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Ry Cooder Coaxes East L.A. Songbird

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El Chicano's Ersi Arvizu finds her voice.

(Arvizu and The Latin Legends Live shows at the Greek Theater Saturday, May 24, and Sunday, May 25)

Friend for Life

Ersi Arvizu was on vacation in Hawaii a few years ago when she heard that some guy named Ry Cooder was looking for her. She got the news from colleagues who knew her from her long-gone glory days as lead singer of El Chicano, the 1970s East L.A. band famous for her version of the classic old bolero “Sabor a Mi."

No way, shot back Arvizu, who had long before moved to Arizona. Besides, she was “fit to be tied," she says, over a money dispute involving a previous El Chicano comeback concert. She was in no mood to get back in the business.

Her colleagues insisted that this was the chance of a lifetime. How many veteranos wouldn't want to work with the producer who had turned a bunch of aging, forgotten Cuban musicians into the international superstars called the Buena Vista Social Club? Maybe Cooder could do the same for old-school East L.A. artists with “Chavez Ravine," the project he was working on at the time based on the razing of Latino barrios on the Dodger Stadium site.

Cooder Shmooder. Arvizu wasn't budging.

“I don't know him and I don't care," she recalls responding. “I'm not leaving Hawaii to go over there and audition for some man I don't even know. Heck no."

Famous last words. Tuesday brings the release of Arvizu's Friend for Life, the first solo album of her career and her first recording since leaving El Chicano more than 30 years ago. The title song was written for her newest best friend, Cooder, the multicultural connoisseur who had tracked her down after hearing her teenage voice on a 1960s single by the Sisters, a vocal trio featuring Arvizu and her hermanas (sisters), Rosella and Mary.

Cooder was struck by the natural, timeless quality of Arvizu's voice, transcending pop trends with its heartfelt delivery. It was the female voice he was seeking for “Chavez Ravine," which featured several male artists from the macho-dominated East L.A. music scene of the '60s and '70s. Ironically, Arvizu is the only one who has emerged so far with a solo project under Cooder, la his Buena Vista spinoffs.

And why not? As Arvizu told me over lunch this week, “I am unique."

Where else, she asks, will you find a woman who grew up in East L.A., had a Top 10 hit in her teens, trained boxers with her father, went undefeated in four fights of her own, drove a truck for FedEx to make ends meet and attended college to become a “woman cop." Yes, and who still sings with tenderness and perfect pitch after all these years.

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