Gary: “I do try to be impartial and objective, but I know that I don’t always achieve it. Tex-Mex, a term given to a lot of singers that came out of Texas, which had the Texas and Mexican feel. The Fireballs recorded in Clovis NM, Buddy Holly, Bobby Fuller and the list goes on. The Artist tonight, is more of a country artist, “Baldemar Huerta” or…
Freddy Fender (, 1937 ? , 2006), born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito, Texas, USA, was an American, Tejano, country, and rock and roll musician, known for his work as a solo artist and in the groups Los Super Seven and the Texas Tornados. He is best known for his 1975 hit “Before the Next Teardrop Falls“.
While Fender was a child, he and his parents traveled throughout the United States as a circus act. At age 5, he turned a sardine can and screen door wire into a homemade guitar, and by age 10, had his first radio appearance on Harlingen’s KGBS-AM radio station, where he sang a current hit “Paloma Querida“, on KGBT in Harlingen, Texas and reportedly won a tub of food worth $5.
In January 1954, at the age of 16, Fender quit school and started a three-year hitch in the United States Marine Corps. However, he was court-martial in August 1956 and was discharged with rank of Private (E-1).
He returned to Texas and played nightclubs, bars and honky-tonks throughout the south, mostly to Latino audiences.
In 1957, then known as El Bebop Kid, he released two songs to moderate success in Mexico and South America: Spanish-language versions of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” (as “No Seas Cruel“) and Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell.”
He also recorded his own Spanish version of Hank Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart” under the title “Tu Frio Corazon“.
He became known for his rockabilly music and his cool persona as Eddie Con Los Shades.
In 1958, the musician changed his name from Baldemar Huerta to Freddy Fender. He took Fender from the guitar and amplifier, and Freddy because the alliteration sounded good to him and it would,”…sell better with Gringos!” He then headed for California.
In 1959, Fender recorded the blues ballad “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights“. The song became popular, but he was beset by legal troubles in May 1960 after he and a band member were arrested for possession of marijuana in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
After nearly three years in the fearsome Louisiana State Penitentiary Angola prison farm, he was released through the intercession of then Governor Jimmie Davis, also a songwriter and musician.
Davis requested that Fender stay away from music while on probation as a condition of his release. However, in a 1990 NPR interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross (rebroadcast October 17, 2006), Fender said that the condition for parole was to stay away from places that served alcohol.
By the end of the 1960s, Fender was back in Texas working as a mechanic, and attending a local junior college, while only playing music on the weekends.
Number one on pop and country charts
In 1974, Fender recorded the song “Before The Next Teardrop Falls“. The single was selected for national distribution, and became a number one hit on the Billboard Country and Pop charts. His next three singles, “Secret Love“, “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” and a remake of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights“, all hit the number-one spot on the Billboard Country charts.
Between 1975 and 1983 Fender charted a total of 21 country hits such as “Since I Met You Baby” , “Vaya con Dios“, “Livin’ It Down“, and “The Rains Came“.
Fender also had much success on the pop charts. In addition to “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” going #1 on the pop charts in May 1975, he also took “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” into the pop top 10 and “Secret Love” into the top 20.
Also “Since I Met You Baby,” “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” (his last pop top 40), “Vaya Con Dios,” and “Livin’ It Down” (his last pop hit to reach the pop top 100) all did well on the pop charts.
Not only notable for his genre-crossing appeal, more than a few of Fender’s hits featured verses or choruses in Spanish.
Rarely did bilingual songs hit the pop charts, and when they did it was more because of a novelty status.
Having bilingual songs on the country charts was even more uncommon, given country music’s regional insularity and fanbase.
Swamp pop influences
Fender was heavily influenced by the swamp pop sound that hailed from south Louisiana and southeast Texas, as evidenced by his recording of swamp pop standards on his 1978 album Swamp Gold.
Indeed, Fender recorded one of his major hits, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” with a typical swamp pop ballad arrangement. Fender associated frequently with swamp pop musicians like Joe Barry and Rod Bernard, and issued many recordings on labels owned by Huey Meaux, a Cajun record man who specialized in swamp pop recordings.
As music writer John Broven has observed, “Although Freddy was a Chicano from Texas marketed as a country artist, much of his formative career was spent in South Louisiana; spiritually Fender’s music was from the Louisiana swamps.”
In 1989, Fender teamed up with fellow Tejano music/Tex-Mex musicians Doug Sahm, Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers to form the Tejano supergroup the Texas Tornados, whose work meshed conjunto, Tejano, R&B, country, and blues to wide acclaim.
The group released four albums and won a Grammy in 1990 for ‘Best Mexican American Performance’ for the track “Soy de San Luis.”
Following the death of Sahm, the production of the Tornadoes slowed. A live 1990 appearance on TV’s Austin City Limits, one of three made by the group, was released in 2005 as part of the show’s Live From Austin, TX series.
Los Super 7
In the late 1990s, Fender joined another supergroup, Los Super Seven, with Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, Flaco Jimenez, Ruben Ramos, Joe Ely, and country singer Rick Trevino.
The group won a 1998 Grammy in the Mexican-American Performance category for their self-titled disc.
In 2001, Fender made his final studio recording, a collection of classic Mexican boleros titled La M’sica de Baldemar Huerta that brought him a third Grammy award, this time in the category of Latin Pop Album.
Rose Reyes, who worked with Fender in 2004 for a Texas Folklife and Austin tribute titled “Fifty Years of Freddy Fender,” said of the album, “When he did Mexican standards at that point in his career, I expected it to be good because he’s a perfectionist. But that record is so beautifully recorded; his voice is perfection. I was so proud it was coming back to his roots.”
Death and aftermath
Fender underwent a kidney transplant in 2002 donated by his daughter and a transplant of the liver in 2004. Nonetheless, his condition continued to worsen.
He was suffering from an “incurable cancer” in which he had tumors on his lungs. On December 31, 2005, Freddy performed his last concert and resumed chemotherapy.
He died on October 14, 2006 of lung cancer at his home in Corpus Christi, Texas with his family at his bedside. He was 69 years old and is buried in his hometown of San Benito.
International news coverage of the death cited an oft-expressed wish by the singer to become the first Mexican-American inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, with reporters noting that posthumous induction remains a possibility.
A Freddy Fender Museum and The Conjunto Music Museum opened November 17, 2007 in San Benito. They share a building with The San Benito Historical Museum. His family has committed to continue the Freddy Fender Scholarship Fund and other philanthropic causes about which the musician was passionate.