Ruben Vela, accordion player and bandleader, was born in San Antonio, Texas, on May 10, 1937. He was the son of Alvento and Emilia (Guzman) Vela. Ruben Vela, whose career spanned sixty years, is best-known for his distinct conjunto accordion style, which helped lay the foundation for the emergence of Tejano music during the 1970s and 1980s.
Vela grew up in Relampago and Mercedes in the Rio Grande valley. When he was only eleven years old, his mother bought him a Hohner accordion for seventy dollars, a substantial amount of money for an impoverished family of ten children. At first, his father disapproved, because he wanted his son to play the drums, but he relented after hearing the boy perform on accordion. Initially, Vela only played for his family, but as his skills increased and his musical repertoire expanded, he began performing publicly. When he was twelve, Vela was playing regularly at restaurants and other public venues in order to supplement the family’s income.
In 1949 Vela formed the group Ruben Vela y Los Embajadores, which consisted of Ruben, his brother Eduardo on drums, and Elia De La Cruz on guitar. During the mid-1950s Vela played regularly on KGBT-AM in Harlingen. Around that time he signed with Arnaldo Ramírez’s Falcon label and released the instrumental single “Adolorido” in 1956. That same year Vela added vocalist Ray Rivera. He and his group started touring in 1959 which included stints in the Midwest and Southwest. On April 19, 1962, he married Amalia Garza. Later that year he and his wife settled in Santa Rosa, Texas, in Cameron County, where they would make their home the rest of their lives. They had two sons and a daughter.
As the years progressed, Vela played at a number of ballrooms and dance halls, such as the Gonzales Ballroom in Raymondville, Texas. He often stated that he wanted to be different musically, and for people “to listen to my tunes and say, ‘hey, that’s Ruben Vela.’” His trademark upbeat tempo on the accordion and his incorporation of the electric bass and guitar into his conjunto ensemble helped Vela create what some have called the “happy dance hall sound.” Vela played a mixture of polkas, rancheras, and cumbias. Stylistically, he borrowed from earlier accordionists, especially Narcisco Martínez and Tony de la Rosa. Though he had heard many other pioneering accordionists early in life, he claimed that he was not influenced by any particular musician. Vela’s upbeat rancheras and cumbias represented what many critics considered to be a more refined conjunto dance hall sound than that of his predecessors. According to some observers, his “percolating accordion and a galloping percussion” made Vela’s style more energetic and uplifting than that of many other conjunto accordionists.
In addition to being an accomplished musician, Vela was an innovator. Although not the first to do so, he played a leading role in introducing electric bass, drums, and synthesizers into conjunto music. This helped make traditional conjunto music more appealing to a younger generation of Tejanos, or Texas Mexicans, including Roberto Pulido y Los Clasicos, Los Chamacos, and Michael Salgado, all of whom would help define modern Tejano music.
Over the years, Vela recorded on various labels, including Freddie, Joey, Hacienda, and Crown Records. His upbeat tempo and rapid playing style earned him the nickname “El Principe de la Alegria” (“The Happy One”). He was also known as the “King of the Dance Hall Sound.” Vela and his band performed on radio stations and dance halls throughout the Rio Grande valley, Northern Mexico, and the American Southwest during the 1980s and 1990s. He was inducted into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in 1983 at the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio.
Vela’s hits included “Te Regalo El Corazon,” “Mire Amigo,” and “El Oso Negro,” but it was later in life, in the late 1990s, when he recorded his international hits “El Coco Rayado” and “La Papaya,” the latter of which earned him nominations for three Tejano Music Awards. In 2001 he was inducted into the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame, and in 2003 he was inducted into the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame (San Benito).
Vela died in Harlingen, Texas, on March 9, 2010. He was buried at Restlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in La Feria.