Freddy Fender was born Baldemar Huerta in the Rio Grande Valley town of San Benito, Texas. He grew up in a barrio that, he is quick to point out, was not a crowded ghetto but just a poor Hispanic neighborhood. The first music he played was Tejano, conjunto, Tex-Mex- the rambunctious combination of polka (from the German settlers of Texas) and traditional Mexican music- he learned by watching and listening at weddings and other events in the neighborhood. In 1947, at the age of 10, he made his first appearance on radio, singing a current hit "Paloma Querida", on KGBT in Harlingen, Texas. Another performance of "Paloma Querida" (literally translated "dove" and "loved one") won him a tub of food worth about $10- first prize in an amateur talent contest at the Grand Theater in Harlingen.
At the same time, Fender was getting a first-hand education in the blues. His parents were migrant workers and he traveled with them during the picking season. Many of his fellow workers were black, and some of them, Fender remembers, were good enough singers and musicians to have been professionals. The blues music he heard in the fields would become an integral part of his own unique style.
At 16, he joined the Marines for a three year hitch. After his discharge, he started playing Texas honky tonks and dance halls. Two of his first records, Spanish versions of Elvis' "Don't Be Cruel" and Harry Belafonte's "Jamaica Farewell" on Falcon Records went to Number One in Mexico and South America in 1957. In 1959, Hollywood called him -- not to act but to sign to Imperial Records, the label of such greats as Fats Domino.
He recalls, "I had a gringo manager and started recording in English. Since I was playing a Fender guitar and amplifier, I changed my name to Freddy Fender." A fight in one club left him with a broken nose and a knife wound in his neck. Starting in 1960, Fender spent three years in Angola State Prison, Louisiana, on drug offences and he recorded several tracks on a cassette recorder while in jail, later collected on an album. Upon his release, he secured a residency at a Bourbon Street club in New Orleans. Despairing of ever finding real success, he returned to San Benito in 1969 and took regular work as a mechanic. He gained a sociology degree with a view to helping ex-convicts.
In 1974, he cut "Before The Next Teardrop Falls" in Houston. The master was bought by ABC-Dot, and on April 8, 1975, it reached the Number One spot on Billboard's pop and county charts, the first time in history an artist's first single reached Number One on both charts. His remake of "Wasted Days And Wasted Nights," essentially the same arrangement that had been considered rock and roll the first time around, followed "Teardrop. . " to Number One on the country charts, and his third release, "Secret Love," and fourth release "You'll Lose A Good Thing" also hit the top spot. The album went multi-platinum. Billboard named him Best Male Artist of 1975, and he won both single and album-of the-year honors from The Gavin Report.
Fender's overwrought vocals, which even added something to "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?", were skillfully matched by Huey P. Meaux's arrangements featuring marimbas, accordion, harpsichord and steel guitar. His fuzzy hair and roly-poly body made him an unlikely pop star, but his admirers included Elvis Presley. His voice has also been tapped for successful national radio and television campaigns for McDonald's, Miller Lite and others.
Fender succumbed to alcohol and drugs which forced his wife, in 1985, to enter him in a clinic, which apparently cured him. Fender played a corrupted mayor in the 1987 movie The Milagro Beanfield War, directed by Robert Redford. In 1990, he formed an all-star Tex-Mex band, the Texas Tornados, with long-time friends Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers (from Sir Douglas Quintet), and accordionist Flaco Jiminez. Their eponymous debut album was a critical and commercial success, but subsequent collaborations have failed to match its stylist blend of conjunto, country and R&B. Fender was signed to Warner Brothers Records as a soloist on the back of the group's success. The Freddy Fender Collection, his initial offering, was a disappointing collection of remakes of his early hits. In 2001 he was reported as being unwell with hepatitis.
David Letterman recently introduced Fender to his Late Night audience as "one of the greatest voices in all of music."