Sunday, October 15, 2006

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Baldemar Huerta: "The Mexican Elvis"

I was never a fan, but back in the mid seventies, you couldn't avoid hearing (and knowing), Baldemar Huerta's pop classics. Who? Tejano music -- and Tejano culture -- is easy to make fun of. The music is sometimes described as "German oom-paa-paa played by Mexicans on instruments stolen from Gringos" and its an acquired taste. Tejano culture is unique in that it blends two blended cultures (U.S. and Mexico) into a third. Balemar Huerta understood this. And, while some of us deplore the creeping gringo-ization of Mexican culture, we've overlooked the Mexicanization of U.S. culture. For years it was limited to South Texas. UNTIL.. Baldemar Huerta, mixed Tejano with Blues, R&B, Rock-n-roll and Country-Western. Before him, Latin music was "exotic" (think of Dezi Arnez in the 50s) and after him... just part of the American musical scene. Born in the Rio Grande Valley (his parents were migrant workers), Baldemar took the tradtional path of ambitious valley kids, joining the Marines. When he got out, he returned to the Valley, where he enjoyed some local success as "El Bebop Kid" (pronounced "keyed") in local bars. He did Spanish-language covers for Elvis and Harry Belfonte and perfected his art. His friend Augie Meyers called him "a Mexican Elvis" but in the late 50s, stars with names like Baldemar Huerta had a limited audience. So, taking the name of his guitar's manufacturer, he reached a new audience as "Freddy Fender". His "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights", released in 1960, was a regional hit... and a little closer to the truth than most knew. Busted for marijuana possession, Huerta did three years in a Louisiana prison before he was pardoned by that state's own musically inclined governor, Jimmie Davis (Gov. Davis is best known for writing "You Are My Sunshine, My Only Sunshine". He was a early 20th century country star in his own right, and a fixture on the Grand Ol' Opry as well as the Lawrence Welk Show in the 50s). As Freddy Fender, Huerta was a phenonomon. Marketed as a "Country" star -- and he was the only Mexican-American country star -- his style and sound made him a cross-over hit. It was impossible in the 70s NOT to hear "Until The Last Teardrop Falls" or "Behind Closed Doors" ... and an updated version of "Wasted Days". Though he hasn't been a national star since the 70s, Fender opened the door for other border musicians (Los Lobos, for example) -- and his fellow Texans, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings -- to enter our musical consciousness. Nelson, especially, is open to Mexican and border influence. (If you don't believe me, walk around suburban Monterrey some day... every geezer around looks like Willie.) Fender had been working mostly in the Spanish-speaking market until a combination of diabetes and hepititis slowed him down. Lung cancer finally got him last week. He was 69, and will be buried in San Benito Texas.
If he brings you happiness
Then I wish you all the best
It's your happiness that matters most of all
But if he ever breaks your heart
If the teardrops ever start
I'll be there before the next teardrop falls
Si te quire de verdad
Y te da felicidad
Te deseo lo mas bueno pa'los dos
Pero si te hace llorar
A mime puedes hablar
Y estare contigo cuando treste estas


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