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Artist Biography: Margarita La Chaparrita - Mother, Singer, Survivor

Ed. Note: This the first in a series of biographies of artists based on information provided by family members, friends, or colleagues who contacted us by email (agurza@ucla.eduor through our blog’s Comments sections. Most of the artists who will be featured in this series did not achieve wide success in the record business. However, their stories show how true folk music reflects the lives and culture of the common folk who make it. Without the input provided by listeners who reached out to us, their stories would most likely never be formally documented. Please continue to share your knowledge and family histories with us!

            The recording career of Margarita La Chaparrita was modest and short-lived but remarkable, nevertheless. After struggling through a series of traumatic relationships and raising seven children with meager resources, the late-blooming performer decided to start her own band in the midst of middle age, when most other mothers are winding down to retirement.

            “I remember always hearing her singing in her kitchen while she was making dinner and I knew that music was a secret passion of hers,” said her daughter, Diana Benavides-Arredondo. “Once she finished raising all her children, she went for it.  When she was in her late 40s and found herself an empty-nester, she started a small Mexican band and Margarita La Chaparrita y Su Conjunto was born.”

             Her musical career, both as amateur and professional, spanned some 20 years, starting in the mid-1970s through the mid-‘90s. But commercial success in the record industry eluded her; the singer’s total discography includes at most half a dozen singles recorded in the 1980s, her daughter says. Still, she was active and well-known within San Antonio’s tight-knit musical community. She made the rounds of local lounges, nightclubs, and restaurants, selling her records wherever she played.  She was frequently featured as a local celebrity at popular festivals, such as the “Diez y Seis Parade” for Mexican Independence Day and the city’s historic Battle of Flowers Parade.

            “She was a very strong, determined woman,” says Benavides-Arredondo, a retired school district employee who still lives in San Antonio.  “Although she only had minor success, I knew this made her very happy. I always admired her nerve to get up on stage and sing in front of an audience.”

             La Chaparrita was born Margarita Montoya on February 24, 1936 in Crystal City, Texas, a town of less than 10,000 people located about an hour’s drive from the Mexican border. She was raised in the city, also known as the Spinach Capitol of the World and the birthplace of La Raza Unida Party in the early 1970s. She started singing by the time she was eight years old.  She never finished grade school.

             Montoya’s early life was troubled and tragic. Her mother died when she was still a toddler, and her father was shot and killed a few years later, according to her daughter. Margarita and her sister, Santa, were then raised by their paternal grandparents, who were “not so very nice,” Benavides-Arredondo states.

             Montoya was 18 when she became a bride. It would be the first of three marriages, all to men who were abusive alcoholics, according to her daughter. She had a total of seven children, six with her first husband, though one son died at a young age. She gave birth to her daughter, Diana, during an affair with a married man while separated from her first husband. She ultimately returned to her husband and Diana blended in comfortably with her half-siblings.

             Daily life was difficult, however. Montoya collected welfare and food stamps when her kids were little, and she supplemented her income by working as a waitress in a Crystal City bar. Yet, the household was always rich with the aroma of her homemade flour tortillas and the joyful sounds of music.

           “There was always music in the house!” says Benavides-Arredondo. “The radio was usually on when we got home from school, while she made dinner, always on her favorite Tejano stations (KCOR or KUKA). She liked corridos, polkas, rancheras, and cumbias. She liked music that told a story.”

            Montoya finally divorced and left Crystal City, her brood in tow. The family moved to San Antonio to start a new life, recalls Benavides-Arredondo, who was approximately six years old at the time. As a single mother, Montoya struggled to get established, moving her family for a time into government-subsidized housing.

            Montoya’s second marriage also ended in divorce after 13 years. She then met and married her third and final husband, Julio Perez, an Army sergeant whom she considered “the love of her life." After just three years, he committed suicide while stationed in Germany.

            In the early 1980s, soon after her husband’s death, Montoya poured her energies into her career, forming her band and making her first recordings. Keeping her late husband’s surname, she appeared in her promotional materials as Margarita Perez.

             Despite all the instability, Montoya managed to maintain her sense of humor, and her determination.

             “Considering she only had a third-grade education, she did pretty well for herself,” recalls her daughter. “[She was] not rich by any means, but she managed to own a house and occasionally a new car. Somewhere along the line, she taught herself to read and write English, and she learned to pay her bills and tried her best to balance her checkbook.”

