La Mafia de Oscar y Leonard Gonzales
La Mafia formed on the Northside of Houston, Texas. It all started when Henry Gonzales, Sr. recognized his two sons’ Oscar and Leonards’ talent when he observed them playing instruments left behind by musicians who had performed the night before at the cantina that he owned. Encouraging and honing their talent, he helped his sons form the first incarnation of the band Los Mirasoles in 1975. Inheriting the neighborhood night club from their father, brothers Oscar and Leonard rehearsed there in the afternoons before the evening acts came on cutting their share on ranchera standards and inspired by a world of music from Cornelio Reyna, Little Joe to KISS. Oscar and Leonard were managed by their older brother, Henry, Jr., who ran the bar. It was Henry who saw fit to invest heavily in state-of-the-art equipment, mimicking trends in the pop and rock universe. In 1978, older brother, Henry Gonzales Jr., took over the group as manager and changed the name to La Mafia. Thus for many years, the band was known as Oscar, Leonard y La Mafia.
Originally from Alice, Texas, a slender Texas-Mexican lad with a German last name Armando “Mando” Lichtenberger Jr., joined the Gonzales brothers. Mando, brought with him a vast and highly-trained accordion virtuosity that he translated easily to keyboards and synthesizers. Prior to joining Oscar and Leonard, Armando Lichtenberger Jr. along with La Mafia’s very first bass player Israel “Speedy” Villanueva were in there own band known as Los Tremendos Luceritos de Mando y Speedy. Then they merged along with Oscar and Leonard as Los Mirasoles and released their first single “El Piojito”. In 1980 under their new name “La Mafia”; the young band was signed up for a four album contract with small independent record label Discos Diana by Tony Rodríguez out of Baytown, Texas. On this label La Mafia released their debut album titled La Mafia De Oscar Y Leonard Gonzales (1980) and in the following year their second album titled Only In Texas (1981) . In their early stages as a band La Mafia used a combination of saxophone and trumpets, a synthesizer similar to progressive conjuntos and grupos Tejanos along with an accordion and they recorded mostly polkas and rancheras. The last album titled The Magnificent 7 (1982) was release but released incomplete by Discos Diana. The first song on the album titled “Ella” was supposed to have been on this album but was removed out at the last minute but not from the credits. Instead the song “El Camino Pal Circo” was put in the place of “Ella”. The titled song “Ella” was later released on a compilation album titled Ella (1982). Later, that same year La Mafia was recognized as “The Most Promising Band” of 1982 at the annual Tejano Music Awards.
Shortly after being recognized as “The Most Promising Band” at the Tejano Music Awards; the group’s demo tape landed in the hands of Cara Records owner Bob Grever and Cara Records composer and promoter Luis Silva. The group was immediately signed on with independent Tejano mega-label Cara Records, the San Antonio record label that brought La Onda Tejana to the attention of major industry players. The first release for La Mafia on Cara Records was the album titled Honey (Cariño) (1982). La Mafia’s first statewide hit, ironically, was an English-language song by the group the Chi-Lites, titled “Oh Girl.” In 1983 it became the only English-language song to win “Song of the Year” at the Tejano Music Awards. La Mafia also won in the categories for “Album of the Year-Orchestra” for Honey (Cariño) and “Single of the Year” for “Honey (Cariño).” The next album titled Electrifying (1983) was the album that brought La Mafia statewide recognition winning the band “Vocal Duo of the Year” (Oscar & Leonard Gonzales), “Album of the Year-Orchestra” for Electrifying and “Single of the Year” for “Tu Tu Y Solo Tu” at the 1984 annual Tejano Music Awards where La Mafia performed their first televised performance.
