Antonio “Tony” De la Rosa, award-winning pioneer of conjunto music, was born in Sarita, Texas, on November 1, 1931, in a worker’s hacienda on the Kenedy Ranch. One of twelve children in a family of field laborers, De la Rosa began playing music as a child. At the age of six his mother taught him harmonica, and he later learned guitar. Soon afterward, he heard the accordion on the kitchen radio and decided he wanted to play that instrument. By the age of sixteen he had learned to play a two-row, button accordion, which he had ordered from a mail-order catalog. He played at family gatherings and other social events around the Kenedy Ranch and at a dance hall in nearby Riviera. Soon he performed publicly in nearby Kingsville.
De la Rosa was inspired by some of the earlier conjunto pioneers such as Narciso Martínez and Santiago Jiménez, but western swing and honky-tonk music also had an impact on his professional career. In fact De la Rosa was so fond of country music that by the time he was a teenager, he was playing with country bands in small clubs around Kingsville. In later years he would borrow from country singer Red Foley’s popular song “Alabama Jubilee” to compose “El Circo,” one of his best-known polkas.
In 1949 De la Rosa formed his own conjunto band which included himself on accordion and vocals, along with Abel Mendoza (vocals and bajo sexto), Adán De la Rosa (drums, vocals, and bajo sexto), Adan Pérez (bass, vocals), Amadeo Flores (vocals, bajo sexto), Tony Chávez (vocals), and Isidro López (vocals). De la Rosa first signed with Rio Records, founded by Hymie Wolf, but eventually moved to Ideal Records in 1950, which would become one of the most influential Tejano record labels of the twentieth century. Founded in 1946 by Armando Marroquín of Alice, Texas, Ideal Records helped catapult De la Rosa to regional fame.
During his career, De la Rosa introduced several important innovations into conjunto music, including the use of amplified bajo sexto and bass and the practice of slowing polka tempos down to 110–115 beats per minute, as opposed to the faster traditional polka tempo of 130–145 beats per minute. He also is credited with introducing a new dance step known as el tacuachito (“the possum”), which was very popular during the 1950s. He played with a number of notable performers including Carmen y Laura. In the 1960s he added horns to his repertoire. Throughout his career De la Rosa made more than 100 records and had numerous hits, including “Atotonilco,” “La Grulla,” “Los Frijoles Bailan,” “El Sube y Baja,” “Carmela,” “Paloma Sin Nido,” and “Una Cualquiera.”
In 1982 De la Rosa was inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame, and in 1998 the National Endowment for the Arts presented him with a National Heritage Fellowship Award, considered to be one of the highest honors given to a cultural artist. De la Rosa also received recognition from other organizations, including induction into the Hispanic American Entertainment/Pura Vida Hall of Fame in San Antonio, Texas.
On June 2, 2004, Tony De la Rosa died at the age of seventy-two during heart surgery in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was survived by his wife, Lucia, three sons, a daughter, two stepsons, and numerous other family members. He was inducted posthumously into the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in San Benito in 2006.