              Montoya was in her mid-40s when she started her band, Margarita La Chaparrita y Su Conjunto. She also performed with other groups and mingled with prominent Mexican-American artists in the active San Antonio music scene. The producer on her Chief Records single is Santiago Jimenez, Jr. of the Tex-Mex dynasty that includes Santiago Jimenez Sr. and the world-renowned accordionist Flaco Jimenez.

              “We were not aware of the recording contract,” her daughter recalled. “She just showed up one day with a ‘complimentary’ 45-rpm of her recording and gave it to me as a souvenir.  I was truly surprised and impressed she had actually recorded a record. I don't think she even had a manager.”

                The Frontera Collection holds only two singles by the singer, whose stage name, La Chaparrita, roughly translates as “little shorty.” Both releases are on relatively obscure labels that were based in San Antonio, Texas. On Chief Records, she is accompanied by her own band on two numbers written by Frank Nuñez: “Te Sigo Amando” backed by “Eres Todo Para Mi.” And on TVT (an imprint of Custom Recordings), she performs with El Conjunto de Eddy Torres on two traditional rancheras: “Delante de Mi” by Dolores Ayala (credited as Dolores Mata) and “Laguna de Pesares” by José Alfredo Jiménez.

                For a period of time in 1982, Montoya performed every Sunday on a live, hour-long broadcast on KFHM-AM (“La M Grande”), which had switched to a Tejano/Latino format four years earlier, reflecting the growing popularity of regional music at the time. 

                Margarita La Chaparrita received many awards and trophies for her performances over the years, and some made the local newspaper. In October 1978, for example, the San Antonio Express-News reported she had won first place for her Diez y Seis Parade performance. It marked the eighth time in five years that she had been recognized by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center with a trophy, ribbon, or certificate for her vocal performances during the annual festivities.

                 Nothing gave her greater satisfaction, however, than performing for seniors at charitable events sponsored by the Royal Palace Ballroom in San Antonio’s southside barrio. In a 1991 Express-News story, La Chaparrita and her band were mentioned as one of the venue’s “most popular conjuntos.” At the time, the paper reported, she had 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

                 By the end of the decade, Margarita La Chaparrita had retired from music. She passed away of ovarian cancer on April 23, 2016, and is buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, along with her military husband. She left behind a notebook of hand-written lyrics to songs she had written.

                 As with many other barrio artists who labored in relative anonymity, Montoya’s recordings will be preserved for posterity in The Frontera Collection. Recently, Benavides-Arredondo contacted us through this website to express gratitude on her mother’s behalf.

                “My mother was a little vain and she would have loved to know she was included in this important archive,” Benavides-Arrendondo said. “She would have been showing it off to all her friends and family!”

 

– Agustín Gurza

 

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Artist Biography: Santiago Almeida

Santiago Almeida was an exceptional bajo sexto player who gained a historic place in the pantheon of Mexican-American music as the pioneering partner of famed accordionist Narciso Martinez. Together, the duo would shape the style we know today as conjunto music, with the accordion and 12-string guitar as its instrumental core.

Almeida was born on July 25, 1911, in Skidmore, Texas, a town of 1,000 residents at the time, located between San Antonio and Corpus Christie. His family were farmworkers who played music in their spare time. By the time he was a teenager, Almeida had learned to play the bajo sexto, a 12-string guitar built with bass strings in six double courses, or rows. At 14, he was playing along with seven brothers in the traveling Almeida family orchestra, which performed at dances in towns all along the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

La Orquesta Almeida was one of the so-called “orquesta tipicas” popular in those days, consisting of clarinet, flute, bajo sexto and string bass. Because they provided the entertainment at a wide variety of social functions, orchestra members “had to be familiar with just about every type of dance tune popular at the time,” writes Chris Strachwitz in his liner notes to the LP Narciso Martínez: Father of the Texas-Mexican Conjunto, a compilation released by Arhoolie Records. “The tunes in those days were not as simple as they are today; they had more involved chord changes and modulations which only a musician well-trained in the repertoire could master.”

It was in the mid-1930s that Almeida teamed with Martinez, and the duo developed a unique style of playing together that helped shape the sound of conjunto music and influenced generations of musicians to come. Martinez became known for his distinctive style on the accordion that emphasized the right-hand melody, at the expense of the bass side of the squeezebox. But for his new style to work, Martinez had to depend on Almeida to pick up the slack, playing bass and harmony parts on his bajo sexto. This innovative technique gave the duo its trademark sound—one that earned them the reputation as the founders of the modern Tex-Mex conjunto.

