Among the best loved musicians in the history of popular music, Freddy Fender is one of the first Mexican-Americans to have succeeded at his craft. As with other minorities, the ‘50s and ‘60s were a time of fomentation and change for the various Hispanic cultures living in the United States. Freddy Fender’s rise to fame and fortune served as an inspiration for an entire generation of Latin-Americans to follow after him. His success opened the door for countless other Latin-American performers. His persistence and determination, in the face of overwhelming odds; overcoming enormous setbacks, is the stuff of legend.
Freddy Fender is not unlike the proverbial cat. He has already had at least three separate show business lives- as a Hispanic pop star in the late 50’s, a country pop star in the 70’s, and as a member of the Grammy award-winning Texas Tornados in the 90’s. And he appears to have a few more lives yet left in him. For, at the dawn of a new millennium, Fender is beginning yet another chapter in an amazing career that is now well into its fifth decade.
Baldemar Huerta was born on June 4th, 1937, in San Benito, a tiny border town in the Rio Grande Valley, about twenty miles west of Brownsville, Texas. He grew up in a barrio, which, he has repeatedly insisted, was neither a rat-infested slum, nor a teeming ghetto. It was a lower middle-class Tejano (Texas-born Mexican) neighborhood. His parents were migrant workers and, as a child, he traveled with them during the picking season. Those early days of living in different migrant camps and following the harvest from region to region, exposed Baldemar to a rich variety of musical influences.
His family would migrate north every spring, to “work potatoes in Maine, beets in Michigan, pickles in Ohio; baled hay and picked tomatoes in Indiana,” as he later described it in an interview. “When that was over came cotton picking time in Arkansas. All we really had to look forward to was making enough money to have a good Christmas back home, where somehow I’d always manage to get my mother to buy me a guitar, if the old one was worn out.”
In his youth, Baldemar received a first-hand education in the blues. Many of his fellow workers were blacks, who often sang spirituals and works songs in the fields; playing folk songs and blues on the guitar in the camps at night. He often later remarked that some were such talented singers and musicians, they easily could have become professionals themselves. The blues music he heard in the fields became an integral part of his own unique style.
Baldemar learned to play guitar early in his childhood. He played and sang along with the blues, country and Mexican Tejano and Conjunto records to which he listened on the radio, the combination of which he eventually developed into his own personalized style. At the age of ten, he made his first appearance on radio station KGBT, singing his rendition of “Paloma Querida, ” a current hit of the day. He also won an amateur talent contest at the Grand Theater in nearby Harlingen with first prize being a tub of food products- valued at about ten dollars.
After dropping out of school at the age of sixteen, Baldemar joined the Marines for a three year stint. In his free time. he could often be found in the barracks, singing and playing guitar. After his discharge, he began to play honky-tonks and dance halls around the south Texas area. By the late ‘50s, his music was becoming very popular among an increasing number of fans, who attended his shows.
In the Spring of 1957, Baldemar released “No Seas Cruel” (a Spanish-language version of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel“) on Falcon Records, the flip side of which was “Ay Amor,” a song he had written in 1955. Not long after, he released a Spanish version of Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell,” and the follow-up, “Crazy, Crazy Baby,” all of which became regional hits.
Those recordings were released by Peerless Records, a label based out of McAllen, Texas, located not far from San Benito. Peerless distributed them throughout Mexico, Central America and South America. “No Seas Cruel” went to number #1 in Mexico and South America and was credited with initiating a wonderful cultural change in music. Hispanic rock and roll was born, and Baldemar Huerta was its creator.
Baldemar, whose nickname among his friends was Baldy, knew that, in order for his music to really succeed and achieve broader appeal, he needed to change his name. Throughout his early years in the music business, he tried out a succession of pseudonyms, including, El Bebop Kid, Eddie Medina (of the band Eddie con Los Shades), Little Bennie and Scotty Wayne. Finally, in 1959, he chose to assume a stage name with more of a rockabilly feel, which might appeal to the “gringo“ audiences he was seeking to attract. He selected the last name of “Fender” from the headstock of his electric guitar. And, as for his first name, “Freddy just sounded good,” he later declared.
