Baldemar Garza Huerta (Freddy Fender), singer: born San Benito, Texas 4 June 1937; married 1957, 1965 Evangelina Muniz (four children, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1963); died Corpus Christi, Texas 14 October 2006.
A sweet-voiced tenor with a distinctive vibrato, Freddy Fender irritated as many listeners as he captivated. Nevertheless, he had major US pop and country hits in the mid-1970s and remains the most successful Mexican performer. Elvis Presley, in particular, found his approach particularly refreshing.
He was born Baldemar Huerta in 1937 into a family of Mexican workers in San Benito, South Texas. He described the life in his liner notes to the 1975 album Before the Next Teardrop Falls:
We worked beets in Michigan, pickles in Ohio, baled hay and picked tomatoes in Indiana. When all that was over, it was cotton-picking time in Arkansas.
With little money in the family, Huerta played a home-made guitar with three strings and a sardine tin for a soundbox and in 1947 he won the family some groceries by singing "Paloma querida" on a Texas radio station. He tired of working in the fields and, when only 16, he enlisted in the Marines. He was dishonourably discharged three years later after indiscretions for drinking and partying. His first recording, as El Be Bop, was "No seas cruel", a Spanish version of "Don't Be Cruel", in 1956. The record topped the Mexican charts and Huerta then had success with a Spanish version of Harry Belafonte's "Jamaica Farewell". A fight at a club in Corpus Christi left him with a broken nose and a scar in his neck.
By 1959 he had become "Freddy Fender", taking the surname from his guitar, as he wanted to appeal to the American market. His best-known composition, the ballad "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights", was written when his marriage was failing and he first recorded it for Duncan Records in 1959. He commented,
"It is a very simple song; the grammar is on the edge of being bad grammar, but it isn't. The first verse, "Wasted days and wasted nights, I have left for you behind", has a lot to do with my Hispanic roots because I don't think an Anglo-American would come out with a line like that. But, in Spanish, it would be very correct."
Fender's career had its stops and starts, notably when he was imprisoned for five years in 1960 for possessing two marijuana cigarettes. Not only was the sentence severe, he was sent to the tough Angola State Prison. Whilst there he recorded an album on a portable recorder, which has since been reissued on a succession of budget labels, but he received bail after three years on the condition that he stayed away from music. Obeying the command, Fender cleaned the streets and, even when the bail had finished, he showed little inclination to play in clubs.
In 1971 the Texas musician Doug Sahm (the "Sir Douglas" of the Sir Douglas Quintet) prefaced a revival of "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" with the words, "And now a song by the great Freddy Fender. Freddy, this is for you, wherever you are." At the time Fender was working as a car mechanic and studying for a degree in sociology. He said, "I wanted to work with ex-convicts or juveniles, figuring that, since I'd been in the pen, nobody was in a better position than me to do it."
Sahm persuaded Fender to work with him at some Texas clubs. Fender agreed and soon he was making records with Sahm's producer, Huey P. Meaux. Meaux thought Fender could appeal to a country audience and selected a song he had heard on a Charley Pride album, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls". "I asked Freddy to sing 'Teardrops' for me," Meaux told me, "and he said, "I can't sing this gringo shit." He sang it and we got it on the second take and he said, "That's the best record I've ever made.""
The public thought so too as it topped the US pop and country charts and he followed it with a new version of "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights".
Most of the time, Freddy Fender resembled a hybrid of Zorro and a bullfighter. He may be the man that fashion forgot - on one album sleeve he hugged a giant cactus - but he knew how to pick good, really good material. Or at least Meaux did. Fender heard none of the material on his 1976 album Are You Ready For Freddy? until he reached the studio. The tracks had all been recorded and Fender simply added his vocals. "You couldn't leave it to Freddy," Meaux said. "Any time he would pick a song, you could bet good money that it was gonna bomb."
His hit singles included revivals of Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby", Doris Day's "Secret Love", Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose a Good Thing", Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life", Dale and Grace's "I'm Leaving It All Up To You" and, repaying the compliment, the Sir Douglas Quintet's "The Rains Came". There was the occasional lapse in taste such as his revival of "How Much is That Doggie in the Window".
Fender often recorded Spanish versions of his successes and many of his records including "Before the Next Teardop Falls" and "Since I Met You Baby" contain Spanish verses. Meaux said:
Freddy could be singing in a dance hall and, right in the middle of a song, he might decide to go into Spanish. He flipped a switch in his mind and the words would come out. He'd keep the melody and the lyrics made sense and he's the only man I know who can do that.
After several years of success, Fender was faced with a huge tax bill. He became addicted to alcohol and cocaine and in 1985 he was removed from a cruise ship he was working on. He spent some weeks in detox before resuming his career. His acting role in the Robert Redford film The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) was well received.
In 1990 he and the accordionist Flaco Jimenez teamed with Sahm and Augie Meyers from the Sir Douglas Quintet to make an award-winning album as the Texas Tornados. Their albums Texas Tornados (1990), Zone of Our Own (1991), Hangin' on by a Thread (1992) and Four Aces (1996) are exhilarating examples of Tex-Mex music. The group gave concert performances when their schedules permitted but most of the time Fender was working on solo dates. After Sahm's death, Fender and Jiminez became involved with another group of Tex-Mex musicians, this time called Los Super Seven. Their album Los Super Seven won a Grammy in 1999.
Fender received many awards in recent years and was delighted when a street in his home town of San Benito was given his name. In 2000, he became extremely ill and thereafter endured a succession of treatments including chemotherapy and kidney and liver transplants. But he managed to perform until New Year's Eve 2005.
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