Baldemar Huerta, known as Freddy Fender, was in his day, a Mexican-American Elvis.
Twelve years after his death from lung cancer, his daughter, Tammy Fender, has published the first of two biographies about her father. The title of the book borrows from the name of a song a lot of Americans of a certain age can sing by heart – “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.”
“Something lit up the fire in me that I wanted to give my father these accolades and show people with documentation that he was actually the first to sing Spanish rock and roll,” Tammy Fender says. “Ritchie Valens was maybe the most successful, but I just wanted to give Freddy what he deserved.”
She says her father was the oldest of his siblings and he wasn’t able to finish high school.
“He only went to the ninth grade, as a child migrant worker, because his father passed away,” she says. “He started joining the talent contests and he would win a lot. So he learned not only to pick cotton but he learned to pick the guitar.”
After his time in the Marines, Fender performed under the name the Bebop Kid.
His career began in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that Huerta, known as Freddy Fender, started earning number one records. His career was put on hold because of an arrest for possession of marijuana and a stint in a Louisiana prison. He would eventually get a pardon and early release from the governor, who loved Freddy’s music. During that time behind bars, Tammy was born. She met him for the first time as a young child.
Freddy Fender would partner with a longtime admirer, the great Doug Sahm, to form the supergroup the Texas Tornados. He made film appearances in Robert Redford’s “The Milagro Beanfield War” and played the role of Pancho Villa in 1979’s “She Came To The Valley.”
In his later life, he suffered from kidney and liver trouble and at one point was erroneously reported dead by Billboard magazine. He laughed it off, but cancer began to take hold and in 2001 Fender made his final studio recording, a collection of classic Mexican boleros called “La Música de Baldemar Huerta,” which won him his third Grammy.
He hoped to become the first Mexican American artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the truth is, Freddy Fender’s music never neatly fit any single category – except one, perhaps. He is indisputably one of the legends of Texas music.
“My father was a soul man,” Tammy Fender says. “He just had that much rhythm. You couldn’t get any cooler than Freddy. You could ask any man who knew him.”