Freddy Fender R.I.P. October 14, 2006

Freddy Fender  was one of the most successful musicians to emerge from the large Mexican community resident in the United States. Born and bred in Texas, he sang and played in the hybrid roots style particular to the region known as Tex-Mex or Tejano, but he also crossed over to enjoy success with both country and rock’n’roll audiences.

A colourful character, whose non-musical achievements included a stretch in prison and a degree in sociology, he began his recording career singing Spanish versions of Elvis Presley songs in the 1950s. Yet it was not until 1975 that he tasted real success, when he enjoyed a No 1 hit with Before The Next Teardrop Falls. His characteristically overwrought vocal style brought him further solo hits and in more recent years he was a leading member of back-to-the-roots Tex-Mex groups, the Texas Tornados and Los Super Seven. Born Baldemar Huerta in 1937 in San Benito, Texas, in the Rio Grande valley, his parents were migrant Mexican farm workers. He began working in the fields himself at the age of 10, and later described an early life in which he “ worked beets in Michigan, pickles in Ohio, baled hay and picked tomatoes in Indiana . . . when that was over it was cotton- picking time in Arkansas”.

He learnt to play the guitar at an early age, copying the blues, country and Mexican records that he heard on the radio and which would later coalesce into his own unique hybrid style. At 16, he joined the US Marine Corps but three years later was discharged for “bad conduct” — a judgment that 35 years later he succeeded in having revoked. After his discharge, he returned to southern Texas where he played in bars and honky-tonks and built a strong following in the Mexican community, performing rockabilly versions of popular rock’n’ roll hits in Spanish.

His local popularity led to his first recording in 1957, a Spanish version of Presley’s Don’t Be Cruel. It was followed by a Latino version of Harry Belafonte’s Jamaica Farewell and both records became hits among the Hispanic communities on both sides of the border. After moving to California in 1959 he recorded his first version of Wasted Days and Wasted Nights, although the song would not be a national hit for another 17 years.

It was around this time that he adopted the stage name by which he would eventually become well known. “I had a gringo manager and started recording in English,” he explained many years later. “Since I was playing a Fender guitar and amplifer, I changed my name to Freddy Fender.”

The immigrant clubs that were his bread and butter were rough-and-tumble places, and a fight in one venue left him with a broken nose and a knife wound in his neck. Worse was to follow when an arrest for possession of marijuana in 1960 led to two and a half years in Angola State Prison, Louisiana. While in jail, he recorded a number of songs on a tape recorder, which would subsequently be released on an album, but when he was paroled in 1963, it was made a condition that he stay away from music. Despite this, he took up a residency in a club called Papa Joe’s on Bourbon Street, New Orleans. By the late 1960s, however, he was back in San Benito, working as a garage mechanic and studying at night for a degree in sociology, with the intention of using the qualification to help other ex-convicts.

In 1974 he returned to recording when producer Huey P. Meaux, who had previously had a big hit with the Sir Douglas Quintet’s She’s About A Mover, took him into a Houston studio to cut the heart-jerking ballad, Before The Next Teardrop Falls. Sung in Fender’s trademark quivering tenor and with one verse delivered in Spanish, it was initially released locally on Meaux’s own Crazy Cajun label. By the following year it had been picked up by ABC for national distribution and topped both the American country and pop charts. A string of further big hits followed, including Secret Love, Vaya con Dios, You’ll Lose a Good Thing and a rather good remake of Wasted Days and Wasted Nights. However, after waiting so long for success, when it came Fender did not handle fame and attention well. As he sunk into drug and alcohol dependency the hits dried up and in 1985, at his wife’s insistence, he entered a rehabilitation clinic.

When he had recovered, he had a brief fling at an acting career, playing a corrupt mayor in Robert Reford’s 1988 film, The Milagro Beanfield War. Then in 1990, he joined The Texas Tornados, a Tex-Mex supergroup that also included Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers from the Sir Douglas Quintet and the virtuoso accordionist Flaco Jiminez.

Their self-titled debut album, sung in both English and Spanish, was a classic, mixing Mexican, rock, blues, country and R’n’B styles into an intoxicating roots stew. Three further albums followed before Fender, Sahm and Jiminez joined forces in 1998 with Joe Ely and members of Los Lobos to form Los Super Seven, whose self-titled debut album won a Grammy award.

He subsequently resumed his solo career and won another Grammy in 2002 for Best Latin Pop Album with La Música de Baldemar Huerta, before illness intervened. In 2002 he underwent a kidney transplant with an organ donated by his daughter. Two years later he underwent a liver transplant and subsequently had lung cancer diagnosed.

Freddy Fender, singer, was born on June 4, 1937.
He died on October 14, 2006, aged 69.

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Source: The Times, October 2006