Remembering ‘El Parche’ a year after his death

Jordan, left, with the author in San Antonio. Behind, drummer Alejandro Valdez. - Mario Pérez
Mario Pérez
Jordan, left, with the author in San Antonio. Behind, drummer Alejandro Valdez.

August 13 will mark the first anniversary of the death of accordion legend Esteban “Steve” Jordan. He left behind a musical legacy that will never be equaled in Chicano history: close to 60 albums (eight of them unreleased), a Jordan-ized band of sons, and a string of regional hit songs that spanned over four decades. He penned the unofficial Chicano national anthem, “Soy de Tejas,” and created a genre of music with only one practitioner — himself. Jordan was, in my estimation, the only musical genius Chicanos have ever produced.

I officially met him in 2004 in San Antonio. I drove down from Austin specifically to hear him play, but as the only sober client at the club that night, wound up as the doorman collecting the show money — a position I would hold for the next six years. I say “officially met” because, unofficially, I had known Jordan all my life. In my little hometown of Robstown, Jordan was a local legend, having used our town’s barrios as a backdrop to one of his biggest hits, “Juan Charrasquis (El Johnny).”

But, for decades, Jordan proved to be elusive to me until I showed up that Friday night at Saluté International Bar. Those next six years at the club door were spent muscling a reluctant raza into paying the cover charge, keeping the club a photo-free institution, and, most importantly, getting a front-row seat to The Greatest Show in Texas. Jordan, known affectionately as “El Parche” due to his eye patch, would start every night on a high note, with his standard funk groove, and then get the party started with a high-velocity ranchera.

But after the party was over and everyone cleared out of the club, a more contemplative Jordan would emerge. It was with that Jordan that I would sit and talk. He appreciated that I asked him only about his music and seldom ventured into his personal life. As a collector, I was fascinated by the maturity of his early work. So I began to ask questions, and he began to talk, reluctantly.

He had been around during the adolescence of conjunto music. Like those early conjunto pioneers, he and his family moved around on the migrant circuit. Unlike them, however, Jordan was getting his musical knowledge from the jazz, country, rock ’n’ roll, and mariachi he was tuning in to at every stop. Before the age of 10, he was already an accomplished musician; as a young boy he would take off in search of a gig with any migrant truck heading to a new city. I asked him if his parents didn’t worry about him doing this. “They couldn’t hold me back,” he said. Indeed, they couldn’t. For the rest of his life, no one could.

What Jordan did the rest of his life was create the most honest expression of the confluence of Chicano life. Only Jordan could turn a jazz standard like “Midnight Sun” into a polka, redo “Georgia On My Mind” in Spanish, or add jazz riffs to the bolero “Mucho corazón.” Only he had the talent to do that. His best songs read like odes to the barrio landscape, and the characters in his songs were our neighbors and relatives. We all knew a Johnny, a Petra, a Facundo; we knew Los Dos Carnales.

And he managed to create original, popular songs decade after decade, without fail. I once naively asked him, “Have you ever recorded any filler songs for your albums?” Without missing a beat, he snapped sternly at me: “Vato, I don’t record B-sides; all my songs are A-sides.” Listen to his last album; it’s equally as good as any he had released before.

If Jordan thought of his legacy, we never discussed it. He always acted like he would live forever; after all, he had already defied death once when he was almost fatally stabbed after a gig outside a New Mexico club in 1973. Fortunately, he came back to make 40 more years of great music. In the last years of his life, despite having nine unreleased albums, I would still see him walking around his house with a cassette recorder, putting down lyrics for new songs. I asked him what songs he had in mind. He said he was still carrying around songs from his youth that he planned to record. El Bro never stopped.

The band my friend left behind, Río Jordan, is as close as fans will ever get to him again. According to his sons, Ricardo and Esteban Jordan III, they’re currently finishing up their first studio album, and based on the song list — “La múcura,” “El zopilote mojado” — it seems Jordan is in the studio giving orders as usual. Ricardo, the band’s bass player, plays some accordion on the album, and Esteban III is featured on several instruments. After the album’s release, the Jordan brothers plan to tour, then sit down and work on their father’s unreleased albums.

That’s a lot of Jordan. It looks like my friend did think of his legacy after all. •