Because of the macular degeneration, his eyes don’t work like they used to. He doesn’t talk about his vision much, so it’s hard to know exactly how much he sees. But if you linger long enough on a Tuesday evening at Austin’s El Gallo restaurant, chances are good he’ll make out that you’re there and swing by your table for a serenade. Perhaps he’ll sing “Guantanamera.” Or a romantic ballad. Or a bolero, perhaps in Spanish, perhaps in English. Or maybe Bob Wills’s “Faded Love.” After each song, all five or six tables—maybe twenty diners total—will applaud. In turn, Manuel Donley—who for many of his 87 years has answered to “Maestro” or, more often, “Cowboy”—will flash a wide smile and tip his wide-brimmed hat. This is how it is now. And he’s okay with that. Grateful even. But this is not how it used to be.
“I had to escape out a bathroom window,” he says of a night in the late fifties at Dessau Hall, the classic Austin honky-tonk that hosted everyone from Ernest Tubb to Elvis. That night, while Donley and his Tejano orquesta, Las Estrellas, were on a break between sets, a young female fan showed him a pistol and threatened to use it if he didn’t come home with her after the gig. That’s how it used to be.
Donley played Tejano before most folks knew what Tejano was. And he was Tejano’s first rock star: in the fifties and sixties the kids that he calls “the teenyboppers” would pack Austin clubs like El Gato Negro to see Las Estrellas because this wasn’t their parents’ Latin music. Las Estrellas were danceable, but they were also loud; unlike big-band jazz orchestras, they featured electric guitars and bass along with a swinging horn section. “We were the first to take traditional music from Mexico and play it like a rock and roll band,” says Donley. “That was my idea. And the kids went wild for it.”
Tejano star Little Joe Hernandez was one of those kids. In the late fifties he’d regularly see Las Estrellas perform in Corpus Christi and chat with Donley during intermissions. So when Raul Alvarez, of the Austin Latino Music Association, asked the two-time Grammy winner to write a letter supporting Donley’s nomination for a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, he was happy to oblige. “There were so many Donley wannabees, like myself, that were influenced and inspired by watching him perform,” Hernandez wrote.
Five other people submitted letters documenting Donley’s importance, and they apparently had an effect. On June 25 Donley was named one of nine 2014 National Heritage Fellows, a distinction that includes a $25,000 award. While other Tejano legends have earned the honor in the past, Donley is the first to represent the Tejano orquesta tradition. “The bulk of the previous honorees from Texas have been in the conjunto style, mainly accordion players,” says Alvarez. “This puts the orquesta style back on the map and in the history books. And, of course, it cements Cowboy’s standing as a pioneer.”
Ethnomusicologist Manuel H. Peña, a former professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Mexican American Orquesta: Music, Culture, and the Dialectic of Conflict, wrote one of the letters supporting Donley’s nomination. He told the committee that by drawing on the repertoires of Mexican and American big bands, the orquest-a engaged in “code-switching”—the academic term to describe people who alternate between multiple languages or cultural styles. “[Code-switching] is at the heart of what makes the orquesta so unique, serving, as it does, to negotiate the well-nigh impossible status of Mexican Americans caught between two conflicting cultures,” Peña wrote. “The tejano ensemble thus emerges historically as a powerful artistic vehicle for the expression of a conflictive biculturalism . . . [compelling] the orquesta and its upwardly mobile tejano advocates to waver between acculturation and ethnic resistance.”
Donley makes the same point more directly. “On the one hand, I was a rock star,” he says. “On the other, we were looked down on as just brown kids from the barrio.”
The Donley surname comes from Manuel’s great-grandfather, an Irish immigrant who settled in Texas. Manuel was born in Mexico but moved to Austin at the age of seven, when his father—who for a time played violin with the Durango symphony—bought a barber shop on East Sixth Street. Manuel got his first guitar when he was thirteen, after hearing the theme to Just Plain Bill, a serialized radio soap opera about a barber, at his after-school job at a toy workshop. “I was painting little dolls. I did the detail work on the eyes and faces,” says Donley. “And I heard that soap theme and I said, ‘What is that?’ The woman I worked for said, ‘It’s a guitar.’ I wanted one so badly that I quit school and got another job washing dishes at El Toro on Sixteenth Street for nine dollars a week. I put a sixty-dollar guitar with a broken neck on layaway. It was almost unplayable, but I didn’t know any better.”
After a few years teaching himself to play, working as a busker late into the night under Austin’s moon towers, Donley assembled Los Heartbreakers, in 1949. The group featured Donley on vocals and requinto (a small guitar that’s tuned higher than a traditional classical acoustic), as well as a stand-up bassist, a drummer, a maracas player, and two saxophonists. The group drew a regular crowd at the Varsity Grill near the UT campus, where they pierced Austin’s racial divide by playing for mostly white audiences.
