David Letterman once called his one of the greatest voices in all of music.
Baldemar Huerta, known worldwide as Freddy Fender, rose from the humble beginnings of a migrant worker to the summit of fame in the mainstream music industry — and he did it three times. And although he changed his name to the more American alliteration, Fender was one of the first artists to successfully incorporate Spanish lyrics into popular music.
His distinctive tenor voice had a ringing simplicity that gave an impression of purity, and the simplicity of his songs reflected a similar purity, reflected in a life and career that never strayed too far from his home in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
Fender first gained popularity in the 1950s with Spanish-language covers of popular songs including Harry Belafonte’s “Jamaican Farewell” and Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”
A drug conviction and three years in a Louisiana prison derailed his career in the 1960s, but Fender continued playing small venues until his recording of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and other songs turned him into one of the top country performers of the 1970s. Even at the height of his fame in American country music, Fender continued to weave Spanish into his English-language hits, and to sing Spanish classics such as “Vaya con Dios” and “Allá en el Rancho Grande.”
That respect for the culture and language of his ancestors continued through his third stint on the music charts, as a member of the legends group the Texas Tornadoes.
We can all learn from his persistence, and his willingness to work his way back to the top over and over again. His eternal respect for his origins, even amid success in the world of pop culture, is equally admirable. It’s worth noting that the last of his three Grammy awards was for a complete throwback to his roots, an album titled “La Música de Baldemar Huerta.”
People who knew Fender note how he always remained a man of simple tastes, who never was overwhelmed by the trappings and attention of fame. That fact is also worthy of note to so many of us who might try too hard to impress others with fancy clothes, gaudy jewelry or other accouterments of success.
Certainly, we can also learn from his mistakes. Freddy Fender is the latest of many celebrities like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings who have left this world far too soon after years of hard living caught up to them. Although his death earlier this month is attributed to cancer, his later years were marked by battles with hepatitis and other health problems that included a kidney transplant from his daughter.
Baseball great Mickey Mantle died thinking he was a failure. After receiving a liver transplant in 1995, Mantle warned others to take better care of themselves. “God really blessed me,” Mantle said. “And I blew it.” Noting that many considered him a role model, he continued: “This is a role model. Don’t be like me.”
Freddy Fender, on the other hand, always showed a brighter side. Even as he acknowledged his mistakes and the effects of his lifestyle, he remained positive. Even to the end, according to his widow Vangie, he talked about getting better and returning to the stage. As someone who grew from abject poverty to the heights of fame and fortune, he seemed willing to take on every challenge, including poor health.
This indomitable spirit and positive attitude could be Baldemar Huerta’s greatest legacy. Even though many of his greatest hits were songs about heartbreak and hard times, the popular image of him is as a jovial troubadour, a man with a constant smile as big as the unruly head of hair he wore like a halo, a man who seemed happy with his place in the world.
One thing is certain: Freddy Fender made the world a happier place for many people.