Tejanos Mixing It Up
As early as the 1920s, Tejano musicians – Mexican Americans in Texas – played a mix of popular styles that reflected their experiences with Black and White Americans. Not only were they versatile musicians; they created new musical sounds and successful stars that broke racial stereotypes.
In the 1940s, Conjuntos created their own swing sound like this song, “Buena Vista Swing” by Conjunto Alamo. The accordion carries the melody which would normally be played by the horn section of a swing band. The bajo sexto’s swinging “boom chuck” sound (sing) and the walking bass line (sing) are typical of jazz. But when played on conjunto instruments, it sounds different from usual jazz.
Orquestas also added swing to their set lists. Father of the Texas orquesta, Beto Villa arranged this song “Pachuca Blues” which is more typical of jazz except for the hint of accordion.
In the 1950s, “rock and roll” swept the country’s teenagers off their feet. Young Tejanos jumped in, playing rock with conjunto instrumentation, giving it a distinct tejano flavor.
The popular Conjunto Bernal recorded this song “La Novia Antonia” in 1957. The bajo sexto holds that “boom chuck” rhythm while the drums provide the “back beat” that was typical in rock and roll. Can you hear the accordion?
In 1956, some young pachuco hipsters started a rock and roll band called Mando and the Chili Peppers. In 1957 they recorded an LP record, which was a privilege only available to big artists like Elvis. Check out their versatility with these of cover songs wrapped in rock and roll.
Freddy Fender, born Baldemar Huerta, started out as a rock and roll guitarist with the name “Eddie con los Shades.” He played in a garage for groups of his friends; Freddy’d take their favorite tunes and remake them into Spanish versions. Check out this remake of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” renamed “Vamos a Bailar.”
After 1962 Freddy returned to playing conjunto music and later ventured into country music. In 1974 this single “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” hit #1 on the country charts. Here, Freddy switches between English to Spanish. The faint accordion you can hear in the background marks his Tejano roots.
A few years earlier, an aspiring country singer from Sabinal, Texas – Johnny Rodriguez – went to Nashville and recorded a song called “Pass Me By.” It reached #10 on the charts. In 1973 Johnny had two #1 hits, including this song “Ridin’ My Thumb to Mexico.”
His soulful voice has the quality of any country singer. Only his name tells us that he’s Mexican American.