Freddy Fender: 06/04/1937 to 10/14/2006
Mexican-American singer and icon Freddy Fender’s humble beginnings belie the influence that he was to become. Born to poor migrant farm worker parents, Baldemar G. Huerta grew up in the fertile Rio Grande Valley of the Texas-Mexico border, in the predominantly hispanic barrio of San Benito. There he displayed an early gift for performance, first singing “Paloma Querida” on KGBT in nearby Harlingen, Texas, and then at a talent contest, earning his family a basket of groceries. He was 10.
Six years later, like many disenfranchised hispanic valley kids, he saw the U.S. Marine Corps as a ticket out of crushing poverty and joined up for what was only to be a three-year hitch. Upon his return, he set out to make his way playing music in the cantinas and honky-tonks, finding a niche by translating the latest rock ‘n’ roll tunes for Spanish-speaking audiences.
Billing himself as “The Bebop Kid,” Huerta connected deeply with the growing class of Tejanos — those who were, like him, of Mexican background yet not Mexican, while still not entirely American either. They were creating an emerging class in America, taking the best aspects of both cultures and, in time, fashioning something altogether their own.
Huerta first signed to the Falcon label, an independent valley operation better known for traditional corridos and bolero singers. There he had respectable regional hits with Spanish versions of Elvis Presley and Harry Belafonte tunes, actually scoring #1 hits in Mexico and South America in 1957.
Two years later, Huerta moved to Hollywood-based Imperial. Hoping to appeal to a larger audience, he borrowed the name of his favorite guitar and christened himself “Freddy Fender,” rejecting the “Scotty Wayne” a producer had chosen for him. For Imperial he created his first bona fide hit, the soulful R&B ballad “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights”.
Though his career was on the rise, it was to be stopped dead in its tracks when he and a bandmate where busted for possession of marijuana (two joints, actually) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1960. One can think of no worse place to be Mexican and holding than the Louisiana of the early ’60s. Once on top of the charts, he now found himself sentenced to five years at the infamous Angola Prison (where he recorded for Goldband), though he served only two years before being pardoned by fellow musician-songwriter and then-Governor Jimmie Davis. As a condition of his release, he was warned to avoid places that served alcohol, which made playing the bars difficult.
Fender reportedly bummed around New Orleans and points south, picking up the Gulf Coast “swamp pop” sounds that were to appear much later in his career. He eventually returned to Texas, working as a mechanic, and enrolled in community college, pursuing music only on the weekends as a hobby.
In 1974 Fender roared back into the public eye with the hit single “Before The Next Teardrop Falls”, scoring a #1 slot on both the country and pop charts. A follow-up re-recording of “Wasted Days” charted in the pop top 10. He amassed an impressive 21 country chart-toppers from 1975 to 1983, a few of which crossed over into pop as well.
It is with some great irony that a singer of Mexican ancestry from Texas would bring the south Louisiana “swamp pop” sound to the rest of the country, but Fender did just that, establishing himself as a genuine country and soul singer of the first order. Never hiding his Mexican roots, however, Fender became the first Chicano artist to effectively cross over into the deeply Anglo-dominated country music scene, becoming an inspiration to generations of Mexican-American performers.
More importantly, there isn’t a dance in south Texas where you won’t hear a request for one of his songs today, be it country, blues, R&B or even a polka affair. Fender’s music has reached across genres and cultures alike to become part of the American popular canon.
In 1989, Fender was included as a member of Doug Sahm’s supergroup the Texas Tornados, who released an acclaimed LP (one of its tracks won a grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance). Along with fellow veteran Texas musicians Sahm, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez, Fender reintroduced his voice to the world with an eclectic yet familiar mix of Tex-Mex conjunto, R&B, country and blues, not at all removed from the music he made at the start of his career. Sahm’s untimely passing in 1999 effectively shuttered the group.
Fender continued recording and performing as a member of a new supergroup called Los Super Seven. He teamed again with Jimenez along with Joe Ely and members of Los Lobos, as well as Tejano country youngster Rick Trevino, the very kind of artist for whom Fender paved the way. Fender made what was to be his final recording in 2001, a collection of traditional Mexican romantic boleros entitled La Musica De Baldemar Huerta; it won him his third Grammy. The album was a poignant close to a varied career, returning to the very material that won him his first radio prize so many years ago.
Years of hard partying and fast living finally caught up with Fender in 2002 when he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. It precipitated first a kidney transplant, donated by his daughter, and then a liver transplant in 2004. Weakened from these ailments and suffering from inoperable lung cancer, he retired from public life entirely to spend his last days close to family and friends. On October 14, 2006, Freddy Fender passed away quietly at his Corpus Christi, Texas, home surrounded by loved ones. His body was returned to his childhood home of San Benito for burial.