The following year, Freddy Fender released the self-penned single, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” which became a minor national hit and his most successful record, up to that point. But, before he could savor even a brief moment in the spotlight, Freddy and his bass player were arrested on Friday the 13th in May of 1960, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for having two marijuana cigarettes in their possession.
Freddy was convicted and sentenced to five years in Louisiana’s notorious Angola State Prison (the same correctional facility which had earlier imprisoned blues legend Leadbelly); a fate which he happened to share with Charles Neville (of the Neville brothers), who, at the time, was serving his own five year sentence for marijuana possession.
However, Freddy’s term of imprisonment did not entirely halt his music career. Treated as something of a hero by the penitentiary staff, he managed to record and release at least three songs for Goldband Records, while imprisoned, including “My Train of Love” and “Bye Bye Little Angel.”
While he was incarcerated, many Latin artists began imitating Freddy’s brand of Hispanic rock and roll. In 1961, the well known Mexican comic and singer, Tin Tan, used two of Freddy’s songs in two major Hispanic films. The songs, “No Esta Aqui” and “Acapulco Rock,” were from one of Freddy’s rock and roll albums, under the name Eddie con Los Shades.
Finally, thanks to the diligent efforts of Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, Freddy was paroled, after serving three years of his sentence- on the condition that he stay away from the corruptive influences of the music scene during his parole.
But, as soon as his parole was ended, Fender attempted to resume his career. He ended up in New Orleans, where he spent the next five years further pursuing his interest in rhythm & blues and Cajun music. But, finding no success, by 1969, Freddy had returned home to the Rio Grande Valley area.
He wound up working as a full-time mechanic; enrolled in evening courses at Del Mar College; studying to become a sociologist; playing music only on weekends. It appeared that his music career was over, his rising star but a faded memory. And that is where the story of Freddy Fender would have ended: as a mere footnote in the archive of the history of popular music; were it not for the benign intercession of Doug Sahm.
Doug Sahm, a Texas music legend in his own right, first came to the attention of the general listening public in 1965, when- under the direction of the infamous Huey Meaux, a music promoter of no small repute- he released the song “She’s About A Mover,” with his Tex-Mex band, dubbed by Meaux as the Sir Douglas Quintet.
At Meaux’s urging, the Quintet dressed in British mod outfits, in order to capitalize on the success of the Beatles and the whole British invasion. In fact the song “She’s About A Mover” was actually a fairly blatant copy of the Beatles’ “She’s A Woman.” Meaux went so far as to have the Quintet’s records released on the London label, just to add to the confusion.
Following his own minor arrest for marijuana possession at the Corpus Christi airport, Sahm left Texas for San Francisco in March of 1966, releasing the hit, “Mendocino,” in 1969. He returned to Texas in 1971. That same year, he paid tribute to the “Elvis of the Rio Grande Valley” on the Quintet‘s Tex-Mex roots opus, The Return of Doug Saldaña, with a soulful rendition of “Wasted Days, Wasted Nights,” which began with Doug intoning, “And now a song by the great Freddy Fender. Freddy, this is for you, wherever you are.”
As a teen, Doug had seen Freddy, at the peak of his popularity, play at a San Antonio drive-in. He was deeply impressed. In 1974 Sahm tracked down Freddy in San Benito and convinced him to play a few important gigs in the burgeoning scene in Austin.
Inspired by Sahm’s sincere interest in his music, Freddy approached Meaux later in 1974, for help in resuscitating his career. Meaux had an ear for talent. Besides the Sir Douglas Quintet, he also discovered and promoted talents such as ZZ Top, Johnny and Edgar Winter and BJ Thomas. Searching for a sound that would work, Freddy and Meaux experimented with numerous stylistic combinations, including even a reggae number sung in Spanish; but all to no avail. Finally, Meaux persuaded Freddy to sing a lyric over an instrumental track recorded by an anonymous Nashville country band. That song, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” was the unlikeliest hit of 1975, eventually reaching #1 on Billboard’s pop and country charts, simultaneously- the first time in history an artist‘s first single reached #1 on both charts.