Following the success of the previous album; the album titled Mafia Mania (1983) did not have the same success as its predecessor but never the less it showcased La Mafia’s unique progressive-tejano sound. In 1984, the album titled Hot Stuff (1984) dominated the Tejano Music Awards by winning five out of eleven categories in “Vocal Duo of the Year” (Oscar and Leonard Gonzales), “Album of the Year-Orchestra” for Hot Stuff, “Single of the Year” for “Mi Loca Pasion”, “Male Entertainer of the Year” (Oscar Gonzales) and “Song of the Year” for “Mi Loca Pasion” at the 1985 annual Tejano Music Awards. The following year the album titled Neon Static (1985) won in the categories of “Male Vocalist of the Year” and “Male Entertainer of the Year” (Oscar Gonzales) at the 1986 Tejano Music Awards. For several years La Mafia played musica tejana with three distinct ensembles: accordion, guitar, drums, and electric bass. On other songs, it added a combination of saxophone and trumpets along with a synthesizer to make a progressive-tejano sound. At times, La Mafia played in the grupo style and anchored its music in keyboards. Although it recorded in all three styles, resulting in a mixture of sounds, these sounds were not fused or blended into a new form. The accordion, for instance, was used by itself or in combination with a saxophone and trumpets, but not in combination with keyboards. The synthesizer-driven songs, in many cases, would include some saxophone and trumpets but not accordion. The last album release by Cara Records titled Herencia Norteña (1985) was a unique album in that it was a pure norteño sounding album that only included accordion based songs with no saxophone, trumpets and synthesizer sounds.
La Mafia gained greater success when Cara Records entered a five-year promotional deal with CBS Discos in 1985. The first album release for C.B.S International was the album titled La Mafia 1986 (1986). This album launched La Mafia to international recognition winning in the categories of “Album of the Year-Orchestra” for La Mafia 1986 and “Song of the Year” for “Si Tu Supieras” at the 1987 Tejano Music Awards. Later, in that same year the album titled A Todo Color (In Living Color) (1986) was also released.
Heavily influenced by the MTV–era emphasis on looks and video, Houston’s La Mafia brought a new dynamic to the fledgling Tejano movement. The group decided to take its image where Tejano had never been before to capitalize on its favorable situation. La Mafia made a significant contribution to música tejana during the 1980s. It introduced showmanship and “high-tech” sound to the industry. By the mid-1980s, La Mafia’s elaborate live shows had earned it the reputation of being the most exciting band in Tejano. La Mafia’s first live album La Mafia Live (1987) captured the energy and excitement of La Mafia’s showmanship. Sporting big hair, leather pants, glittery outfits, and massive speaker banks, La Mafia breathed new life into a Tejano scene that had been rooted in tradition. As one of the first Tejano bands to emphasize that a visual presentation was just as important as a sonic production, La Mafia helped pave the way for the huge Tejano explosion that followed in the next decade. An important ingredient in this transformation, along with the flashy outfits, was the utilization of sophisticated lighting and high-tech sound systems, fog and explosions on stage. By the late 1980s La Mafia’s stage presence was unique in Tejano music. Heavily inspired by the visceral power of MTV, it earned a reputation as a top show band with an inspiring performance.
Enter The Future
The late ’80s brought La Mafia to greater expansion of their showmamship and an early glimpse of La Mafia’s signature sound. Before the signature “La Mafia sound” the album titled Amame (1988) was released this album had more ballads than tejano style songs that were accustomed in previous La Mafia albums. Between 1989 and 1991, three albums recorded by the group were certified gold by CBS’s Latin division and in the Tejano market, sales of 50,000 were considered gold; 100,000 were platinum. The first of these albums was the album titled Xplosiv (1988). The next album titled Enter the Future (1990) had keyboard sounds not heard in musica tejana, sort of techno Tejano it also had a slowed-down tempo on its rancheras and polkas. The album titled Con Tanto Amor (1990) had the same musical taste as the previous albums but with it, it brought the showmanship signature trademark presence of the guacho-bolero hat that Oscar is known for on stage. In 1990, EMI Latin records bought Cara Records and signed several tejano groups, including rival tejano band Mazz. La Mafia, not wanting to be on the same label as Mazz due to past conflicts with each other, signed on with the rival label CBS/Sony Discos. However, La Mafia still owed two albums on its deal with EMI. La Mafia reluctantly handed over the material to EMI. But the band was again upset when it discovered that some of the instrumental tracks on the album had been changed against its wishes. This album was the album titled 1991 (1991) released by Capitol/EMI Latin, this was not a regular album instead it was a compilation album release for some unreleased Non-Stop album tracks and the rest were just tracks from the Herencia Norteña album that were re-recorded by studio musicians which were none-La Mafia members but included Oscar’s vocals.
