Skip PBS Navigation
Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

You are viewing the non-Flash Latin Music USA website. For a richer experience, make sure that you have version or higher of the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the Flash plug-in for free here.

Watch the Show

The Chicano Wave

Chapter 4: Country Music en Español: Freddy Fender


"If he brings you happiness Then I wish you all the best It's your happiness that matters most of all But if he ever breaks your heart If the teardrops ever start I'll be there before the next tear drop falls"

In Country music too, Chicanos were making an impact, led by Freddie Fender — born Baldemar Huerta in a tiny Texas town near the Mexican border.

With two number-one songs in 1975, the easy-going Fender had become a darling of television variety shows after nearly two decades of battling discrimination and his own demons.

Before Freddie Fender, Mexican-Americans had been pretty much ignored by national television.



FREDDY FENDER It was 1959 I had a song going but I got busted in Baton Rouge, Louisana for smoking grass... And the song had just gotten into the charts. And I had just gotten into the prison. They could not promote me. They gave me five years anyway. Five years for a handful...and it was mostly seeds.


Before being imprisoned at age 23 -- as much for consorting with a married Anglo woman as for possessing marijuana -- Baldemar Huerta had begun to make a name for himself in south Texas, recording Spanish versions of Rock & Roll hits.

TAMMY HUERTA, daughter At a radio station they started calling him El Bebop Kid because that's what he enjoyed you know. Uh, that's what he loved was Rock and Roll, that's, that's who he was El Bebop Kid.


Bent on reaching the English-language market, El Bebop Kid used various names before settling on Freddie Fender — a name he appropriated from his guitar.


In 1959 Fender recorded a song in English that he'd written about his own troubled love life.

TAMMY HUERTA (VO) My mother tells me that he was at a club as he always was at the clubs, you know / and uh I guess he was feeling blue and down again and he wrote that song in, in the, in the toilet, on some toilet paper. You know (OC) and he wanted to name it "Lonely Days and Lonely Nights", but uh, a lot of songs were already you know titled that, you know so that's how it came to be (VO) "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights."

That song would win Freddie Fender a Gold Record years later when he re-recorded it with a new arrangement, but at the time he scrambled just to get it played on local radio, and sang it night after night in dingy dives around Texas and Louisiana.

TAMMY HUERTA The police you know would always have to come almost every night you know bar room fights, and, it was just wild and, and they just loved it you know and, and uh and you know, and my dad always said, uh, if uh, if you didn't have a weapon, they'd give you one at the front door.

His arrest dashed any hopes of quick national success.

He bounced around for the next dozen years doing all manner of odd jobs, from picking cotton to washing cars.

HUEY MEAUX, Record Producer (VO) I was in Corpus Christi getting my car washed (OC) and I hear this guy singing, washing my car. (VO) I said "Hell, that's Freddie Fender, man! I need to meet him bad!" That's when I walked back and said, "You Freddy Fender?" He said "Yeah." I said, (OC) "Freddy, what're you doin' washing damn cars, man?" He said "well I've got too paunchy, you know and they said I'm getting too old." So I said "you ain't never gonna get that old." I said "here's my card, you wanna record come to Houston and we'll get busy."


HUEY MEAUX (VO) I remember when I went to see about him when I first signed him up, (OC) him and his wife were living in what you call a chicken coop, (VO) it was a real chicken coop. You had bunks and beds in there, and he had two or three kids, and that's where he lived at. He was dirt poor. I mean dirt poor.


It still was segregated; it was still uh you know down on Mexicans. (OC) You know it, it was, it'd been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years and I think we just broke the meter when we brought Freddy and broke him Pop you know. And they had to like him whether they liked him or not. He outsold every Country artist they were going. Got the, I got the producer of the year and he got the artist of the year in Nashville. And they hated to give it to him but they had to. Had too many sales.

TAMMY HUERTA (VO) And he knew the suffering of people, and I think that's why he opened up people's hearts, (OC) and they, when they heard his music they opened up their wounds and their hearts and they mended, almost like they were mending or going back to their lives and understanding their suffering through Freddy's music, and Freddy was just trying to tell 'em in his music that it's OK.

Between 1974 and 1983 Freddie Fender had 21 songs on the Country music charts — many with Spanish lyrics.

He had made Mexican-American music impossible to ignore, paving the way for a new generation of Chicano artists.

Explore Further: