Freddy Fender – The ballad of Baldemar Huerta
Only, that’s not quite right. The young Baldemar Huerta spent most of his childhood on the road, as most of the families of San Benito would do. When he was 10, his family left for Michigan, a destination for many Mexican-Americans who survived by following the trail of fruit and vegetables. Together they worked in the beets and bean fields, picking cherries in Traverse City, peaches and apples in Hart, cucumbers in Indiana, cotton in Arkansas. “We wouldn’t get back till December,” Fender says, “two months late for school. That was the migration.”
In 1953, when he was 16, Fender joined the Marine Crops. “I think I saw the Sands Of Iwo Jima,” he says, “John Wayne lifting a .50-caliber all by himself. I thought I could do that too.” A new migration began, from San Diego, to Pendleton, to Fuji, and back to San Francisco, where he was dishonorably discharged after two and half years, much of which was spent in and out of the brig for his trouble with drinking. “Some time ago I received a letter from the Navy, saying they admitted the injustice of the discharge, recognizing that my problem was alcoholism,” he says. “They gave me a general discharge.”
Were it not for his voice, Fender likely wouldn’t have lasted in the Marines as long as he did. “In boot camp, I would pacify the drill instructor; he was Hispanic. I would sing ‘Tu Solo Tu’. He loved that song. When everyone would sleep, he would send someone to wake me up. I’d go to the headquarters and play guitar for him.”
“I should say,” he continues, “that a turning point came in my life in Okinawa, in the brig. There were a bunch of prisoners, other Marines, cutting the grass outside the barracks. Somebody was playing the radio in the barracks. It was a song called ‘Ain’t That A Shame’, a guy named Fats Domino. The year was 1955. I said, ‘Damn, who’s that?’ Coming back on the ship, they had us down in the lowest level of the ship, with all the prisoners coming back stateside. They’d take us up to the deck only for chow. One of the times we went up top side, I heard this song, ‘See You Later Alligator’, with Bill Haley. God, I fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll.”
In 1956, Fender returned to Texas, picked up a guitar, greased back his hair, and “started kicking some ass.” He sang Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, Elvis Presley, and Gene Vincent. “I grew my sideburns, put 50 pounds of wax on my hair, got me my pachuco-looking zoot suit, and I thought I was Elvis Presley. That lasted several years. I was nothing but rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Falling under the spell of rock ‘n’ roll during that heady year might now seem inevitable, but for a young, working-class Mexican-American, it wasn’t. Conjunto and traditional Mexican ballads remained the rage with his friends at a time when Hispanic pride, especially amongst young men, was beginning to take the shape of a cultural movement.
While Fender would never reject his heritage, he felt passionate about the English language. “I remember even as far back as the first grade,” he says, “I remember how hard I wanted to speak English. It was some instinct. I always emphasized myself to the English language; my friends didn’t. They were happy speaking Spanish. When I was in Michigan, I was the interpreter for my family. Then when rock ‘n’ roll came out in English, well, that was my main guacamole.
“My singing style,” he continues, “really came from my effort to pronounce words right. In English and in Spanish. It’s like I’m trying to pronounce a word in my mind and hold the word through the melody.”
Fender’s first break came in the winter of 1956, when he was 19. “I was playing a local dance. These guys from Falcon Records heard about me. The producer, Rafael Ramirez, liked to do new things. He had an idea that he’d found the Mexican Elvis Presley. My first two songs came out in January or February 1957. They were ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, which I sung in Spanish, and a song I had written called ‘Holy One’. Ramirez named it ‘Ay Amor’. It cleared a path that I followed in doing songs that were translations from English to Spanish.
“A lot of people claim they were the first Hispanic rock ‘n’ roller. But I am. My record came out in early ’57. It came out a little bit before Ritchie Valens. But to some people, it’s like I never existed in those years.”
And in those years, a record contract meant little more than $25 and the joy of hearing your song on the radio. For Fender, that was enough. “It was 1957 and I was full of baloney,” he says. Still, “Don’t Be Cruel” was a #1 hit on the Latin American charts, and the biggest hit rock ‘n’ roll had ever seen south of the border. North of the border, though, Fender and his band were still getting kicked out of clubs and restaurants for being Mexican.
In Harlingen, Texas, Fender met club owner Wayne Duncan, and re-recorded ‘Holy One’ in English for Duncan’s fledgling record label. When Imperial picked up the song, he wound up with a major regional hit on the same label as his hero, Fats Domino. “I went to see Lou Chud, who was running things then, and he was concerned about my sideburns and my hair. He said, ‘Do you have to have your hair like that? They’re gonna be able to tell you’re Mexican.’ I said, ‘Well, I am!'” Nevertheless, in 1959, Baldemar Huerta changed his look, and took a new last name from the headstock of a rock ‘n’ roll guitar.
For Fender, country music was still a decade away, but the first seed was planted in 1960, through a song with a title that told more truth than a 23-year-old could have known. “I wrote ‘Wasted Days And Wasted Nights’ in the restroom where I was staying at the Starlite Club. The Starlite was in Harlingen on Van Buren street; it was Wayne Duncan’s place. I had a room in the club, not really a room. They had converted a restroom into a space for me, and the only place to sit was the commode. I had another title, ‘Lonely Days Or Lonely Nights’ or something, but I didn’t like it. I knew it was something special from the start.”
But the single, a thrilling slice of brown-eyed rhythm & blues, never had a chance. On May 13, in a club in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Fender and his bass player were arrested for marijuana possession, and in 1960, that meant hard time, especially for a couple of Mexican-American rockers. “One of the guys we were hanging around would turn somebody in when the cops would put pressure on him, ’cause he was on probation,” Fender remembers. “We didn’t have much left, just a bunch of seeds. But before they busted us, they had a warrant for us at the club. I thought it was a request written on a piece of paper!
“We got five years each in Angola,” he continues. “I adapted to it, but I’m not very good at doing time. I get a real phobia. I couldn’t never say I enjoyed it. There are a lot of people who keep going back. I don’t want to go back. I was fortunate enough to have been transferred from Angola to DeQuincy, which was for first offenders, and I got me a job at the warehouse with a man named John Puerta, the manager. He gave me an opportunity so that I could record in the warehouse under supervision. I got to record right there on Lake Charles. That was in 1961. The songs were mostly in Spanish.”