In the course of musical expression, a good number of men named “Sonny” have crossed the stage, from jazz legends Sonny Stitt and Sonny Criss, to bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, and even Cher’s other half Sonny Bono. However none of these men were christened “Sonny” until they took their instrument in their hand, and it’s no different for San Antonio native Sunny Ozuna, leader of the cross-section of rhythm and blues, soul, and doo-wop known as the “Westside Sound.”
Known to his mother as Ildefonso Ozuna, Sunny came into this world with a whiter complexion than a majority of his amigos.
“I was so white they called me ‘Bunny’ when I was growing up,” Ozuna said. “So all I had to do was change one letter.”
Ozuna, 73, grew up attending Luther Burbank High School on the Southside of San Antonio in the 50s, at a time when “and the…” was the theme for groups, and apparently “Ildefonso” didn’t have quite a pleasant ring with “and the Sunliners.” And so “Sunny and the Sunliners” became the name, one that stirs vivid memories in the baby boomer generation of SA, even 50 years later.
The Peña Entertainment Group brought a sold-out crowd to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts for Patio Andaluz Reunion on Sunday, to relive the feeling that Ozuna and many other artists incite with the dancing shoes and dreamy eyes of all those who got their kicks at Patio Andaluz in the heart of mid-20th century San Antone.
“On weekends we would all end up somehow at Patio Andaluz, it was a time when (car) clubs were a big thing, it was all about making dances,” Ozuna said. “It was open roof, we would set the band in the far back wall and pack ‘em in as tight as possible.”
While now only a dilapidated building, Patio Andaluz was once the cat’s meow of Westside San Anto. Located at South Colorado and West Commerce streets, it was the foremost trendsetter for teen sock-hops and socials, a scene for guys and gals to mix and match and see what’s the hippest new groove.
One of these gals, representative of the sentimental souls in attendance Sunday, Carmen N. Hernandez certainly broke a few hearts back in the day on the floors of Patio Andaluz.
“I wanted to get away from my old boyfriend and I knew he didn’t go there, so I could hide from him,” Hernandez said. “I wanted to breakup with this guy, so we went to Patio Andaluz and that’s where I met another guy. There were lots of guys to choose from.”
Hernandez, born 76 years ago in the Alamo City, said that it wasn’t just a spot for the teens.
“We wouldn’t go on dates by ourselves, my momma would be there, and my sisters and little brother,” she said. “My brother would interrupt and say, ‘Come on let’s go, mom says it’s time to go home!’”
As we relaxed underneath the Selena shrine at Mi Tierra, Hernandez was joined by family yet again, her granddaughter Denise Hernandez.
“I wasn’t that into this scene, didn’t really know it existed until a friend took me to Trader’s Village and I saw Sunny Ozuna,” Denise confessed. “I started looking more into it, saw that people were so into him, like he was God.”
In a beautiful display of love and gratitude Denise, who attended the Patio Andaluz Reunion alongside “grandma,” addressed Carmen as she reflected on what the music meant to her.
“It’s cool how the music that you listened to has transcended and now I can enjoy,” Denise said. “It’s a point of cultural pride as well, to feel the connection from your world to mine, and dancing to it.”
About 50 years a friend of Ozuna’s, Henry Peña, was the mastermind behind the reunion, a perfect representation of his Peña Entertainment Group, its mission is “to preserve, maintain and create awareness for those who have an affinity for a roots music genre known as ‘Westside Sound’ born in the Mexican-American community of San Antonio.”
“We have woken up a culture that has been ignored, and we have sparked their lives with the music they grew up with,” Peña said. “In the 55 years I’ve been in the business, I’ve never had such a response.”
But individuals like Denise weren’t hard to find at the Tobin, and Peña believes it’s because the love for this music skipped his children’s generation and is now being revived by Millennials.
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“Our grandkids are connecting to the music, dots are being connected,” Peña said. “A vinyl movement is in town and they won’t even touch CDs, they want to keep that culture alive.”
The sentimental spirit is very real in its power to inspire, according to Peña. “Next time they spin the records they can say ‘I was there, and I saw them do this and here it is…’ that’s something,” Peña said.
While Peña feels a special connection to Ozuna, he is drawing upon years of experience from radio and promotion and production back in the 60s, and calling upon the artists from that epoch as well.
“(We) built the show around Sunny, but a lot of the other performers are friends of mine,” Peña said. “Archie Bell from Houston, Lil Henry Lee, Sonny Ace, and Ernie Garibay playing in dedication to brother Randy.”
Many more artists took to the stage and the energy matched that of Andaluz in the 60s.
“When you play that particular type of audience, you prepare to sound like we used to back in the day,” Ozuna said. “Once the music is implanted, it stays with you, you know what they’re expecting to hear, what they’re used to.”
Backstage, a dapper man in a bright red suit and fedora with a matching stripe soaks in the initial beats of the evening. The outfit alone created a sensation of showmanship, undeniably a veteran performer would be the only one to proudly rock such duds in front of thousands of endearing fans. Sunny Ozuna looked out upon a 14-piece orchestra, which included many members of San Antonio’s horn and rhythm sections, and further still upon the audience that he played more than five decades ago.
Ladies walked arm in arm with their beaus, ones they may have met at Patio Andaluz or another 60s dance spot (much like Carmen Hernandez), and the cool shoo-wop doo-wops and horn calls create a background for the crooners of yesteryear to make the stage theirs once again. They gentle sway of the lovers was reminiscent of their youth, and Peña was sure to keep that mood going in between acts.
“Oh can’t you remember gentlemen, the first time at thirteen when you placed your hand upon her hip,” he crooned. “And placing your cheek upon her cheek as you danced.”
And with such a picture painted, the Westside of San Antonio made their way down to the dance floor, and though it wasn’t an open roofed patio this time, nevertheless the feeling was just as sweet.
Peña and fellow Oldies Radio DJs at 102.3FM KEDA are perhaps the most well-versed and passionate advocates for the music of Ozuna and the Westside, keeping the roots alive.
“It’s home-grown hits, the epicenter of westside sound, we take you back in time and talk about all the events, stories of that time,” he said.
Some of those stories happened right at the Tobin Center, the former Municipal Auditorium back in 1963, the same year that Ozuna experienced his projection into musical elite.
“He’s an icon, a force and put teenagers on the map with ‘American Bandstand,’” Peña said. “I wanted to honor Sunny and all the teenagers that used to go watch him.”
Ozuna had his greater moment in the sun with the Billboard Top 40 chart-topping hit “Talk To Me,” and the same energy that propelled him into the spotlight is like the one he has now.
“I’m still a weekend warrior, the better part of what I’m doing nowadays is beyond anything we could’ve imagined,” Ozuna said, referencing the opportunity to play the big gigs on the west coast and across the country. “We are working with all the groups that we used to imitate acts that are still alive today. I work with all the ones that are left.”
The Tobin Center was a reflection of that same feeling, a night packed with flashback after flashback into the reveries of San Antonio’s Chicano and soul roots. And, as Peña observed, the older generation can’t carry on the tradition forever. The new generation of vinyl heads and soul spot DJs will be sharing this sound and spirit as long as records are spinning, and dapper dandies and daisies are spinning with ’em, to the Westside Sound.
*Top image: Master of Ceremonies Henry Peña welcomes the original Dreamliners, who were honored during the evening. Photo courtesy of Adam Tutor.