MEXICAN-American country-rock singer Freddy Fender calls his life "the greatest movie I've ever seen." That may be music business hyperbole, but it has been as melodramatic as the country weepers he sings and as full of ups and downs as his trademark vibrato voice.

Fender, 46, who calls himself a "Tex-Mex," was born in the south Texas valley border town of San Benito, close to the mouth of the Rio Grande. His family lived a nomadic life, working as migrant farm workers, returning to the San Benito Valley each Christmas.

After dropping out of high school for a three-year stint in the Marines, Fender began his recording career. "When I was a kid, in 1955-56, I was 20 years old, I started recording on the small Hispanic labels. So the ambition to be a singer was already there from childhood, more or less," Fender says. "I was doing what the producers wanted to hear. They were more or less 'bilingualing' me."

Fender recorded Spanish-language cover versions of Elvis Presley, Harry Belafonte and Tennessee Ernie Ford tunes. "If someone had a hit, they would translate it for me. At that time, the producers wanted us to imitate the singers. They were trying to exploit me as a Mexican-American Elvis Presley type. Being young and anxious not to rock the boat, I let it happen. As I grew up, I decided this had to change." Although the all-Spanish records were top sellers in Texas and nearby Mexican regions, it became obvious to Fender that he would have to change direction to make it big.

Fender, whose real name is Baldemar G. Huerta, borrowed his stage moniker from his Fender guitar. "Everybody needs a catchy name," Fender says. "Since I was recording in English, I needed an English name, something to sell better with the 'gringos.' It worked on both sides of the river."

But even with a new name, Fender had to wait 20 years before achieving national success. He wrote a couple of Tex-Mex rockabilly hits, then was arrested for marijuana possession in Baton Rouge, La., just as his single "Crazy, Crazy Baby" was hitting the charts in 1960. He was sent to Angola State Prison, where he cut several records while serving three years of his five-year sentence. When he got out, Fender took jobs as a mechanic, got his high school diploma and played his own music in bars on weekends for $1.60 an hour.

Fender managed to restart his career, even though one of the conditions of his parole was that he leave the entertainment business. He hooked up with noted R&B producer Huey Meaux, who set Fender's quavering, hurting voice against a country backing. "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" became his breakthrough hit, followed in 1959 by his trademark song, "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," which in a revamped country crossover version became his first gold record in 1975.

Although he's been absent from the charts for awhile, Fender maintains that he's kept his popularity--he just signed a new contract with Warner Bros. Records and released a single, "Joking Kind," a song previously recorded by both Joe Simon and Waylon Jennings. And he's just back from a one-month tour of American military bases in Europe and Asia. "The boys want to hear something that's nitty-gritty, right off the griddle," Fender says. "There are lots of cover groups over there. You're liable to hear a Korean band do exact imitations of American songs. But they can't speak a word of English. The guys in the service just want to hear something from home."

Fender will appear with the U.S. Air Force Band Sunday, 3 p.m. at Constitution Hall.