Suavecito: The love song turned anthem

Things didn’t work out with the girl, but her adoration spawned a hit song for Malo, reaching number 18 on the Billboard charts in 1972. Santana had opened doors to the mainstream for Chicano musicians by appearing at Woodstock and having major hits like Oye Como Va and Everybody’s Everything, which reached numbers 13 and 12 respectively in 1970 and 1971. With Suavecito, Malo announced that Chicano rock was here to stay.

Over the past 20 years, big Latin bands like Bad Bunny, Pitbull and before them Gloria Estefan and Los Lobos have filled arenas and sold massive amounts of records. But in 1972, Santana was the only Latinx band to chart in the United States, despite the world’s large population of Spanish-speaking people. “It seemed like the industry could only handle one Latin act at the time,” Los Angeles-based musician Ruben Amaro told BBC Culture. “Competition was fierce in Latin rock bands because they only released tracks for opportunities in the Latin rock world.”

Malo included Bean, who wrote, sang and played timpani, and vocalist Arcelio Garcia, who died in 2020, a few months after Jorge Santana, who later joined the band in 1971. The band also featured Abel Zarate on guitar, Pablo Tellez on bass, jazz trumpet player Luis Gasca and trombonist Roy Murray, who died October 2022. Malo was an outgrowth of The Malibus, a late 1960s San Francisco Mission District band that included Bean, Garcia and Santana. Heavily focused on R&B and soul, Bean played saxophone and sang lead vocals for The Malibus with Garcia, while Santana licked riffs on guitar.

‘A modern bolero’

From the start of Suavecito, with its dreamy electric guitar chords turning into an ethereal trombone solo, you’re thrust into a smooth, steady groove of congas, timpani and soulful rhythms. “It’s a delicious song,” Latinx rock king Carlos Santana told BBC Culture. Carlos’s younger brother, Jorge, shared guitar on the song with Abel Zarate, sprinkling it with airy, melodious notes. “Laaaah, aah-aah,” Bean’s croons. “Never, no, no, yeah, I’ve never met a girl like you in my life.” Bean’s vocals give the single its romantic aura, with sentimental lyrics adding to its charm.

It’s reminiscent of the Young Rascals’ 1967 hit Groovin’, which features an Afro-Cuban beat. But Suavecito has a distinctly Chicano-American sound, mixing San Francisco rock with Mexican flourishes and intricate horn arrangements, according to Felix Contreras, co-host of NPR’s show Alt.Latino, which celebrates music and culture. Latin culture. “Suavecito is a modern bolero for our generation,” Contreras told BBC Culture, explaining that boleros are a kind of passionate love song that originated in Cuba in the 1800s and spread throughout Mexico and Latin America.

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