the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center,
the Arhoolie Foundation,
and the UCLA Digital Library
José Alfredo Jiménez (1926-1973) was by far the most important, prolific, and popular composer of música ranchera in Mexico during the 20th century. His extraordinary repertoire of more than 1,000 songs encapsulated the sentiment, ideals, and concerns of the common man in a folksy yet poetic way. Like Pete Seeger in American popular music, Jiménez’s songs have become standards that are emblematic not just of a musical genre but also of a country’s culture as a whole.
José Alfredo Jiménez Sandoval was born in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, on January 19, 1926. His father, Agustín, who owned a small drugstore, died when he was just 10 years old, leaving the family almost destitute. His mother, Carmelita Sandoval, moved her four children to Mexico City where she opened a small store but still struggled to make ends meet. Jiménez completed elementary school but had to work from an early age to help support the family: shining shoes, busing tables, loading trucks, and selling women’s footwear door to door. (For a time, Jiménez played soccer on a semi-pro team, and was known to be a pretty good goalie.) He got his first big break in the music business after taking a job as a waiter at a Yucatecan restaurant in the capital named La Sirena. He struck up a friendship with the owner’s son, who played guitar in a trio called Los Rebeldes, and Jiménez was soon singing and writing songs for the group. In 1948, he made his radio debut with “The Rebels” on Mexico’s powerful and popular XEW.
His first song was recorded two years later, also as a result of his work at La Sirena. One of the restaurant’s regular customers happened to be Andrés Huesca, the famed harpist from Veracruz who was a prime exponent of son jarocho, the southern folk music style featuring harp, guitars and rhythmic footwork. Huesca was impressed by the songs he heard from the young composer, including “Yo,” which was to become a ranchera classic. In 1950, the song was recorded by Andrés Huesca y Sus Costeños, becoming one of the first in a long line of hits for Jiménez.
The composer’s straight-from-the-heart lyrics, devoid of any literary pretensions, touched a deep chord in the Mexican psyche. His unconventional, emotive vocal delivery on his own songs, combined with the arrangements of Rubén Fuentes and the accompaniment of the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, created some of the most beloved mariachi recordings of all time and made Jiménez a cultural icon not only in Mexico but throughout Latin America.
José Alfredo Jiménez’s discography can be divided into two main periods. The first is on Discos Columbia (CBS), where he recorded 121 of his own songs between 1949 and 1960, accompanied mainly by Mariachi Vargas. (More than 100 of these Columbia tracks can be found in the Frontera Collection.) The second period is on RCA Victor, where from 1960 until his death in 1973 he recorded 170 of his own songs, about a third of which were re-recordings of song he originally did on Columbia. His RCA recordings, where again Jiménez was accompanied almost exclusively by Mariachi Vargas, have the highest production quality and are the best known today. (Some of the artist’s demo recordings are available on the Continental label.)
Jiménez also appeared in numerous Mexican films of the 1950s, and many soundtracks are available on the Orfeón label. Often the movies bore titles based on some of Jiménez’s most famous songs, such as “Amanecí en tus brazos” and “Qué bonito amor.” The film La vida no vale nada took its title from the lyrics of “Camino de Guanajuato,” and Me cansé de rogarle came from the song “Ella,” one of the most famous rancheras of all times .
The Jiménez catalog is composed mostly of rancheras, huapangos, and corridos. However, his songs have been recorded countless times in many styles, including pop versions by stars as diverse as Mexico’s Luis Miguel and Spain’s María Dolores Pradera, and even a modern salsa rendition of a corrido by Panamanian salsa star Rubén Blades. One of the artist’s final works is titled simply “Gracias,” in which he expresses gratitude for his fan’s long-lived loyalty and affection.
Jiménez died in Mexico City in 1973, at the young age of 47, leaving a songbook that’s considered a cultural legacy.