In the 1960s, the Sunset Strip wasn’t the only L.A. hub for the rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Sixteen miles away from the Strip, East Los Angeles was in the throes of its own countercultural musical awakening. Chicano garage bands under the sway of the British Invasion and the more local influences of African American and Mexican American R&B built their own parallel universe of mop tops and guitar amps, with their own record labels and clubs, and their own Strip to cruise, Whittier Boulevard.
Thee Midniters—once dubbed “The Terrors of Whittier Boulevard”—were one of the scene’s biggest stars and prime architects of what became known as the “Eastside sound.” But they were no strangers to that other, more celebrated Strip. They played New Year’s Eve parties at the Moulin Rouge, made TV appearances on Hollywood a Go-Go, The Groovy Show, and Where the Action Is, and became honorary cross-town members of the Sunset in-crowd. Even the band’s most famous song, a home court tribute to a trip down Whittier Boulevard, was released on an indie label with a Sunset Boulevard address.
The band’s Sunset Strip story, however, wouldn’t be complete until years later, when their name appeared on the marquee of 8433 Sunset in 1976. The club was technically named Art Laboe’s—a weekend-only showcase put together by its namesake, the celebrated radio DJ and “Oldies But Goodies” marketing mastermind Art Laboe, who also ran his Original Sound record label further east on Sunset. Despite its new signage, the club was still, in its bones and in the musical memory of the entire city, forever: Ciro’s.
“This was one of my first gigs back playing with the band,” Midniters’ vocalist Willie Garcia told me (he was fresh from a year-long tour singing with Bay Area rock fusionists Malo). “And I was excited because it was Ciro’s! That place had such a reputation. The club still had dignity, still had that old gangster-type vibe you see in the movies. We were like, ‘Man, how cool is this?’ We could say we played Ciro’s.”
Ciro’s was opened in 1940 by Hollywood Reporter owner Billy Wilkerson and built on the promise of celebrity proximity. “Everybody that’s anybody will be at Ciro’s,” the club vowed, and it was common to find the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Carmen Miranda, and Ava Gardner mingling amidst the club’s luxurious walls covered in ribbed silk, its bronze column light fixtures, and its dramatic red ceiling. Orchestras led by Dean Martin arranger Dick Stabile and rumba maestro Bobby Ramos ruled a dance floor that was cramped by design—it increased your chances of literally bumping into your favorite actor—while cigarette girls and photographers roamed the surrounding red banquettes.
After it closed in 1957, the club sat dormant until re-opening in 1965 as Ciro’s Le Disc, with a new identity that traded golden age Hollywood for dancing teenagers and aging beatniks. “The dance floor was a wild and wonderful mad house,” Hit Parader magazine reported. Ike and Tina Turner played there, as did Little Richard with Jimi Hendrix backing him on guitar. It’s also where future Sunset Strip poster boys the Byrds workshopped their reverb-rich psychedelic sound—complete with an onstage “Mr. Tambourine Man” cameo by Bob Dylan—before their first singles would top the charts. (Ed Ruscha caught some of their sets a year before photographing the club’s exterior for the first time.)
Ciro’s other 1960s afterlives included It’s Boss (where you only had to be fifteen to see Sonny & Cher or the Lovin’ Spoonful) and Spectrum 2000 (“the now nightclub” that threw “mad mod” parties). Laboe put his name on the legendary real estate in 1972. Though he once interviewed celebrities for his radio show on KFWB at the original Ciro’s, he wanted his new club to attract a different audience.
“We don’t get the typical Hollywood crowd,” he told Billboard in 1974. “We have a lot of Mexican Americans, who have been so important to rock in L.A., a lot of kids from the Valley and a generally older crowd, running from about 28 to the mid-30s. If I had to depend on the Hollywood crowd, I’d be out of business.”
The night Thee Midniters played at Art Laboe’s, their five-piece horn section added extra polish to radio-worn fan favorites like “Dreaming Casually” and “Making Ends Meet.” Their rendition of “It’ll Never Be Over for Me” was captured on tape by a friend of the band who brought a Panasonic boom box to the show and recorded it from the audience. Their original studio version is an intimate swoon, pulled along slowly by the heartbroken whine of an organ. On the bootleg recording, even with all the lo-fi hiss, distortion, and echo, you can hear the band playing to the room’s legacy—the rhythm section sweats into a funk workout, and Garcia aims his soulful howl to the ceiling, still bathed in Ciro’s red.
“Our fans in East L.A. loved that we played on the Strip,” Garcia said. “It was marvelous to drive back to the neighborhood and see how happy it made people. They knew that no matter what stardom we achieved, we always came back home.”