Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Aliens, Whisky A Go Go, San Francisco October 14-27, 1966

In the course of our extensive research into the legendary Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood, I came across traces of the forgotten Whisky A Go Go from San Francisco. I have already written about its tentative beginnings and its strange denoument. Further research (on the Whisky's own site--see 1965's "Athletic Mayhem In Motion") has confirmed that the San Francisco outlet was run by Hollywood Whisky proprietor Elmer Valentine and his partners. Given the music explosion in both Northern and Southern California in the mid-1960s, and the Hollywood Whisky's essential role in that, it has seemed surprising to me that the San Francisco Whisky was such a little remembered dud.

Admittedly, the club, at 568 Sacramento Street, was midways between the Financial District and North Beach, and had no "local" clientele. On the other hand, due to some restrictive laws about dancing that are hard to believe today, there was very little competition for the adult rock and roll market, one of the reasons the Fillmore and Avalon were so successful with unknown underground bands. If the SF Whisky had a "dance hall permit"--I'm not certain--they would have been in a very good situation despite their bland location.

However, in trying to compile a list of performers at the SF Whisky, it is striking how in the midst of a great talent explosion, the SF Whisky basically booked uninteresting bands. In some instances, they were probably pretty good live bands, like Cory Wells and The Enemys, but San Francisco would have perceived them as "too Vegas" (or its cousin "too LA"), unfairly or not. San Francisco and the Bay Area has always been about being ahead, different and too cool for school even in the face of good sense (and I say this proudly), so lousy psychedelic hippie bands covering obscure folk songs badly were a better fit for San Francisco than super-competent cover bands playing Top 40 hits well, because that's how The City rolls.

I have discovered, however, that somewhat late in its existence the SF Whisky regularly booked one of the hippest and most seminal bands in San Francisco, and the confluence of that with the historic Whisky name should have been enough to shake the tree, but it doesn't seem to have happened. If The Aliens had played The Whisky in West Hollywood, many arcs of music history might have been different, but it was not to be. This post is a salute to an intersection of two roads that should have lead somewhere sooner than they did.

San Francisco had played a critical role in the popularization of Latin music, or Latin Jazz (depending on the context), and their had been a booming Latin Jazz scene in North Beach since the late 1950s. Naturally it was secondary to the great New York scene, but San Francisco was respected by those in the know (in Latin Jazz, restaurants and baseball) as an incubator of interesting possibilities. San Francisco, like all great Seaport towns, is a great melting pot, and The Aliens can make a pretty good claim to being the first Latin Rock band of the 60s.

The story is too rich to tell in shorthand, but fortunately I don't have to, as The Aliens very own Facebook page tells the story of the roots of the group, well worth reading in their entirety. The Aliens was made up of teenagers from El Salvador and Nicaragua who had immigrated to San Francisco in the early 1960s, who then formed a band at Mission High School around 1964, influenced by Ritchie Valens and others. They loved American rock and roll, they knew Latin American rhythms, and they (mostly) lived in the Haight Ashbury, so they rapidly merged  American music with that of their heritage. Initially called The CA5 (for Central American 5), they briefly changed their name to The Spanish Flies. The owner of the Drag'on A Go Go, himself an immigrant from Asia, sniffed that they looked like "a bunch of aliens" (from the United States). The band took it to heart and changed their name, and the Drag'on A Go Go owner became one of their biggest and proudest supporters, and The Aliens regularly performed there.

The Aliens spent much of 1966 playing the Drag'on, as well as elsewhere. They mostly played the standard rockin' hits of the day, some rock, soul and R&B but their familiarity with Latin rhythms gave the songs a different feel. The teenagers couldn't describe the rhythms, but they knew how to dance to it. Along the way, they had acquired singer Frank Zavala, an "older" (probably in his twenties) singer with some reputation in Nicaragua as an Elvis impersonator (ahead of their time yet again). By 1966 the group consisted of founding brothers William and Mike Coronado (guitars), their cousin Oscar Calderon (drums) and Javier Alizaga (bass). They were Mission High contemporaries with Carlos Santana, who had played a little with the Coronado brothers at school and occasionally saw some CA5 gigs in the early days.

