Freddy Fender, a highly successful singer of rock-and-roll, popular, country, and Tejano music, was born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito, Texas, on June 4, 1937. The son of migrant farm workers, he began to sing on KGBS, a Harlingen radio station, at the age of ten. When he was sixteen, he dropped out of high school and joined the United States Marine Corps. After serving in the corps for three years, he returned to his native South Texas, where he performed under the names of El Bebop Kid, Eddie Medina, and Scotty Wayne. During this period, his recording of “No Seas Cruel,” the Spanish-language rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” became a Number 1 hit in Mexico and South America. On August 9, 1957, he married Evangelina “Vangie” Muñiz. They had four children. Years later the couple divorced, but they eventually remarried.
In 1959 the singer changed his name to Freddy Fender, combining the brand of his guitar with the name Freddy, which he believed was a perfect match with Fender. He also signed a recording contract with Imperial Records. The following year, he recorded “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” but was also sentenced to a three-year prison term in Angola State Prison in Louisiana after being arrested in Baton Rouge for possession of marijuana. After completing his prison term, Fender resumed his singing career in New Orleans and performed with Aaron Neville and Dr. John but soon returned to San Benito, where he worked as a mechanic. During this time he also took classes at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi and performed music on weekends.
In 1974, working with producer Huey Meaux, he recorded “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” in Houston at SugarHill Recording Studios. The song, released on Meaux’s Crazy Cajun label and subsequently picked up by ABC/Dot, rose to Number 1 on Billboard’s pop and country charts in 1975, the first time any singer’s first single had gained such prominence on both charts. It also became the first bilingual song to hit the country charts; Fender had improvised a verse in Spanish during the studio session. In addition, the re-released “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” climbed to the Number 1 position on Billboard’s country chart, and the publication named Fender its “Top Male Artist” of 1975. That same year he received the award of “Most Promising Male Vocalist” from the Academy of Country Music. A follow-up song, “Secret Love,” also became a country hit later in 1975. In an amazing run from 1975 through 1977, Fender had twelve songs that reached country music’s Top 20, with four tunes reaching Number 1.
In a career that spanned four decades, Freddy Fender achieved fame and popularity as a solo artist and as a member of the Texas Tornados, which he formed with Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, and Flaco Jiménez in 1989, and Los Super Seven, which he formed in 1998 and included Jiménez, members of Los Lobos, as well as Ruben Ramos, Joe Ely, and Rick Treviño. Both groups boasted some of the Lone Star State’s top country, rock-and-roll, and Tejano musicians. Fender’s outstanding talents earned him numerous awards, including induction into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in 1986, Grammy awards for his group work in the Texas Tornados in 1991 and Los Super Seven in 1999, and for his solo work on La Musica de Baldemar Huerta, which won the Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album in 2002. “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” was named one of the top 100 country songs of all time in 2003.
His other accolades included the Hollywood Walk of Fame Star and the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 1999, the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, and the South Texas Music Walk of Fame Star in 2004. In addition to pursuing a musical career, Freddy Fender appeared in several films, including Short Eyes (1977) and The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), and he contributed to the soundtracks of The Border (1982), Lone Star (1996), and numerous others. He also appeared in television specials and performed for the inaugurations of President George Herbert Walker Bush, President William Clinton, and Texas Governor Ann Richards.
In 2000 Fender was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. He received a kidney transplant from his youngest daughter Maria in 2002 and received a liver transplant in 2004. He continued to perform and played his final concert on December 31, 2005. Early in 2006, Freddy Fender became ill, and he died of lung cancer at his home in Corpus Christi on October 14, 2006. A funeral Mass for him was celebrated at the Queen of the Universe Catholic Church in San Benito on October 18, 2006. The Mass was preceded by a funeral procession along Freddy Fender Lane, past the home where he grew up in El Jardin neighborhood. Singer Charlie Rich, Jr., who had once been a member of Fender’s band, sang the singer’s legendary “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” during the service. Texas Governor Rick Perry and Congressman Solomon Ortiz attended the service. Freddy Fender was buried with military honors at the San Benito Cemetery. He was survived by his wife Vangie, two sons, and two daughters.
In death, Freddy Fender’s musical colleagues recalled him as a musical “icon” whose influence on future generations of rock-and-roll, country, and Tejano musicians was substantial. On November 17, 2007, the Freddy Fender Museum opened in San Benito.