This group, founded in 1954 in Kingsville, Texas, by brothers Eloy and Paulino Bernal, became one of the most innovative and influential conjunto bands in twentieth-century Mexican-American music.
Eloy (b. March 11, 1937) and Paulino (b. June 22, 1939) were raised in a poor farming family in South Texas. Despite having to quit school to work, the two brothers still found time to hone their musical skills at an early age. Inspired by conjunto pioneers Valerio Longoria and Narciso Martínez, Paulino taught himself accordion, while Eloy learned to play a bajo sexto given to him by his father. They launched their musical career as teenagers in 1952, when they formed the band Los Hermanitos Bernal. The brothers soon distinguished themselves, not only by their musical proficiency, but also by their unique style. Paulino made unprecedented use of the full range of notes on the accordion and began experimenting with four and five-row chromatic accordions. The band was one of the first in conjunto music to encourage experimentation with soloing, phrasing, and more sophisticated mixing of instrumentation. By 1955 the brothers had released their first record, "Mujer Paseada," backed by "Desprecio," for Armando Marroquín's Ideal Records. In the meantime, they renamed their group El Conjunto Bernal.
In addition to playing backup for such popular artists as Carmen y Laura, the brothers soon began developing a reputation as one of the Southwest's premier conjunto bands in their own right. Paulino and Eloy became best-known for their pioneering work in vocal harmony arrangements. With rich two and three-part harmonies, El Conjunto Bernal was the first to incorporate complex vocal harmonics into conjunto music. The group became one of the most technically-accomplished bands of the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the most commercially successful of its genre.
In 1960 the conjunto began recording for Marroquín's new label, Nopal Records. Soon afterwards, the Bernal brothers co-founded their own recording company, Bego Records, with Victor González. Eventually, the brothers split from Bego and formed a new label, Bernal Records. Paulino soon stopped performing, however, and the group went through several new singers, including Ruben Perez and Laura Canales. While Eloy continued touring with the band, Paulino underwent a series of troubles. Beset by problems with alcohol and drugs, Paulino became a "born-again" Christian in 1972. He began playing accordion again and founded Bernal Christian Records, quickly establishing himself as one of the most capable and popular Spanish-language gospel singers. Eloy died on April 22, 1998, when his tour bus was involved in an accident near Corpus Christi. Paulino continued performing.
Arhoolie Records released two reissues of El Conjunto Bernal—Mi Unico Camino (1992) and 16 Early Tejano Classics (1997). The group was inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame in 2001. Paulino Bernal was inducted into the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in San Benito in 2006; his brother Eloy was inducted posthumously in 2009.