6 p.m. Oct. 17
The soul of America could be heard in the searching tenor of Freddy Fender. The popular country balladeer died Saturday of complications from lung cancer. He was 69.
Balademara G. Huerta was born in the poor Rio Grande Valley border town of San Benito, Texas. In the mid-1950s he cooked up the name Freddy Fender to honor his Fender guitar and further his crossover appeal.
It was a good idea.
Director Robert Redford cast Fender in a major role his 1988 film “The Milagro Beanfield War,” and Mr. Fender hit all the right romantic notes as a member of the Texas Tornados, a 1990s Tex-Mex answer to the Traveling Wilburys, or as Mr. Fender referred to the quartet: “Four Dorian Grays.” In 1992 the Tornados and Tejano kings La Mafia played to a record 55,970 people at the Houston Astrodome.
Mr. Fender was first attracted to music through the rhythm and blues he heard on migrant farms in the Midwest and in Texas. His father had died when he was 7, so Mr. Fender’s family began traveling around the country to find work.
“We moved as far north as Indiana, where we pickeled tomatoes,” Mr. Fender told me in 1990 before he appeared at Ditka’s nightclub in Merrillville, Ind. “We worked for beets in Michigan. When seasons changed, we picked cotton in Arkansas. And music was whatever came out of the radio. I was mostly exposed to the black music, like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Elmore James and lots of country music.”
After a stint in the military, Mr. Fender settled in San Benito to play rockabilly and rhythm and blues in deep-valley dives. He even fronted a black band in Texas, back when some Texans wouldn’t speak to blacks in public.
Mr. Fender began blending rhythm-and-blues with the accordion, bajo sexto (gut-string bass guitar) and sublime horns of his youth. He never forgot the musical lessons he learned by listening to “Border Radio,” notably Tex-Mex disc jockey Dr. Jazmo. He explained, “The exposure of Tex-Mex music in South Texas and the Mexican music coming out of the radio stations across the river—from mariachis to boleros to polkas–all that gave me a very rich source of music. There was a lot to pick from. The most important thing for me was to take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and put it all in one taco.”
In 1959, Mr. Fender put it all together to record “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and “Holy One,” which were regional smashes in Louisana and Texas.
The late Doug Sahm, Mr. Fender’s bandmate in the Texas Tornados, liked to recall how Mr. Fender was the first man he ever saw get out of a Cadillac. Sahm was performing in a 1960 battle of the bands on the roof of the Town Twin Drive In in San Antonio, Texas. Mr. Fender rode into town on the strength of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” Sahm once recalled, “Freddy got out of that car – and the chicks just went nuts! He wore wing tips. He was the Mexican Elvis, man.”
During our pre-concert conversation at the now-defunct Ditka’s, Mr. Fender got a charge out of the fact I told him he looked like the Tex-Mex Albert Einstein. His frizzy hair was all over the place and his musical theories were just as wild. When he took the stage he covered Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is” as well as Randy Sharp’s “If That’s What You’re Thinking,” a classic martyr ballad that was covered by the Tornados.
In May 1960, Mr. Fender was arrested in Baton Rouge for possession of marijuana. He did half of a five-year sentence at the notorious Angola State Prison in Louisiana. When Mr. Fender was released from prison, he relocated to New Orleans, where he got a job as a bus boy at the Court of Two Sisters restaurant on Bourbon Street. He lasted less than a week. He was fired after spilling ice cream on customers.
In 1965, Mr. Fender went from pastries to pasties when he was hired to play in a horeshoe bar behind the strippers at Papa Joe’s on Bourbon Street. More importantly, he began playing with Art Neville, who at the time had a separate act from the Neville Brothers. Through Art, Mr. Fender met his brother Aaron Neville, whose mastery of range and sense of tone was a major influence on Mr. Fender.
In 1990, he told me, “I don’t talk about this much, but my vocal style developed from my obsession to pronounce my English words correctly. English was my second language, and I was determined to get it right. If you listen to a Freddy Fender song, you will understand every word.”
On Monday country singer Clay Walker said, “Freddy was an icon for country music and the American dream. While recording a duet of ‘Before the Next Teadrop Falls’ with Freddy this year, it was evident that he still had the fire that burns in the belly of true artists. It was the first time I had chill bumps in the studio. He was a champion and a warrior and now he has become my hero.”
Fender went back to San Benito in 1969, where he worked as a mechanic during the day and played music at night. He also returned to school, where he finally obtained his high school diploma and for two years took college courses as a sociology major.
In 1974, legendary Texas producer Huey P. Meaux (who produced the earliest hits for Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet) was holding auditions for a new label. Fender and Meaux cut the minimalist “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” which was picked up and distributed nationally by Dot Records. It became Fender’s first national success.
It was a long road that went on to include three Grammys, a kidney transplant and a battle with diabetes.
Mr. Fender was never bitter that he was known as a novelty crooner, mostly associated with “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” – and in 1975 he recorded “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.”
“It’s not that people don’t have the respect, its just that they don’t know,” he said in 1990. “They don’t know I can play bass, guitar and sing some funky rhythm-and-blues. I can show them how the cow ate the cabbage.”
And Freddy Fender smiled. He was in Merrivllille, Ind., on a lonely Sunday night (as a last minute replacement for Gene Watson) and he could be anywhere. But he smiled with the truth of someone who had been everywhere.
Survivors include Mr. Fender’s wife of 51 years, Vangie Huerta; and that bears repeating, his wife of 51 years…. sons Baldemar “Sonny” Huerta, Jr. of Corpus Christi and Daniel Huerta of Jacksonville, Fla.; and daughters Tammy Huerta Mallini of Houston and Marla Huerta Garcia of Victoria.
In lieu of flowers, donations or memorials can be made to:
Freddy Fender Scholarship Fund Account
c/o Capital One Bank
198 South Sam Houston Blvd.
San Benito, Tx. 78586.
For those reading this post on Oct. 17, Mr. Fender’s funeral is at noon Oct. 18 in San Benito, Tx. The funeral procession will depart from San Benito Funeral Home, 140 West Business 77 to Freddy Fender Lane, past his former residence, to Queen of the Universe Catholic Church, 1425 N. Old Sam Houston St. where a 1 p.m. mass will be held. Interment immediatly following the mass at San Benito City Cemetery, 2150 N. Sam Houston St.