Saturday, October 14, 2006

Freddy Fender, RIP

UPDATE: A truly bizarre and tragic coincidence: I wrote my post on Freddy Fender yesterday, without realizing that he had passed away.

New York Daily News -
Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender is dead at 69

Sunday, October 15th, 2006

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. - Freddy Fender, the Tex-Mex border balladeer who had a string of smash hits in the 1970s including "Before the Next Teardrop Falls," died yesterday. He was 69.

Fender, who was diagnosed with lung cancer early this year, died at his Corpus Christi home with his family at his bedside, said a family spokesman.

Over the years, he grappled with drug and alcohol abuse, was treated for diabetes and underwent a kidney transplant.

Fender, born Baldemar Huerta, hit it big in 1975 after years of struggling - and a stint in prison - when "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" climbed to No. 1 on the pop and country charts.

"Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" rose to No. 1 on the Country chart and top 10 on the pop chart that same year.


My real name is Baldemar G. Huerta. I was born in the south Texas valley border town of San Benito. I'm a Mexican-American, better yet, a Tex-Mex. I just picked up my stage name, Freddy Fender, in the late fifties as a name that would help my music sell better with "gringos." Now I like the name.

That's from the back of Freddy Fender's 1975 ABC Records LP Before the Next Teardrop Falls. Freddy Fender was a local legend in Corpus Christi, Texas, where I grew up. Most of my high school friends were Mexican and their parents invariably had Freddy Fender albums in their record collections at home. The afro, the moustache, the crinkly eyes, the huge floral lapels, the sad-soul quiver of his voice, it was the essence of South Texas AM radio in the late 70s. He pioneered Spanish-Country crossover, which was no small thing considering how institutionalized anti-Mexican racism was even when I was in high school in the late 80s. Freddy paid his dues. In the liner notes he goes on to explain how his career was nearly derailed in the early days:

Everything went beautifully until May, Friday the 13th, 1960. I was busted for 'grass' in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I'm not bitter, but if friends ask I still say that the three years I had to spend in Angola State prison was a long time for a little mistake.

And that was after his first big radio hit with "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," which he re-records on Before the Next Teardrop Falls and dedicates to Doug Sahm, of the Sir Douglas Quintet, the white Texas rocker who played with Freddy through the years, most recently with Tex-Mex supergroup the Texas Tornadoes (check out this amazing video).

Wasted Days and Wasted Nights - Freddy Fender

Before the Next Teardrop Falls - Freddy Fender

(Just to give you an idea of how small the Texas music world is, here's the Sir Douglas Quintet covering "You're Gonna Miss Me" by Texas psych-rock legends 13th Floor Elevators.)

Freddy apparently resisted getting into "country" music early on because he really wanted to make it as an R&B artist, like his crossover soulmate Ronnie Milsap. (The two eventually made an album together.) You can really hear that in this fantastic John Loudermilk cover.

Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye - Freddy Fender

Freddy's roots were in Tejano rock and accordian-driven Tex Mex. I found an all-Spanish Freddy Fender LP on the Crazy Cajun label also entitled Before the Next Teardrop Falls, but it's not really a one-to-one Spanish version. The hit is here -- "Estare Contigo Cuando Triste Estas" - and the rest are various Tex-Mex originals ... Or are they? For a tune called "Esta Noche Mia Seras," Kris Kristofferson doesn't get any songwriting credit, but the melody is awfully familiar. So is "Vivo en El Sueno," but I can't pinpoint it. Can you? Under the cover of Spanish, anything is possible.

Esta Noche Mia Seras - Freddy Fender

Vivo En El Sueno - Freddy Fender

Estare Contigo Cuando Triste Estas - Freddy Fender

What's really fascinating and wonderful are some early, rough Tex-Mex recordings with Freddy's vocals sung over backup music that sounds completely disembodied from the mix, with ghostly horns, snappy snare drums and slinky guitar riffs strikingly similar to stuff heard on Jamaican reggae and dub albums of the late 60s and 70s. You can easily imagine Lee Scratch Perry dubbing out "Fuera De Alcance."

Fuera De Alcance - Freddy Fender

Alguna Vez - Freddy Fender

I'm truly sad to report that Fender's now dying of cancer . He's such a folk hero in Corpus Christi, his family has had to ask the hordes of fans to stop flocking to the house. Some Driftwood love is the least we can do. The above picture is Freddy hanging out on the pier in Corpus Christi where I once went fishing.


Mr. Poncho said...

Very sad. But, holy frijoles, that dubbed-out Tex-Mex country is collapsing my pigeon-holed mind. Pretty obvious why he was busted for weed -- he was smoking loads of it. In that top nimbus-afro shot of him he looks like some cross between Sai Baba and Gertrude Stein (I nice spiritual midpoint to occupy).Definitely an avatar.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, Lefty. I admit I felt a little weepy at moments. "Wasted Days" reminds me of riding around in a rusted green Chevy truck with my dad on Saturdays listening to AM country radio supposedly "running errands", but primarily playing hooky from chores and meandering around East TN. Dangerously nostalgic stuff. I ditto the comments above re the Texican dub connection. I think you may have uncovered some "secret history" shit here.

Django West said...

Great post L. As a fellow Corpus Christian, I have to say you got it exactly right. RIP FF.