Los Angeles

The Southern Soul Spinners: Revolving Around the Eastside Sound

Arlene Sepulveda | Photo by Eilon Paz for DustandGrooves.com

When Arlene "Soulera" Sepulveda was a kid, 7" records held little value for her except maybe as a play thing. "You threw them like Frisbees," she says. "You just didn't care." These days, she treats them as anything but disposable, dropping hundreds, if not thousands, on sought-after soul obscurities with an addict's impulsiveness. "I wiped out two savings accounts," she admits, but it doesn't come off as either a lament or a brag. That's just how it is amongst the Southern Soul Spinners.

The Spinners began in 2010 between three like-minded record collectors: Sepulveda, Ruben Molina and George Miller Jr. The "Southern" is a nod to Southern California (rather than the American South) and the "Soul" speaks for itself; all three are fanatics of R&B styles that go by different names in L.A.: oldies, slow-jams, and -- at least among Chicanos -- "firme rolas" (loosely translated: "nice songs"). Think back to any Southland-set period film where a low rider rolls by, bumping the radio, and that's the sound the Spinners are devoted to, all sweet harmonies and deep rhythms.

Ruben Molina didn't just grow up on this music, he literally wrote the book on it: "Chicano Soul: Recordings & History of an American Culture." As a teen in the 1960s, he used to hop the bus up from Elysian Valley, near Lincoln Heights, to go record shopping in Hollywood. Once back home, his friends in the neighborhood would come around to tape songs off his 8-track recorder. "People would bring me their mom's 8-tracks that they weren't listening to anymore, and I would record tapes with them," he says.

As Molina tells this story, he pulls out a series of 45s for photographer Eilon Paz; Molina and Sepulveda are slated to appear on Paz's popular record-collecting photo series, Dust and Grooves. While Paz snaps away, I glance in Molina's record box and marvel at how pristine the labels and vinyl are. It's as if he has some secret time-machine to travel back to 1966 and buy records straight off the press. Yet, for all the immaculate care he puts in preservation, Molina explains that the whole point behind the Soul Spinners was to get these records out of their protective polyethylene sleeves and let audiences actually enjoy them. As he puts it philosophically, "we actually get to bring enjoyment to somebody through this, through our collections. Is the collection worth more if you don't touch it and you file it away pristine, or if you get a chance to give people some joy?"

Ruben Molina | Photo by Eilon Paz for DustandGrooves.com

That was the impetus behind their early parties: an excuse to play their records somewhere outside their bedrooms. They didn't necessarily fancy themselves as DJs and they certainly had no aspirations for creating "a hot night." Their favorite venue isn't a Hollywood nightclub or Echo Park bar but the VFW 1944 Post in the City of Industry. Molina recently feted Philly soul veteran Barbara Mason there and the sell-out crowd was overwhelmingly 40+ and Chicano, decked out in everything from tight tube dresses to plaid Pendletons to feathered fedoras. The crowds that pack Spinners' events are folks who grew up on this music, who know the songs by heart. When opening DJ Paula Weller dropped The Exciters' "Tell Him," the dance floor filled seemingly instantly with mostly middle-aged women chanting the lyrics.

So-called "oldies music" has always had special resonance with L.A.'s Mexican and Chicano communities according to Molina. "Loyalty to the past is really strong, he says. "Driving old cars. Having the same dress style. Music's a part of it, people are not going to give it up." Sepulveda jokes that she was "pre-programmed" to like these sounds by her mother who believed that playing music would keep her infant mind active: "I owe my ear to my mother. Her philosophy was to play music while [we were] napping. This way, it stimulates the mind and keeps it going." Forget Baby Mozart, Sepulveda grew up on Baby Motown.

This love of oldies is also a powerful -- and often understated -- point of contact and connection between various ethnic communities in L.A. As historians like Molina, Ruben Guevara, George Lipsitz and Gaye Johnson have explored in their respective work, the evolution of R&B in the Southland has long brought together various audiences and artists together in intriguing configurations of cross-cultural identification and collaboration. Ron Gregory, a Hungarian Jew, grew up in Boyle Heights and turned himself into "Little Julian Herrera," scoring a big doo-wop hit in the late 1950s with "Lonely, Lonely Nights" while a generation later, the mostly African American members of WAR came out of Long Beach riding a distinctly Afro-Latin sound. There is perhaps no song more emblematic of this phenomenon than "Viva Tirado," originally penned by the African American composer Gerald Wilson in honor of a Tijuana bullfighter and then turned into a hit 1969 jazz-funk single by the rock/R&B group El Chicano and then later sampled by Chicano rapper Kid Frost.

