It begins with the voice. The one constant in the life of Freddy Fender, the Rio Grande Valley’s most enduring gift to popular music, is his extraordinary high tenor. It goes straight for the heart and is flexible enough to get there in any number of ways, so long as romantic lyrics are involved; arguably, New Orleans rhythm-and-blues balladeer Aaron Neville has the only voice in contemporary music that is as affecting and instantly recognizable. Freddy is also a low-key but high-impact guitarist who plays not a note too many and makes every one count. His one weakness (which he happens to share with Neville) is that he can’t always distinguish schmaltz from soul. He’ll pair his own despairing “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” with the cloyingly cute “Secret Love” as if they were cut from the same cloth. Even he can’t pull that off.
So why isn’t Freddy Fender a star? Or, more accurately, why isn’t he a star again? Now you’re getting into a prickly area. All his life, Freddy has had trouble settling on the terms of his contracts; in fact, he’s had trouble with the business side of music in general. That’s either because the managers, agents, and record company executives are sharks and leeches, according to him, or because he’s too bullheaded and shortsighted, according to them.
Consider his current predicament, which stems from a conflict with Arista/Texas, the major label formed in 1993 to take tejano music nationwide and around the world. Though not a tejano artist, Freddy was one of the label’s maiden signings; he said he was eager to take a crack at tejano, which features much more sophisticated arrangements than the three-chord rock and country he had built his career around. But today the Arista deal is off. Freddy, who is 58, contends that the label dropped him because he was too old to market effectively. Arista/Texas vie president Cameron Randle says that they were well aware of his age when they signed him and that Freddy reneged on his agreement to record tejano music because he would rather make an R&B album. Both men cite numerous phone conversations to support their respective cases; both insist they’d like to be reunited. But it just isn’t happening.
The Texas Tornados figure into the confusion too. Freddy put himself back on the pop music map in the early nineties when he joined the Tex-Mex group, which featured fellow Lone Star icons Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, and Flaco Jimenez. At the time, he frankly admitted that he was doing it only to rejuvenate his solo career. The Tornados fell apart close to when Arista/Texas was launched, so the timing was right for Freddy’s flirtation with tejano. Now the Tornados are back together, at least off and on, so Freddy is shooting for both a solo record and a band career. The R&B album he wants to cut is earmarked for the independent Austin blues label Antone’s, but the label’s CEO, Harry Friedman, says he doesn’t want to commit to a Freddy solo project unless he can get a Tornados album first. Even then, he’s unsure about the solo album, because Freddy has no manager he can negotiate with; the singer and his wife, Vangie, insist on handling all the details, seemingly unaware that the days are long over when artists who are not Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan can represent themselves in the music business.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Freddy’s career remains stymied, even though The Voice is as strong as ever. “My life has never been boring,” he said with a laugh recently, as he sat on the balcony of his VIP suite atop a South Padre Island hotel. He put down a club sandwich and picked up a Coke offered by Vangie, whom he has married twice—once when he was a twenty-year-old fledgling star and she was a sixteen-year-old countergirl at a local diner, and again after a two-year divorce, in 1965. “I’d hate to live a life where everything is settled.”
You can be sure Freddy does his best to prevent that. Since escaping the life of a Valley migrant worker in the late fifties, he has been everything from a Spanish-language rocker to a Gulf Coast R&B alchemist and a million-selling country artist—and also a jailbird, a drug addict, and a recovering alcoholic. Born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito in 1937, he came of age in a period when Tex-Mex was undergoing profound, Americanizing changes that would help shape his future. Balde González led perhaps the first popular orquesta to sound as American as it did Mexican, performing fox-trots that González sang in Spanish. Pedro Ayala with Eugenio Gutiérrez and Narciso Martínez with Beto Villa were creating the accordion-sax sound that became the Valley equivalent of Big Band. Gutiérrez’s daughter Delia even recorded “Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy” in English—the first local Freddy remembers who didn’t sing in Spanish. Conversely, sisters Carmen y Laura covered the early fifties country hit “Slow Poke” in Spanish.
Perhaps Freddy was thinking of that Alice duo when he entered the music business in 1956, just as the rock and roll craze was reaching the Valley. After his discharge from the Marines, he was rechristened El Bebop Kid and cut Spanish-language versions of rock hits such as Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” (“No Seas Cruel”). That year Freddy had two number one hits in Mexico and South America—the first rock singles to catch on there. Soon he began writing his own English-language R&B, notably “Holy One” and “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” the desolate song of lost love that remains his calling card. But those songs only established him regionally. To attract gringo fans while going national, he changed his name, taking “Fender” from the manufacturer of his guitar and “Freddy” because it sounded right. Even then, the L.A. mogul who had rereleased “Holy One” for national distribution on Imperial Records told Freddy, “You’ve got a great song,