You saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune. Underneath it, it said, “A man with no alibi.”
– Bob Dylan
I’m just a popular singer.
– Freddy Fender
El Be Bop Kid is not a kid anymore. “Shit, I’m almost 65,” he says, walking toward the Corpus Christi beach on a mid-January afternoon for another round of photos. His snakeskin boots sink into the shells and sand, he looks out on the white caps and green water, and pronounces the day beautiful. He faces the sun and takes off his leather jacket, waving it above him like a flag of truce. His frizzed mop of hair blows back around his face, which, though slender and wrinkled and without the cherubic plumpness of his salad days, is still stately, still handsome. And he still has the be bop in his smile.
Five days later, Freddy Fender will be in San Antonio, the city where he made the best records of his career, and where a trio of musicians laid down the sparkling guitar parts for his newest and most traditional album, La Musica De Baldemar Huerta. He’ll be asleep, as a surgeon takes a kidney from his 21-year-old daughter Marla and gives it to him.
“The operation has a 100% success rate,” Fender says. “Marla approached Vangie [Fender's wife], not me. She wanted to know why she wasn’t included as a possible donor. But she’s a girl and I’m a man. It wasn’t always that easy to relate to her as I relate to my sons. You can cuss each other and then hug each other. Since going through this, I’ve just come to love her.”
The operation, which took place January 24, was indeed a success. Doctors expect a full recovery, and in fact Fender was making plans to travel to Los Angeles in late February for the Grammy Awards, where La Musica De Baldemar Huerta is nominated for Best Latin Pop Album. Furthermore, he’s scheduled to perform at an Americana Music Association showcase during the South By Southwest Festival in Austin in mid-March.
Back at the surfside hotel room, Fender rolls up a shirt sleeve to show a gaunt, brown arm riddled with small swells and holes from the fistula. “That’s where they take the water out,” he says.
Fender has been on dialysis since November 2000; he is diabetic, his kidneys are failing, and his liver has barely sustained decades of drinking. He has continued to perform, to “keep a little change” in his pocket, but mostly because all his life he’s only really wanted to sing, even if his life has, as often as not, foiled that desire. “I’m gonna keep on singing till I drop on the stage,” he says. “It’s been getting kinda close to that lately.” He laughs, but the laughter doesn’t dispel the truth.
Freddy Fender is one of the great singers and most original stylists in all of American popular music. That his name doesn’t come up more in such discussions owes, perhaps, to the frustrating fits and starts of his career, but also to his inimitability and originality. He is not more influential, not because his music hasn’t been immensely popular or widely known, but rather because no one could sing like him if they tried.
A sonic analog might be heard in fellow Texan Roy Orbison. Both had an instinct for the high drama of pathos, for an uncanny mixture of fear in the heart and fearlessness in phrasing. But Fender’s deeply personal way of drawing on rhythm & blues, doo wop, Latin music, and first-generation rock ‘n’ roll, that carefree hipster soul, and that chilling yet cathartic falsetto, will always be his alone.
No matter what happens, Fender will be known as the first great Mexican-American country star, and the voice behind one of the monster jukebox hits of all time, “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights”. As well he should be. “It has stayed as fresh as a tonic even now,” he says. Why that song, like nearly every song he has sung, has remained so fresh is a secret with a story, and that story begins at the border.
San Benito, Texas, is a small Rio Grande Valley town, just a few miles north of the border. The wide river, La Resaca de Los Fresnos, divides the city and irrigates an otherwise desolate land frocked with mesquite, ebony, and cactus. The town was once named after President Diaz of Mexico, and was home to few white settlers until the turn of the century. To the east, the Gulf brings fresh winds and clement weather. To the west and south, Mexico brings a steady stream of friends, relatives, and workers across the international bridge. Every other street is named for a hero, a patron, or, in the case of San Benito’s most famous son, a singer.
Baldemar Huerta — Fender’s given name — was born June 4, 1937, to a family of campesinos (agricultural workers) in the barrio El Jardin. In his mind’s eye, the town of his youth may be summed up by one word: pobreza. “Poor agricultural workers,” he says. “My grandfather was a widow, my mother and her sister and her husband lived together in a small house with my grandfather. That was at the time my mother met my father, Serapio Huerta, who worked in the fields. For ten dollars, a midwife oversaw my birth. From the time I was a infant, my mother taught me the Spanish language, how to read and write it. By the time I was five or six, and was in grade school, I had to speak English, because if you spoke Spanish, they would hit you in the mouth.”
The sound of Freddy Fender’s voice is the sound of loss and loneliness, of abandonment and poverty, raised to a sweet and tender nostalgia. “I grew up an orphan,” he says. “My father died in January 1945 from tuberculosis. My mother raised us as best she could. We were one of the first families in the town who received welfare — $24 a month, maybe a bit of powdered eggs and butter. I shined shoes, and stole a bit, hubcaps and things, with the gang. Two years after my father died, I was given a beat-up guitar, with a hat inside a ring on the front. It had only three strings. A few months later, in the middle of 1947, I won a talent contest, a first prize of a tub of food. I sang ‘Paloma Querida’.”
Without a pause, he remembers the words, and sings them sweetly:
Por el dia que llegaste a mi vida,
Paloma Querida, me puse a brindar,
Y al sentirme un poquito tomado
Pensando en tus labios, me dio por cantar.
“And that year I began singing on radio stations,” he continues. “And so began my grand career!”