The founding guitarist of Chicano R&B band Tierra, Rudy Salas, passed away in his sleep Tuesday morning. The cause of death has not yet been determined, but Salas’ family has said that it was not related to the coronavirus.
A true pioneer of LA’s “Eastside Sound,” Salas did not really speak Spanish as a child; however, with time, he began to pick up Mexican folk songs from his mom and learned guitar chords from his uncle. Just like Selena, Rudy’s musical upbringing was a family affair. He and his brother, singer and percussionist Steve Salas, got their chops playing mariachi songs at local gigs.
During the late 1960’s, Rudy and Steve took part in the historic student walkouts that were protesting unequal rights and educational opportunities. In 1970, they demonstrated against the Vietnam War in the Chicano Moratorium, which erupted into violent mayhem on the LA streets, killing Times journalist Ruben Salazar.
As a result of these revolutionary times, Rudy and Steve joined Bobby Espinosa’s radical Latin rock ensemble, El Chicano, which shared a scene with funk band, War. A couple years later, the Salas brothers paved their own path and founded their own band, Tierra.
“There was something rebellious about our music,” Rudy said in a 1998 LA Times interview. “We started Tierra during the heyday of the Chicano movement, when there was a political and social consciousness about what was going on with the system and all that.”
Tierra released their self-titled album with 20th Century Records a year after forming, infusing soul, salsa, jazz, and progressive rock influences, which resulted in a sound that would symbiotically evolve with the Eastside of Los Angeles. “Back then, it was really rare to sign Chicano bands to labels like 20th Century,” says Salas’ uncle, who worked with Capitol Records at the time. “It was a small Motown in East LA.”
In the 1980’s, Tierra expanded well beyond the Eastside. Many of their songs would reach the Billboard Hot 100, and remain there for weeks. The band was also invited to play an opening gig at Carnegie Hall for the legendary Afro-Cuban percussionist, Bongo Santamaria. Little did they know, Santamaria would actually defer to the band, allowing them to take over the headlining spot.
“When my younger brother and I were kids and we practiced in front of our mother, she would say, ‘One of these days, you guys are gonna play Carnegie Hall,'” said Salas. “When Tierra was really strong, we played there and flew my parents in. We got a standing ovation, and I saw my mom and dad crying.”
Unfortunately, after the ’80s, the Salas brothers creative genius would devolve into power struggles and creative conflict. By 1997, Steve had departed the band and founded his own version of Tierra – with the same exact name…”I was always the leader of the band,” Rudy told The Times in 2002, while Steve insisted: “Because he called himself the leader.”
Besides a 2002 reunion at the Conga Room, the band(s) basically dismantled in the early 21st Century. Most of the original Tierra members began to pass away, and the OG spirit was lost. However, Tierra continued to release albums with new members, and began to support charitable causes in their hometown of East LA.
Interestingly enough, Rudy posted a video on Facebook on 12/11/20 promising new music with his brother Steve in 2021. It turns out their uncle was able to get them into the studio to work on a protest song titled, “The Angry Giant Rising,” which is now available on YouTube.
We will never forget the contribution of Rudy Salas and Tierra to the Eastside Sound and Chicano movement in Los Angeles. RIP Rudy.
Photo Credit: Maury Phillips/WireImage