When it was announced in mid-2006 that Freddy Fender was suffering from incurable cancer, the statement came as a stunning sucker-punch. Although the revered country singer had just turned 69, his distinctive, perpetual aura of beatific honky-tonk soul seemed enough to guarantee fans that he would somehow beat the Devil and continue performing, but that rose-tinted mixture of hope and denial shuddered to a painful halt on October 14 as Fender finally succumbed to the disease.
Almost a year later, it’s still painfully difficult to accept the loss–Fender, born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito, Texas on June 4 1937, had already squeaked through a harrowing series of misfortune dire enough to kill off half a dozen mere mortals. He’d done hard time in Louisiana’s infamously brutal Angola State Prison, the result of a 1960 marijuana bust–but won an early parole at the hand of Governor Jimmie Davis, the former country singer best known for his "You are My Sunshine." Decades later, the hard-living Fender was compelled to enter rehab (at the time, hardly the fashionable move it is now) and also successfully underwent both kidney and liver transplant procedures.
In between these brushes with disaster he had, of course, established himself as an artist of remarkable facility, from his beginning as the mid-’50s hard rocker tagged El Bebop Kid, on to1974′s "Before The Next Teardrop Falls," the plangent bilingual ballad that shot to number one on both the country and pop charts. That success initiated a series of stylistically disparate hits, each as unpredictable as they were unbeatable, and Fender’s next smash "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," a blend of hard blues, hypnotic swamp-pop and country torment demonstrated the singer was there to stay. Whether he re-did classic Rhythm & Blues, as with his haunting version of Ivory Joe Hunter’s "Since I Met You, Baby" or the pure, dreamy Broadway show tune pop of Doris Day hit "Secret Love," Fender’s angelic pipes and gritty, communicative guitar always displayed a degree of sheer talent that was, by and large, unrivaled.
Fortunately, the same can be said of the artists who have come together for this remarkable tribute to the memory and contributions Freddy Fender made to American music, because if Fender had any equals, most of them are on the bill tonight. The appearance by Johnny Rodriguez is particularly notable, as Rodriguez beat Fender to the punch by several years, establishing himself as country music’s first major Chicano star in 1972 with the top ten country hit "Pass Me By." Like Fender, Rodriguez is from Texas and also begun his career, as a 16-year-old wild child, playing rock & roll and doing several stints of his own jail time. The likely apocryphal Rodriguez legend has him catching the ear of a Texas Ranger while incarcerated, but the actual facts are that he was lucky enough to come to the attention of Nashville rebels Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare, who brought the singer to the forward-looking Mercury record man Roy Dea.
Rodriguez grew up surrounded by country music, and his vocal style–an intense, smoldering approach very much drawn from the classic Lefty Frizzell-Merle Haggard school of honky tonk philosophy–carried vast appeal; he also had something else Fender didn’t have, matinee idol good looks, and the combination won him immediate entry not only at Mercury, but as far west as Los Angeles, where the Hollywood-based Academy of Country Music named him the Most Promising Male Vocalist of ’72. Hit after hit followed, with three country number ones in 1973 (including a cover of Frizzell’s just-released "That’s the Way Love Goes," an achievement that galled Lefty even as he cashed the royalty checks) and he consistently made the country charts upper reaches for over ten years, along the way racking up a shelf full of well-deserved awards and accolades and, significantly, breaking open the marketplace with an impact that enabled Fender to get his foot inside Music City’s color-conscious door (Rodriguez was initially touted to the redneck populace as "the Chicano Charley Pride"). Today, like any genuine country artist, Rodriguez finds himself as somewhat of an anachronism in the post-Garth, pop-enthralled corridors of Nashville, but he indisputably remains one of the greatest singers in the field, and one who visits Southern California all too rarely.
The Texas connection is further represented by incomparable accordion titan Flaco Jimenez, now reigning patriarch of a clan that has dominated Tex-Mex music for decades and who, of course, worked closely with Fender for quite a spell in the acclaimed, freewheeling Texas Tornadoes during the 1990′s. But, for all the Tornadoes artistic success, that was just a minor affair in Flaco’s long, distinguished career as the spearhead for the rich, border-straddling musical confection known as Norteno. In fact, a prime mover in Norteno’s development was Flaco’s dad, Santiago Jimenez, one of Texas’ first accordion kings, who helped determine the path of what was to become one of America’s most vibrant and thriving regional sounds. Drawn from an amalgam first proposed by Santiago’s half-German, Spanish-born grandfather Patricio Jimenez, who started the creative line by entwining polkas, waltzes and oom-pah with the corridos and ranchera traditions, Flaco has not only upheld but expanded the family’s musical vision with impeccable grace and unstoppable drive. On stage, Flaco rips through not only his own cherished repertoire but also a kaleidoscopic range of two-steps, ballads, rock & roll–whatever suits the moment and the audience’s appetite.
With another able Texas Tornadoes alumnus, Augie Meyers–who co-founded the original line up of that band with the late great rock & roll mixologist Doug "She’s About a Mover" Sahm–the straight-to-Freddy-connection here only deepens, and the inclusion of Little Joe y Familia, the show-stopping Texas Norteno road-hog juggernauts who are perhaps second only to Flaco Jimenez in their long running and deliriously relentless boosting of the Tex-Mex style, the allure of this event reaches an electrifying scale. But you also get a formidable Southern California contribution from Tierra, the ’70s Latin rock & soul band led by ELA big beat originators Stevie & Rudy Salas, a couple of kids who very actively participated in that barrio’s unprecedented explosion of talent, working alongside a host of Chicano thrillers that also included such estimable acts as Thee Midniters and Cannibal & the Headhunters (and it is worth noting that the Salas Brothers, after years of bitter, Everly’s-style sibling feuding that saw each leading their own separate version of Tierra, have only recently buried the hatchet and begun playing together again).
All in all, the cumulative web of long-standing alliances, direct emotional involvement and stellar creative résumés represented here tonight rates as a package show of entirely irresistible proportions, a rare convergence of historical forces whose cultural contributions and peerless skill could, very likely, only have come together for an occasion honoring a performer of such rare stature: the never to be forgotten–and, sadly, never to be seen again–genius of Freddy Fender.
Tex-Mex Festival at San Manuel Casino, 777 San Manuel Blvd., Highland, (800) 359-2464; Sept. 13, 7pm; tickets $40-$60, available at www.ticketmaster.com.