Los Lobos are a Chicano rock-and-roll band whose four original members were raised Catholic in East Los Angeles.
Steve Berlin is a self-described “Philadelphia Jew” who grew up in Elkins Park and Jenkintown before going west to eventually become the fifth member in 1983.
So naturally, when Rhino Records approached America’s premier Mexican American rock band last spring and asked them to record a Latin Christmas album, it became Berlin’s job to gather Spanish-language holiday songs to consider.
The resulting album, Llegó Navidad, is the first holiday release that Los Lobos (Spanish for “the Wolves”) have put out in their 46 years of mixing rock-and-roll with blues, folk, soul, and traditional Mexican music. The tour for the terrific Llegó — whose title translates into “Christmas is here” — brings Los Lobos to City Winery Philadelphia on Sunday and Monday.
“We’ve been talking about doing this for a long time,” says Berlin, the saxophonist and keyboard player of the hard-touring band fronted by singer-guitarists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas. Conrad Lozano plays bass, and Louie Perez is the main lyricist and drummer. (All the members play multiple instruments.)
Berlin was a fan of the band before he joined up. After graduating from Abington High School, he moved to L.A. in December 1974 to play with the Beckmeier Brothers, two Philadelphians who had been in the backing band of Philly sound sibling act the Soul Survivors.
He first saw Los Lobos perform with Mexican folkloric instruments in 1980, when they opened for John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) of Public Image Ltd. He was impressed by their fortitude in carrying on while bottles were thrown at them by angry punks.
A year later, electrified and ready to take on all comers, the band opened for the wildcat rockabilly band the Blasters, with whom Berlin was playing alongside New Orleans sax great Lee Allen — “I learned everything from him,” he says. “Everything.” — at L.A.’s famed Whisky a Go Go.
“They blew everybody away,” Berlin recalls. “It was all anybody was talking about for weeks.”
He became friends with the band, started sitting in, and soon was a full-time member.
In 1984, Los Lobos broke through to a national audience with their immigrant saga masterwork, How Will the Wolf Survive? (coproduced by Berlin with T Bone Burnett). In 1987, they had an international hit with a cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” from the Lou Diamond Phillips biopic.
In the decades since, they’ve released musically adventurous, high-quality albums such as 1992’s Kiko and 2015’s Gates of Gold, with an occasional lark thrown in like 2009’s delightful Los Lobos Goes Disney. Nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, the band was denied the honor that should have been bestowed on them years ago.
But while they have been consistent, they’ve rarely been careerist. “We should do this, we should do that,” says Berlin. “Nothing ever happens unless we’re approached from outside. We’re not really entrepreneurial spirits.”
Rhino’s request gave the group a nudge — and a deadline. “We had six weeks from that offer,” says Berlin, 64, who lives in southwest Washington state. “That is an insanely fast amount of time to start and finish a record.”
Berlin reached out to two record collector friends: Pablo Iglesias of the Northampton, Mass., Peace & Rhythm record label, who is also known as DJ Bongohead, and Gustavo Arellano, the Los Angeles Times writer who authored the syndicated ¡Ask A Mexican! column. He soon had 145 Christmas songs to sift through.
Ten made the final cut for Llegó, which was recorded in July in the Boyle Heights section of East L.A. It opens with “La Rama,” a son jarocho folk song from the Veracruz region of Mexico. It concludes — of course — with a joyous cover of Puerto Rican singer José Feliciano’s 1970 “Feliz Navidad.”
There’s a percussive version of salsa duo Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe’s 1970 “La Murga” and a cover of Tex-Mex country singer Freddy Fender’s “It’s Christmas Time In Texas." Rosas takes the lead on a lowrider arrangement of a 1958 hit by 12-year-old Mexican singer Augie Rios that asks where St. Nick is, anyway: “¿Dondé Está Santa Claus?”
Llegó Navidad deserves to become a perennial among discerning holiday music fans because it entirely avoids hoary Christmas cliche predictability. And it includes one original song, a heartbreaking Hidalgo-sung ballad called “Christmas and You,” in the style the 1950s blues balladeer Charles Brown.
“That’s a time-honored Los Lobos tradition,” says Berlin. “Right at the end of the process, David and Louie come together and write a really great song.”
Berlin isn’t a Christmas music aficionado per se, but he is a keen student of Jewish Latino musical history, writing liner notes for the 2013 compilation album It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba.
The son of Russian immigrants speaks little Spanish but says he’s never felt like an outsider as the only gringo in the band.
“The amazing thing with the Lobos guys is that, obviously, the cultures are very different. I’m a Philadelphia Jew and the other four were not,” says Berlin, adding that the band hopes to give the City Winery a “soul infusion.” “But on every other level, we were very similar."
“We’re all kind of the same age. We’re all second-generation Americans. They worship Philly International, which put me in good stead. We had the same weird stuff we loved, like [British bands] Blodwyn Pig, early Fleetwood Mac, and Ducks Deluxe. So it wasn’t like two really different cultures. We actually shared a lot of things, which all of us found to be unique and interesting.”