Tony “Ham” Guerrero, Grammy-nominated trumpeter and songwriter, was born on February 20, 1944, to Rudy Guerrero and Mar í a H. Mart í nez. Guerrero was raised in San Angelo, Texas, by his grandparents who encouraged him to pick up the trumpet at age eight. His talent for music led him to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1964 Guerrero moved to Oakland, California, where he played with a jazz band, the Ed Kelly Quartet. At the request of a friend, Guerrero formed the Tony Martínez Orchestra as the house band at the Newark Pavilion and opened for different popular orquestas and conjuntos from Texas. While playing at the Pavillion, Guerrero’s band opened at sold-out shows for acts such as El Conjunto Bernal , Los Gorriones del Topo Chico, Tony de la Rosa , Ruben Vela , Rudy and the Reno Bops, Sunny and the Sunliners , and Little Joe and the Latinaires.
While playing in Oakland, Guerrero met the frontman of Little Joe and the Latinaires, Joe Hernández. Hernández recruited Guerrero into the band in 1967 for his trumpet playing and knowledge of music theory. Upon his return to Texas, Guerrero arranged horn parts for the Latinaires’ ten-piece orquesta based out of Temple, Texas. In 1968 the revamped band recorded Arriba, their first album with Guerrero, and played shows in dance halls across Texas. The band decided to change their style to reflect the Chicano and counter-culture movements growing in popularity during that time. The band first changed their name to Little Joe y La Familia as a sign of pride in their Spanish-speaking roots. With the name change they also switched from sporting tuxedos to bell-bottom jeans and shaggy hair. Saxophone player Jimmy Flores gave Guerrero his nickname of “Big Ham,” which was shortened to “Ham.”
To give the band’s horn section a deeper sound that reflected both American and Mexican influences, Guerrero convinced trombonist and arranger Joe Gallardo to join the band. Working with Gallardo, Guerrero helped craft a new sound for La Familia that merged American swing, jazz, and rock with Mexican ranchero music in their successful 1972 album Para la gente. Included in the album is the song “las nubes” (Clouds) that became a Chicano movement anthem. Despite the success of the album, internal conflicts within the band led to the firing of Guerrero and other members by Hernández.
The expelled members formed a new band called Tortilla Factory that played the same style of music Guerrero helped develop for La Familia. The new band released its debut album La Malagueña in 1973 and a self-titled album in 1974 as they relocated to Oakland, California. Despite commercial success from albums and live shows, shifting trends in the late 1980s led to Tortilla Factory breaking up. Guerrero and his family opened up a night club in Austin called Club Islas, that they operated for four years. In 2000 Guerrero restarted Tortilla Factory and eventually brought his children Laura and Alfredo into the group along with the band’s former frontman and lead singer Bobby Butler. After reuniting, the band was nominated for a Grammy in 2009 for their album All That Jazz and in 2010 for their album Cookin’.
On January 10, 2011, Guerrero suffered a heart attack and slipped into a coma. He died in Austin at North Austin Medical Center on January 29, 2011. Guerrero, a Catholic, was survived by Norma (his wife of forty-six years), sons Alfredo, Sergio, Sean, and Anthony, and daughter Laura. His memorial service was held at St. Louis Catholic Church in Austin. Guerrero’s innovative songwriting and trumpet playing can be heard on forty albums and in the repertoire of Tejano bands such as Little Joe y La Familia and Tortilla Factory. His life work remains an important contribution to the music and culture of Texas. He was inducted into the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame and West Texas Music Hall of Fame.