Freddy Fender, the “Bebop Kid” of the Texas-Mexico border who later turned his twangy tenor into the smash country ballad “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” died Saturday in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was 69.
Fender was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2006. Over the years, he grappled with drug and alcohol abuse, was treated for diabetes and underwent a kidney transplant.
Fender hit it big in 1975 after some regional success, years of struggling — and a stint in prison — when “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” climbed to No. 1 on the pop and country charts.
“Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” rose to No. 1 on the country chart and top 10 on the pop chart that same year, while “Secret Love” and “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” also hit No. 1 in the country charts.
Born Baldemar Huerta, Fender was proud of his Mexican-American heritage and frequently sung verses or whole songs in Spanish. “Teardrop” had a verse in Spanish.
“Whenever I run into prejudice,” he told The Washington Post in 1977, “I smile and feel sorry for them, and I say to myself, ‘There’s one more argument for birth control.'”
More recently, he played with Doug Sahm, Flaco Jimenez and others in two Tex-Mex all-star combos, the Texas Tornados and Los Super Seven.
He won a Grammy of Best Latin Pop Album in 2002 for “La Musica de Baldemar Huerta.” He also shared in two Grammys: with the Texas Tornados, which won in 1990 for best Mexican-American performance for “Soy de San Luis,” and with Los Super Seven in the same category in 1998 for “Los Super Seven.”
Fender appeared in the 1987 motion picture “The Milagro Beanfield War,” directed by Robert Redford.
In February 1999, Fender was awarded a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame after then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush wrote to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce endorsing him.
Fender was born in San Benito, the South Texas border town credited for spawning the Mexican-polka sound of conjunto. The son of migrant workers who did his own share of picking crops, he also was exposed to the blues sung by blacks alongside the Mexicans in the fields.
Always a performer, he sang on the radio as a boy and won contests for his singing.
But his career really began in the late ’50s, when he returned from serving in the Marines and recorded Spanish-language versions of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaica Farewell.” The recordings were hits in Mexico and South America.
He signed with Imperial Records in 1959, renaming himself “Fender” after the brand of his electric guitar, “Freddy” because it sounded good with Fender.
Fender initially recorded “Wasted Days” in 1960. But his career was put on hold shortly after that when he and his bass player ended up spending almost three years in prison in Angola, La., for marijuana possession.
After prison came a few years in New Orleans and a then an everyday life taking college classes, working as a mechanic and playing an occasional local gig. He once said he sang in bars so dingy he performed with his eyes shut “dreaming I was on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ ”
“I felt there’s no great American dream for this ex-Chicano migrant farm worker,” he told the AP. “I’d picked too many crops and too many strings.”
But his second break came when he was persuaded to record “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” on an independent label in 1974 and it was picked up by a major label. With its success, he won the Academy of Country Music’s best new artist award in 1975. He re-released “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and it climbed to the top of the charts as well.
Fender’s later years were marred by health problems resulting in a kidney transplant from his daughter, Marla Huerta Garcia, in January 2002 and a liver transplant in 2004. Fender was to have lung surgery in early 2006 until surgeons found tumors.