Freddy Fender? You mean that Mexican fella? No, I mean the Southern musical pioneer from Texas who served in the U.S. Marines, and successfully merged Tejano music with Country music in the 1970’s. Freddy Fender was the Elvis of Tejano music, and he deserves much more recognition than he ever gets.
Born in San Benito, Texas in 1937 as Baldemar Huerta, he took the name Freddy Fender in 1958 as his fledgling career in the Texas bar circuit began to rise. At the time, he had been recently discharged from the Marines, and made some local recordings with moderate success mostly among Latino fans. Freddy Fender spent a significant amount of time developing his guitar skills and vocal style by hanging out in southwestern Louisiana and learning a new style of music that would eventually be known as Swamp Rock. He worked with Cajun producer Huey P. Meaux, and released several songs on various labels. Freddy Fender wrote and recorded “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” in 1959, which became a local Rock ‘n Roll hit, but he was unfortunately sent to prison in Baton Rouge for possession in 1960, and that seriously derailed his career trajectory. Upon his release, he returned to Texas and seemingly gave up the dream of music while working as a mechanic and attending community college in the late 60’s.
His old friend Huey P. Meaux re-established contact with Freddy Fender in the early 70’s, and in 1974, asked him to overdub some bilingual vocals on a Country song that had already been recorded by several different artists to only limited success, called “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” He simply asked Freddy to sing the first verse in English and the second verse in Spanish, which were added to a previously recorded Conjunto-style Tejano instrumental accompaniment. The single was released in January of 1975, and practically shot straight to the moon out of nowhere. By March, it was #1 on the Billboard Country chart, and then #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May, making it the first Tejano song to ever achieve both distinctions. Eventually, Billboard ranked it as the #4 song overall for the entire year of 1975.
Freddy Fender followed up his meteoric success over the next few years by releasing several more singles that repeated his feat of topping both the Country chart and Hot 100, making him the top-selling Tejano artist of all-time – at least until Selena.
After his initial crossover success of the 1970’s, Freddy Fender joined forces in the late 1980’s with fellow Tejano powerhouses Doug Sahm and Flaco Jimenez to form The Texas Tornados, who created a unique blend of Country, Tejano, Rock, and Blues that sounds similar to a Texas bar circuit-style Stevie Ray Vaughan. In the 1990’s, he created a new Tejano powerhouse band with fellow Texans Flaco Jimenez, the legendary Ruben Ramos, and Country star Rick Trevino, called Los Super Seven. Freddy Fender continued recording and performing until his death of cancer in 2006.
In order to get a handle on what makes Freddy Fender great, we need to take a detour and explore the genre of music known as Tejano, and specifically Conjunto Tejano. The most important aspect of Tejano music is that it is American music that comes specifically from Texas. It is NOT Latin music that originated in the Caribbean or South America, and it is NOT a Texas branch of Mexican music. Tejano music is American music that originated in Texas by Texans, and it has its own set of rules. It is a blend that includes elements of Rock, Blues, Country, and Rhythm & Blues that are combined with influences from Mexican mariachi music and German polka. Jewish-German immigration into Mexico in the 19th century brought the influence of polka-style sounds into traditional Mexican music, as the typical Mexican sound was transformed by the accordion. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Mexican Revolution forced most Germans out of Mexico into Texas, where the hybrid German/Mexican music they’d created met the Blues for the first time. Once this German/Mexican hybrid added the Blues into its sound, the music we now know as Tejano was born. Importantly, Tejano music could only have come from Dixie since the Blues is native only to Dixie.
As Tejano music progressed deeper into the 20th century, it was strongly and freely influenced by other Southern styles and sounds. Tejano music embraced the Jazz sounds of the 30’s and 40’s, and added horns. Tejano music next embraced Rock ‘n Roll and Swamp Rock in the 50’s, which welcomed electrified instruments into the sound. Overall, there are three basic types of Tejano music, and they are Conjunto, Orquesta, and Modern.
The oldest and most traditional of the three is Conjunto, which features accordion, drums, electric bass, and a unique acoustic guitar known as a bajo sexto. The bajo sexto looks like a standard 12-string guitar, but it has a different tuning. Although Conjunto is the oldest, it has never died out or even been diminished over time. Many modern Conjunto bands are living legends as their popularity increases year after year, and Conjunto Tejano is not a dinosaur. The first Tejano band to make it into the American Top 40 was a 60’s Conjunto band from San Antonio called The Sir Douglas Quintet, named after the guitarist, Doug Sahm. Cleverly, they replaced the accordion with the VERY 60’s sound of the VOX electric organ, and replaced the bajo sexto with an electric guitar. The Sir Douglas Quintet had several chart hits in the 60’s, with their biggest being a tune called Mendocino in 1969.
“Before the Next Teardrop Falls”
So, is this really a Country song with Latino sounds, or a Tejano song with Country sounds? As you listen, what instruments do you hear? Of course, the usual suspects are in there, such as guitar bass, drums, and piano. However, how about fiddle, banjo, or pedal steel guitar? No? But did you notice the accordion and xylophone? Although the accordion was a fixture in cowpoke-style Country-and-Western songs, and was a big deal at the Grand Ole Opry in the 40’s and 50’s, it has been much more associated with Tejano and Cajun music since the 1960’s. However, I am much more challenged trying to think of significant Country songs that feature the xylophone, which gives this song such a lazy, deliberate feel. But the real magic in the song can be found in the lyrics and in Freddy Fender’s unique voice.
Freddy Fender has an uncanny ability to vocally nail difficult pitches perfectly in-tune. This is NOT an easy song to sing at all – the melody leaps wildly up and down at times, and staying in tune is a challenge. Freddy Fender sings it the same way an accordion might play it – exactly on the pitch without any scoops in between. However, while he’s playing pitch-perfect with the melody, he’s also playing very loose and free with the rhythms. His slow, vocal vibrato makes the steady beat very fluid, and the overall effect creates a lazy sound to his voice. Those two aspects are the trademarks of Freddy Fender’s unique voice – perfect pitches and lazy rhythms. When he switches from English to Spanish, these two aspects don’t change at all, which is remarkable to me. The spoken English language has a totally different pattern of inflections than Spanish, which should create trouble with rhythms falling on weak beats, but Freddy Fender handles it masterfully. For example, in the first English verse, consider the words “brings you,” from the line “If he brings you happiness.” Obviously, “brings you” is two syllables with the accent being on the first syllable, and two different pitches in the melody. Next, consider the same place in the melody in the next verse, which is the Spanish word, “quiere.” This word actually has three syllables when spoken correctly, as in “qui-e-re,” with the accent being on the middle syllable. Freddy Fender solves the anomaly by combining the first two syllables together, so that it sticks to the two-syllable melody without sacrificing the effect. Having heard a countless number of songs translated very poorly from one language to another, this one always blows me away. The words chosen for the Spanish translation are powerful and perfect, but wherever they don’t match the desired rhythms in the melody, let Freddy handle it. And he does so brilliantly.
“Wasted Days and Wasted Nights”
This version was recorded with the aforementioned Texas Tornados in a 1990 appearance on the TV show Austin City Limits on PBS. “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” was the first hit of Freddy’s career in the late 50’s. His re-release of this song in 1975 earned him his second gold record, and was another crossover hit on the Country chart and the Hot 100. However, I like this version better, because it’s truer to the original 1950’s Swamp Rock version. In addition to Freddy’s gifted, plaintive vocals, you can easily hear Flaco Jimenez transforming the feel with the Conjunto-style accordion. Also, there’s the bonus of two guitar solos – one by the incredible Doug Sahm, and the second by Freddy himself. Freddy’s guitar work is ALL Swamp Rock, which makes this whole performance such a treasure.
“Vaya Con Dios”
This version of “Vaya Con Dios” features only one thing – Freddy Fender’s amazing voice. As mentioned before, the pitch is absolutely perfect, while the rhythm is drawn out and lazy. His slow, low vocal vibrato is intentionally sensuous, and I know many people who still get chills every time they hear this song. He effortlessly jumps from one octave to another perfectly in tune, while keeping the mood soft and tender. This version appears to be from a 1976 episode of the TV show Pop! Goes the Country, and Don Williams even joins him onstage for the finale.
If you take the time to listen to more Freddy Fender on your own, pay attention to specific aspects that were discussed here in this article, and Freddy’s greatness will be unlocked for you. Pitch perfect vocals; low, slow, sensuous vocal vibrato; incredible ease sliding back and forth between English and Spanish; Conjunto-style Tejano arrangements merged with Rock, Country, and/or the Blues.
Trust me, it’s definitely well worth the time.