In the early 1950s, Detroit resident Martin Solis Jr. took an interest in a new style of music gaining popularity in his home state of Texas.
He bought a bajo sexto (12-string guitar) and began performing with Detroit accordionist Manuel Rivera. Soon, they were joined by button accordionist Casimiro Zamora and Solis’ cousin William Huron, who played the saxophone. The quartet, along with a rotating list of drummers, formed the group Los Primos, or The Cousins. Entertaining in bars across metro Detroit, Los Primos was one of the first groups in the area playing Tejano music, the popular Tex-Mex genre in central and south Texas and northeastern Mexico.
More than 60 years later, Los Primos has long broken up and all of its members have since died. But the group’s legacy is everlasting, with more people in recent years becoming aware of the contributions Los Primos made to music in Michigan.
The Michigan Music Hall of Fame and Martin H. Solis Jr. Tejano Association will host a dedication ceremony from 1-4 p.m. Friday for a historical marker to honor the legacy of Texans who migrated to Michigan and the Tejano music they created. The marker will fittingly be placed in southwest Detroit outside of the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation Plaza on the corner of Bagley and 21st streets.
The marker will be the state’s first recognizing the contributions of a Mexican community to Michigan history, according to the Hall of Fame, and its happening during Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
Personally connected to the release of the historical marker is Frank Solis, Martin Solis Jr.’s son who co-founded the nonprofit Tejano association dedicated to preserving the legacy of Tejano music pioneers in Michigan. The genre, he said, doesn’t get enough attention.
The 61-year-old Carleton resident has been working with the Michigan Hall of Fame for about five years on the tribute to his father and other Tejano artists. During the process, Frank discovered new things about his late father, including the tapes he left behind of songs he performed with Los Primos.
“These guys are our culture; how it came to be with the immigration from Texas to Michigan,” Solis said. “It’s really an amazing thing that this happened with Tejano music because there’s nothing else like it in the state of Michigan.”
Michigan History Center Director Sandra Clark added in a news release that music draws people together across time, geography and cultures.
“It is fitting that the first Michigan Historical Marker to commemorate the Latinx community of Detroit and Michigan should focus on Tejano contributions to the soundscape of Detroit,” she said. “The Michigan Historical Commission and the Michigan History Center know there are many more stories that need to be told, and we look forward to sharing them in the years to come.”
Una fusión de sonidos (A fusion of sounds)
The Tejano genre can be traced back to the early 1900s and was created by Tejanos, Mexican Americans living in Texas. The music features a fusion of American, Mexican and European elements, according to the online education subscription platform MasterClass. Those include norteño music from northern Mexico, conjunto music from Texas and the music of German and Czech immigrants who settled in Texas during the nineteenth century, prominently polka music. The genre also draws from American influences, like country, rock and pop music. Instruments used in Tejano often include an accordion, bajo sexto, bass and drums.
Tejano began to take hold in the 1930s when Latino musicians were playing in cities along the Texas-Mexico border, according to MasterClass. In the 1950s, country and rock were becoming more prominent in songs, with the popularity of groups such as La Familia.
In Michigan, Tejano became popular around World War II when people started migrating to the state from Texas, said Richard Cruz Dávila, a research specialist for the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University. Due to labor shortages, people were eager to leave Texas and they found employment in Michigan’s farming sector and the automotive industry.
“As people stayed, they wanted to hear the music they grew up with back in Texas. They wanted to play the music that they loved,” Davila said. “So, bands formed, people started hosting radio programs. There were dances happening, which is really the main place where this music happens.”
Martin Solis Jr. moved to Coleman, Mich., from San Antonio, Texas, in 1942 when his family was hired to work in beet fields in the Bay City area. Two years later, his family relocated to Detroit.
Solis Jr. formed his first band Trios Los Primos in the late 1940s, but was short-lived when he was drafted into the Army and stationed in Alabama. When he returned a couple of years later, Solis Jr. began working at Great Lakes Steel and performing with Los Primos in his free time, according to a 2018 academic article Davila co-wrote titled, “MI Música: An Introduction to Música Tejana in Michigan.”
“He was blending sounds with the accordion and the sax and in Texas, they were used to that. But in Michigan, they weren’t used to hearing that,” Frank said.
In the early 1960s, Solis Jr. and Huron moved to Oklahoma and began performing there. By 1964, Martin had returned to Michigan and settled in Melvindale. He resumed playing with Rivera and quickly found other musicians to play in Huron’s absence.
During this time, Solis Jr. also worked as a truck driver for Pacific Airfreight (later Airborne), performing on weekends. He was often on the road, traveling to venues in Lansing, Saginaw, Luna Pier and Ohio. He performed with Rivera until Rivera’s death in 1980.
Solis Jr. took a break from music following the death of one of his sons, but he began performing again around 1999 and played well into the 2000s when his health declined. Solis Jr. died Aug. 26, 2019. He was 90.
“Martin was certainly among those early leaders of the Tejano style here,” Davila said.
Las cintas olvidadas de Los Primos (The forgotten tapes of Los Primos)
After his father’s death, Frank Solis was cleaning the attic in his dad’s Melvindale home and stumbled upon reel-to-reel tapes of his father and the other members of Los Primos during the 1950s. The lost relics were casually stored in a grocery bag that he’d nearly thrown away.
The newly discovered treasure trove gave Frank the opportunity to hear music from Los Primos, songs written and performed before he was born or when he was a small child. The group never got to record an album, he said.
“I had never heard my dad and my uncle before at all,” Frank said. “I’ve heard stories of the band and its early beginnings, so I was fascinated and shocked to hear the music.”
Frank took the tapes to Eddie Gillis, a childhood friend and operations manager for Third Man Pressing, to see if the tapes could be preserved. Luckily, all of the tapes still played. Gillis said one of the things that stood out was Solis Jr.’s vocals. Hearing them transported him back to his childhood in southwest Detroit where he would go to backyard parties with his best friend Danny Torres, Solis Jr.’s nephew, to hear the musician perform.
“He’s got such a sweet, almost baritone, from-the-gut kind of a sound,” he said. “It’s a very robust voice.”
Frank and Gillis were originally going to transfer the music to CDs, but Gillis thought it would sound better on a record.
“It’s so interesting that he’s been recognized as a (Tejano) Hall of Fame musician, as a pioneer of bringing music from Texas to Michigan, but he’s not on an official recording,” Gillis said. “So, that intrigued me to the point where these recordings actually sound good enough to be on a record.”
Gillis brought up the idea to the team at Third Man Records, Third Man Pressing’s parent company, which is co-owned by his brother Jack White of the White Stripes.
“No other label would have done this, I can guarantee it,” Gillis said. “For us, this comes out of our neighborhood and we wanted to be a part of it. So, it was a great opportunity. The timing couldn’t have been any better.”
“Martin & Los Primos” was released in July 2020. Gillis doesn’t have the exact numbers, but said the album sold well and may be up for a repress soon.
And having a physical record full of Los Primos’ songs was helpful for the Michigan Hall of Fame when completing the historical marker application.
El camino hacia un hito histórico (The road to a historical marker)
The process to recognize Tejano artists in Michigan began around 2018, after Solis Jr. was inducted into the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. (Remembering Our Own Tejano Stars) Hall of Fame in Alice, Texas, considered the birthplace of the genre. After Solis Jr. received the honor, Frank called Michigan Music Hall of Fame President Kevin Hill to see if his father could be commemorated locally.
“In some obscure internet search he discovered the Michigan Music Hall of Fame, so he basically cold-called me and he was explaining the story of his dad,” Hill said. “As time went on, we were searching for some different ways on what we could do because his dad’s story is a fascinating one. Then one day I said, ‘Well, why don’t we do a historical marker?’”
The two set to work on the application for the Michigan Historical Commission, which requires applicants to make the case for their topic through the application and historical research. To help with the research on the history of Tejano music, Frank and Hill called Dávila. He interviewed Frank for a 2018 research project on Tejano music in the Midwest, which resulted in a newsletter later that year with Laurie Kay Sommers, an independent consultant in folklore and historic preservation.
“As a result of doing that research and connecting with Richard at the Institute, we were able to begin to piece together information, research and documentation to present to the state in order to get the marker approved,” Hill said.
The application was submitted in December 2021 and was approved earlier this year, Hill said.
La música vive para siempre (Music lives on forever)
In addition to the installation of the marker, Friday’s celebration will feature music from local Tejano group Beto y Dos Guys and speakers including Detroit Deputy Mayor Todd Bettison; Michigan Historical Commission member Delia Fernandez-Jones; Mexicantown Community Development Corporation Executive Director Raymond Lozano; and Gillis.
Frank said the marker symbolizes that Tejano music is finally getting more recognition, not just for his father, but for other Tejano artists.
“It’s really amazing,” he said. “It’s gonna hit home more.”
Added Davila: “As someone who’s researching this music more broadly in the Midwest, I’m really proud to see this happening, to see this community that hasn’t really gotten a lot of recognition in the past. To be able to get this recognition from the state that says ‘there were Tejanos in Michigan, they contributed to the cultural life of the state in a meaningful way’…it’s really important to see that.”
And for past Tejano artists like Martin Solis Jr., their music will continue to play, even when they’re long gone.