The love song that became an anthem

Things didn’t work out with the girl, but his adoration spawned a hit song for Malo, reaching number 18 on the Billboard charts in 1972. Santana had opened the 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 was announcing Chicano rock was here to stay.

Over the past 20 years major Latino acts like Bad Bunny, Pitbull and before them, Gloria Estefan and Los Lobos, have packed arenas and sold enormous amounts of records. But back in 1972, Santana was the only Latinx band to chart in the US, despite the large worldwide population of Spanish-speaking people. “It seemed like the industry could only handle one Latino act at the time,” Los Angeles-based musician Ruben Amaro tells BBC Culture. “Competition was fierce in Latino rock bands because they threw just bits and pieces for opportunity within the Latin rock world.”

Malo included Bean, who wrote, sang and played timbales, and singer Arcelio Garcia, who died in 2020, a few months after Jorge Santana, who later joined the group in 1971. The band also featured Abel Zarate on guitar, Pablo Tellez on bass, jazz trumpeter Luis Gasca and trombone player Roy Murray, who died in 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 out riffs on guitar.

‘A modern bolero’

From the moment Suavecito starts, with its dreamy electric guitar chords easing into an ethereal trombone solo, you’re propelled into a smooth, steady groove of congas, timbales and soul rhythms. “It’s a delicious song,” Latinx rock king Carlos Santana tells BBC Culture. Carlos’s younger brother, Jorge, shared guitar duty on the song with Abel Zarate, sprinkling it with airy, lilting notes. “Laaaah, aah-aah,” Bean croons.”Never, no, no, yeah, I never met a girl like you in my life.” Bean’s voice gives the single its romantic aura, with sentimental lyrics that actually add to its charm.

It’s reminiscent of the Young Rascals’ 1967 hit Groovin’, which features an Afro-Cuban beat. But Suavecito has a particularly Chicano-American sound, mixing San Francisco rock with Mexican flourishes and intricate horn arrangements, according to Felix Contreras, co-host of NPR’s Alt.Latino show, which celebrates Latin music and culture. “Suavecito is a modern bolero for our generation,” Contreras tells 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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