Over time, however, La Mafia assumed the trappings of a grupo—they depended more on the sounds generated by the synthesizer and used the horns and accordion less frequently and more selectively. The departure from Tejano’s traditional conjunto roots heavily emphasized a more keyboard-driven ballad and cumbia sound. La Mafia, in many ways, was neither a conjunto, progressive conjunto, nor a grupo, but a transitional musical group in search of distinct identity. La Mafia then began a metamorphosis towards a keyboard-driven/pop ballad group in the early ’90s on the Sony Discos label. La Mafia made three stylistic changes to Tejano music. It slowed the tempo, began to play cumbias and ballads, and became more “techno”—used more synthesizer and heavy bass lines. The unreleased album titled Non-Stop (1991) in-bodied all of these elements of La Mafia’s new stylistic musical shift. Despite these criticisms, the pioneering new sound initiated by La Mafia attracted a wider following, including audiences in Mexico, Latin America, and Puerto Rico, as well as in New York, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles. Their increased popularity was reflected in the group’s huge album sales, in concert appearances, and in the awards the group won.
Estas Tocando Fuego
La Mafia developed staying power, recording and touring relentlessly until it occurred to the band that a bold move south might uncover fertile turf. After all, Tejano music had roots in Mexico and the influences had been there all along. In a bold move south, the group’s new music style, found a following south of the border. The album titled Estas Tocando Fuego (1991), was the first tejano album to ever sell more than 1 million units. In February 1992, La Mafia set an attendance record of 55,970 at the Astrodome for the Houston Rodeo. That same year, La Mafia was honored with the “Best Group” and “Best Song” awards for “Como Me Duele Amor” at the Billboard and Premio Lo Nuestro Awards. The next album titled Ahora y Siempre (1992), sold more than 250,000 units in the first two weeks after its issue in 1992. The group ended its biggest year on another high note when “Me Estoy Enamorando” was voted the Hottest Latin Track of the year in Billboard’s year-end survey.
La Mafia’s popularity was also recognized by Sony Discos with a Diamante Award in 1993 for “Sales over 1,500,000 in the U.S. and Mexico”. By 1993, La Mafia was touring Mexico with headliners status. The group also toured the East and the West Coasts of the United States. Many groups before La Mafia had toured the Midwest and West Coast, but La Mafia expanded this circuit and added locations such as Miami, Florida, and New York City.
In 1994 the group took an unusual step and recorded the album titled Vida (1994), an album containing cumbias and baladas. This album served to solidify La Mafia’s international standing but disagreements within the group led to Henry Gonzales’s departure. Henry departed and started his own label, Voltage Discos, a booking agency that handled new Tejano acts. His label struck a distribution deal with Sony Discos and gained attention with a fledgling roster that included Juan P. Moreno and Elida y Avante. But his departure did not hurt the band, as “Vida” reached number 1 on the Billboard’s Hot Latin Tracks Chart just two weeks after it was released. The lack of tejano songs on this album in particular led to complaints among many fans that La Mafia had abandoned its Tejano roots. But on the contrary La Mafia’s powerful standing in the music industry was validated when its first three albums with Sony Discos, were huge successes, with each release going gold (500,000 copies).
The second live album titled La Mafia Exitos En Vivo (1995) was as an album that integrated the early appeal of accordion and synthesizer-fueled rancheras, the mega-hit ballads that brought them wide-spread fame in Mexico and the pop based cumbias favored on both sides of the border. This album compiled the hits of the past first three albums that were released with Sony Discos along with a Spanish version of the Beatles song titled “Let It Be”.
Un Millon de Rosas
In 1996, Oscar Gonzales took his mother’s maiden name, de la Rosa, as his stage name. The name change was to go with the band’s new long term strategy. A testament to the band’s enduring presence in both the Tejano and international music industries, the album titled Un Millon De Rosas (1996) clocked in at over 100,000 pre-sale units before it was even released. Year end number put sales figures in the U.S. alone at closer to 400,000 copies. This album won the band “Group of the Year” at the Premio Lo Nuestro/Billboard Latin Awards in 1996 and their first Grammy at the “American” Grammy Awards in 1997.
La Mafia concluded another year at the top of the Latin Music Charts with several Billboard magazine distinctions such as No. 1 Hot Latin Track and No. 1 Hot Mexican Regional Track for “Un Millon De Rosas.” The album titled En Tus Manos (1997) had the same success as Un Millon De Rosas winning yet another consecutive Grammy in the same category at the annual “American” Grammy Awards for “Best Mexican American/Tejano Performance” in 1998.
