#TBT: Freddy Fender was international star with deep South Texas roots
When Baldemar Huerta would tell the story of his childhood, it started in San Benito, where he was born in 1937 to parents who worked as migrant laborers. They'd travel throughout the south to pick cotton, tomatoes and beets. He recalled relaxing after long days in beer joints, listening to blues musicians.
He never was good at picking the wooly stuff, he would tell people. But he did learn to pick a guitar.
Huerta turned his skill and voice into a decades-spanning and multi-genre musical career, but most people know him under his stage name, Freddy Fender.
Fender's music career began in the 1950s as a teen, and after a three-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, in 1957 his Spanish-language versions of Elvis' "Don't Be Cruel" and Harry Belafonte's "Jamaica Farewell" became hits in Mexico and Latin America. He performed under several names -- El Bebop Kid, Eddie Medina, and Scotty Wayne -- before settling on Freddy Fender, named for his favorite guitar brand. On the back of his album he included that he changed his name to help his "music sell better with the gringos."
Two years later he recorded "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" for Duncan Records for a $500 advance, but the following year was convicted for marijuana possession in Baton Rouge and served nearly three years in Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Fender continued to perform in the 1960s in Louisiana and Texas, though he took classes at Del Mar College and worked as a mechanic as well. Then in the 1970s he teamed up with swamp-pop producer Huey P. Meaux and recorded "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." The song shot to the top of Billboard's country and pop charts, and became the first bilingual song to hit No. 1 on the country charts. Fender rereleased "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and that went to No. 1 on the country charts and Billboard named Fender its Top Male Artist of 1975. Twelve of Fender's songs reached country music’s Top 20 between 1975 and 1977, four of them hitting No. 1.
But the singer's drinking and partying became a problem as his fame rose. In 1986, Fender described the toll the fast-lane environment and his own ego took on his personal life to the Caller-Times. His marriage nearly ended, and he was embroiled in a bankruptcy suit in the early 1980s from a bus crash that killed two bandmates. Fender, who wasn't on the bus, was wracked with guilt over giving up his seat on the bus that 20 minutes later hit a tractor-trailer head on and killed driver Joseph "Sonny" Parker and drummer Joseph "Little Joe" Lambert.
"When I became an international success, that's when the pressure started," he told the Caller-Times in a 1986 interview. "My worries came in trying to fix and control other things instead of just taking care of myself. I was killing myself mentally and physically."
"Today, if something goes wrong, I can handle it," Fender said in 1986. "I don't break into little pieces and I don't have to pick up a bottle to get over my anger or hate or frustration."
"I lost a bunch of years I could have been really happy with instead of acquiring material wealth," he said. "I've run a complete cycle and now I'm back to where it started with just me and my music."
Fender continued to record and in 1989 formed Texas Tornadoes with fellow musicians Doug Sahm, Flaco Jiménez, and Augie Meyers. The band combined conjunto, Tejano, R&B, country and blues sounds, and released four albums with Warner Bros. Records. The group won a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Mexican American Performance for "Soy de San Luis."
In the late '90s, he joined Los Super Seven which saw him reunited with Flaco Jiménez and teamed up with David Hidalgo and César Rosas of Los Lobos along with Ruben Ramos, Joe Ely, and Rick Trevino. The group's album earned Fender another Grammy in 1998, and in 2001 Fender earned a solo Grammy for "La Música de Baldemar Huerta," a collection of rancheras and boleros that won in the Latin Pop Album category.
Fender received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Star in 1999 and was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame the same year. In June 2004, the South Texas Music Walk of Fame at Water Street Market in downtown Corpus Christi debuted, with Fender doing the honors at the ribbon-cutting and also receiving the first star.
Fender continued to perform, but he began having health issues. He was diagnosed with hepatitis C and diabetes, receiving a kidney transplant from his youngest daughter in 2002 and a liver transplant in 2004. Fender's last performance was a New Year's Eve gig in Los Angeles in 2005. Shortly after in January 2006, Fender underwent surgery, with doctors planning to remove a portion of his lung to treat a fungal infection. Instead they found two tumors. He underwent chemotherapy treatments but in June doctors discovered more inoperable cancer.
Fender died on Oct. 14, 2006 at his home in Corpus Christi, survived by wife, Vangie Muñiz Huerta, and his four children. The musician was buried in San Benito Cemetery with military honors. A year later, the Freddy Fender Museum in San Benito opened, showcasing his humble beginnings and storied music career.
"There will never be another Freddy Fender," said fellow Texas Tornado Augie Meyers following Fender's death in 2006. The pair had known each other since 1958. "I love the guy. He's got a voice that nobody else has."
Allison Ehrlich writes about things to do in South Texas and has a weekly Throwback Thursday column on local history. Support local coverage like this by checking out our subscription options and special offers at Caller.com/subscribe