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Freddy FenderWhen Freddy Fender died in 2006, his death was duly noted in the national press. No surprise, really, since he had topped the Billboard Hot 100 with his 1975 country weeper, "Before The Next Teardrop Falls." After one more Top 10 smash, the old-school rocker "Wasted Days And Wasted Nights," his pop hits trailed off, and most Americans forgot all about him.

Here in Texas, however, Fender's passing was a major event and cause for great mourning. He was, after all, a native son - born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito. And, his career was always more visible within our borders. Fender got his start way back in the 1950's, when he recorded Spanish-language versions of rock 'n' roll hits, performing along the Mexican border as El Be Bop Kid. Later, after his moment on the national stage, Fender continued to score country hits for nearly 10 years.

For Texans, however - especially those of Mexican heritage - Fender's defining moment came with the Texas Tornados, a Tex-Mex supergroup formed in the late 1980's by Fender, accordion virtuoso Flaco Jimenez, and Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers, both founding members of the Sir Douglas Quintet ("She's About A Mover," 1965). The Tornados' brief career was a powerful moment in Tejano history, a juncture where white and Hispanic cultures joined together under one spotlight, creating music full of tradition yet patently new.

Freddy FenderLater, Fender won a Grammy with Los Super Seven (another Tejano supergroup), and he capped his career with a Grammy-winning solo album (La Musica de Baldemar Huerta, 2002). Despite his share of hard knocks - serious illness, two stints in prison, plus numerous professional ups and down - Freddy Fender died a happy, satisfied man. "Maybe I've had to start all over again a few times," he once said, "but at least I'm not an old cup of stale coffee. I've had a few refills."

Ignoring the hits and awards, Freddy Fender's music is best remembered for its sophisticated fusion of country, rock, and rhythm & blues with the singer's Mexican roots. In essence, Fender was the prototypical Tejano musician. Unlike Charley Pride, a black man who sang country music - about whom it was said, "he looks like one of them, but he sings like one of us" - Freddy Fender sounded as Hispanic - and American, and Texan - as he looked. Which is the point.

Freddy Fender was also, we should not forget, a performer of great verve and soul, which makes his holiday album, Merry Christmas - Feliz Navidad (1977), all the more disappointing. In his review of the album, Robert Christgau opined, "Freddy could have made a (bilingual!) Christmas album to rank with Phil Spector's," and I have to agree. Fender recorded Merry Christmas for Dot Records on the crest of his first and biggest wave of success, using the same producer (Huey P. Meaux, the Crazy Cajun) who helmed his big hits for the label (see Best of Freddy Fender or The Millenium Collection). But like so many artists before and since, Fender and Meaux flinched when recording their Christmas album, softening their sound in a misguided attempt to capture the largest common commercial denominator.

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Freddy FenderSo, frankly, Merry Christmas - Feliz Navidad is a snoozer. Too much turkey, tamales, and ponche navideño on Noche Buena, perhaps. But, it didn't have to be that way. The album features several strong, original (bilingual!) compositions, and there's plenty of other material ("Blue Christmas," "Pretty Paper," "Please Come Home For Christmas") ideally suited to Freddy's style. It just never catches fire, due as much to Fender's overly restrained singing as Meaux's timid, synthesizer-laden production.

That's not to say you won't enjoy it. Christgau also said "I kind of love it anyway," and so do I. Songs like "Christmas Time In The Valley" (written by Fender) and "Santa! Don't Pass Me By" (written by Meaux) are really touching, if rankly sentimental. The most animated performances, though, are the covers - especially Charles Brown's "Please Come Home For Christmas," which resembles actual rock 'n' roll (almost).

Nearly 20 years later, Fender performed a few songs on A Tejano Country Christmas (Arista, 1994), which also features Flaco Jimenez and several contemporary Tex-Mex stars. The instrumentation is spirited, though rather generic (especially the metronomic drumming), only really shining when Flaco's squeezebox is thrust forward in the mix. For his part, Fender sounds a bit weathered, but his contributions come a lot closer to realizing the heady potential of which Christgau's wrote - even if they don't nearly achieve it.

Freddy FenderFreddy opens the album with "Blanca Navidad (White Christmas)," the most Latin-flavored cut in the record - and therefore one of the best. He takes another turn on "Please Come Home For Christmas," kicking it pretty damn hard this time, then joins Flaco for a giddy romp through "Frosty The Snowman." Finally, the whole cast joins in for "Jingle Bells," which isn't nearly as much fun as it should have been. With the exception of country singer Rick Orozco's swinging "When It's Christmas Time In Texas," the rest of the album ranges from dull to awful. For me, however, A Tejano Country Christmas was worth the price of admission to hear Freddy Fender sing Christmas music like he really meant it.

Consumer Notes. After Dot Records was subsumed by MCA, Merry Christmas - Feliz Navidad was reissued as Christmas Time In The Valley (same cover illustration, minus two tracks) sometime during the 80's. The 1998 CD reissue (by MCA Special Products) kept the amended title, restored the missing tracks, and adopted a new cover - adapted from Fender's 1974 LP, Before The Next Teardrop Falls, pasting a Santa cap over Freddy's cowboy hat.... [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Blanca Navidad (White Christmas) (1994)
  • Christmas Time In The Valley (1977)
  • Frosty The Snowman (1994)
  • I'll Be On The Chimney (1977)
  • If Christmas Comes To Your House (1977)
  • Please Come Home For Christmas (1994)
  • Santa! Don't Pass Me By (1977)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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