Indeed, Almeida was much more than just a back-seat accompanist to Martinez, even though the accordionist gained more celebrity and enjoyed a longer career, later as a solo act. Fans and students of the genre also recognized Almeida for his musical contributions.

“Almeida played the accompaniment for the innovative accordion leads of Martínez, but was also an innovator himself,” states a biography posted by the National Endowment for the Arts when it named Almeida a 1993 National Heritage Fellow. “He played in all keys without a capo, using a technique similar to what is known today as cross-picking. He used a three-note ‘bass arpeggio,’ alternating each bass note with a single higher drone note, all at a relatively high speed. This technique is especially effective in accompanying waltzes and huapangos, but can also be applied to the performance of other musical styles.”

In 1936, a year after Almeida and Martínez started working together, a local merchant by the name of Enrique Valentin heard them play and persuaded them to go to San Antonio to meet Eli Oberstein, the recording director for the Bluebird label, an RCA Victor subsidiary. On October 21 of that year, the pair recorded their first 78-rpm single for the Bluebird label: a polka titled “La Chicharronera” and a schottische, “El Troconal.” Experts regard these as the earliest recordings of modern conjunto music. The A side, translated as “The Crackling,” was an instant hit and remains a standard of the genre.

During that marathon session, they recorded a total of 20 songs at the Bluebonnet Hotel in San Antonio, where labels would set up mobile recoding studios. According to one source, the two musicians were paid $150 for their work, of which Almeida received a third. The duo would go on to make more than 60 records for Bluebird between 1935 and 1938, including redovas, polkas, huapangos, schottisches, and mazurkas. The pair soon “became the most imitated and sought-after conjunto musicians in South Texas,” according to the NEA.

Almeida and Martinez continued to perform together into the 1940s. They toured extensively and were in demand as studio musicians to back up popular singing stars of the day. The duo also continued to record together for independent labels, mainly Disco de Oro and Ideal Records, where they became “the house instrumentalists,” as described on the website for American Sabor, a Smithsonian exhibition. “During their time there, they recorded hundreds of songs with many musicians and vocalists also involved in the development of conjunto and Tejano music.”

Almeida stayed with Martinez until 1950 when demand for conjunto music started tapering off. The guitarist first moved to Indiana but eventually wound up in the state of Washington where he and his family made a living picking apples. He settled in Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley, a hub for Mexican-American migrants in the northwest. He started teaching music and mentoring young guitar players interested in his distinctive style. He continued to play his bajo sexto for family events and for dances at the local Assembly of God church, where he was a member. 

During retirement, Almeida fell into such deep obscurity that fans and friends back in Texas thought he had died. However, his reputation was revived in 1987 when he was inducted into San Antonio’s Conjunto Hall of Fame. Six years later, his home state honored him with the Governor's Arts and Heritage Award, recognizing artists for their contributions to the creative vitality of Washington. That same year he became the first Washington resident to be named an NEA National Heritage Fellow, which earned him a $10,000 award from the NEA.

Almeida died on July 8, 1999, just before his 88th birthday.

 

          -- Agustín Gurza

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Lola: Honoring Eva Garza’s Legacy

It’s not often that so-called millennials lead us back to music from the past century, especially Latin music. Showbiz today is all about being young, fresh, and new. 
 
But Austin-based singer Carrie Rodriguez, 37, is an exception. In making her own new fusion of Chicano and American music, she is reminding us of her deep roots in Tejano culture. On the occasion of the release of her latest album, Lola, Rodriguez has invoked the muse in her Mexican-American family: singer and film star Eva Garza, who was her great-aunt. This bilingual album includes some tracks, with contemporary arrangements, from her great-aunt’s repertoire, such as “Noche de Ronda” and “Frio en el Alma.”
 
Eva Garza (1917-1966) hailed from San Antonio, Texas, and became one of the biggest stars of her day, both on records and in film. During the 1940s and ’50s, Garza won international acclaim, especially for her interpretations of the romantic bolero. She performed on radio and on stage in music capitals from New York to Havana, from Mexico City to Buenos Aires. 
 
However, Garza has not received the credit she deserves, and many young Latinos, even in her home state, don’t know who she is. But that is changing, thanks in part to Rodriguez who has chosen to carry her mantle. 
 
Recently, Rodriguez has been talking about her musical legacy every chance she gets. And thanks to the mainstream media’s built-in echo chamber, she has had a pretty strong megaphone since her latest album was released earlier this year. She has had coverage, for example, on Public Radio International (PRI) and National Public Radio (NPR), as well as in the British newspaper The Guardian, and even the Wall Street Journal
 
This is not the first time the media mentions her family’s musical heritage. In a 2009 article on the eve of the release of her third studio album, The New York Times mentioned that it included “a Spanish song by her great-aunt.” The reference came way at the bottom, and the paper misspelled her name as Ava Garza. At the time, Rodriguez primarily wanted to talk about all her other influences, from Lucinda Williams to Hank Williams.
 
Now, however, her Latin legacy has come to the fore, which she discusses in this engaging YouTube video. “Lola” is not just an album title; it’s the artist’s alter ego, inspired by revered ranchera singer Lola Beltrán, who was also from Texas. Singing those kinds of songs in Spanish, Rodriguez recently told the Austin American-Statesman, brings out a different persona, a deeper emotion, a wider range. “It was as if another person came out when I opened my mouth,” she was quoted as saying.
 
The benefit of this type of coverage is that the public gets to learn about two artists at once. The news about “Lola” inspired me to look more closely at the life of Eva Garza and the many recordings included in the Frontera Collection.
 
So thanks to the young Carrie Rodriguez, we now have a new, full-length profile of her great-aunt available on the Frontera website. I believe Eva Garza would be proud of the talent in this new generation. 
 
-Agustín Gurza
To read the full Eva Garza bio, please go here.
 
 

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Artist Biography: Eva Garza

Singer Eva Garza launched her singing career as a teenager in San Antonio, Texas, and emerged as one of the few Mexican-American artists to gain international acclaim throughout the Americas. An accomplished and seductive interpreter of the romantic bolero, she collaborated during the 1940s and ’50s with top figures in the field, including Mexico’s Agustin Lara and Cuba’s Isolina Carrillo.
 
In a tribute published upon Garza’s death in 1966, the Mexico City newspaper Excelsior dubbed her “one of the 10 best singers in México.” The paper’s posthumous homage noted that Garza “had distinguished herself from a very young age for the warm timber of her voice, her emotional expressiveness and her great versatility, since she was equally capable of singing romantic boleros, spirited corridos and ranchers, as well tropical music and contemporary tunes.”
 
Garza recorded for several major labels, including Columbia Records, which issued her earliest recordings in New York where she had relocated to pursue her career. Though she died less than a year before reaching her 50th birthday, she left a deep and rich recorded catalog. Garza ranks No. 32 on the list of the top 50 most-recorded performers in the Frontera Collection, with 154 recordings in the archive. Singer Chelo Silva, a fellow Texan also known for boleros, ranks higher in the archive at No. 6, possibly because Silva hailed from the border town of Brownsville and kept a more regional profile on Tex-Mex labels, a Frontera specialty.
 
For all her success and fame, relatively little has been published about Garza’s life and successful career, at least until recently. “I was continually amazed that her story has not circulated more,” wrote Deborah R. Vargas, who researched Garza’s work for her book, Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of la Onda, published in 2012. The author traced Garza’s career path to Havana, an important capitol of the bolero, where Garza had become “one of the biggest artists on Cuban radio” during the mid-to-late 1940s. And yet, the writer notes, the singer did not get the same recognition on her own home turf back in Texas.
 
“For much too long, Chicana musical contributions such as Garza’s have been too highly overlooked, misplaced, and under-analyzed,” wrote Vargas in a short essay about the singer, titled “Eva Garza: From El Barrio To Boleros.”  From a feminist perspective, the writer adds, this biographical neglect relegates Garza, and other Chicana artists like her, to remain “in the shadows” of dominant historical narratives.
 
Eva Garza was born on May 11, 1917, in the working-class, Westside barrio of San Antonio. She was the third of seven children raised in the humble household of Cenobia B. Ramírez and Procopio V. Garza, who ran a barbershop on Commerce Street. Described as a friendly and precocious girl, Garza sang at church functions and at private parties, and never missed a chance to sing around the house, especially American standards she heard on the radio. “She sang all the time. She had a style of her own,” her sister, Tina Moore, told the San Antonio Express-News in 2013 on the occasion of an Eva Garza retrospective organized at San Antonio’s Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. 
 
As a student at Lanier High School, Garza also excelled at sports. Her accomplishments as an all-star athlete in basketball and baseball were documented in the local press during the 1930s. The dynamic newspaper photos of Garza in her athletic uniforms – spotlighting a star athlete who was also female and Mexican-American – inspired her peers in an era when segregation and sexism were rampant.
 
Garza’s music career got a start on local radio, an important vehicle for exposing new talent at the time. After hearing her sing an opera, Garza’s high school music teacher was so impressed that she ushered her star student to a radio audition, doing a duet with a boy on “Indian Love Call” and “Sweet Mystery of Life,” according to a brief bio by Clayton T. Shorkey on The Handbook of Texas Online
 
Soon, Garza started winning vocal competitions. However, her strict parents didn’t entirely approve of her music-career ambitions, since most performance venues were considered inappropriate for “respectable” young women. Still, at a time when other girls her age were getting their quinceañeras, Garza insisted on finding an audience for her vocal skills. She entered an amateur contest sponsored by the Monte Carlo Brewery at San Antonio’s Texas Theatre, taking home $500 for 2nd place with her rendition of “I’m in the Mood for Love.” In another contest, at the local Zaragoza Theatre, she went home with a piano as a prize.
 
The radio exposure eventually led to more steady gigs, and her first recording contract.  
 
From 1932-34, she was heard regularly on radio KABC, then housed at the Texas Theatre, and she was regularly heard on one of San Antonio’s most popular programs, “La Hora Anahuac.” She also began performing at the Nacional Theatre, along with vaudeville acts that were popular with Mexican audiences at the time, especially Netty y Jesús and Don Suave. 
 
When she was 19, Garza made her first recordings for Bluebird Records, one of the national labels that would set up mobile studios at local hotels and offer local artists a chance to record. During her first sessions at San Antonio’s Texas Hotel on October 23, 1936, Garza did numbers in a mix of styles, rumba, son, and bolero. The sides included “La Jaibera” (The Crab-Seller), “Qué Me Importa” (What Do I Care?), “Calientito” (Kinda Hot), “Cosquillas” (Tickles), and “Cachita,” the popular, playful guaracha by Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernandez.
 
Garza’s “big break came in 1937 when she auditioned for Sally Rand,” writes Shorkey. Rand, a former silent film actress, had caused a sensation with her “fan dance,” a burlesque act considered risqué at the time. Eva was hired for her “strong voice,” Shorkey notes, and she toured with Rand throughout North America for six months. When the tour ended, the singer returned home and soon went out on her own, launching Eva Garza and Her Troupe.
 
Garza then hit the road, with a touring schedule that would take her throughout Mexico, Central and South America, as well as Cuba and the Caribbean. It was during one of those tour stops in Juarez, Mexico, that Garza met the man who would become her first husband. On December 30, 1939, she married Felipe “El Charro” Gil, whose Trio Los Caporales was a precursor of the wildly popular Trio Los Panchos that featured his brother, Alfredo Gil. After a hometown Texas wedding, the couple settled in New York City. Garza performed as a soloist with different ensembles, but she also performed with her husband, as on this recording of “Diez Años,” an aching bolero by Rafael Hernandez, backed by “Eso Si…Eso No…,” a spirited tune written by Gil and backed by his Caporales.
 
From the beginning, there were strains in the relationship that would ultimately dissolve the marriage. “Much to Gil’s dissatisfaction, Garza would keep her last name,” writes Vargas in her book. “Neither Gil nor many of the promoters Garza came across thought it was appropriate that she travel solo as a married woman and so eventually Gil would reduce his time as musician and devote most of his efforts to managing her career.”
 

And her career took off. In New York, Garza made her first recordings for Columbia Records and had her first hits, “Sabor de Engaño” and “Celosa.” (She radically slows the rhythm on this later 45-rpm version of “Sabor de Engaño,’ also on Columbia, backed by Pepe Jaramillo on piano.) During the mid-1940s, Garza “gained a vast new audience” through her appearances on Viva America, broadcast by the CBS radio network. The government-sponsored program was part of the so-called “good neighbor” policy, an effort by the United States to foster positive cultural relations throughout the Americas, while stemming Nazi influence in the hemisphere. The show was also broadcast over armed forces radio during World War II, earning Garza the nickname among the troops of “Sweetheart of the Americas.”
 
