Freddy Fender - Biography
Chicano country music star Freddy Fender's beatific tenor pipes, fiery, visceral guitar style and boundless charisma carried him just about as far as any musician could go--and even won him an early release from a hard-time stretch in Louisiana's notoriously brutal Angola State Prison Farm. From his start as a misfit Tex-Mex rockabilly to his tremendous run of soulful, mid-1970's honky tonk hits, Fender's remarkable career was marked by a cycle of tremendous highs and punishing lows, but at his peak, it seemed that every record he released rocketed to the top of both the country and pop charts. Fender’s gift for taking on vastly disparate material--country, Broadway show tunes, vintage Rhythm & Blues, bilingual ballads--carried an undeniable and unusually broad appeal. Even after his star began to descend, Fender successfully re-asserted himself with the early 90's super-group, Texas Tornadoes, and continued as in-demand live draw and studio compadre right up until failing health forced him to withdraw from life as a touring performer.
Born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito, Texas on June 4 1937, the kid had a very rough upbringing. His father died before he was ten, and the singer lived with his mother and two siblings in a garage--no plumbing, no electricity, just a kerosene lamp. The kids worked alongside their mother in the fields, and whenever able, followed the crops as migrant laborers, harvesting cucumbers in Ohio, tomatoes in Indiana, beets in Michigan, singing all the way and self-training himself to the point that he increased his vocal capability by an astonishing two octaves. What little schooling he received only went as far as the eighth grade, when he dropped out and joined the Marine Corps. It was a bad mix--the newly minted jarhead was more interested in playing guitar and downing cerveza than in spit and polish dress blues and death by bayonet training exercises. After three years overseas--and as many stays in the brig--they hung a bad-conduct discharge on him and sent him back to the states. Working in the Texas fields and singing traditional Mexican corridos for tips at night wasn’t much better, but after he made the switch to hard-charging rockabilly and began billing himself as Freddy Fender (AKA El Bebop Kid), he began making a little money in the hardscrabble gringo beer joint circuit around Texas and Louisiana.
He also recorded prolifically, both as Huerta and Fender, for a series of tiny regional indie Tex-Mex labels, and finally got a deal with the more prestigious Imperial Records. They issued several singles, including his classic 1959 boozy lament “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and the mad rocker “Crazy Crazy Baby” which cracked the Top Fifty in 1960. Not long after that disc came out, he was popped in Baton Rouge on a marijuana charge, a time and place where the two joints they caught him with resulted in a no parole, no probation five year prison term in Angola. After almost three years of downright unimaginable misery there, Fender’s musical performance for visiting Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis resulted in an unconditional pardon (the simpatico Davis was himself a former country star, best known for his composition of the Americana standard "You are My Sunshine").
As ex-con, school drop-out with a bad USMC discharge, Fender had to struggle, but diligently worked a series of day jobs and sang in clubs on the weekend in order to support a growing family (he eventually had three children); it was no picnic, but Fender stayed the course, even studying and passing the GED exam. “I had finally got my life together, and that is why things changed for me. Before then, I was like a chicken that would peck here and peck there and never finish all the food.” In 1974, Fender was teamed with veteran record producer Huey P. Meaux (widely known as “the Crazy Cajun”), who dug Fender’s talent and knew the timing was perfect: Johnny Rodriguez had established himself as country music's first major Chicano star in 1972 (he was initially touted to the redneck populace as “the Mexican Charley Pride“), racking up a string of Top Ten hits and notably softening the race-conscious marketplace. Meaux and Fender immediately proved to be an alchemical duo, recording the plangent, bilingual plaint “Before the Next Tear Drop Falls” which Meaux released on his Crazy Cajun label. Fender’s angelic yet mournful delivery carried an irresistible quality, and the single quickly sold one and a half million copies, placing it at number one on the pop and country charts. Such lightning success prompted ABC/Dot Nashville’s office to dispatch a bag man to Houston with a contract for Fender. He signed, the label re-released “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and had another chart topper. Fender had arrived, and how. By the end of the year, his Before the Next Tear Drop Falls album (1975 ABC/Dot) had sold platinum, and was named The Country Music Association’s Album of the Year, with title track snagging Single of the Year and Fender himself took the Top Male Vocalist award.
He churned out hit after hit, scoring a number one with “Secret Love” (a smash for Doris Day twenty years earlier, culled from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun songbook) and a country Top Ten hit with his superbly sensitive cover of R&B star Ivory Joe Hunter’s 1949 classic “Since I Met You Baby.” The stone country “Wild Side of Life” became his third number one country hit, and for the rest of the 1970’s Fender’s singles consistently crowded the country Top Twenty. Fender switched from ABC/Dot to Meaux’s Starfire imprint in 1979 and then to Warner Brothers in 1983, but neither stint produced the same level of chart busting action he had previously enjoyed. Fender was not too dismayed, though, he was making it on the road and began trying his hand as a screen actor, an ambition sidelined by a mid-1980s trip to rehab, but his performance in Robert Redford’s 1988 Milagro Beanfield War was well-received and kept the Fender profile at respectable altitude.
In 1990, Fender formed the Texas Tornados with revered Norteno accordion patriarch Flaco Jimenez and veteran Lone Star state rockers Doug Sahm and Augie Meyer and enjoyed a healthy renewal of activity; while their first release, Texas Tornados (1990 Reprise) made the country album chart’s twenty five spot, the two follow-ups did less business, and by 1993, the four had gone their separate ways. Fender soldiered on and maintained a formidable tour schedule, but by the turn of the century, his health was failing. The singer required both a kidney and liver transplant, and the procedure’s deleterious effects began to slow him. It was publicly announced that he had incurable cancer in mid-2006 and Fender finally succumbed to the disease, dying on October 14, 2007.