In his meticulously organized garage, full of baubles, trinkets and more than 10,000 records, Chicano music collector and historian Gene Aguilera touches a needle to spinning vinyl.
“This is his first single right here,” he says, as a sleepy, romantic R&B melody called “Lonely Lonely Nights” crackles into sound. The singer’s voice is strong and self-assured. It has a distinctly Spanish accent.
“When I first heard Little Julian, I go ‘Wow, this is a Chicano guy.’ I could relate to him. He was one of us,” Aguilera says.
Despite his huge collection of artifacts, Aguilera is still searching for Little Julian Herrera. The singer released his first single in 1956, two years after Elvis Presley burst onto the scene with “That’s All Right,” and two years before Ritchie Valens came out with “Come On Let’s Go.” Herrera disappeared around age 25, and mystery surrounds his true identity.
“I looked and looked,” Aguilera says. “I talked to DJs, promoters, other musicians, and I just could not flush him out,” Aguilera says.
Recently, Aguilera has been working with another Herrera fan to see if they can track the singer down. The latest wild goose chase started when a man contacted Aguilera claiming to know Little Julian personally. The man told him to wait at home for a phone call so that they could set a meeting point. Aguilera became a prisoner in his home for three full days and nights, waiting for a phone call that never came.
Still, Aguilera has been determined to find the man who wrote the soundtrack of his adolescence, and who has piqued the interest of many others around Los Angeles. Josh Kun, who teaches and writes about music at the University of Southern California, calls Little Julian “The Bigfoot of Chicano R&B.”
“Every time I would talk to a musician,” Kun says, “every time I would talk to a collector, no joke, within the first minute or two of our conversation they would say, ‘Hey, you ever heard of Little Julian?’ “
Little Julian Herrera never became a big star beyond the notable Chicano music scene that Kun studies. But since Herrera’s disappearance, he’s developed a notoriety among collectors and musicians that he never knew while he was active.
Little Julian’s Los Angeles story started somewhere east of the Los Angeles River, in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. Herrera traveled alone across the United States at age 13 from Massachusetts, and landed in East L.A. He was taken in by a Latino family in Boyle Heights and assumed the last name of Herrera.
About four years after he arrived, East L.A. had a vibrant music scene. Herrera hung around shows, met the right people and soon was performing and recording.
“He was an upper. He was just always excited about something,” says Bernie Garcia, a saxophone player who performed several shows with Little Julian in the club scene around East L.A. “He had a lot of charisma. He sang his butt off, as they say, sang his butt off.”
Then, in 1958, a cop showed up at the home of Herrera’s record producer, Johnny Otis. The cop was looking for one Ronald Wayne Gregory. The photo he showed Otis was of Little Julian Herrera. As it turned out, Little Julian was actually a Jew of Hungarian extraction. Herrera, or Ron Gregory, was arrested at age 19 for statutory rape. Not many details are known about the incident beyond a brief Los Angeles Times article.
But that wasn’t the end of Little Julian. After four years in jail, he reappeared and started playing and recording again. But things took a downturn. There are rumors that he was drinking and violent. Then, one day, he called his friend and fellow musician, Bernie Garcia.
“He told me he had some legal problems and he had to get out of town for a while. I said, ‘Yeah, makes sense.’ “
Herrera had a proposition. He had lined up a series of gigs in Tijuana and invited Garcia to go with him. Garcia accepted. After a wild week of performing and partying, Garcia decided it was time to head home.
“After I left the gig,” Garcia recalls, “he called me up and asked me if I wanted to reconsider. I said, ‘I’m gonna pass, pal,’ and that was it. Haven’t heard from him since. I wish he were still alive. I’d love to see him.”
What would Garcia say if he could see Little Julian today? “Hey babe, what’s happenin’? Any gigs? Let’s do something together, man. I’m tired of sitting around waiting for your butt. Let’s do something.”
Whether he knew them personally or not, Little Julian had a lasting impact on many. Josh Kun of USC explains:
“He’s somebody whose voice wove its way into the lives of people --whose voice became part of a soundtrack to a community, so he became more of a cultural emblem than an entertainer.”
Gene Aguilera is working on a definitive history book of Chicano music. He calls Little Julian Herrera “the missing link” in his research. Finding him would make it complete.