Steve Salas, founding member of pioneering Eastside rock band Tierra and early Chicano rights activist, has died at 69.
Salas, who died Thursday, had been battling myeloma for two years and recently contracted COVID-19, his family said.
The musician was predeceased by his brother Rudy, the singer and co-founder of Tierra, who died in 2020, also after contracting COVID-19.
“Steve and Rudy created the soundtrack to many people’s lives, and we are so grateful to everyone who enjoyed their music,” the band and family members said in a statement. “The Salas Brothers left an indelible mark on Chicano music history with Tierra.”
The death of the Salas brothers makes saxophonist Rudy “Bub” Villa, 72, the only surviving member of the original band, formed in 1972.
“Steve was this fun loving guy, not taking things too seriously and having fun, which pissed off Rudy,” Villa said. “As a musician he was versatile and could learn any instrument in hours and just had incredible tone and presence as a singer.”
The trio reunited in 1972 with David Torres (keyboard) and Albert Bustillos (drums) to form Tierra. According to Villa, Bustillos “played a few gigs” before leaving and eventually being replaced by drummer Kenny Roman in mid-1972.
Steve Salas, singer, bassist and percussionist, played with his brother in one way or another for over a decade, most notably under the name Salas Brothers. The duo worked at neighborhood functions, such as weddings and graduations.
Steve and Rudy Salas grew up in Lincoln Heights with their mother, Margaret Brambila, and father, Rudy Sr. Their uncle, Art Brambila, lived across the street.
Gathered on the porch of Brambila, he, his older brother Raul and his sister Margaret sang and played songs such as “Penas del alma” by ranchera singer Miguel Aceves Mejía and “Tres Días” by Pedro Infante. Brambila said the Salas brothers were interested in music from an early age.
“Across the street I could still see these two heads sticking out of the bedroom window,” Brambila said. “They were so into the music. They loved that we did it this way before getting involved themselves.
Steve Salas attended Lincoln High School, where he was student body president, and participated in the historic 1968 student strikes that helped ignite the Chicano power movement. After graduating, he received a full scholarship to Stanford University.
He stayed less than two years before returning to Lincoln Heights and joined his brother as a member of the Chicano R&B group El Chicano. In 1972, El Chicano released “Celebration”, in which Steve Salas and Freddie Sanchez were the featured vocalists in a cover of Van Morrison’s famous “Brown Eyed Girl”. Their version of the song climbed to No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that year, according to the El Chicano website.
Later that year, the Salas brothers left and formed Tierra, cutting their self-titled debut album in 1973. The Chicano movement was in full swing at the time, and the brothers had already been drawn into the nascent civil rights movement. from Los Angeles.
Brambila said the brothers’ political activism was cultivated by their father and their music became a vehicle for fighting discrimination.
“They were one of the few bands trying to move our people forward in the entertainment industry,” said Brambila, who worked in artist development at Capitol Records. “The Chicano Moratorium was about police brutality in our neighborhoods, but also about the lack of care and opportunity in our community.”
Although Tierra released another album in 1975, it wasn’t until 1980 that the band broke through with their album “City Nights”, which included “Together”, a cover of a song by soul band The Intruders which reached number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1981, Tierra landed two more Hot 100 singles, “Memory” and “La La Means I Love You”.
The band continued to perform at Carnegie Hall and appeared on “Soul Train”, “American Bandstand” and the American Music Awards.
Their success, however, comes at a price.
Years of fighting between the brothers has created a division in the group.
“They were just different characters, different brothers,” Villa, the saxophonist, said. “They had a fight but they made up, and no one thought about it too much because brothers are fighting.”
At a club in Riverside in 1975, Rudy was in the middle of a solo performance when Steve and Villa ran behind the stage, where they played tag and walked around so loudly the crowd could hear them.
After the set, Rudy chewed them up.
“Rudy was just yelling at us and telling us to get serious,” Villa said. “That’s who he was. After the show, everyone wanted to go back to their rooms and sleep, and Steve and I would go out and drink.
Brambila said each brother shares some of the blame. He said that Steve sometimes showed up late for practices and refused to perform certain songs. And Rudy, he said, might be too controlling.
In a 1998 interview, Rudy said he asked his brother to leave the band in 1996. Steve then started his own band, also named Tierra.
Although the brothers reconciled at times, it never lasted long.
Joanna Salas, Rudy’s wife, said her husband and brother loved each other regardless of their differences.
“Steve was and will always be remembered as a very talented, complicated, exuberant type of individual,” Joanna Salas said. “He broke the rules and lived his life the way he wanted.”
Steve Salas married briefly in the mid-1970s and had no children.