Driven Sax Man Puts His Mark on Music

When Steve Berlin gained early admission to a university premed program as an 11th-grader, his mother and father had visions of their little boy becoming a physician. Much to their chagrin, the young Berlin had other ideas. He told them he dreamed of becoming a rocker — not a doctor. They worried about his future.

Good thing Berlin listened to his inner voice.

An accomplished saxophonist, keyboardist and producer, Berlin, who is Jewish, has left his fingerprints all over some of the most influential popular music made in the past 30 years. As the sole non-Latino member of Los Lobos, he has helped the three-time Grammy award-winning band explore new musical terrain and become one of America’s most critically acclaimed groups. Over the years, he’s lent his sax to such landmark albums as Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and R.E.M.’s “Document” and produced nearly 70 albums.

“I’ve been so unbelievably blessed to be able to do this for a living, to play for a living,” said Berlin in an interview at a cafe near his Silverlake apartment. “I’ve also been unbelievably blessed to be in a band I’d be a huge fan of if I wasn’t in it.”

Over breakfast, Berlin exuded a palpable calm and contentment. With an unwieldy beard sprouting from his chin and sunglasses dangling around his neck, he looked more like a beatnik poet than a rocker.

Don’t be fooled by appearances. Berlin, even at 50, is driven. At every juncture, he has pushed himself and the artists with whom he’s working.

“Sometimes we get stuck and don’t know where to go,” Los Lobos drummer Louie Perez said, “but Steve has a really good sense of what we’re trying to say and how to move things along.”

Just as he once insisted on taking a new route home from high school every day, Berlin and his bandmates in Los Lobos have gone out of their way to avoid repeating themselves, going so far as to never play the same set list twice in concert.

The band has recently holed itself up in vocalist-guitarist Cesar Rosas’s home studio to work on its follow-up to “The Ride,” the group’s acclaimed 2004 effort, which featured collaborations with Elvis Costello, among others. In true Los Lobos fashion, the group’s new disc will move in a new musical direction, likely showcasing acoustic instruments. Los Lobos, which gained national fame with its hit remake of the Ritchie Valens classic “La Bamba,” has also scheduled a pair of Southland concerts featuring perennial favorite album, “Kiko,” at the House of Blues Sunset Strip on Dec. 27 and the House of Blues Anaheim on Dec. 29.

Berlin began playing flute at 9 by copying Ian Anderson’s solos on the first Jethro Tull album.

“After I heard that first Jethro Tull album, I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do,'” Berlin said. “Music let me fit in and be who I am.”

His father took him to famed music store Manny’s in New York and bought him a soprano sax for his bar mitzvah present. A bit of a social misfit, Berlin rarely let the instrument out of his sight and quickly mastered it.

At 15, he joined a jazz/rock band named Skyline, a group so talented that ex-members went on to play professionally with the likes of Frank Zappa and Todd Rundgren. Whereas his teenage classmates spent their summers working in pizza parlors or working on their tans, Berlin passed his vacation playing five sets a night from 1-7 a.m. in a seedy bar in Somers Point, N.J. He called the experience “fantasyland.”

After graduating from high school, Berlin enrolled in Indiana University’s jazz program, then a year later dropped out to play music rather than just study it.

Berlin finally got the break he had longed for in 1975, at 19. Former members of Skyline and other Philadelphia musicians he knew had migrated to Los Angeles to play in Gregg Allman’s backup band, and they invited Berlin to join them.

After Berlin’s first rehearsal, though, Allman entered rehab for six months, effectively disbanding the group. Berlin decided to stay in the Southland, even though he had no job and limited savings.

Eventually, he found his way to the Blasters, a roots rock outfit with a major following. In the heady L.A. music scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Blasters ruled like royalty. Critics predicted stardom.

Despite that, Berlin felt frustrated by the band’s in-fighting and blues-centric style. Seeking an outlet, Berlin would jam with the Go-Go’s, the Plimsouls and others whenever possible.

“Steve was everywhere,” said Gary Stewart, producer of the Los Lobos 2000 retrospective boxed set. “You couldn’t go to a show and not see him jump on stage. He actually helped redeem the sax as a legitimate rock and roll instrument during the punk era.”

In 1982, the Blasters tapped Los Lobos, then largely unknown, to open for them at the famed Whisky a Go-Go. Having moved beyond Mexican folk, Los Lobos dazzled the crowd, melding blues, country, folk, Latin music and R &B into an alchemy all its own. Blown away, Berlin joined Los Lobos on stage. It clicked.

Eventually, the band drafted him to co-produce its first major-label EP, 1983’s “…And a Time to Dance,” which won the inaugural Grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance. The group later asked Berlin to join.

On the surface, a Jewish saxophonist from Philly and four Mexican Americans from East L.A. with a penchant for traditional Latin music would appear to have little in common. They discovered they were kindred spirits.

Berlin and the four original Los Lobos members shared the same eclectic musical tastes, including a love of obscure British invasion bands. Mexicans and Jews, Berlin quickly concluded, also had an affinity for tacos, pastrami and Chinese.

“They do the Jewish thing all the time,” Berlin said. “You’re eating a meal, and you’re talking about either a meal you just had or the next meal you’re gonna have.”

As second-generation immigrants, Berlin and his bandmates appreciated the value of hard work by watching their parents toil to improve their station in life. As ethnic minorities, Berlin said, the members of Los Lobos instinctively understand the need to try just a bit harder to make their way in the dominant Anglo culture.

Finally, Berlin learned that his new band took philanthropy as seriously as he does. Consistent with Berlin’s belief in the concept of tikkun olam (healing the world), Los Lobos has played scores of fundraisers for schools and other causes.

In more than two decades, the band has also inspired such groups as Los Lonely Boys and Cafe Tacuba, among others, Stewart said. From the musical gumbo of 1984’s “How Will the Wolf Survive?” to the worldwide smash song, “La Bamba,” to the sonic experimentations of 1992’s classic “Kiko,” the group has shown the ability to take any musical style and make it its own. In 2001, Los Lobos received a lifetime achievement award at the Billboard Latin Music Awards.

Through it all, Berlin and his bandmates have forged a bond that transcends race, ethnicity and religion.

“He’s part of the family,” Perez said. “I don’t think I could give him a certificate as an honorary Chicano, because, to me, he’s Chicano.”