Freddy Fender, a Grammy-winning musician who was one of the first Mexican American artists to successfully cross over to the mainstream pop market and who helped introduce Tex-Mex music to a wider audience in the 1990s, has died. He was 69.
Fender, who had been fighting lung cancer since early this year, died Saturday at his longtime home in Corpus Christi, Texas, a family spokesman said.
Open about his battles with drug and alcohol abuse, Fender also had struggled with diabetes and hepatitis C. He had a kidney transplant in 2002 using an organ donated by a 21-year-old daughter. Two years later, he got a liver transplant.
“I feel very comfortable in my life. I’m one year away from 70 and I’ve had a good run,” Fender told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in August after his cancer was diagnosed as incurable.
His life as a performer could be viewed as three distinct acts and included an interlude in prison.
He began as a 1950s balladeer who performed rock covers in Spanish as El Be-Bop Kid, then came back in 1975 as a country act with the chart-topping hit “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” In the 1990s, he earned high praise as a member of the Texas Tornados, a Tex-Mex group of all-stars.
“Texas has been blessed with a handful of singular voices that define the sound of our state and the pinnacle of artistic expression,” Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office in Austin and a former music critic, told the Dallas Morning News in 1997.
In 2001, Fender received a Grammy Award for best Latin pop album for “La Musica de Baldemar Huerta.” He also shared two other Grammys for best Mexican American performance in 1990 with the Texas Tornados and in 1998 with another group of Latin all-stars, Los Super Seven.
With his pompadour haircut and Spanish-language cover of “Don’t Be Cruel” (“No Seas Cruel”) and other songs, Fender was considered the “Elvis of the Rio Grande.”
“I was the first to take Hispanic rock ‘n’ roll south of the border,” Fender told the Sacramento Bee in 2002. “I demand recognition for being the one that broke it in.”
The curtain fell hard on Fender’s early career when he was arrested in 1960 in Baton Rouge, La., for possession of a small amount of marijuana. He spent almost three years in the Louisiana state prison at Angola.
“I’m not bitter, but if friends ask, I still say the three years I had to spend in Angola state prison was a long time for a little mistake,” he told the Associated Press in 1975.
After his release, Fender spent several years living in San Benito, Texas, and playing gigs on weekends. He worked as an auto mechanic and studied sociology at a community college.
He found fame on the national stage in the mid-1970s when record producer Huey Meaux persuaded Fender to bring his soulful tenor to country music. Recorded for a regional label in Texas, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” became the nation’s No. 1 pop and country hit in April 1975. The mellow song included a verse in Spanish.
Later that year, Fender recorded a version of the Doris Day hit “Secret Love,” which reached No. 20 on the charts, and remade his late 1950s recording “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” which climbed to No. 8.
Other pop and country hits followed.
The late 1970s were the “best years of my life” artistically, Fender told The Times in 1992, but drugs and alcohol had taken a toll by the mid-1980s.
“Even well into my career, my thing was always music and a good time.... Any problem I had, I would drink it away. I would cocaine it away,” Fender told the Morning News.
His wife and friends persuaded him to seek treatment, and he spent time in a drug rehabilitation center in 1985.
After he emerged, his career took a mild Hollywood turn. Robert Redford called to ask him to appear as the mayor in the 1988 film “The Milagro Beanfield War.” Fender also acted in several other movies.
In 1989, Fender was “playing bookings for peanuts” when he was asked to team with three other elder statesmen of the Tex-Mex sound — Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez — to form the Texas Tornados.
“You’ve heard of New Kids on the Block? Well, we’re the old farts in the neighborhood,” Fender, then 54, joked to People magazine in 1991.
Branded the “Tex-Mex equivalent of the Traveling Wilburys and Grateful Dead” by the Detroit Free Press, the group recorded and performed off and on through much of the 1990s.
They received overwhelmingly positive reviews for their classic Texas mix of country, rock and Tejano. One hit was “Little Bit Is Better Than Nada,” which was featured on the soundtrack of the 1996 film “Tin Cup.”
Still, Fender remained committed to a career as a solo artist, alternately touring alone and with the Tornados. In 1998, he reunited with Jimenez to appear with Los Super Seven.
Asked by The Times in 1990 if he hoped to use the Tornados as a vehicle to jump-start his solo career, Fender answered: “Is pork chops greasy? I guess we all want it.”
He was born Baldemar Garza Huerta on June 4, 1937, in the south Texas town of San Benito and raised around traditional ranchera music, which is heavily influenced by polka. His father, who sang casually, died of tuberculosis in 1945.
With his large extended family, Fender started traveling north when he was about 10 to pick cherry orchards, tomato patches and cotton fields. His guitar was usually nearby, and he learned to appreciate the blues sung by the blacks he worked alongside.
Inspired by the 1949 John Wayne movie “Sands of Iwo Jima,” Fender lied about his age — he was 16 — and joined the Marines. He served from 1954 to 1956. He had dropped out of school in the eighth grade.
After his military discharge, he decided to pursue a career as a rocker and was advised to change his name to soften his ethnicity to appeal to a wider audience. He renamed himself Freddy Fender after the Fender guitars and amplifiers he used.
In 1957, he married the former Evangelina Muniz, who survives him. The couple divorced after he got out of prison in 1963 and remarried two years later. They had five children; one son died in a car accident.
“The only thing that has ever been good to me is my music.... It got me out of a lot of predicaments,” Fender told the Morning News in 1997. “When I open my mouth and I start singing like a little bird, everything is OK.”