1973–79: Formation and early releases
Vocalist and guitarist David Hidalgo and drummer Louie Pérez met at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, California, and bonded over their mutual affinity for obscure musical acts such as Fairport Convention, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. Pérez recalls, "We’re looking at each other, 'You like this stuff? I thought I was the only weird one.' So I went over to his house one day for about a year, which we spent listening to records, playing guitars, and starting to write songs." The two borrowed reel-to-reel recorders from a friend and created multitrack recordings of music spanning from parody songs to free-form jazz. They later enlisted fellow students Frank Gonzalez, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano to complete the group's lineup, in 1973. Their first album, Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, was recorded at two studios in Hollywood in 1977 over a period of about four months. At that time, they all had regular jobs, and it was hard to get together for the sessions. To accommodate that situation, their producer Louis Torres would call the engineer, Mark Fleisher, who owned and operated a high-speed tape duplicating studio in Hollywood, to find a studio when he knew all the band members could get off work that night. Most of the songs were recorded at a studio on Melrose Avenue, located next to the Paramount studios at the time, and a low-priced studio on Sunset Boulevard.
The band members were unsatisfied with playing only American Top 40 songs and began experimenting with the traditional Mexican music they listened to as children. This style of music received a positive reaction from audiences, leading the band to switch genres, performing at hundreds of weddings and dances between 1974 and 1980. However, Los Lobos took notice of the popular groups on the Hollywood music scene and added influences of rock to its sound.
Originally, they called themselves Los Lobos del Este (de Los Angeles) ("The Wolves of the East of Los Angeles"), which was a play on the name of the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte; also, there was another conjunto band at the time named "Los Lobos Del Norte", who had released several albums already, and in fact Los Lobos del Este were from east L.A. The name was quickly shortened to Los Lobos.
1980–88: How Will the Wolf Survive? and commercial success
The band's first noteworthy public appearance occurred in 1980 at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, when they were hired by David Ferguson and CD Presents to open for Public Image Ltd. In 1983, the band released an extended play entitled ...And a Time to Dance, which was well received by critics but sold only about 50,000 copies. However, the sales of the EP earned the group enough money to purchase a Dodge van, enabling the band to tour throughout the United States for the first time. Los Lobos returned to the studio in the summer of 1984 to record its first major-label album, How Will the Wolf Survive?, in 1984. The album's title and the title song were inspired by a National Geographic article entitled "Where Can the Wolf Survive", which the band members related to their own struggle to gain success in the United States while maintaining their Mexican roots.
The film Colors includes "One Time, One Night" in the opening credits, although the song was not included on the soundtrack album. In 1986, members of Los Lobos appeared alongside Tomata du Plenty in the punk rock musical Population: 1. In 1987, they released a second album, By the Light of the Moon. In the same year, they recorded some Ritchie Valens covers for the soundtrack of the film La Bamba, including the title track, which became a number one single for the band. In 1988 they followed with another album, La pistola y el corazón, featuring original and traditional Mexican songs.
1988–94: The Neighborhood and Kiko
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the band toured extensively throughout the world, opening for such acts as Bob Dylan, U2 and the Grateful Dead.
Los Lobos returned with The Neighborhood in 1990, and the more experimental Kiko (produced by Mitchell Froom) in 1992. In 1991, the band contributed a lively cover of "Bertha", a song which they often performed live, to the Grateful Dead tribute–rain forest benefit album Deadicated. In 1994 they also contributed a track, "Down Where the Drunkards Roll", to the Richard Thompson tribute album Beat the Retreat.
On the band's twentieth anniversary they released a two-CD collection of singles, outtakes, live recordings and hits, entitled Just Another Band from East L.A.
1995–98: Papa's Dream and Colossal Head
In 1995, Los Lobos released the prestigious and bestselling record Papa's Dream on Music for Little People Records along with veteran guitarist and singer Lalo Guerrero. The band also scored the film Desperado. The album track "Mariachi Suite" won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance and stands as their last Grammy Award to date (the other two Grammy Awards were in the category of Best Mexican-American Performance in 1983 and 1989 for the song "Anselma" and the album La Pistola y el Corazón).
In 1996, they released Colossal Head. In spite of the fact that the album was critically acclaimed, Warner Brothers decided to drop the band from their roster. Los Lobos spent the next few years on side projects. The band contributed along with Money Mark to the AIDS benefit album Silencio=Muerte: Red Hot + Latin, produced by the Red Hot Organization, on which they performed "Pepe and Irene."
1999–2006: Mammoth Records, subsequent releases
Los Lobos signed to Mammoth Records and released This Time in 1999. Mammoth also reissued 1977's Del Este de Los Angeles. In 2000, Rhino/Warner Archives released the boxed set Cancionero: Mas y Mas.
In 2001, Los Lobos was awarded the El Premio Billboard Award.
The band released their Mammoth Records debut, Good Morning Aztlan in 2002. They released The Ride in 2004. The Ride featured Tom Waits, Mavis Staples, Bobby Womack, Elvis Costello and others covering Los Lobos music along with the band.
Los Lobos released its first full-length live-show DVD Live at the Fillmore in 2004. The DVD captures the band's act over a two-day period in July at the famed San Francisco venue.
In September 2006, Los Lobos released The Town and the City (Mammoth Records) to much critical acclaim. The album's lyrics deal with Louis Perez's childhood in East Los Angeles, while the music provides complex and original soundscapes reminiscent of their previous release Kiko. Cartoonist Jaime Hernandez did the artwork for the album. The album is told in the first person, with each song serving as an episodic step.
2007–present: Tin Can Trust
In 2007, the group performed a cover of Bob Dylan's "Billy 1" (from Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid) for the soundtrack to Todd Haynes's film I'm Not There. Also in 2007, they participated in Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino (Vanguard), contributing their version of Domino's "The Fat Man".
In 2009, the group under contractual obligation to Disney Music released an album of Disney covers, Los Lobos Goes Disney (Disney Sound/Walt Disney Records) and more enthusiastically participated in a tribute album to the late Doug Sahm, Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm (Vanguard).
In 2010, Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo were featured artists in the Experience Hendrix Tour. On August 3, 2010, the group released their first album of new material in 4 years, entitled Tin Can Trust, through Shout! Factory, which features two Spanish-language tracks.
In 2011, the group was awarded the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2013, the group toured Europe supporting Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
On April 11, 2014, the band played two shows at the Kessler Theater in Dallas. Cesar Rosas did not appear. When a fan shouted, "Where is he?", David Hidalgo responded, "Where's Cesar? That's what I said!" The band soldiered on in jam mode, enlisting guests Max Baca and his nephew Josh Baca of the Grammy-winning San Antonio conjunto band Los Texmaniacs. The band's Management did not return phone calls from the Dallas Morning News for an explanation. On April 13, 2014, Cesar Rosas appeared with the band at the newly remodeled Aztec Theatre in San Antonio, again with Max Baca and Josh Baca as guests, and with Robert Cray as support.
On October 9, 2015, Los Lobos was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the first time.
In 2017, Los Lobos appeared in the multi award-winning documentary film The American Epic Sessions directed by Bernard MacMahon, where they recorded, “El Cascabel” live direct-to-disc on the first electrical sound recording system from the 1920s. During their session, the belt holding the 100Ib weight that powered the 1924 cutting lathe broke and Jack White had to rush to an upholstery shop to repair it.