the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center,
the Arhoolie Foundation,
and the UCLA Digital Library
Miguel Aceves Mejía (1915-2006) is one of the leading exponents of Mexican folkloric music, with a gifted, versatile voice that made him a star throughout the Spanish-speaking world. During a career that spanned half a century, the singer and actor recorded more than 1000 songs on 90 discs and starred in over 60 films. Nicknamed “El Rey del Falsete” (the Falsetto King) and branded by a distinctive streak of gray hair at the top of his head, Aceves Mejía stands as one of the most prominent figures in Mexican pop culture of the 20th century.
He was born November 13, 1915, in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, across the border from El Paso. (Some sources cite his birthday as November 15.) As a boy, he worked shining shoes, selling newspapers, and fixing cars. Despite having a stutter, he discovered his performance talents while still a teenager, starting his show-business career as an actor with a traveling theater company. In 1938, he became a professional singer and made his first recordings for the Decca label, interpreting boleros as a member of the Trio Los Porteños. (Twenty of these sides can be found in the Frontera Collection.) Between 1940 and 1945, he recorded 36 songs as a soloist for Peerless, a major Mexican independent label. These were mainly boleros and Afro-Antillean “música tropical” backed by some of the top bandleaders and arrangers of the day, including Juan S. Garrido. Among the rarest Aceves Mejía recordings in the Frontera archives are his Peerless 78-rpm discs with Mariachi Tapatío. In 1946, the singer moved to RCA Victor where he continued to record tropical music until the label’s artistic director, Mariano Rivera Conde, came up with the idea of converting him into a ranchera singer.
In 1947, Aceves Mejía began this new phase of his career, initiating a long relationship with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. The singer’s first recordings – “Oh Gran Dios,” “La Embarcación,” “Hay Unos Ojos,” and “Carabina 30-30” – were among the first recorded arrangements credited to Vargas’s young musical director, Rubén Fuentes, just 20 years old at the time. The collaboration between the singer and arranger would be long-lived and fruitful. Aceves Mejía became an immediate sensation as a ranchera singer, releasing at least 80 rancheras and corridos between 1947 and 1953. In a genre packed with powerful vocalists, he would become renowned as one of the most prodigious voices in the history of ranchera music
In 1953, Aceves Mejía recorded “El Jinete,” a classic song written by Jose Alfredo Jimenez and arranged as a huapango, a rhythmic folk style from the Huasteca region of eastern Mexico that prominently features violins and the vocal falsetto. It became immediately obvious, notes musician and author Jonathan Clark, “that this genre was exceedingly well suited to the singer’s powerful voice and extraordinary falsetto.” The huapango would soon become the singer’s trademark style.
“In an unheard-of gesture, RCA’s Rivera Conde gave Rubén Fuentes free reign to use as many additional instruments as he wanted in Aceves Mejía’s recordings,” writes Clark in his chapter on mariachi music for the book, The Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings. “This allowed Fuentes to create a new modality in huapangos, using novel orchestrations in combination with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. The series of over 20 huapangos that followed created a revolution in mariachi music and transformed what had previously been a minor mariachi genre into one of its mainstays. Without doubt, huapangos form the most important and interesting part of Miguel Aceves Mejía’s prolific recorded repertory.”
The Frontera Collection includes 35 Aceves Mejía tracks that are specifically identified as huapangos. With examples of all the artist’s styles, the digital archive contains a total of more than 340 tracks by Aceves Mejía, many written by leading composers such as Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Tomas Mendez, and Ruben Fuentes. His catalog constitutes a virtual library of Mexican and Latin American standards.
Like many singing stars of his day, Aceves Mejía pursued a parallel career in film. Though not considered classically handsome like other leading men of Mexico’s so-called golden age of cinema, he nevertheless became a successful movie star in his own right, based on his versatility as a singer and his virile charisma. He made his film debut in Rancho Alegre (1941), the first in a series of more than 50 movies he made in México as well as Argentina and Spain. His first performances were simply as a singer, and he even overdubbed vocals for the actor José Pulido in the film De pecado en pecado (1947). Eight years later, he made his debut in a starring role in the film A los cuatro vientos with co-star Rosita Quintana, an Argentine-born singer, composer, and poet. The duo was such a hit that they went on to make several other films together. As a leading man, Aceves Mejía also co-starred with some of the biggest international female stars of the silver screen, including Mexico’s Maria Felix and Lola Beltrán, Argentina’s Libertad Lamarque, and Spain’s Lola Flores.
The powerful Mexican film industry gave the singer an established platform to extend the popularity of mariachi music far beyond the country’s borders. He was one of the first singers to take mariachi music to Argentina, according to The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and his records were widely released by RCA Argentina. At a concert soon after the death of Eva (Evita) Perón in 1954, he won the hearts of his audience with an emotional rendition of “Ruega por Nosotros” (Pray for Us). The performance led to the singer’s friendship with three-time Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón.
Aceves Mejía died of pneumonia on November 6, 2006, just a few days short of his 91st birthday. Thousands of fans flocked to Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts where his body lay in state in the majestic rotunda, an honor reserved for the greatest figures in Mexican arts and letters.