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Tornado warning: Freddy Fender (r) and Flaco Jimenez
Tornado warning: Freddy Fender (r) and Flaco Jimenez


VAYA CON DIOS

Freddy Fender, a titanic presence in Texas music who influenced generations of Lone Star rock & roll, country, and Tejano singers, passed away Saturday at his home in Corpus Christi. The Grammy-winning artist behind "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" suffered a number of health problems recently, including diabetes, hep C, and lung cancer, and was discharged from San Antonio's University Hospital last Thursday after undergoing treatment for a blood infection. He was 69.

"Freddy is absolutely on the Mount Rushmore of Texas singers, along with Roy Orbison, Tommy Duncan, and Janis Joplin," says Texas Music Office director Casey Monahan.

Fender was born Baldemar Huerta on June 4, 1937, to a family of migrant workers in the small Rio Grande Valley town of San Benito. He sang on Harlingen radio station KGBS at age 10, and at 16 left school for a three-year stint in the Marine Corps. Afterward, aspiring to become the first Chicano rock & roll star, he began composing Spanish lyrics to popular songs and became known around South Texas as El Bebop Kid. "No Seas Cruel," his version of Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel," hit No. 1 in Mexico and South America.

"When Elvis sung, you knew it was Elvis. When Freddy sung, you knew it was Freddy," says Augie Meyers, who befriended Fender in 1957 at a San Antonio battle of the bands and decades later joined him, Doug Sahm (whom Fender met that same day), and Flaco Jimenez in the Texas Tornados.

"When you hear that voice, you knew who it was, even if you didn't know the guy," continues Meyers. "He was an icon."

Huerta adopted the name Freddy Fender, after his preferred make of guitar, in 1959, the same year he joined Fats Domino on Imperial Records. The next year Fender had a modest hit with "Wasted Days," which would become his signature song, but his career was temporarily derailed after an arrest for marijuana possession in Baton Rouge, La. He served three years of five, found scattered work in New Orleans nightclubs, and eventually returned to San Benito, where the lifelong motorcycle enthusiast worked as a mechanic and took sociology classes.

In 1974, Fender met notorious Gulf Coast producer Huey P. Meaux and recorded "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" in Houston. Meaux shopped the song to major labels, who declined, and released it on his Crazy Cajun label. It was a smash hit, topping Billboard's country and pop charts, and was named the No. 86 country song of all time in 2003. Fender then re-released "Wasted Days," which hit No. 1 country and No. 8 pop, and was named Billboard's Top Male Artist of 1975. Over the next two years, he charted six more songs in the country Top 10, including Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose a Good Thing," Sahm's "The Rains Came," and Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby," which Fender recut in Spanish on the soundtrack to John Sayles' 1996 film, Lone Star.

Fender's last charting single was 1983's "Chokin' Kind," which only reached No. 87. Not long after he appeared in Robert Redford's 1988 film The Milagro Beanfield War, Sahm recruited him to join the Texas Tornados. The Tex-Mex supergroup released five albums on Reprise between 1990 and 1996 and won a 1991 Best Mexican-American Performance Grammy for "Soy de San Luis." Alongside Sahm, Jimenez, Ruben Ramos, and many others, Fender appeared on 1998's Grammy-winning Los Super Seven LP and won his first solo Grammy for 2001's La Musica de Baldemar Huerta. He was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame in 1986 and both the Country Music Hall of Fame and Texas Music Hall of Fame in 1999.

San Benito dedicated a water tower bearing Fender's likeness last year; a Freddy Fender museum in his hometown is also planned. Fender is survived by his wife, Vangie; sons Baldemar "Sonny" Huerta Jr. and Daniel Huerta; and daughters Tammy Huerta Mallini and Marla Huerta Garcia.

Funeral and memorial plans are pending.

"He was fun to be with," remembers Meyers. "We'd just sit there and crack each other up all the time with jokes. There'll never be another voice like Freddy."

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