That voice that came over the airwaves hit an emotional chord with listeners. “Garza’s singing voice was heartfelt and cavernous,” writes Vargas. “When she sang she transferred emotions and tales from her core, grasping for deep exhalations of sentiment. Especially in rancheros and boleros, one could note her tendency to weep impassioned feelings into a song. Her voice tapped into an inner core filled with experiences, memories, departures, and returns.”
 
Garza first visited Havana in 1946, quickly becoming one of the biggest artists on Cuban radio. She also performed at legendary nightclubs, such as the Tropicana, and appeared on one of the most popular music shows of the day, “Duelo de Pianos,” along with Agustín Lara and Consuelo Velasquez.
 
The singer’s growing popularity in Cuba and Latin America also got a boost from her recordings on Seeco Records, a leading, New York-based independent label for Latin music at the time. Garza’s early 78-rpm recordings are especially valuable as representations of her early work, notes Vargas, “because much archived material of taped television and radio programs has been lost or destroyed since the post-revolutionary period in Cuba.”
 
Garza moved to Mexico City in 1949, establishing herself there as one of the biggest singing stars during the early 1950s. She became a regular on the capital’s influential radio station XEW, sharing star-studded lineups with the biggest names of the day, such as Pedro Infante, Pedro Vargas, Javier Solis, and Jorge Negrete. And in the studio, she recorded songs by the top composer’s of a golden era in Mexican pop music, songwriters such as Agustín Lara, Gonzalo Curiel, and Joaquín Pardavé. Overall, Garza recorded more than 200 tracks for major labels, including Decca, RCA, Columbia and Musart. Among her other big hits from this period are “Sin Motivo,” “Frio en el Alma,” and “La Última Noche.”
 
During this period in Mexico, Garza also made more than 20 motion pictures, co-starring with marquee names, such as Toña La Negra (Amor Vendido, 1951), Sara Montiel (Cárcel de Mujeres, 1951), and Luis Arcaráz (Acapulco, 1952).
 
In 1958, she starred in one of her last films, appropriately titled Bolero Inmortal (Eternal Bolero). “Garza plays Lucha Medina, a washed-up bolero singer whose sexual appeal has passed and who is replaced by a younger singer,” writes Vargas. “Divorced and alone, Lucha sees no dignified way to end her career, so, in dramatic bolero style, she decides to take her own life.”
 
Garza’s real life ended sadly and prematurely, but not nearly as tragically. In 1953, she divorced “El Charro” Gil, with whom she had had three children, including a son, Felipe Gil, a successful singer and songwriter in his own right, also known by the stage name Fabricio. (Felipe Gil, the younger, made news in 2014 when, at age 73, he announced he was transgender and taking the name Felicia Garza, adopting his mother’s surname.) The couple also had two daughters who were in show business. The late Rosa María Bojalil Garza had a brief singing career in Mexico, recording a 1963 album of pop/rock covers for RCA Victor under the stage name Corinna. Her sister, Laura, was a backup singer, model, and actress, and is now a Florida businesswoman. In 1965, Eva Garza remarried, this time to Argentine artist Abel Reynosa, with whom she moved to Buenos Aires. 
 
Garza continued to record and tour through another year, unaware it would be her last. Columbia Records invited her to return to Mexico to record a comeback album, Vuelve Eva Garza – Mexican Encore, for which she re-recorded some of her biggest hits, including the tango “Arrepentido.” Later, she went on tour again throughout the southwest, including an appearance in Los Angeles. During a stop in Tucson, Arizona, she was diagnosed with double pneumonia and died there on November 1, 1966. The singer, who had put so much heart into her songs, died of a bad heart, weakened from the rheumatic fever she had suffered as a child. She was 49.
 
According to her wishes, Garza’s remains were returned to Mexico City for burial. Although the bolero had made her famous throughout the world, notes Vargas, that fame also came to displace her from her Mexican-American roots. “Rather than returning her body to be buried in the birthplace of San Antonio,” Vargas writes, “she had given her son Felipe specific instructions that her final ‘home’ was to be in Mexico City among the star-studded cast of the Panteón Jardín, the Mexican cemetery of musical and cinema stars.”
 
Eva Garza is certainly not forgotten in San Antonio. She is one of three hometown Tejana artists (along with Lydia Mendoza and Rosita Fernández) prominently featured in a major mural commissioned in 2008 to honor San Antonio musicians. In 2013, she was inducted into the Tejano R.O.O.T.S. (Remembering Our Own Tejano Stars) Hall of Fame, joining other Tejano music pioneers such as Narciso Martinez.
 
