reddy Fender had been playing his special blend of Tex-Mex R&B music for 20 years with just local success. Then he met producer Huey P. Meaux and recorded a 10-year-old song that he had heard sung by Charley Pride, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." The single entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 97 on February 1, 1975, and went to number one 17 weeks later.
Fender was born Baldermar Huerta on June 4, 1937, in San Benito, Texas. He traveled with his family through the southwest as a migrant farmworker, and developed an early interest in music. He was just 10 when he started singing and a year later he learned to play the guitar, imitating country singers he heard on the radio. He started playing at local dances when he was 16 and in 1954 joined the Marines.
He played at USO clubs during his service years and when he was discharged in 1956, he put together a small group and started playing clubs and beer joints in Texas.
Fender kept playing nightclubs although two unfortunate incidents should have been enough to discourage him from performing permanently. He became involved in an after-hours fight at a Corpus Christi club, leaving him with a broken nose and a knife wound in his neck. Fender talked about the second incident in Billboard: "In 1960, I was playing Baton Rouge when the police came up on the bandstand and busted me for grass. They'd gone through the house I was staying in, found some seeds, and I ended up with a five-year jail sentence. I served three years, played my music on weekends and when I got out I continued to play."
After his release from prison, Freddy went home to Texas and worked in a recording studio as an engineer. He went to New Orleans and was the house singer at Poppa Joe's on Bourbon Street. In 1971, Freddy was back in Texas.
"I'd been going to college, studying sociology. I wanted to work with ex-convicts or juveniles, figuring that since I'd been in the pen, nobody was in a better position than me to do it. And I was working days as a mechanic."
All that changed when Freddy met Meaux in 1971. Meaux, a legend in Texas and Louisiana, had been responsible for hits like Jivin' Gene's "Breakin' Up Is Hard to Do," Joe Barry's "I'm a Fool to Care" and Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose a Good Thing." He brought Fender to his Sugar Hill Studios in Houston, where they cut songs for Meaux' Crazy Cajun and Starflite labels. "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" was released on Crazy Cajun before Dot (bought by ABC Records) picked it up for national distribution.
Some may have expected the song to break on the country charts, but it proved itself to be a pop hit as well. "I was a bit surprised myself," Fender told Billboard at the time. "I can understand why pop stations might not want to play it, because it sounds country. But I do not have a country voice. I think the way I sang it helped the crossover."
His re-recording of "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" went to number eight in September, 1975. Fender found it hard to cope with fame, but in 1985 he successfully completed an alcohol and narcotic treatment program. In 1987 he made several appearances on Hee Haw, and the following year he played the role of Mayor Sam Cantu in Robert Redford's The Milagro Beanfield War.
After erroneously having been reported to be dead in 2001 by Billboard, Freddy underwent a kidney transplant the following year (with a kidney donated by his daughter) and a liver transplant in 2004. After revealing he was suffering from an "incurable cancer" of his lungs, he performed his last concert in December 2005. He died on Oct. 14, 2006, of lung cancer and was buried in his hometown of San Benito. He was 69.
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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