Freddy Fender is in the Country Music Hall of Fame
Every country musician wants to leave their mark on the industry in a way that best encompasses who they really are. Johnny Cash has “Folsom Prison Blues”, willie nelson has “Always on My Mind”, George Strait has “Amarillo by Morning”, and with a rising swell of piano that leads into a pause of pregnant silence that makes you focus on the clear sound of his voice as he sings, Freddy Fender has “Lost Days and Lost Nights.” It’s his most recognized song around the world and one of many he created during a career that spanned six and a half decades and marked a genre forever.
The Freddy Fender story begins in a small group of Texas towns near the US-Mexico border known as the Rio Grande Valley. In the town of San Benito, Texas, lies Baldemar Huerta, the man who would later be known as Freddy Fender. Baldemar grew up in a Mexican-American family and as a child worked alongside his family of migrant workers, who survived the grueling labor across the United States, going from farm to farm picking fruits, vegetables and other cultures that the average American liked to eat at home. From the age of eight to ten, his interest in music would allow him to participate in singing competitions and play in bars in the various towns they visited while working to earn a little extra money. In 1953, at the age of sixteen, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and made it a point in his spare time to play the guitar and learn the rock n’ roll tunes of the day from artists like Ray Charles and Elvis Presley.
In 1956, separated from the Marines and back in the United States, he launched his musical career in earnest, landing a recording contract in 1957 with Falcon Records where he called himself “El Bebop Kid (The Bebop Kid)”. Baldemar Huerta released two songs in 1957 “Ay Amor” and a Spanish version of the song by Elvis Presley “Don’t Be Cruel’/’No Seas Cruel.’ same time Ritchie Valens was establishing himself as the first Hispanic rock n’ roller in the U.S. The irony is palpable now, as Huerta’s days as the El Bebop Kid have been all but forgotten despite his success and Many Rock en Español singers then and now credit Valens with their inspiration due to his perceived status as Mexico’s first performer of rock n’ roll.
Perhaps that’s why “El Bebop Kid” was short-lived, as despite charting overseas for Spanish-speaking audiences, Baldemar Huerta wanted to sing music in English in his home country. After his experience in the Latin American market, and the example and success that Valens had forged, he knew that if he wanted to “blend in” with an American public, he had to change his name and look. The practice of changing an ethnic name to a more “American” sounding name was common practice in the entertainment industry at the time. It is unfortunately a practice that has not completely disappeared even today, but it was thanks to this that in 1959 Baldmer Huerta legally changed his name and Freddy Fender was born.
In 1960 he wrote and recorded a single originally titled “Lonely Days and Lonely Nights” while living in a small makeshift room in a bar in Harlingen, Texas. This lead would be shelved for a time after he was arrested soon after for possession of marijuana while driving through Baton Rouge, Louisiana; after a performance in one of the bars there. In prison, he would receive special permission to record an album from his cell. All the equipment and recording instruments were sent to him to make this disc. Johnny Cash may have recorded an album from inside a state prison before Fender, but there’s something to be said for Cash being able to leave when he was done.
Three and a half years into his five-year sentence, he received an early release from Governor Jimmie Davis, himself known for his writing and singing in country and gospel music and inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1972. Following his early release, Fender would face a challenge that was perhaps, for him, even greater than incarceration. All his life, Fender grew up playing and performing music as part of his life. He claimed that he was told that one of the conditions of his parole was that he stay away from music completely, while at other times he simply stated that he would not. must have been near any establishment serving alcohol. The result was the same; it ended the one thing he loved more than anything in his life. In today’s environment, the crime he was charged with, as well as the conditions of his parole, would be considered untenable, but back then it was considered normal. Thus, the song “Lonely Days and Lonely Nights”, as well as its album recorded in prison will spend 11 years waiting before seeing the light of day.
In 1971 Freddy would return to music and “Lonely Days and Lonely Nights” would become “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights”. He would continue to write music and record until the release of “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” in 1974. This album changed everything for Freddy Fender. It was a hit for country and pop stations and could be considered the crossover of all crossovers for a Hispanic (Mexican-American) artist of the era. From this single recording, the following tracks were traced:
- “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”
- “Lost Days and Lost Nights”
- “The Wild Side of Life”
The accolades he received for the record included Single of the Year at the 1975 Country Music Association Awards, coming in at No. 20 on Billboard, Amusement & Music Operators Association (AMOA) Jukebox Awards for highest grossing songs played on a jukebox and nominated for the 1975 Grammy Awards. These are just to name a few of his personal accolades in 1974 and 1975 , as he would return and win many awards, both on his own and in bands like the Texas Tornados and Los Super Seven. Freddy Fender was no wonder. From 1975 to 1983, he would release fifteen more albums with at least twenty-one successful songs during that time, many with English and Spanish lyrics. Throughout his career, Freddy Fender would see his music covered by Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, LeAnn Rimes and many other notable names in country and pop.
He would go on to have his personal struggles with drugs and alcohol before returning to music after taking a break to perform with supergroups Texas Tornados and Los Super Seven; earning even more nominations and accolades, including his first Grammys, and establishing himself as one of country music’s best-known and most decorated Mexican-Americans. But all of that pales in comparison to his final work, where he would pay homage to his real name: Baldemar Huerta. It took several chart hits and twenty-seven years, but The Music of Baldemar Huerta won a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album in 2002, the first and only time he won as a solo artist.
Freddy Fender was truly the embodiment of the American dream, a migrant worker who came from a small town and worked hard to make a name for himself in order to support his family. Prior to his death, he did an interview with the Associated Press in 2004 discussing what it would mean to be considered for induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, “I hope I’ll be the first Mexican-American to step into Hillbilly Heaven…”
In the seventeen years since that declaration, no Mexican-American or Latino(x) has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Fender, despite his many accomplishments and obvious musical imprint in country music, is still the Phantom of the Opry but remains an inspiration to many Latinos and Mexicans, lurking in the shadows, trying to carve their own way. path in the country music industry in an authentic way. Hopefully, future generations can achieve this without having to change their name or sound more “American” than “Mexican” to be successful as many have done before.
Freddy Fender knew who he was. He is one of an elite group of country artists who made their mark on the industry in his day and continue to do so long after his passing. He, and all of us who come after him, carry the torch for leading the way with music that attempts to meet time and touch the soul. Freddy lived a life in this land full of adversity and struggle, but he met it with patience and perseverance. Given the specific challenges of its time, these might be more difficult than anyone can truly measure. The bilingual music and Latin sounds of Freddy Fender can be heard to this day. Tim McGraw has showcased him on more than one occasion singing his songs with a full mariachi band backing him up. Charley Crockett was keen to mention Freddy’s influence on her life to pursue country music. For all who know him and have been inspired by him, we pay homage to his past and celebrate his legacy with the hope that the rest of the world will once again remember the legacy of Freddy Fender, El Bebop Kid.