From the crib in his childhood home, a newborn Manny Guerra listened as music poured into the room from the radio that sat on the windowsill of his family’s tamale company next door.
Long before he could string together a sentence or take his first steps, the top hits of the forties filled his ears and flowed through his mind. “Even before I was conscious, music was just instilled in me,” he says.
As a teenager, Guerra would take up the accordion, the piano, and eventually the drums before going on to become one of the premier producers of the Tejano music scene. Though he never became a household name, the style he helped pioneer would endure for decades.
Guerra, now 81, was the eldest of six siblings raised on San Antonio’s South Side. His mother, Lucia, played the piano, and his father, Manuel Sr., was happy to support his son’s budding interest in music by buying him an accordion. By the time Manny was 14, he was playing the drums in the Burbank High School band and joining local conjunto acts around town.
Over the course of his five-decade career in the music industry, Guerra worked first as a musician and later as a self-taught producer, shaping and recording tracks that would come to exemplify the West Side Sound—a blend of genres such as R&B, conjunto, and soul music that was unique to San Antonio. The term, popularized by San Antonio musician Doug Sahm, was retroactively applied to artists from a wide array of styles whose work spanned nearly twenty years, and who shared and borrowed from one another, fundamentally changing the city’s music scene for years to come. By the eighties, these years of musical hybridization led to the Tejano music boom, with artists including Grupo Mazz, Little Joe y La Familia, La Mafia, and, later, Selena Quintanilla bringing the genre to an international stage. Behind the scenes, Guerra played a major role in making it all happen.
In 1958, when Guerra was just nineteen years old, his younger brother Rudy started a band with a friend, vocalist Ildefonso “Sunny” Ozuna. Manny decided to join as their drummer, and with Rudy on saxophone, Norwood Perry on bass, Al Condy on guitar, and George Strickland on drums, they formed the six-piece act Sunny & the Sunglows. The group initially focused on soul music, but Manny Guerra pushed them to include big band and conjunto influences. Guerra already had a little experience on the professional circuit, so he contacted promoters to arrange gigs, and soon the Sunglows were off performing at fairs, military bases, and nightclubs across Texas.
Guerra also suggested the group make one simple change that would have a big impact: swapping out an accordion, commonly used in ranchera and conjunto music, for an electronic organ. In his 2007 book, Chicano Soul: Recordings & History of an American Culture, Ruben Molina writes, “Accordion was too ‘country.’ To give the music more sophistication, [the Sunglows] used the organ in place of the accordion but kept the droning sound.”
Soon other Texas bands followed suit. Later in the book, former Sunglows member Henry Parrilla recalls, “Once [the band] started to use the organ, that was it—everyone wanted to use that sound.”
It was with this kind of experimentation in mind that the band recorded “Talk to Me,” a 1963 hit produced by Huey P. Meaux on his Tear Drop Records label. The song, originally recorded by Little Willie John in 1958, peaked at number eleven on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
“Talk to Me” had been a crowd favorite during Sunny & the Sunglows’ sets around the state. Within seconds of the first plaintive notes, the entire audience would be out on the dance floor. Guerra wanted to capture some of that magic. In his arrangement of the song, Sunny’s sweet tenor voice is supported by a swelling backing track of strings as he begs for his love to tell him how much she cares for him.
“We sent it out to as many radio stations as we could,” Guerra recalls. “Before you know it, we came back one weekend and our phone was ringing off the wall. It really was overnight.”
The hit could have propelled the group into national stardom, but following Meaux’s advice, Sunny took it as an opportunity to form his own band, Sunny & the Sunliners, without his original bandmates. It was a devastating blow for Manny Guerra, who watched as Sunny’s fame grew with a number of hits and a historic appearance as the first Chicano act on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, with a performance of “Talk to Me.”
“We were on our way to the top,” Guerra says. “We had no contract. We didn’t know anything about the business part of it. So when Sunny left, it was embarrassing and humiliating. I didn’t know how I was going to survive.”
He tried to move past the betrayal by shifting his focus on producing. Guerra had managed to support himself thus far with his music, and he’d arranged and recorded the version of “Talk to Me” that became a hit. So he buckled down and figured he could do it again. He purchased Sunglow Records, a record label that a friend sold to him when he moved out of town, and opened his own small studio, Amen Music, in 1966. The white, one-story brick building was so unremarkable that artists would often drive past it before realizing it was their intended destination. Inside, Guerra housed a mixing console, a one-track recorder, and a jukebox speaker in lieu of a monitor. It wasn’t exactly state-of-the-art equipment, but it got the job done.
Over and over, Guerra’s instincts as a producer would serve him well. He leaned into the Spanish-language music that his bandmates had originally shied away from. Without a formal music education, he relied on his gut, incorporating newer instruments, such as synthesizers and B-3 organs, whose use had previously been confined to mainstream pop music. These changes helped plant the seeds that eventually made Tejano music take off, writes music historian Alex La Rotta in his dissertation, “Talk to Me: The History of San Antonio’s West Side Sound.” “Elements of the West Side sound combined with a resurgence in the popularity of orquestas tejanas … to help forge a new musical genre known as Tejano,” La Rotta argues. “By the early 1980s, Tejano would become the most popular and commercially successful Texas-Mexican musical idiom ever.”
By the eighties, Guerra was working with Shelly Lares, Emilio Navaira, La Mafia, and Grupo Mazz, all mainstays of Tejano music who dominated Latin and Tejano music awards for years. Around 1984, Guerra got a call from Abraham Quintanilla Jr., an old friend. Quintanilla was looking for someone to produce his family’s band, Selena y los Dinos, but no one would give them a chance. Guerra was sympathetic, opening up his studio to help them record six of their earliest albums. At the time, Selena was just fourteen and hadn’t yet found her signature sound. “We couldn’t give those albums away,” Guerra remembers. But within a few years time, Selena was in the running for Female Vocalist of the Year at the Tejano Music Awards, and her 1988 album, Dulce Amor, drew the attention of producers at EMI’s Latin record label.
Quintanilla decided to take the opportunity. He signed with EMI, leaving Guerra behind. “Again, we didn’t have contracts,” Guerra says. “I didn’t believe in that because we were like family.”
By the nineties, Guerra had decided to leave Tejano behind for the world of gospel and Christian music. As a born-again Christian, he felt called to it by God. Now focused exclusively on gospel music from his home studio, he still looks back on his early years with fondness. He knows he was a pioneer in the industry, but he says that was never his goal. “We never planned anything,” he said. “Whatever we saw that people liked is what we would record. And it was a success.”
In studying the evolution from the regional West Side Sound to the birth of the wildly popular Tejano music scene, La Rotta says there’s no doubt that Guerra is the bridge between these major musical moments. “Manny is the linchpin between the West Side Sound and Tejano music,” La Rotta says. “He was there at the very beginning when Tejano music was basically breaking out. And it’s his vision that, to some degree, really created the West Side Sound.”