By Terence McArdle
Thursday, August 19, 2010; B07
Esteban "Steve" Jordan, 71, the innovative Tejano accordionist who broadened the range and repertoire of conjunto music in the 1970s and influenced such performers as Los Lobos and Brave Combo, died Aug. 13 at his home in San Antonio. He had liver cancer.
Mr. Jordan added many electronic devices to the instrument and adapted jazz standards such as "Harlem Nocturne" and "Midnight Sun" to a genre best known for its polkas, waltzes and boleros. He was often called the Jimi Hendrix of the button accordion.
A charismatic performer who often dressed in purple vests and shiny gold shirts with buccaneer sleeves, Mr. Jordan was known as "El Parche" (the Patch) because of the snakeskin pirate's patch he wore over his right eye. On recordings, he used the Spanish and English forms of his first name, Esteban and Steve, interchangeably.
Juan Tejeda, organizer of the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, once called him "one of the best accordion players in the world and the history of conjunto music. He's a maverick, a rebel, he's an innovator."
In addition to singing, Mr. Jordan said he played more than 20 instruments. His credits included guitar work with the Latin jazz percussionist Willie Bobo in the 1960s -- a job that opened his ears to rhythms and harmonies beyond the traditional conjunto style.
But it was on the accordion that he made his mark as he added rock effects such as echo and synthesizers to its basic sound, creating a layered sound that Latino disc jockeys dubbed "psychedelic polka."
Mr. Jordan played a traditional button accordion, not a piano type. However, it was no ordinary model. He took it apart to retune the reeds and extend its harmonic range. The Hohner company in Germany later built a custom model for him, the Tex-Mex Rockordeon, with leveled buttons for faster fingering.
Esteban Jordan was born Feb. 23, 1939, in Elsa, Tex., in the Rio Grande Valley. He was one of 15 children born to migrant farmworker parents. A midwife blinded him in his right eye just after birth when she rinsed his eyes with a contaminated fluid.
"I couldn't work in the fields because of my eye," he told the Austin American-Statesman. "I couldn't pick cotton, so I stayed behind in the camp with all the people who were too old to work. They taught me about life. I couldn't read or write, but I was getting the best education. When I was 7 years old, I was 70 in my mind."
By age 7, Mr. Jordan had learned harmonica and guitar. In a migrant camp, he met and jammed on guitar with teenage accordionist Valerio Longoria. Longoria, later a star himself in the conjunto genre, inspired him to take up the squeezebox.
He took four of his brothers out of the fields and taught each one an instrument to fill out a band, Los Hermanos Jordan. In later years, he would also teach his three sons to accompany him. In 1958, he settled in San Jose, Calif., and married singer Virginia Martinez, with whom he made his first commercial recordings five years later.
His marriages to Martinez and later to Imelda Perez ended in divorce. Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Anita Jordan of San Antonio, Maryann Jordan of Phoenix and Esteban Jordan Jr. of Bainbridge, Ga.; three children from his second marriage, Ricardo Jordan, Esteban Jordan III and Estela Jordan, all of San Antonio; and a brother, Bonificio Jordan of Edinburg, Tex. Bonificio Jordan and all three sons performed in Mr. Jordan's band.
In the 1970s, he returned to Texas. He recorded several regional hits including "El Corrido de Jhonny el Pachuco," a corrido (or story song) about a womanizer and hoodlum who comes to a bad end; "El Piedrecita (The Little Rock)"; and his signature song, "Squeeze Box Man."
Mr. Jordan received a Grammy Award nomination in 1986 for "Turn Me Loose," an album released by RCA's Latin division. He also contributed music to the soundtrack of the Cheech Marin comedy "Born in East L.A." (1987).
Mr. Jordan had a reputation for his bravado and short temper. He survived a near-fatal stabbing outside a nightclub in 1973 and gave up drinking after a fall during his 53rd birthday party.
"Society can't touch me, man," he told the Austin American Statesman in 2001. "I never went to school, never been trained how to act. I'm not afraid to die. I've already been dead."
In the last year, he released the self-published CD "Carta Espiritual," dedicated to his mother, on which he played all the instruments. It was the first of a projected nine CDs that he had been laboring on for the last decade.