But by 1955 Donley was itching to do something different. He had heard Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and he knew he wanted to play an electric guitar—and put together a band that could withstand the instrument’s heavy volume. He couldn’t afford to buy an electric guitar, so he built one himself. He carved the body out of wood and affixed pieces of old, broken guitars to it, Frankenstein-style. “When you’re poor as dirt, necessity is the mother of invention,” Donley says.
Then he began gathering Las Estrellas, which started as a six-piece ensemble and eventually ballooned into a dozen or more players. Soon after they started playing live, Donley earned the nickname Cowboy, because unlike the leaders of most large orchestras of the day, who sat behind shell-shaped cardboard stands like the rest of the musicians, Donley stood at center stage, like a country and western performer. Or more to the point, like a rock star. The code-switching that Peña describes quickly caught on. The electrified orquesta, whose music was raucous but precisely arranged, played dance halls and honky-tonks across the state. Young bandleaders throughout Texas took note and started amping up their sound. Las Estrellas recorded more than one hundred singles for small Texas-based labels; their biggest hit, “Flor del Rio,” was so popular on dance hall jukeboxes that fathers told Donley they’d named their daughters Flor, in tribute.
But what Donley is most proud of today is the work that earned him his second nickname, Maestro. Donley, who also learned to play trumpet and alto saxophone, taught himself to write charts—detailed instructions for each instrument that earned him work scoring for other orquestas and writing movie sound tracks. When he wasn’t busy composing his own music, Donley would listen to the songs that were popular on border radio and jukeboxes, immediately chart them out, and add them to the Las Estrellas concert repertoire, fooling many listeners into thinking it was Las Estrellas they had been hearing on the air.
“Every Saturday I’d work on arrangements,” says Donley. “I wanted to haul out something new for every gig. Between the covers of the new songs that were popular and our own stuff, I was way ahead of everyone.”
In the mid-seventies, Donley says, the crowds started to dry up. “I remember a 1974 or 1975 gig at the Wishing Well Dance Hall, in Pearsall, where there were three couples dancing,” he says. “That’s how bad it got.” Donley blames the double whammy of the gas crisis and a new interest in the enforcement of drunk-driving laws. “Cops would wait outside the dance halls for what they knew were easy targets,” he says. “Mexicans stopped going out.” Changing tastes in music likely had something to do with the decline as well, but whatever the reason, the smaller crowds meant bands had to downsize. Many of them did away with the horn players, a key element of the orquesta sound. The “new” Tejano that became popular on the radio was slower and more often driven by a push-button accordion—which Donley, in a rare display of fighting words, dismisses as “illegitimate, a one-key instrument.” Las Estrellas made their last recording in 1978, and Donley switched over to the classical guitar and began playing small gigs modeled after the trio romantico style that was popularized by Mexico City’s Los Panchos in the mid-forties.
Today, health problems have curtailed his music making. His guitar playing is slower, more deliberate. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays he goes for dialysis. Tuesdays are his good days; he’s got El Gallo on Tuesdays. His vision troubles set in close to a decade ago, and he’s now unable to read charts. “The songs are in my head, and my fingers move from muscle memory,” he says. But in a small extra bedroom in his East Austin home, he keeps a suitcase stuffed with his old sheet music. He’s recently begun talking with Austin musician Michael Ramos, who has worked with Patty Griffin and John Mellencamp, about crafting a new album that would draw on those charts. The pair previously worked together on Donley’s 2012 album, The Brown Recluse Sessions, a set made up mostly of standards cut in the trio romantico style.
“It’s crazy to me that you can walk into El Gallo and see Mr. Donley,” Ramos says. “It would be like walking in on Bob Wills doing a Sunday brunch. Through him, I’ve learned a lot about humility and persistence. When we recorded, you could tell he was humbled by his arthritis, by age. He was so sweet and apologetic. I kept saying, ‘Please. Do not apologize. Ever.’ ”
In September, Raul Alvarez will accompany Donley to Washington, D.C., for a week of parties and concerts celebrating this year’s class of National Heritage Fellows. Donley will carry with him a forty-year-old Takamine classical guitar, every bit as war-torn as Willie Nelson’s Trigger, and an equally battered requinto. No one is under the impression that a late-life renaissance is in the cards for Manuel Donley. But with the NEA fellowship, his work—largely played in Texas dance halls and long-forgotten honky-tonks—has finally been recognized and legitimized.
“To be honored now? To play D.C.? It’s crazy. I hope I deserve it. I never asked for much,” he says. “Money never meant anything. This is all I want—a beat-up, torn-up guitar. It’s all I need. Sometimes I tell my wife, ‘I think even when I’m dead, I’ll still be playing.’ ”