Detroit Tejano music pioneer’s legacy preserved on album of newly-discovered recordings
When Frank Solis found the tapes, he almost threw them out.
He and his family — as well as the music world — had assumed that his father, Michigander and Tejano music pioneer Martin Huron Solis Jr., had never recorded the songs that made him a pioneer in Detroit’s music scene of the 1940s and ‘50s. Though Martin was inducted into the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame in 2018, he was best known for his compelling live performances and hadn’t ever released an album with his fellow musicians, who made up Los Primos.
But the tapes his son Frank found turned out to be homemade recordings of Martin’s music. Frank Solis says he brought them to his childhood friend Eddie Gillis for help. Gillis is production manager for Third Man Pressing, which produces vinyl with Detroit’s Third Man Records. Solis says he and Gillis weren’t sure the old tapes would still work, but they took a listen.
The first song they heard was Martin and Los Primos’ rendition of Chucho Navarro’s “Perdida.” Gillis says it grabbed their attention immediately.
“I had never heard him sing that song, actually,” said Solis. “I had heard through the years in our family so much, so many stories, about him and Los Primos, and we had just never — I had never heard it, any of it, so it was very emotional to hear it.”
So they kept listening.
“It became, in a sense, like an archaeological dig,” said Gillis. “We just kept finding more and more stuff that all just sounded so well-preserved … and it was all full-on songs sounding like they came right from a record.”
At first, Solis and Gillis had been planning to simply transfer the tapes to a CD for the Solis family to enjoy. But Gillis was struck by the recordings’ quality, so Third Man Records wound up producing them as a record: Introducing Martin Solis & Los Primos.
“A well-known local celebrity”
Martin, who was born in Texas in 1929 but came to Michigan in the 1940s, started out playing at house parties or outdoor gatherings in Detroit, as well as for migrant workers picking strawberries in the northern part of the state.
“Here in the Detroit areas of the 1950s and late 40s, there were really no venues at all for Mexican American music,” Solis said.
Gillis says that because he’s from Southwest Detroit — which has a strong Mexican American history, community, and music scene — he grew up seeing Martin sing and play the bajo sexto with Los Primos. He says he and his friends admired Martin.
“At the drop of a hat, literally, he would get up on a stage, it didn't matter where,” said Gillis. “He was always invited up, because he knew all of the standards. He knew so many songs that he could just jump right in on, that any musician would want that, because it makes everybody sound good.”
Gillis says Tejano music has gained popularity over the years and currently has a loyal fanbase. He says he hopes that Martin and Los Primos’ recordings will help illustrate the rich history of the Detroit Tejano music scene.
“By creating this little bit of a historical marker, by preserving Martin’s music, it gives us a little bit more of a roadmap as to where the music came from and how it relates to the modern music that’s going on right now, which is a big part of the Southwest Detroit community,” Gillis said.
The record, Introducing Martin Solis & Los Primos, was released by Third Man in July 2020 and made Paste Magazine’s “Best Vinyl Reissues of 2020” list. And Martin’s hometown in Michigan, Melvindale, celebrates his legacy on January 17, which has been designated Martin Huron Solis Jr. Day.
“You could just see the memory.”
Martin was able to be involved with the production process of his album before he passed away in 2019 — Solis says his father was excited about the project and helped advise on the tracks and album artwork. And he got to hear his songs again.
“He got to hear the acetate and the tapes of it, before he passed,” said Frank. “He was in really bad shape at the end there, but he stuck around.”
Solis and Gillis say that when Martin heard his own songs — as well as music from his fellow musicians — for the first time in decades, it was a special moment.
“He was crying. Remember, Ed? He was crying,” said Solis.
Martin’s bandmates had passed away several years previously, but hearing their old songs brought back many memories for Martin, Solis says.
“Music is a time machine, you know?” said Gillis.
To hear Martin in his own words, listen to his 2018 conversation with Stateside producer Mercedes Mejia here.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.