El Primero

When I read in Rolling Stone that “Thee Midniters were the original rock en español,” I wanted to puke
Freddy Fender, the unacknowledged father of “rocanrol.”
When I read in Rolling Stone that “Thee Midniters were the original rock en español,” I wanted to puke. Don’t get me wrong: I lived in Los Angeles for 23 years, and my worship of Los Lobos inevitably turned me into a lifetime member of the Willy G church.

But Thee Midniters didn’t start rock en español — Freddy Fender had already taken care of it. He was el primero, the first one. And while he enjoyed fame, considerable record sales, and even his visage on the water tower of his native San Benito, he hasn’t been granted what he most sought during the last years of his life: proper credit.

“My first two recordings, ‘No seas cruel’ (‘Don’t be cruel’)/‘Ay amor’ (‘Holy One’) I wrote in 1955 and came out in 1957,” Fender wrote in an unpublished paper “seven or eight years ago,” according to his widow Vangie Huerta. “They initiated a wonderful cultural change in music. Richie Valens in California and from South of the border, the Latin artists soon followed the initiation of Hispanic Rock And Roll, including Spain.”

Fender’s timeline is accurate: ‘No seas cruel’ is from 1957, a year before Valens was signed by Del-Fi Records. In the early 1960s, Mexico’s Los Teen Tops and Los Locos del Ritmo followed suit (mostly with covers), and in 1965, Argentina’s Los Beatniks started the all-original “rock nacional” movement, considered by most experts to be the strongest Spanish-language rock movement to date.

“He was just tired of people passing him up,” Vangie said on the phone from her house in Corpus Christi. “I told him ‘Why don’t you write something and tell people how you feel?’ He wrote it, but it wasn’t published anywhere. It always bothered him because all the credit was always given to Richie Valens.”

In 2000 the Latin Academy approached me to write and edit the official program book of the first Latin Grammy ceremony. I decided to include a timeline and historical commentary about the rock en español movement. My research led me back to Freddy Fender and, after six years of digging, I still haven’t found an earlier Spanish-language rock song than ‘No seas cruel.’ The more I look, the bigger Freddy gets.

Finally, three months ago, Vangie Huerta called me as I was about to board a plane at the Houston airport.

“Freddy is having a good day and wants to talk,” she said. She gave the phone to an energetic and alert Freddy, who went on a fact-based rampage that could be summarized as “I never get no credit, man.” It was either “miss the plane” or “call him back when you’re back in SA.” I chose the latter. Bad move.

We were supposed to talk the following Sunday, but it never happened. And I never heard from Vangie, either. I instinctively knew something was wrong, left her a message, and never called again.

Freddy died at noon on Saturday, October 14, and around 1 p.m. I called Vangie and some of Freddy’s closest collaborators.

“He opened the doors for bilingual music,” said Flaco Jiménez, who recorded Dos Amigos with Freddy in 2005.

“I’ve known him since 1957, and I never heard a voice like that,” said a particularly somber Augie Meyers. “He was the Mexican Elvis.”

“He was the Chicano Roy Orbison,” said Max Baca. “He sang like a bird.”

The national press remembered Fender in the predictable ways: the Texas Tornados, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and passing mentions to his life as Baldemar Huerta/The Bebop Kid (1957), Eddie Medina (1961), and Scott Wayne (1962). But nobody bothered to mention the fact that he invented rocanrol.

“I never heard anyone credit that to him,” said Ron Morales, who co-produced Freddy’s last three albums, including a yet-unreleased bolero collection in the vein of the Grammy-winning The Music of Baldemar Huerta (2002). “I guess it’s because he had the rock career before his country career, and when people think of Freddy they think of the country hits. The stuff he did before, no one remembers. And that’s a shame.”

Even after Fender’s passing, Vangie continues her struggle to honor the memory of her husband. Six days after Freddy’s death, she called me to ask me to follow up on a letter she had received on September 18 from WGBH in Boston, a PBS affiliate working on a Latin music special in conjunction with the BBC. The producers told her they “couldn’t tell the story without Freddy.” At least someone cares, I thought. It was then that Vangie told me about Freddy’s difficult last days.

Around September 20, Fender was supposed to have a chemotherapy treatment and CAT scan in San Antonio. Instead, he found out the cancer had spread from his lungs to his whole body.

“He was sad, because the doctors took his only hope away by telling him that,” said Vangie. “I was not mad `at the doctors`. I was just like ... hurt. I couldn’t believe it. We didn’t know what to do. We were very discouraged.”

Fender refused to undergo another chemo session, so they went back to Corpus. On September 27, Vangie and her daughter drove him to Tulsa for more evaluation.

