No one who has seen Ray Price & the Cherokee Cowboys in the past three decades will forget the band’s pianist, Blondie Calderon. Besides serving as leader and arranger for one of the most respected bands in American popular music, Calderon also traded gibes with Price throughout the show in recent years, and his spirited performance of “El Rancho Grande”, for which Calderon donned a preposterously large sombrero, would inevitably bring down the house. With laughter filling the hall, Blondie would bow and laugh to himself, then slide back behind the piano. He was more than happy to return the spotlight to his boss, though his gentle rhythms and perfect, shimmering solos were ever emerging to take it right back. On October 23, 2000, bound for a show aboard the Cherokee Cowboys’ tour bus, Calderon died of a heart attack. He was 60 years old.
Moises “Blondie” Calderon was born June 26, 1940, in Del Rio, Texas. Calderon began teaching himself piano when he was just a boy; his formal musical training was limited to a few lessons at age 9 and a year of study at San Jose State in California at age 18. By that time, Calderon had become a devotee of Latin jazz, particularly the quintet recordings of pianist George Shearing and his vibraphonist Cal Tjader. In 1959, Calderon’s parents asked him to return to Del Rio to take over Menos Restaurant, the family business since 1936. He agreed on one condition: He wanted to add a bandstand and dance floor to the restaurant. Under his management, Menos was soon featuring performances by Blondie Calderon & His Latin Sextet, beginning a tradition of Tuesday and Thursday night jam sessions (including jazz, boleros, country and pop) that endures at Menos to this day.
Early in 1967, Calderon received his big break when a friend tipped him off that Ray Price, looking to recreate his “Danny Boy” sound on the road, was looking for sidemen. Calderon passed the audition, becoming the Cherokee Cowboys’ vibraphonist. When in the early ’70s Calderon switched to piano, he also assumed responsibilities as Price’s bandleader, arranger and musical partner. In the early ’90s, the pair recorded Los Dos, a Spanish-language album available at the band’s road dates; more recently, Calderon’s piano was an essential ingredient in the half-country, half-big-band-pop sound of Price’s Prisoner Of Love. For nearly three decades, Calderon was the singer’s most trusted collaborator, a Ralph Sharon to his Tony Bennett.
Eventually, Calderon even became a featured part of the act. “We poked fun at each other onstage, the Mexican and the old gringo,” Ray Price says over the phone from his ranch near Perryville, Texas. “A lot of people thought it was in bad taste. But they don’t realize that when he came to work for me there was still signs in south Texas that said ‘Mexicans Not Welcome.’ We were making fun, showing how foolish those old attitudes were.
“He was a great jazz player, he could play anything, and he was my best friend,” Price continues. “You can’t live with a man almost 34 years, and be invited into his family, and not feel a great loss. Mexicans have a word for that [sort of relationship]: Compadre. I was his compadre and I was proud to be it. I really miss him.”