In 1998, the album titled Euforia was released. This album was different in that the hit song titled “Pido” was a bolero driven song. The entire album contained accordion based songs with cumbias and baladas without the keyboard synthesizer sound that La Mafia is known for. Early 1998, guitar player and founder Leonard Gonzales left the group and shortly afterward, on December 2, 1998, La Mafia announced its retirement. The album title Momentos (1999) marked the last album release for La Mafia under the Sony Discos label and the first album without Leonard. This album was La Mafia’s farewell album. La Mafia’s accomplishments in Tejano music were honored with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the Tejano Music Awards in 1999.
After a year absence La Mafia regrouped along with a new record label Fonovisa. On this label La Mafia released three albums. The first of these three albums was the album title Contigo (2000). This album launched La Mafia with a new image and a more Caribbean, pop tropical sounding style of music. The next, album title Inconfundible (2001) was an album that brought back La Mafia signature synthesizer sound and Oscar’s famous trademark bolero hat back into the music scene. The last album title Nube Pasajera (2004) was an accordion based album but like before this album was released incomplete by Fonovisa. The first song on the album titled “No Se Porque” was excluded out of the album. Soon after the release, La Mafia decided to leave Fonovisa because of the lack of support they had with promotion and distribution of their music under Fonovisa.
Later, that same year La Mafia producer, arranger, keyboard and accordion player Armando Lichtenberger, Jr. started his own independent label, Urbana Records, in Houston, and signed several local and regional groups, including Los Palominos of Uvalde, Texas. The album titled Para El Pueblo (2004) was the first La Mafia album release under La Mafia’s own record label. This album won a Latin Grammy for “Best Grupero Album” at the 6th Latin Grammy Awards in 2005. Between 2004 and 2005 La Mafia took their music to Europe. The band volunteered for U.S.O Tours (United Service Organizations Inc.) which is a private, nonprofit organization that provides morale and recreational services to members of the U.S. military. Throughout their tour La Mafia visited countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and the Balkans with stops in Serbia and Kosovo.
The next album titled Nuevamente (2006) was an album that paid homage to the sound that defined La Mafia through out the ‘80s and ‘90s; La Mafia was awarded for their efforts at the 7th Latin Grammy Awards for “Best Tejano Album” in 2006. The album titled Eternamente Romanticos (2008) was an album that retained La Mafia’s signature synthesizer sound with modern sounding tejano accordion styles.
Legacy of Hits
On March 25, 2010 La Mafia’s career was recognized in New York at the Premios Latino Awards (Premios A La Musica Latina). La Mafia won in the categories of “Mejor Espectaculo Del Año” and “Mejor Grupo Tejano.” These awards honor International Latin artists from all over the Latin speaking world. That same year, on May 23, 2010 La Mafia celebrated their 30th Anniversary Musical Career with a special concert at the San Antonio Alamodome in San Antonio, TX. This concert is considered by many to be one of the top Tejano music events in San Antonio’s music history. As an acknowledgment for La Mafia’s contribution to Tejano Music The Tejano Music Awards presented La Mafia with a “Music Legacy Award” a special award that honored the 30 year career of the band. The band was also surprised by a special award presented on behalf of the City of San Antonio, a “Certificate of Congratulations” proclamation in gratitude for La Mafia’s dedication and inspiration to the Tejano community; and the Premios Premmusa on Aztec America honored La Mafia with a special “Lifetime Award” for their 30 year career. Premios Premmusa are awards that are presented by (Promotores Unidos) an organization of promoters from across the United States which specialize in the Regional Mexican genre. The award show is exclusively for Regional Mexican artists. In retrospect La Mafia Live In The 80’s (2011) is an album that celebrates La Mafia’s past as a band.
In the end, La Mafia’s contribution to Tejano music remains intact. Without its innovations emphasizing the visual side of entertainment, the Tejano market would not have been able to transform itself with both style and substance during its early 1990s renaissance. La Mafia’s unique showmanship and style will always progress and innovate to the next level. An inspiration to future tejano and inspiring artist of all kind—Selena the “Queen of Tejano Music” is a testament to this. La Mafia’s enduring music will keep entertaining the masses for generations and generations to come keeping alive a legacy of hits. The best of the best, number one worldwide, “The Godfathers” of progressive tejano music Ahora y Siempre—La Mafia.