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Adios Freddy Fender

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Updated,
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.


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12 Comments

Freddie reached not only in the southern US, he was very popular also here in Montana. His early stuff and Tornado's was great.

Mike Morris
Augusta, Montana

Thanks Mike, look for my update today 10/17.

I remember hearing Mr. Fender's music on the radio, back in the early 1970s, as I ate my breakfast before going off to school in the mornings. Very nice memories.

This is really well-written; deserves a life in a hard-bound collection.

Particularly enjoyed Fender talking about his diction. Extraordinary attention to the details of the craft elevates the vernacular to Art.

I can remeber growing up and listing to either my mom or dad hearing his music. Even as a child i knew this man was a big part of hispanic community, and he will be miss not just by his family but also by his fans who enjoyed his music. His music just did not impact a older generation but a young generation as well. Que viva freddy!

Thank you Jennifer......Dave

I'm just drinking some Beer and hearing Freddy's songs. He is gone but his music will live on.Thanks for all the memories that went along with your songs.

Joe;
Have a beer for me.
My friend Sergio and I had a shot for Freddy last week.
We saw the Tornados years ago on a double bill with the Kentucky Headhunters at the Holiday Star Theater in Merrillville, Ind. What a night that was----Dave

i was just wondering about the scholarship program that be great if you could send me some info. Sorry for your loss!

It took a while but here's info for all interested:

Freddy Fender Scholarship Fund Account
c/o Capital One Bank
198 South Sam Houston Blvd.
San Benito, Tx. 78586

The scholarship fund is intended to assist low and moderate income students who may not otherwise be able to go on to pursue higher education. For further info, I would contact the bank. This is all that Freddy's publicist had------Dave

Freddy Fender Is a family
member of the Puentes.
My grapa Lorenzo Godvan
Puente.His brother raise
Freddy as a little boy
I con't say the name right "conosco Manual Puente. My Grapa told me
as a little boy.

During the building of the Alaskan Pipeline, I worked as a radio telephone operator at 5-Mile Camp and my roomate listened to Freddy Fender every single night and I became a fan!!!

Superb story!!!!

Partied with you in your trailor at the Del Mar Fair years back before you went on stage. What great memories! Miss you and will always love your music and you humor.
Otter

mr fender was a friend,, borrowed ny instrumments to play at club 77 in san benito , 1968, miss him so, by the way, sonny jr played drums for our garage band in 72 at Duran's Gas station, on 77 and yoakun ? member?

My husband grew up in San Antonio and introduced me to Tex-Mex music and that of Freddy Fender. He was always one of our favorite artists as we met in the 70's during the time when Freddy's music was most popular.

I felt very lucky to be able to attend one of his concerts here in the Phoenix area on his first tour following his kidney transplant. Even better, I took my brother and his wife and, due to my brother's using a wheelchair, had seats placed in front of the first row of venue seating. I will always remember the great show that he presented.

I grew up with my daddy lovieng Freddy and I too loved him and still listen to his work... He will forever be loved my me.,,,

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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