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Part of what's helped keep these songs in constant rotation, even decades later, has been radio. At least three generations of Angelinos have grown up listening to radio personality Art Laboe, who still plays six nights a week of slow-jam dedications. However respected and venerable though, Laboe's playlists tends towards the "greatest hits," think "Earth Angel" by The Penguins or Billy Stewart's "I Do Love You." Sepulveda says: "I got tired of the same old songs being played over and over and over. No offense Art Laboe. I always thought 'there has to be more.'"

Then, in the late 1990s, a series of bootleg compilations -- the "Lost Soul Oldies" -- began to appear and dozens of titles began to reemerge after languishing, forgotten for over three decades. Compiled by Robert Ramos and Sal Rodriguez, "Lost Soul Oldies" "set the bar for everybody," says Molina. "These [were] songs that no one had heard of. I mean, they were just completely off the chart. It opened up everything." 

On one hand, by letting everyone in on these secrets, it supercharged the market for sweet soul and similar '60s records, turning previous clearance bin items into hundred dollar commodities. However, what also opened up in the wake of these comps was heightened interest in the artists themselves, leading to numerous rediscoveries of musicians and singers whose contributions had been long forgotten. As a community historian, Molina took special interest in tracking down some of the artists behind his favorite recordings, including the enigmatic soul singer, Dimas III.

Ruben Molina | Photo by Eilon Paz for DustandGrooves.com

"I actually thought [he] was an African-American singer," says Molina, but in trying to find more information about him, he discovered Dimas III was Dimas Garza, a Chicano from San Antonio. Molina went out to Texas to meet Garza: "he was just a carpet layer. You know, a simple guy, just humble, and he started singing. He brought some of the other singers from around San Antonio and they started to doo-wop. I was like, 'Man! This is bad!'" Molina asked Garza if he'd have any interest in coming to Los Angeles to perform and the singer replied instantly, "that's been the dream of my life to play in Los Angeles!" (Molina raised the money to bring Garza to L.A. to perform and the singer began to perform again around San Antonio before passing away a few months later.)

Meanwhile, Sepulveda was also making new connections online. As she began to build her collection, she would upload songs to social media sites and began to draw likeminded fans, many of whom were amongst the Spinners' earliest attendees. "I had a fanbase of 1,500 people on MySpace," she recalls. "They started coming out...a lot of people that I just barely met, just from online." She's also earned a small contingent of gadflies, mostly men who seem threatened by her presence in a community that's overwhelmingly male. "I'm in a man's world, bottom line. Some will like you, some will hate you but it doesn't matter to me because it just keeps me going," she says.

Arlene Sepulveda | Photo by Eilon Paz for DustandGrooves.com

In the last couple of years, the Southern Soul Spinners have added new members to the ranks, with a rotating cast of DJs that includes Josh Whittemore, Rene Ruelas and Robert Galan (among others). Their parties have evolved as well. "What we did in the beginning...we would play for the collectors.  We would see who has the baddest record," says Sepulveda but as more people came to their parties, they realized there needed to be a balance. "Now that we have a following...we've got to keep that audience entertained," she adds, and that has meant balancing out the playlist with more uptempo songs and familiar hits. It's not a compromise so much as a natural adaption process that happens when a group of record collectors begin to explore how to connect with a crowd.

Molina may have said it best when he wrote online that he had, "never really been too comfortable with the term DJ. It's cool, that's what we do, spin discs. Collector is cool too but, really my collection is a product of the way I grew up. I loved sitting on the curb at the dead end while the older homeboys kicked back with their trunk open listening to whatever they had on a four track player." The Southern Soul Spinners seem out to capture some of that magic, the feeling of listening to music on your block, where the setting might be ordinary but where the music takes you? Extraordinary.

Photo by Eilon Paz for DustandGrooves.com

This story was written in collaboration with Eilon Paz of Dust and Grooves. For more photos from his photo shoot with Molina and Sepulveda, visit here.

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Top Image: Arlene Sepulveda | Photo by Eilon Paz for DustandGrooves.com

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach.
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