after a fire, it was the place to dance in southern California.
People came to boogie to the big bands, but as the decades sped by, the music changed. Rock and surf bands began packing the kids of the original dancers into the Rendezvous Ballroom.
It was there in 1963 that the Righteous Brothers sang “Little Latin Lupe Lu” to a couple thousand kids who instantly went nuts and clamored for a recording. The discs were made available to a local record shop and sold out almost immediately.
It eventually reached #47 on the Cashbox music chart and #49 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was to be a common event in the coming years with these two white kids singing what was known as “blue-eyed soul” (coined by Philadelphia DJ Georgie Woods), selling millions of records and touring the world.
“Little Latin Lupe Lu” started it all for them and, like all songs we love, learning the story behind it and the journey it took through the years is as fun as listening to it.
The song’s origin starts with the origins of the Righteous Brothers themselves. Bill Medley grew up in Orange County, CA. After dropping out of high school, he gave beauty school a try, but failed to pass the state exam and fell back to what he enjoyed: singing.
He wound up with a group of guys called the Paramours, and through their gigs, he eventually met Bobby Hatfield, who was in a group called the Variations. They were the same age, could belt out songs, and discovered they both loved listening to black radio stations, soaking in the rhythm and blues pulsating over the airwaves.
Putting together members of both groups into a newly redesigned Paramours, Medley and Hatfield would mix in some R&B tunes with the band’s other songs, having a blast and maturing their style with every set.
Medley began writing songs himself, and the Paramours began performing some of them in their sets. “Little Latin Lupe Lu” came from this formative time. Gigging as a duet to earn extra money, Medley and Hatfield recorded “Lupe” under the name the Righteous Brothers — the name bestowed upon them by black Marines stationed at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro who attended their shows.
But what about that title? Where the heck did it come from? Medley drew his inspiration from a girl he dated while attending beauty school, Lupe Laguna. As all good songwriters know, finding a good hook is everything, and Laguna’s name just rolled off the tongue in short, crisp snaps. Lupe Laguna was of Mexican heritage, so the Latin part of the title was a natural.
“Little Latin Lupe Lu” became a huge hit. Even Elvis loved it and saw the Righteous Brothers perform it at a Hollywood bowling alley when he and his entourage were in town. They couldn’t believe the two singers were from SoCal and not from down south in a place like Mississippi.
The Righteous Brothers’ career took off. Medley’s song was covered by many acts including Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Kingsmen (#46 on the Billboard chart and #49 on Cashbox’s chart in 1964), and others.
The Chancellors, a band out of Minneapolis recorded an excellent version on the Soma label in late 1964, and it hit #1 in that city in January 1965. It stayed in regional Top 40 lists for some months. This take on Lupe was garage-band raw and rattled the lights almost as well as the original.
But, to me, the best cover of Lupe and maybe the best cover of any song ever is by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
Mitch Ryder was raised in and around Detroit, Michigan, with seven siblings. His childhood was tough, but thankfully he gravitated to music (discovering rock ‘n’ roll at 11) when he and others realized his talent and was given a chance.
As a teenager, he and a friend joined a band called the Rivieras, with Mitch calling himself Billy Lee, and were good enough to open for the Dave Clark Five when they appeared in Detroit.
He states in his bare-naked autobiography, Devils and Blue Dresses, that when he and his band left Detroit on the train to find their fame and fortune in New York City, they “had pretty much gone right from an auto-body shop to the greatest party on earth, and we didn’t have a clue.”
He was 17 when he recorded his first record (financed by his father) and was 18 when departed from the Motor-City train station, leaving his pregnant wife behind. Only with youth and dreams can one do that.
Ryder and the Detroit Wheels first hit it big with “Jenny Take a Ride,” a combo of “Jenny, Jenny” and “C.C. Rider.” Keith Richards and Brian Jones were at the recording session and urged the producer to release it as a single. He did. Good decision!
The band liked to do these combos so they could play longer without breaking. They ended up doing another which charted hugely: “Devil With a Blue Dress” together with “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
Ryder called some of these early hits “alive insanity,” an apt description if there ever was one. He drag races through the lyrics, punctuating his singing with exclamations and grunts, the people in the studio adding real-time audience-like feedback. It’s a party all the way.
Similarly, their “Little Latin Lupe Lu” is a visceral session taken up to eleven! It starts with Ryder speaking to us, getting us revved up, then launching into five “heys!” separated by punctuating beats courtesy of a hard, pulsating guitar that vibrates your body.
He throws in more spontaneity than the Righteous Brothers, and it’s vivid in its apparentness. The cover was so good that that the song reached #16 on Cashbox and #17 on Billboard after it was released in 1966.
It’s interesting that both the Righteous Brothers and Mitch Ryder loved rhythm and blues, avidly listening to it in their formative years, and then sang it like they were born to it. All three men relate how they were mistaken for black artists because of their sound. It came naturally to all of them, not contrived for a marketplace.
Lupe Laguna Esparza is still living in Orange County. “Little Latin Lupe Lu” has an honored place in rock ‘n’ roll history by virtue of it being the Righteous Brothers’ first hit. It’s been covered by both notable and obscure groups and achieved success for most of them. It was played by more small-town garage bands than any other. It’s probably in more Top-10 lists of Coolest Song Titles than one could imagine — if such lists actually exist. If not, we’ll start one here at REBEAT!
And, for three magical moments in 1966, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels came together with Bill Medley’s song about a young girl called Lupe from Southern California and immortalized her musically unlike any other group.