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music friday: freddy fender, “before the next teardrop falls”

Pop music fans might have considered Freddy Fender a newcomer when “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” hit the top of the charts in 1975. The song itself came from the mid-60s, and had been recorded many times before Fender got ahold of it. Fender himself had a minor hit with a different song all the way back in 1959, but his career was derailed, and he’d been largely absent from the music scene since then. All of which helps explain why this singer, a man pushing 40, came “out of nowhere.”

That nowhere included some pretty rough places. After “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” got some attention in ‘59, Fender (born Baldemar Huerta … he claimed he chose the name Fender after the guitar, and Freddy because it would look good to the gringos choosing songs on the jukebox) looked prepped for bigger things. But he was sent to jail on a marijuana bust, and not just any jail … he ended up at the Angola prison farm, the same place that housed Lead Belly back in the day. Fender spent three years at Angola before getting a release thanks to the work of then-Governor Jimmie Davis, who apparently (different accounts tell different stories) made a rule that Fender had to stay away from music during his probation. So, Fender bounced around, worked as a mechanic, went to junior college … until 1974, when noted record producer Huey Meaux asked Freddy to dub some vocals on an instrumental track he was working on.

Meaux is a true character of rock and roll, a Cajun with an ear for a good record. He’d done pretty well in the business, and among the musicians trying to get Meaux’s attention was a young Texan named Doug Sahm. In 1964 … well, I’ll let Joseph Levy tell the tale:

[Meaux] soon found himself without a market when Beatlemania hit America. The story goes that Meaux, not to be outdone by a bunch of British upstarts, headed for San Antonio where he shut himself away in a hotel room with a bountiful supply of Thunderbird wine and every Beatles' record he could find, determined to discover what made them sell. His conclusion: "The beat was on the beat, just like a Cajun two-step." He then called Sahm, told him to grow his hair long, form a group, and write a song with a Cajun two-step beat. Doug assembled a band … Meaux gave them an English sounding name, the Sir Douglas Quintet and, in 1965, scored an international hit with "She's About A Mover," an infectious blend of Texas pop and the Beatles' "She's A Woman."

The track Fender dubbed that day in 1974 was, of course, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” Fender apparently wasn’t all that happy with it … he considered himself more of an R&B singer, and this was a country song, albeit one with a Tex-Mex tilt. But Meaux released it, and it became a smash hit, finally busting Fender onto the national stage 15 years after he’d gone to prison. The vocal was gorgeous … Christgau compared Fender to Aaron Neville … and Fender added his own wrinkle to the original lyrics, singing the second verse in Spanish:

Si te quiere de verdad y te da felicidad
te deseo lo mas bueno pa’ los dos
Pero si te hace llorar a mi me puedes hablar
Y estare contigo cuando triste esta

I don’t suppose I have to tell you that tossing in a Spanish verse in the middle of a country song isn’t very common.

Fender may have gotten a late start, but he was no one-hit wonder. He re-recorded his 1959 classic, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” which hit the top of the country charts and made the Top Ten on the pop charts. In a little more than a year, he had two albums and four singles reach #1 on the country charts.

Nothing lasts forever, but Fender always had his voice. In 1989, he joined Sahm and Augie Meyers from the Sir Douglas Quintet, and legendary accordionist Flaco Jiménez to form the Texas Tornados, who enjoyed some popularity in the 90s, until Sahm’s death in 1999. Fender himself died in 2006.

Here, with the Tornados, is his biggest hit:

Here’s “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights”:

And finally, here is the Sir Douglas Quintet with “She’s About a Mover.” They are introduced by Trini Lopez, who deserves a post of his own (numerous hits in the 60s, his own TV series, and to top it off, he was one of the Dirty Dozen). That’s Augie Meyers on organ, and I have to correct myself. For decades I’ve assumed the sound you can hear on this one comes from a Farfisa organ … I use “Farfisa” as shorthand for that sound, kinda like saying “Kleenex” for a tissue. Well, Augie played a Vox Continental, and apparently many “Farfisa” classics were played on a Vox.

What the heck, I’m on a roll. Here’s Trini Lopez: