Isidro Lopez: 1933 to 2004
Bandleader Isidro Lopez, who died in Corpus Christi, Texas, on August 16 at age 75, was to Tejano music what Ray Charles was to soul, or Clifton Chenier to zydeco. Lopez combined two popular genres — in his case, conjunto and orquesta — to create an even more popular third, made up of danceable polkas, cumbias and especially rancheras. Tejano music today descends from his mid-1950s bands.
Lopez was born on May 17, 1933, in Bishop, outside Corpus Christi, to a Mexican mother and a full-blooded Mescalero Apache father from around Ruidoso, New Mexico (once his career took off, Isidro became known as “El Indio”). His family members were migrant cotton pickers, but Isidro learned guitar from his uncle at age 11 and tenor sax in his high school band.
After a short stint studying business administration at Texas A&I in nearby Kingsville, he dropped out in the late ’40s to begin gigging with conjunto accordion trailblazers Narcisco Martinez and Tony de la Rosa. Then he moved on to the popular Eugenio Gutierrez Orchestra.
Lopez first sang on record in 1954, when vocalist Lupe Lopez failed to show for a session at which the Juan Colorado Orchestra was cutting Isidro’s “Diganle” for Discos Ideal. After hearing him, Discos producer Armando Morroquin insisted that Lopez permanently take over vocals for the Colorado Orchestra.
Two years later, by which time he was playing alto rather than tenor, Lopez formed his own first band, which also recorded for Ideal. (His most important work for the label was reissued this year on two Arhoolie albums.) At the time, conjunto, the traditional rural accordion music of the working classes, was kept as separate from urban jaitones (high-toned) orquesta, the middle-class Tejano interpretation of big bands, as gospel had been from blues before Ray Charles came along.
But unlike most orquesta musicians, Lopez had a background as a manual laborer, and was comfortable with working folks and their conjunto music. From the start, his bands (many of whose members became stars in their own right) integrated the accordion into the horn-heavy big-band sound for such hits as “Corazon Del Pueblo” and “Todo O Nada”. By 1958, his band had two accordionists.
Ultimately, Lopez transcended class to become popular with all Tejanos. Because of his conjunto background, he favored polkas, but with ranchera (the Mexican equivalent of country music) much more popular, he frequently grafted sorrowful ranchera-style lyrics onto bouncy polka rhythms. Then he threw in the occasional bolero or danzon numbers to pacify middle-class fans.
He also incorporated modern pop and rock influences, but even when he used a straight-up rock beat, as on “El Mala Cara” (which switched to ranchera) or “Marcho Rock & Roll”, the band came out sounding like the fifteen-piece Tex-Mex orchestra it was. His sax was smooth and his vocals — vulnerable, dripping with emotion — were smoother; though he was known in the ’50s as “El Elvis Mexicano,” he was really more like such classic crooners as Bing Crosby, especially on hits such as “Mi Rosita”. Lithe and handsome, he had tremendous charisma.
Like all big-band music, his sound eventually fell out of favor, with Tejano evolving into small groups most recently built around synthesizers. By the late ’70s, Lopez had semi-retired, though he continued playing occasional gigs. In 1983, he was inducted into the Tejano Music Awards Hall of Fame. Sidelined by Parkinson’s Disease for the last decade of his life, he suffered a stroke in April 2004, with a combination of stroke and brain aneurysm finally killing him four months later. El Indio was buried in Corpus Christi’s Seaside Memorial Park just 100 yards north of the grave of his most famous artistic descendant, Selena.