Freddy Fender; Award-Winning Singer

By Lynn Brezosky
Associated Press Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Freddy Fender, 69, 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 Oct. 14 at his home in Corpus Christi, Tex.

He received a diagnosis of lung cancer this year, and over the years had grappled with drug and alcohol abuse, was treated for diabetes and underwent a kidney transplant.

Mr. Fender hit it big in 1975 after years of struggling -- and a stint in prison -- when "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" climbed to No. 1 on the pop and country charts. That same year, "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" rose to No. 1 on the country chart and top 10 on the pop chart, while "Secret Love" and "You'll Lose a Good Thing" also hit No. 1 in the country charts.

Born Baldemar Huerta, Mr. Fender was proud of his Mexican-American heritage and frequently sang 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.' "

He won a Grammy for 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."

Mr. Fender also appeared in the 1987 motion picture "The Milagro Beanfield War," directed by Robert Redford. He was awarded a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1999 after then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush wrote to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce endorsing him.

Mr. Fender said in a 2004 interview with the Associated Press that one thing would make his musical career complete -- induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. "Hopefully I'll be the first Mexican-American going into Hillbilly Heaven," he said.

He was born in 1937 in San Benito, the South Texas border town credited with spawning the Mexican-polka sound of conjunto . The son of migrant workers who did his share of picking crops, he also was exposed to the blues sung by blacks alongside the Mexicans in the fields.

He sang on the radio as a boy and once won a tub full of food worth about $10. But his career really began in the late 1950s, 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." Both 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.

Mr. Fender initially recorded "Wasted Days" in 1960. But his career was put on hold when he and his bass player were convicted of marijuana possession and served almost three years in prison in Angola, La. After prison came a few years in New Orleans and 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.' "

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 rereleased "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," and it climbed to the top of the charts as well.

Mr. Fender's later years were marred by health problems resulting in a kidney transplant from his daughter, Marla Huerta Garcia, in 2002 and a liver transplant in 2004. Mr. Fender was to have lung surgery in early 2006 until surgeons found tumors.

"I feel very comfortable in my life," Fender told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in August. "I'm one year away from 70 and I've had a good run. I really believe I'm okay. In my mind and in my heart, I feel okay. I cannot complain that I haven't lived long enough, but I'd like to live longer."

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