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Rio | Frontera Project

Rio

"The Story of Hymie Wolf and Rio Records"

During World War II, national record companies such as Victor, Columbia, and Decca just about stopped recording and releasing regional music in the United States. In those years, the major labels were battling a strike by the musicians union and facing a shortage of shellac, the material used to press records. After the war was over, local entrepreneurs sensed a great, pent-up public demand for recordings by local performers, especially from tavern owners who had jukeboxes. With no experience in the music industry, many of these local businessmen started their own record labels from scratch, buying essential record-making equipment: a disc cutter, blank acetates, a mixer, and a couple of microphones. Manuel Rangel Sr., who ran an electrical repair business that serviced jukeboxes in the San Antonio area, was by most accounts the pioneer of Tejano record labels starting with the release of a tune by accordion player Valero Longoria on Rangel’s Corona label, probably in early 1948.

Not far behind, however, was another small business owner from San Antonio named Hymie Wolf, who founded Rio Records in what used to be his liquor store. He remodeled the liquor store into a record shop and set up the recording studio in a back room. The letterhead of this one-man operation proudly announced ”Wolf Recording Company, Home of the Rio Record.”
Located at 700 West Commerce Street in the heart of San Antonio’s bustling downtown area, the store was just a few blocks east of the Plaza del Zacate where produce was the main business. Here all kinds of folks would congregate, and in the evenings they would listen to strolling musicians or buy hot tamales from street vendors. Just a few blocks to the south, off South Santa Rosa Street, was a busy area of honky-tonks and cantinas where Tejanos and Mexicanos would socialize, imbibe, dance, carouse, or relax at the end of a day of hard labor or try to drink away their problems. They would listen to live conjuntos or to recordings on a jukebox, which was often better, and of course cheaper, at repeating favorite songs endlessly to one’s heart’s desire.

By the late 1940s, musical ensembles known as conjuntos (groups) typically featuring two harmonizing voices, an accordion, a bajo sexto, and a string bass, were making the music that Spanish-speaking factory hands, truck drivers, and other blue-collar workers wanted to hear. Strolling musicians of all sorts, including duets with guitars, trios, mariachis, as well as conjuntos, wandered from cantina to cantina in search of customers willing to pay for songs to be delivered on the spot. Singers had to know the latest hits and sing them well in order to compete with the jukeboxes. For dancing, however, musicians were hired for the evening. There, in addition to an appealing vocal delivery, stamina, and endurance, musicians needed instrumental prowess, rhythmic energy, and cohesion to be popular with the dancers. Many of the musicians also began to learn that if they could come up with their own songs, they could earn extra money by getting their compositions into the hands of established recording stars.

Some of the singers and musicians who found their way into Wolf’s backroom recording studio were already established artists who had been making a living with their music for some time. There was San Antonio’s premier corridista, Pedro Rocha, who had recorded extensively in the 1930s and was well known on the local music scene. Also recording for Rio were Juan Gaytan and Frank Cantú (aka Pancho Cantú), popular San Antonio singers and composers who had been on the music scene for many years. Lydia Mendoza’s sisters, Juanita and María working as the duo Las Hermanas Mendoza, were also a big name in San Antonio having started their career at the Bohemia Club there during the war.
However, most of the performers to appear on the Rio label were young upstarts determined to be heard. The first artists to appear on a Rio 78rpm disc were the dueto of Andres Alvarez and Polo Cruz. The two were accompanied by accordionist Jesus Casiano, who was already an established recording artist from the pre-war era. The label read “Alvarez y Cruz y Los Tejanos” and the first song, Rio No. 101, was “Mujer de las Cantinas” (Woman of the Bars)! Honky-tonk music had arrived and Rio Records, during the brief decade of its existence, documented some of the finest Spanish-language examples of this genre in San Antonio. Indeed, these Rio recordings constitute an authentic audio snapshots of a vibrant culture and tradition which came to life and threw off its old conservative shackles during the social and economic boom period of the post-World War II era.

Fred Zimmerle, along with his brothers, started his career on Rio and became one of the best and most beloved accordionists with his Trio San Antonio. Valerio Longoria came over to Rio and introduced the high-tone bolero to cantina patrons. Tony de la Rosa, on his way to becoming the polka king of South Texas, cut some early sides for Rio (as Conjunto De La Rosa) while visiting San Antonio. Conjunto Alamo, with Leandro Guerrero or Felix Borrayo on accordion and Frank Corrales on guitar, became very popular around San Antonio. Pedro Ibarra also became a well-respected musician in town and remained active on the local music scene all the way through the 1990s. And Los Pavos Reales came to San Antonio from nearby Seguin to become major stars of conjunto music.

