Steve Salas, co-founder of Eastside Chicano band Tierra, dies


Steve Salas, founding member of pioneering Eastside rock band Tierra and early Chicano rights activist, has died at the age of 69.

Salas, who died Thursday, had battled myeloma for two years and recently contracted COVID-19, his family said.

The musician was deceased by his brother Rudy, lead singer and co-founder of Tierra, who died in 2020, also after contracting COVID-19.

“Steve and Rudy created the soundtrack to so many people’s lives and we are so grateful to all who loved their music,” said band and family members a statement. “The Salas Brothers left an indelible mark on Chicano music history with Tierra.”

The Salas brothers’ deaths leave saxophonist Rudy “Bub” Villa, 72, as the sole surviving member of the original group, which formed in 1972.

“Steve was this guy who liked to have fun, didn’t take things too seriously, and joked around, which annoyed Rudy,” Villa said. “As a musician he was multi-talented and could learn any instrument within a few hours and as a singer he just had incredible tonality and presence.”

The trio formed Tierra in 1972 along with David Torres (keyboards) and Albert Bustillos (drums). According to Villa, Bustillos “played a couple of gigs” before leaving in mid-1972 and eventually being replaced by drummer Kenny Roman.

Steve Salas, a singer, bassist and percussionist, performed with his brother in some capacity for more than a decade, most notably as the Salas Brothers. The duo worked on neighborhood events like weddings and graduations.

Steve and Rudy Salas grew up in Lincoln Heights with their mother, Margaret Brambila, and father, Rudy Sr. Her uncle, Art Brambila, lived across the street.

He, his older brother, Raul, and his sister, Margaret, would gather on Brambila’s porch and sing and perform 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 a young age.

“From across the street, I could always see those two heads sticking out of the bedroom window,” Brambila said. “They were so interested in music. They loved that we did it before they got involved.”

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 academic scholarship to Stanford University.

He stayed less than two years before returning to Lincoln Heights and joining his brother as a member of the Chicano R&B group El Chicano. In 1972, El Chicano released Celebration, which featured Steve Salas and Freddie Sanchez on vocals in a cover of Van Morrison’s famous “Brown Eyed Girl”. Her version of the song peaked at number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that year, according to El Chicano’s website.

Later that year, the Salas brothers left Tierra and went on to create their 1973 self-titled debut album. The Chicano movement was in full swing at the time, and the brothers had already been swept into LA’s burgeoning civil rights movement.

Brambila said the brothers’ political activism was nurtured by their father and that their music became a tool to combat discrimination.

“They were one of the few groups trying to push our people forward in the entertainment industry,” said Brambila, who worked in artist development at Capitol Records. “The Chicano Moratorium was about the police brutality in our neighborhoods, but also the lack of awareness and opportunity in our community.”

Although Tierra released another album in 1975, the group didn’t break through until 1980 with their album City Nights, which included “Together,” a cover of a song by soul group The Intruders, which charted at number 18 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1981, Tierra had two more Hot 100 singles, “Memory” and “La La Means I Love You.”

The band performed at Carnegie Hall and performed on Soul Train, American Bandstand, and the American Music Awards.

However, their success came at a price.

Years of fighting between the brothers led to a split in the group.

“They were just different characters, different brothers,” saxophonist Villa said. “They had their fights but they made up and nobody gave it too much thought because brothers fight.”

At a Riverside club in 1975, Rudy was in the middle of a solo performance when Steve and Villa ran backstage, where they were playing tag and riding around loud enough for the crowd to hear.

After the set, Rudy chewed them out.

“Rudy just yelled at us and told us to get serious,” Villa said. “That was him. After the concert everyone wanted to go to their rooms and sleep and Steve and I went out and drank.”

Brambila said every brother has some guilt. He said Steve was sometimes late for practice 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 group in 1996. Steve then formed his own group, also called Tierra.

Although the brothers occasionally reconciled, it never lasted long.

Joanna Salas, Rudy’s wife, said her husband and brother loved each other despite their differences.

“Steve was and will always be remembered as a very talented, complicated and wild person,” said Joanna Salas. “He didn’t play by the rules and lived his life the way he wanted.”

Steve Salas was briefly married in the mid-1970s and had no children. He is survived by his longtime partner, Mary Alcantar, and two brothers, Richard and Robert. Steve Salas, co-founder of Eastside Chicano band Tierra, dies

Caroline Bleakley

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