Isidro “El Indio” López, considered the major innovator of the contemporary orquesta Tejana tradition (Tejano orchestra), was born in Bishop, Texas, on May 15, 1933, to a working class family. He grew up in a two-room house, picked cotton as a youngster, graduated from high school, and studied for one year at Texas A&I in Kingsville (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville). The appellation “El Indio,” which became a standard way of referring to him, was derived from the Mescalero Apache background of one of his parents.
López learned to play guitar from an uncle when he was twelve years old, and he took up the alto saxophone and clarinet in high school. He also received instruction from orquesta musicians such as Tony Ornelas and Mike Cuesta who lived in nearby Corpus Christi, Texas. From his earliest days as a musician, López valued both the conjunto and the orquesta traditions, considering them equally important. Indeed, as a young man he played with the “father” of conjunto music, Narciso Martínez, and also gained professional experience playing with the orquestas of Eugenio Gutiérrez, Juan Colorado, and Balde González.
In about 1955 Isidro López started his own orquesta Tejana. With his saxophone-playing ability and singing talent, he soon established himself as a highly-regarded member of the Tejano music industry. As a recording artist for Ideal Records, López recorded more than sixty singles and eight albums. The unique musical style he created included the ranchero sound of the Mexican mariachi tradition blended with the orquesta tradition established by Beto Villa. López labeled this range of styles “Texachi,” which combined the words “Texas” with “mariachi.” Early on López recorded such popular songs as “Emoción pasajera” and “Ando sufriendo y penando.” He also recorded “Mala cara,” which was a combination of ranchero-rock music, adding to his reputation as an innovative musician. By 1960 he was considered the top bandleader of his era. In the 1960s López’s orquesta grew to fifteen members.
For approximately twenty years, Isidro López and his orquesta maintained a busy recording and performing schedule. The group’s addition of jazz and Cuban boleros and López’s great singing helped ensure that his orquesta ushered in contemporary Tejano music, commonly referred to after 1960 as the “Tex-Mex” sound. His addition of accordions, rock-and-roll, polkas, and mariachi to his orquesta, along with his commitment to the ranchero sound, clearly made him a pioneer of the Tex-Mex musical tradition.
From the 1950s through the mid-1960s López’s prominence as a great orquesta Tejana leader and singer was unquestioned, and he remained very popular with audiences. His status diminished somewhat with the rise of Little Joe (Hernández) and the Latinaires and Sunny (Ozuna) and the Sunliners, two of the top Tex-Mex tradition musicians. Nevertheless, López’s place as a musical innovator had already been established. In later years, he received accolades for his contributions to the state’s musical heritage. He was an inductee into the Tejano Music Awards Hall of Fame in 1983 and into the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2002 Texas Governor Rick Perry honored him with the Tejano Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.
Isidro “El Indio” López died on August 16, 2004. His passing was mourned by many colleagues and fans with more than 500 attending his funeral service at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Corpus Christi. He was buried at Seaside Memorial Park, near Corpus Christi Bay. López is honored in the South Texas Music Walk of Fame.