A young man named Leonardo Jimenez, strongly influenced by Pedro Ibarra, made his first records for Rio with Los Caminantes. One of Don Santiago Jimenez’s sons, he became world-famous 20 years later as Flaco Jimenez. (The Frontera Collection contains 73 tracks by Los Caminantes on Rio. Those first recordings by Flaco Jimenez and Henry Zimmerle with Los Caminantes are available on a compilation CD, Arhoolie 370, titled Flaco’s First.)
Many of the artists on Rio Records were young rebels, in some waysthe equivalent of today’s blues, rap, or punk musicians: Los Tres Diamantes, Los Chavalitos, Conjunto Topo Chico, Conjunto San Antonio Alegre, and from the lower Rio Grande Valley, Armando Almendarez, the accordionist who had obviously listened to the jukebox records of the King of Louisiana Zydeco, Clifton Chenier. An authentic Tejano orchestra, Alonzo y Sus Rancheros, as well as the classy ranchera singer Ada García , who had a marvelously soulful voice, also appeared on the label.

Perhaps some of these singers and musicians would have found their way to other enterprising upstart record producers, as many of them later did, but few producers seemed to have had the kind of rapport, enthusiasm, and congenial relationship with the artists as Hymie Wolf . Besides all the fun and joviality evident on these recordings, the enthusiastic music merchant turned Rio Records into a successful, if limited and short-lived, enterprise with the help of his personality, resources, business experience, and the all-important cooperation of local singers and musicians.

Wolf was the last of four sons born in San Antonio to Morris and Rose Wolf, who themselves were both born in Russia. His father had a clothing store on Commerce Street where the famous Los Apaches Restaurant later resided. (The restaurant is now closed.) Wolf was educated in San Antonio, spoke fluent Spanish as well as some German, and eventually taught electronics at Kelly Air Force Base. And it was around 1948 he remodeled his liquor store and opened the Rio Record Shop that housed the Wolf Recording Company and became “Home of the Rio Record” for the next decade.

In 1956 Wolf met Genie Miri and they got married on June 23, 1960. For the next three years Wolf, who was an excellent pilot, also operated an aviation business and took his wife on many trips. The couple worked together at the record shop until Wolf’s death on October 10, 1963. His wife continued to operate the shop for many years after but the label stopped recording activities in 1963, except for Rio No. 455 by Luis Gonzales which was issued in July of 1964 and saw its last re-pressing in 1968. In the 1970s I met Genie Wolf at the old location of the store.When I inquired as to which local conjunto impressed her the most, she suggested I record Flaco Jimenez, whom she felt had a lot of charisma. In 1991, I purchased all the masters and contracts of Rio Records from Mrs. Wolf for Arhoolie.

Most Rio 78s and 45s are exceptionally rare because sales were small due either to limited distribution or to the fact that no one heard or wanted them. Wolf did not believe in promotion, even going so far as to charge radio stations for copies instead of paying them to play his records, as was the general custom at the time! And he was cautious in production, judging by entries in his ledger book, which shows orders and sales for Rio releases. For example, in August of 1956 he initially ordered 300 copies of No. 374 by Los Caminantes (200 78s and 100 45s). However, that recording of “Mis Penas” backed by “Borrar Quisiera,” both written by Henry Zimmerle, became a popular item and re-pressings were frequent but in small quantities ranging from a low of 25 to a high of 110, eventually resulting in a total of 2820 units, combined 78s and 45s, being pressed by 1961. In contrast, the initial pressing order in 1960 for the 45rpm single Rio No. 441 by Los Navegantes was for 150 units, and the item was never re-pressed.

In addition to being hard to find, these recordings were primitive; and as the competition grew, most artists turned to more professional labels and producers including Jose Morante in San Antonio and Falcon and Ideal records in South Texas. For authenticity however, no other label or producer captured pure cantina music the way Hymie Wolf did on his Rio recordings.

--̶Chris Strachwitz

This label history was adapted from line notes originally written by Chris Strachwitz for the 1994 Arhoolie Records compilation "Tejano Roots: San Antonio's Conjuntos in the 1950s" (Ideal/Arhoolie CD-376).