“He was already feeling a little bad. He wasn’t himself anymore, he was so quiet.” Due to complications, Vangie spent $10,000 airlifting him back to San Antonio, where he received more medication. On Friday, September 29, “he went into a ... not even a depression. A sleep. And he stayed there and he didn’t come out.” According to Vangie, the doctors wanted to send him home with no medication.

“And I said, ‘No! I can’t do that! No! You need to put a feeding tube in him because I will not bring him home like that. I’m not gonna finish killing him off. If the Lord wants him the Lord will take him, but I’m not gonna have anything to do with this.”

They put a feeding tube in him, but no medication, and he was home by Friday, October 13.

“They brought him in an ambulance that night, so the people around here wouldn’t see, because it seems every time we do something the newspaper knows about it,” said Vangie. “We had to come in like thieves in the night to to slip Freddy inside.”

On Saturday just before noon, minutes after the family greeted him, Freddy’s blood pressure went down drastically.

“I got all shook up and called everybody,” said Vangie. “We were praying for him when he gave three breaths. He breathed in, held it there for a couple of seconds, and let it out. He breathed in again for more seconds and let it out, and then he breathed in and held it for a couple of seconds and let it out, and then he didn’t breath anymore. And we all started screaming and yelling because, you know, this was not supposed to happen. Not to Freddy Fender.”

When I mention to her my talks with Flaco, Augie, and Baca, she interrupts me.

“So how come they didn’t come to the funeral? How come they didn’t go if they were in such pain for him? ’Cause these guys were close. Do you need an invitation to go to a funeral? Flaco called several times, and my daughter asked him ‘Are you coming to the funeral?’ and he said he had this and that to do, and I said ‘Well, maybe he did, OK?’ But there were two days, the memorial and the funeral. It was so beautiful. We even had Governor Rick Perry.”

“I was in `San Francisco` in the studio,” said Meyers. “When Doug Sahm died, Freddy didn’t go to his funeral, either. And we’ve all known each other since way back, 1957. And Freddy didn’t cancel his gig. These things happen. We still love him, no doubt about that. His passing bothers me to this day.”

Jiménez said he couldn’t make it to Fender’s funeral due to a scheduled gig in Austin.

On September 9, Freddy had a vision. Vangie went to the Catholic bookstore in Corpus Christi while Freddy stayed in the car listening to the religious station. When Vangie came back, Freddy was crying uncontrollably.

“‘Vangie, don’t tell anybody, but something just happened to me,’ said Freddy, according to Vangie. “Freddy told me that, when the program finished, the programmer said in Spanish, ‘En el nombre de Cristo, en el nombre de Cristo … ’ So Freddy said that he closed his eyes and leaned back on his seat, and he said ‘In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus … ’ His eyes were closed, but in the distance he still saw this coming closer and closer.

“This man dressed like in the Middle East, and the man had a beard, but he couldn’t see his face. This apparition puts his arm around him, embraces him. It was like an electrifying embrace, and he could feel his beard on his cheek. Ever so tender. ‘It just felt so good,’ said Freddy. And then all of a sudden the apparition became really small … and disappeared into his chest. We both started crying and praying. And I told Freddy ‘The Lord appeared before you.’ He was in a lot of pain before that, but after that we went home and it was a very joyful time for the rest of the day. Now that I think about it, the Lord appeared to Freddy to tell him he was going to take him to end his suffering.”

A Posthumous Triple Threat

Freddy’s body gave in, but his body of work goes on. In 2007, there will be three new albums featuring Freddy and/or his music:

THE BOLERO ALBUM: Produced by the Morales brothers (who were behind La Música de Baldemar Huerta and Dos Amigos), it was recorded with Joe Reyes and Chepe Solís on guitars, Gabriel Zavala on percussion, Bobby Flores on strings and a guitarrón player from Mexico. “It was the music he played in the cantinas on the border when he was a kid,” said Ron Morales. “He had a wealth of knowledge when it came to the history of music. He would say ‘This was written `about` two lesbians who used to live here, and one tried to kill the other…’ Stuff like that.”

THE TEXAS TORNADOS: Augie Meyers, Flaco Jiménez, Freddy and Shawn Sahm (Doug’s son), and the original TT back-up band (Max Baca on bajo sexto, Louie Ortega on guitar, Speedy Sparks on bass, and Ernie Durawa on drums) recorded 14 new songs early this year. “Freddy recorded his three songs and then he got real sick and we put it on the shelf,” said Augie Meyers. “Now that Freddy is gone, we’ll try to put it out in the U.S. and Europe.” Flaco, Augie and Shawn plan to do some shows early next year.

THE TEXMANIACS: The second TexManiacs album will include Freddy’s “You’ll lose a good thing.” “ Speedy `Villanueva` did a great job singing it,” said Max Baca. “It’ll be our special tribute to him. This CD sounds like the new generation of the Texas Tornados. It’s going to be great.”


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