Baldemar Garza Huerta was born in 1937 in San Benito, a remote town of about 10,000 people in Southeast Texas. Mexican-Americans were largely invisible then; their experience and their culture of little interest outside the border region. As a young man, he became interested in music, but with a name like his he knew he would never get anywhere. So he changed it, becoming Freddy Fender. He chose Fender in honor of his guitar; Freddy because of the alliteration.
The first music he played was called Conjunto – a rambunctious combination of polka from the German and Czech settlers of Texas - and traditional Mexican music played mostly by itinerant bands and centered on a button accordion, often accompanied by a 12-string guitar, a violin and occasionally, a drum.
“We didn’t have streetlights in San Benito then,” Fender recalls. “I would hear the music and sneak out onto the street and see these little fireflies of light, which were the cigarettes in the hands of the players, and that was where it was happening. These were just home guys – they picked cotton or whatever and then they’d come home and play the hell out of those old songs.” At the same time, Fender was learning the Blues while working alongside African Americans in the fields as a migrant worker, following the crops season by season. The Blues became part of his own musical style.
He began to play Spanish covers of rock and roll songs and was good enough to get local radio play as El Bebop Kid. In 1959 he wrote “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” a tune about his troubled love life, and began touring clubs in Texas and Louisiana. The song had just made it to the charts when he was arrested in Louisiana for possession of marijuana. He was sentenced to five years in prison – as much for consorting with a married Anglo woman as for possessing marijuana.
He bounced around for the next dozen years, doing odd jobs and finally staging a comeback in 1975 with two number-one songs in the Country charts, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and a remake of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” Throughout the remainder of the '70s, Fender's success continued; in 1976, he had a number-two single “Living It Down.” That same year, he released two more albums, “Your Cheatin' Heart” and “Rock 'N' Country.” In 1977, he also issued a holiday record, Merry Christmas/Feliz Navidad. His last hit to make the charts was “Chokin' Kind,” in 1983.
In the early 1990s Fender and other artists put together a band, The Texas Tornados, and in 1996 he joined Los Super Seven, an all-star lineup of Mexican American artists that included another Tex-Mex legend, Flaco Jimenez, as well as David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of the East Los Angeles rock and roll band Los Lobos. By then Mexican music and Mexican culture had moved to the mainstream behind the Chicano Movement and the thriving Mexican immigrant populations of the Southwest. Los Super Seven were honored with a Grammy Award in 1998, playing, among others, Conjunto songs of Freddy Fender’s childhood, from the time he was still known as Baldemar Garza Huerta.
He died in 2007, at age 69.
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty