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“We can do whatever we need to do to pay the rent from Monday to Saturday, but Sunday is for oldies.” That’s been a guiding principle at The Squeezebox since it opened in 2016, says co-owner Aaron Peña, and it remains the case as the St. Mary’s Strip bar weathers the vicissitudes of COVID-19 regulation.
Like many of its neighbors, The Squeezebox closed in mid-March amid citywide shutdowns of bars and restaurants. Three weeks ago the bar cautiously reopened for sit-down service and has sought novel ways to attract a clientele that still can’t mix on the dance floor. The club’s put a new spin on an established tradition, adding a food menu by San Antonio chef Jacob Gonzales and rechristening their Sunday chill-out series “Oldies y brunch.”
In San Antonio, the term “oldies” evokes a specific mid-century sound mixing conjunto, early rock ’n’ roll and R&B, and the “Chicano Soul” pioneered on San Antonio’s West Side in the ‘60s. According to Peña, the “inspiration for getting The Squeezebox off the ground” was to provide a place for local conjunto legends to play, especially following the 2012 closure of their previous home base on the strip, Saluté International Bar. Pre-pandemic, The Squeezebox hosted oldies pioneers like Joe “Jama” Perales, who did a seminal stint with Westside band The Royal Jesters, and guitarist Rudy Palacios, who wrote enduring hits for another big name in local oldies, Sunny Ozuna.
“It became a mission to have a venue to showcase these guys while they’re still here,” says Peña, with an undertone of sadness. Palacios succumbed to COVID-19 over the summer.
While live shows aren’t a safe bet yet, Peña and a handful of other DJs are seeding the ground for a newfound appreciation of how these sounds fit in to San Antonio’s cultural history, and its future.
Peña spent formative years at Saluté, where veteran musician Eddie Hernandez, aka DJ Plata, was among the first to lead the charge of an oldies vinyl renaissance. Hernandez, who turned 50 on Wednesday, grew up collecting vinyl and has been spinning since the ‘90s. He credits DJ JJ Lopez and the late musician and community organizer Manuel Diosdado Castillo with initially switching him on to what he calls the “golden era of San Antonio music history.” As DJ Plata, he was an influential mainstay at Saluté, quickly became a Sunday staple at The Squeezebox, and today also spins at the Woodlawn Lake bar he co-owns, Lighthouse Lounge.
“There’s a whole bunch of people that have really embraced that history and genre of music,” Hernandez says. “I’m the older guy now! These younger guys and girls are showing me stuff every day… it’s been well received and embraced by the younger DJ community, and they’ve helped make it stronger.”
One of the DJs to come up under Plata’s tutelage is Bonnie Cisneros, a writer and educator who has been spinning as DJ Despeinada since 2011. Saluté was a revelation for Cisneros, who vividly remembers encountering Manuel Castillo and DJ Plata spinning a vinyl set on her first visit. She later became close with Saluté owner Azeneth Dominguez, and over the last decade has pursued a career DJing less traditional venues like nonprofits, cultural arts organizations, and museums. Though her DJ work centers music by women of color, and freely mixes in contemporary artists, Cisneros reserves space for oldies in her “patchwork quilts of sound.”
“I spin oldies in honor of the San Anto working class, those abuelas and tíos who epitomize the soul of the city,” she explains. “I spin oldies because the sounds work like a time machine and hearken us back to before-times: love, family, life, death, all preserved on delicate 45s.”
For those looking to dig in to the San Antonio oldies sound today, there are a few safe ways to do so. Cisneros is DJing an “outdoors, distanced and masked” monthly residency at Evergreen Garden on Hildebrand at least through the end of 2020. The Sunday events at Squeezebox have been going for three weeks, with spare masks and mandatory temperature checks at the door. And a mile and a half west of the club sits Friends of Sound, one of the best places in town to pick up oldies on vinyl. The shop has been quietly opening on Saturdays, with plans to host an outdoor record event in November.
Co-owner George Mendoza was born in San Antonio and moved back to open the shop after a long stint DJing in Austin. “The store and the music are essentially what brought me back, and it wasn’t until I got back to San Antonio that I started to be more appreciative of my culture, the city that I’m from.” Mendoza says that many old 45s from the oldies heyday – some of which move for hundreds of dollars – come with hand-written, intergenerational marginalia and addresses that trace back to still-standing Westside residences.
“It’s just beautiful to me to live in a city where we can appreciate these records and see exactly where they came from,” he says, adding that this music can be a sensitive topic for some of its creators. “They’re reminded that they didn’t really make it big, they didn’t get a whole lot of recognition. But I think that they’re beginning to see the cultural significance and how important it was. It’s great that they’re beginning to get a little bit of that attention now.”
Come November, San Antonians will have one more option to soak in this classic sound: Amor Eterno, a new venture from The Squeezebox’s Peña and Brian Correa, the fourth-generation owner of Southtown watering hole Bar America next door. A well-used vinyl jukebox still stands like a reliquary in one corner of Bar America, and Amor Eterno will have a permanent vinyl DJ booth installed, with plans to devote different nights of the week to worldbeat, funk, and, of course, oldies.
In the meantime, Sundays at The Squeezebox are still the go-to. “Before the pandemic, we were having these Sundays where we’d have the young DJs playing during the day, and at night I’d throw it on Oldies and they’d say, ‘This is like a family party,’” says Peña. “It’s cool to introduce that to a different generation.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Joe “Jama” Perales passed away last year.