The ad above is from the October 15, 1966 San Francisco Chronicle, advertising a two-week stand from October 14-27. The Aliens were a dance sensation, by all accounts, but in 1966 only local musicians probably understood how they had changed the rhythms of popular R&B hits to give them a different feel. It is intriguing, too, that throughout 1966, Monday night at the SF Whisky featured the Escovedo Brothers, playing Latin Jazz, as they were critical in the development of Latin rock in San Francisco, playing with Santana, Malo and Azteca in various critical capacities (not to mention  daughter Sheila "E", then nearly 7 years old). Despite all the missteps, the SF Whisky nearly stumbled onto San Francisco's next big rock explosion. In January 1967, The Aliens had some more weeks at the Whisky, so they had obviously done well, but the Whisky passed on in March of 1967, a victim of bad timing, poor location and weak choices.

By late 1966, three members of The Aliens (the Coronado brothers and their cousin Oscar Calderon) were married and with families, so the idea of touring out of town was not really considered. Remarkably, they became regulars at a venue in San Rafael called The Bermuda Palms, at 737 E. Francisco Blvd. It is better known to rock fans and poster collectors as The Euphoria or Pepperland, but it was fundamentally the same venue. The Aliens started to draw a mixed crowd not only from Marin but from nearby Hamilton Air Force Base.

Lead singer Frank Zavala introduced the band to a newly arrived Nicaraguan friend, Jose "Chepito" Areas. The talented Chepito wanted to play trap drums, but the chair was filled, so he bought congas and timbales, and played those instead, to fantastic effect. Suddenly listeners realized what the rhythms were, as Chepito's sensational ability brought the music to life (Chepito also played trumpet--apparently he could play anything). The Aliens Facebook page has an amazing photo of The Aliens circa 1967, playing the Bermuda Palms in front of a happy, mixed crowd, with Chepito on congas and timbales, a remarkable snapshot of before time began.

The rest of the story is, if anything, more amazing, although it is rich enough for a book that, fortunately, has already been written, called Voices Of Latin Rock, by Jim McCarthy and Ron Santoe (Hal Leonard Books, 2004). Well South of Downtown there was a happening scene in the Excelsior District, at The Ghetto Club and The Nite Life. By 1968 The Aliens, playing much lengthier instrumental improvisations that patrons could still dance to, were ruling the scene at The Nite Life, a remarkable story in its own right. Carlos Santana, with his band aced out of a gig by The Aliens, took their timbalero, Chepito Areas, and changed world music with his San Francisco musical cuisine that featured rock, blues, latin and jazz.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda--The SF Whisky had The Aliens, and the Escovedo Brothers too, but wasn't in a position to capitalize on them. The Aliens themselves have continued to make music, although they have all had successful professional and family lives, too, somewhat differently than their musical contemporaries. Willie Coronado has passed on, but decades later The Aliens are getting their due as one of the catalysts of Latin Rock in San Francisco. The SF Whisky almost had their Byrds--shoulda woulda coulda.


  1. "San Francisco and the Bay Area has always been about being ahead, different and too cool for school even in the face of good sense (and I say this proudly), so lousy psychedelic hippie bands covering obscure folk songs badly were a better fit for San Francisco than super-competent cover bands playing Top 40 hits well, because that's how The City rolls."
    Quite possibly the best single-sentence encapsulation of the San Francisco scene I have ever read.

  2. beachdog, thanks for the kind word. I was just trying to justify why I like Blue Cheer, even though I know they aren't actually good.

  3. One person told me that Carlos Santana was influenced by the Aliens. He was friends with the Coronado bros and came to their practices and gigs and recorded them. Carlos bands were more blues influenced and after hearing Alien Carlos became more Latin.

    1. That's very true. Frank Zavala is my husband. Still has a great voice.