The follow-up, a faithful remake of his ‘59 hit “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” went to #1 on the country charts and #8 on the pop. Freddy and Meaux discovered a musical formula, recycling pop/Conjunto and Tejano styles into modern country music, replacing horn charts and accordion parts with steel guitar fills and female choruses.
In short order, Meaux became Fender’s producer and manager; receiving a greater cut of the proceeds than his artist did. At first, Freddy failed to notice the disparity, because both of them were getting rich, with hits such as “Secret Love” (a hit for Doris Day in the ’50s) and “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” which both hit the top spot on the country charts. “Living It Down,” and “Vaya Con Dios.” were also solid hits.
Freddy won both “Single Of The Year” and “Album Of The Year” honors for 1975 from the Gavin Report. Billboard named him “Best Male Artist” of 1975. Freddy bought a house in an upscale section of Corpus Christi, parking his collection of custom hot rods on the front lawn. His career flourished through the rest of the decade, most notably with the #2 single “Living It Down” in 1976. His final charting hit was his 1980 version of Harlan Howard’s “The Chokin’ Kind.”
By the end of his run of hits, in the early ‘80s, Freddy was an alcoholic, a junkie and bankrupt- with over ten million dollars in debts. He accused Huey Meaux of taking advantage of him with unscrupulous contracts. There may have been some truth to his accusations, as, the flip side of Meaux’s proficiency as a producer and a promoter was his inclination toward taking advantage of his artists. A cunning con man, at the contract table Meaux would often mockingly warn his acts, “I wouldn’t sign that if I were you,” with the naïve artist never suspecting that he was dead serious. On another occasion, Meaux is renowned to have boasted, “I like to keep my artists in the dark, so their stars shine brighter.”
For the remainder of the ‘80s, Freddy focused on an acting career, highlighted by a role in Robert Redford’s 1988 film The Milagro Beanfield War. He appeared in several other films, including two Hispanic-themed movies.
He remained quiet as a musician until 1990, when he joined the all-star Tex-Mex super group, the Texas Tornados, with Doug Sahm, legendary Conjunto accordionist Flaco Jimenez and keyboardist Augie Meyers (who had been playing with Sahm since their days with the Sir Douglas Quintet). The group recorded three successful albums through the early ‘90s, before eventually going their separate ways, with Freddy and Sahm resuming their solo careers. Sadly, Doug Sahm died of a heart attack in November of 1999.
In 1998, Freddy was chosen to receive a star on the legendary Hollywood Walk of Fame. Also in 1998, he was presented with a “Legend in Music” award by NOSOTROS, a non-profit organization founded by actor Ricardo Montalban, to promote Latino/Hispanics in the entertainment industry. In 2000 he was elected to the Country Music International Hall of Fame.
On January 24th, 2002 Freddy Fender faced a completely different challenge, undergoing kidney transplant surgery at the University of San Antonio. His 21 year-old daughter, Marla, donated one of her kidneys to save her father‘s life. With the surgery, Fender hoped to reverse the deteriorating health conditions he had experienced in recent years, as a result of a Hepatitis C infection he had contracted many years before.
In February of 2002, Freddy’s solo comeback album, La Musica de Baldemar Huerta, was awarded a Grammy in the “Best Latin Pop Album.” category. The project, a tribute to his Tejano roots in the Rio Grande Valley, meant that Freddy had come full circle in his career. In essence, it meant that he had truly “made it” in show business. He could record whatever music he wanted to record.
“I’ve been able to blend both cultures together,” he said in an interview. “I’ve had the good fortune of making it very visible. I am truly Mexican-American. I’m not from Mexico. I don’t speak the way they speak. There are many things I admire the Mexican people for, but I’m Mexican-American.” When asked which singer he admired most, he proudly replied- “As a singer, believe it or not, I have great respect for me.”
Freddy Fender is the most important singer and songwriter in Mexican-American musical history. He is a pioneer of Tex Mex music, the originator of Hispanic rock. Casey Monahan, a former music critic and the director of the Texas Music Office in the state capitol in Austin, has said of Freddy, “Texas has been blessed with a handful of singular voices that define the sound of our state and the pinnacle of artistic expression. Freddy is in the company of a very few that includes Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.” While still recovering from his kidney transplant, Freddy Fender continues to perform- on record and in concert.