-Agustín Gurza
 

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Artist Biography: El Ciego Melquiades

El Ciego Melquíades, also known as “The Blind Fiddler,” represents a bygone era in Tex-Mex music when small orquestas típicas and rural string bands were still popular. Though little is known about the life of Melquíades Rodríguez, his recording career spanned the 1930s and ’40s and even continued into the postwar era when the fiddle had already given way to the accordion as the centerpiece of Mexican American popular music. He recorded both vocal and instrumental numbers, some at mobile studios set up by labels at hotels in the San Antonio area. At the peak of his career, he was much in-demand at dances, bullfights, and other festive occasions in the area around San Antonio.

Melquíades Rodríguez began his recording career in the early 1930s when he made several records as a singer and guitarist with various partners. By this time, however, the era of the string bands and small orquestas típicas, which flourished at the turn of the century and into the 1920s, was fading rapidly from the pop music scene among Mexican Americans in south Texas. The instrumental ensembles were replaced by vocal duets with guitars, which became the popular sound on records, radio, and jukeboxes. At the same time, the accordion was replacing the violin at dances – especially in the country where full orchestras were an extravagance few could afford. Despite these changes in musical tastes, Rodríguez’s talents caught the attention of a recording director who made room for tracks that spotlighted the musician’s fiddle work. During the latter part of a recording session in 1935, Rodríguez laid down four tracks, two polkas and two waltzes, with his fiddle front and center. A pattern of recording some vocal selections along with several fiddle tunes then persisted through early 1937. By September of that year, the label officially billed Rodríguez by his handicap as El Ciego Melquíades, or The Blind Fiddler. Apparently the fiddle solos were successful enough to warrant El Ciego to be asked back into the studio several more times before the record company ceased its regional recording activities in San Antonio in late 1938.

During World War II, most recordings of regional and vernacular music ceased due to a shortage of shellac. By the late 1940s, however, a host of small local labels sprang up all over the country trying to fill the demand from jukebox operators. By then, the music which Rodríguez played on the fiddle, once so common on both sides of the border, was a fading tradition, rapidly replaced by the much louder and sturdier accordion. Still, El Ciego Melquíades stands out among his Depression-era peers as the most popular and enduring exponent of that bygone violin tradition.

“I think he played in a more fluent and rural style while the others were perhaps better trained musicians,” writes producer Chris Strachwitz in the liner notes to San Antonio House Party (Arhoolie 7045), a compilation of El Ciego’s recordings. “He was also apparently a very well-liked man who appeared at many house parties, restaurants, bars, and on the streets of San Antonio.”

Years after his music faded, fans from San Antonio continued to remember El Ciego’s legendary performances at house parties where he would play all night long. Conjunto star Fred Zimmerle of Trio San Antonio recalled that his brother Henry used to play guitar with El Ciego during the 1940s. Though they knew little about his background or private life, fans had fond memories of the man and his music.

Mexican writer Hermann Bellinghausen identifies disparate musical strains that influenced El Ciego’s lively playing style – from the fiddlework native to the huasteca region of southern Mexico, to the square dance sounds of Tennessee and Texas, and even the more refined violin tradition of Mexico’s Juventino Rosas, a 19th century composer and violinist. Rodríguez’s style is showcased on some four dozen 78-rpm recordings included in the Frontera Collection. Selections on the aforementioned Arhoolie compilation, released in 2002, come mostly from the artist‘s heyday in the 1930s. The 20-track disc features polkas, waltzes, fox-trots and mazurkas, with El Ciego’s violin backed by guitar, violoncello, and string bass accompaniment. The last two selections are taken from 78s on the Corpus Christi-based AERO label from the late 1940s, which are apparently the last sides El Ciego made on fiddle. He did record once more for IDEAL but again as a singer and guitarist.

“It’s sentimental, good-time Texas Mexican-American music with some bright humor,” wrote pop music critic Richie Unterberger in an online review of the Arhoolie compilation 

El Ciego’s work has also been documented in a book of original transcriptions and arrangements of 34 songs from his repertoire, written by Vykki Mende Gray, artistic director of Los californios, a project of the non-profit organization San Diego Friends of Old-Time Music. “These transcriptions finally make this music accessible and available,” states the project website, urging music lovers “to discover … the delights of this piece of Mexican and tejano heritage.”

                                                                               --Agustín Gurza

    

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Label History: Rio Records

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).

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