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, but your appearance will not do. You look too much like a Mexican. You’ve got to cut your sideburns.” Freddy did cut his sideburns, but unfortunately, a 1960 Baton Rouge pot bust—he says he was sold out by a snitch over two joints—drummed him out of the larger record business before he was ever really in it. He served nearly two and a half years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary before being paroled.
If Freddy really likes chaos, the next decade-plus must have seemed like one long field day. After getting out of prison, he took a bus to Houston, got roaring drunk, and the next day rode the rest of the way to San Benito with a renewed familiarity with hangovers. He took a job as a handyman at a tejano record company, but he couldn’t perform because as a parolee he was banned from bars; when authorities caught him playing at a club in Mexico, he was ordered to finish his parole in Louisiana. After his parole was up, he began working on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street with local stars such as Joe Barry, and by 1969 he was back in the Valley, where he worked days as a mechanic and a welder and made music on the weekends. Before, during, and after his stint in prison, Freddy recorded whenever he could with whomever he could. He had even cut a pair of albums behind bars. “I’ve prostituted myself tremendously,” he says now with a grimace. “I must have recorded ‘Wasted Days’ twenty times.”
In 1971, after doing his own version of “Wasted Days,” Doug Sahm invited Freddy to Austin for a series of revelatory club dates, and Freddy’s reputation grew. Around the same time, Freddy began working with Houston producer Huey P. Meaux on what he thought would be the swaying Gulf Coast R&B both men helped pioneer. But Meaux had other ideas, and after trying several styles of music, he eventually coaxed Freddy into cutting a bilingual version of a devotional country ballad called “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” Freddy hated the song—and country in general—but luckily he gave in: The tune went gold and became the Country Music Association’s single of the year. Freddy learned to like country music and began practically living on the road.
The next phase of Freddy’s career was pretty much defined by his drinking and drugging. From January 1975 to the end of 1977, Freddy had twelve straight Top 20 country hits, nine of them in the Top 10, four reaching number one—yet after that, he never climbed higher than number thirteen. “I finally had enough money to get into the heavy stuff, like cocaine,” he recalls, grinning. “I had done it a little bit, but being without money, I couldn’t afford enough to get hooked on it. I began to get real dark. But the main problem was drinking. I had to drink a lot because if I didn’t, I’d have the shakes real bad.” His health problems were exacerbated by his lifelong battle with diabetes, which left him constantly fatigued. Worst of all, Freddy began to fight about money with Meaux, who was his manager as well as his producer. His stardom during that period, he says today, left him $60,000 in debt to the Internal Revenue Service.
Finally, in 1983, he and Meaux parted ways over their financial disputes and Freddy’s drinking. That year, his final single, “Chokin’ Kind,” withered at number 87, and he spun out of control. His last gig was in the spring on “one of those cruiser Love Boats,” he remembers. “They threw my ass out of the boat because I was messing up drunk. We were somewhere near Nassau, and they put me in a little boat like Captain Bligh and sent me away.”
With his career stalled, his debts piling up, and his marriage in jeapordy, he rehabbed in August 1985; this time it stuck. And after smoking nearly three packs a day for 36 years, he finally quit (one reason why The Voice has never been better). But even as he was regaining control of his life, he couldn’t win back his record deal—too many people in the business had come to distrust him, and country was turning into a young man’s game. As Freddy himself puts it, “If you’re not recording, you’re not gonna be promoted. Basically speaking, I was dead.”
The Texas Tornados appeared to be his way out. In concert, Freddy was usually in demand to sing the most songs of the four stars, and it was precisely the R&B-rock-country combo he cherished. But the group has never sold as well as its reputation would suggest; country radio has ignored the singles on which Freddy sings lead and his oldies-flavored R&B and rock have never found the right format. While the Tornados have a great industry buzz and can do no wrong in their home state, in the rest of the world, they are merely cult heroes. Meanwhile, Freddy remains completely detached from the dreaded managers and agents who could do something for his solo aspirations. “Those kinds of people frighten me,” he insists.
And that’s where matters rest, if “rest” is the proper word. As ever, Freddy is keeping busy. From October 12 to October 14 he’ll be back in San Benito for the second annual Freddy Fender HomeFest, which raises money for college scholarships in Willacy, Cameron, and Hidalgo counties. (Last year, one of the streets he grew up on was renamed for him.) He’s still working as much as he wants on the road—with his salt-and-pepper hair and gaudy custom-tailored Western suits, he cuts quite the figure on stage—though he could undoubtedly command a higher fee and open up new avenues if he broke down and got a booking agent. He’s drawing income from the King of Tex-Mex picante sauce developed by Vangie, which has been picked up by several statewide supermarket and convenience-store chains, and he has launched a line of prepackaged Mexican-style cheeses. He has also written a couple of film scripts set in the Valley that he’s trying to get produced.
When he’s not working, he and Vangie happily pad around their house in Corpus Christi (they have two grown sons, a grown daughter, and a teenage daughter who still lives at home). “Vangie and I are doing things as a team now,” he says. “I would always try to hide what I did from her, but not anymore.” Freddy also likes to tinker with his pair of antique Triumphs, and he goes for long rides on his Harley-Davidson to do some serious thinking.
Lately, of course, that thinking is about when he’ll be in the studio next. Always partial to the proverbial bird in the hand, he’ll continue to seek one-shot deals in lieu of that elusive long-term contract. “If I don’t wind up recording for Antone’s, I’ll record for someone else,” he says with a shrug. Arista/Texas still wants Freddy to record; Antone’s still wants Freddy to record; Freddy still wants Freddy to record. But it isn’t happening. Somehow, it never quite happens.