It's prime time in some generic 'burb in the eastern United States. Tired from the commute home, white-collar Joe plops down in front of the TV in time for the evening news. There, between reports of another bank failure and the ballooning deficit, are those ultraexpensive news-hour commercials: Depends, Preparation H, Chevrolet. Suddenly, the sound of a Tex-Mex accordion squeezes in. On the screen are four graying, paunchy guys who look like leftovers from Pancho Villa's gang. Snapping their fingers and shuffling their cowboy boots in a mock cha-cha-cha, they're obviously having the time of their lives. A familiar vibrato begins to sing in Spanish. This south-of-the-border scene catches our bleary-eyed office drone off guard. Questions begin to flash across his mind: "Has a satellite gone haywire? Is the cable bill paid?" Fortunately, the answer is simple. There on the tube in the wilds of white-bread suburbia, where the only Spanish words anyone knows are "Dorito" and "Corona," the Texas Tornados are blissfully hamming it up for McDonald's breakfast burritos.
"Esta un green chile," Freddy Fender croons. "That's a pepper, man," someone growls over Freddy's shoulder in a conspiratorial tone. With Flaco Jimenez flashing his gold tooth, Augie Meyers spinning in his best mock flamenco and Doug Sahm grinning away behind his ever-present shades, it's obvious that this quartet of crazies didn't need acting lessons for this shoot. But everyone knows commercials mean sellout, right? Ever since Neil Young let his "This Note's for You" arrow fly, bands with principles don't do TV ads, let alone shill for the world's foremost purveyor of fat- and sodium-laden gut bombs. Even worse, when musical acts appear in commercials, it usually signals a withering of the creative juices, a get-it-while-they-can attitude. Look at the Del Fuegos: A hungry rock band does a Miller Beer commercial and wham!--bad records, bad tours, lights out. But the Tornados are a special case. All four members are veterans who have spent years playing solo for peanuts and making records that didn't sell. There's Freddy Fender, of the years-ago ballad "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." There's Flaco Jimenez, the world greatest nortena accordion player, unknown north of Texas. Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers were with the Sir Douglas Quintet. In the Sixties.
All four are far too street-smart to turn down a tidy sum for playing their own goofy selves. Besides, the Tornados' breakfast-burrito spot is the perfect blend of the two m's that drive the group--music and marketing. Musically, the Tornados play Tex-Mex, conjunto and the other variations of la musica nortena, the sound that thrives along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Heavily influenced by German popular-music forms like the schottische and the mazurka, this accordion-based border music tends to fall into a few common forms. There are upbeat polkas, tunes with Latin beats called cumbias and slow ballads called rancheras.
Tex-Mex is a relatively young music. Created in Texas before the turn of the century, it was not recorded until the mid-Thirties. Still practically unknown outside the Southwestern U.S., this joyous regional music has long been one of America's most underrated cultural treasures. Few have ever played this music with more authority or affection than the Tornados. As native Texans who grew up in or near San Antonio--the spiritual heart of Tex-Mex--all four were born to this music. For Doug Sahm and Freddy Fender, who have had the most solo success but have also ranged the furthest afield musically, the band has marked a return to musical roots--and to old friends. The camaraderie among these fiftysomething characters is what gives the group its undeniable magic. Another important factor in the group's musical success is its repertoire of ready-made hits. Between them, these four have written or own the rights to many of the classics of Tex-Mex music. Consequently, the group's career so far has consisted of deciding which old tunes to do.
But what a selection! From Meyers' "(Hey Baby) Que Paso" and Sahm's "Adios Mexico" to Fender's radio hits and Jimenez's musical inheritance, the Tornados' music has the comfortable feel of your favorite well-worn boots. Admittedly, they'll never please hard-core Tex-Mex traditionalists. Flecked with the pop, rock and country sensibilities of its members, the Tornados' music is a boiled-down, Tex-Mex-for-the-masses tour of la frontera.
But this is a band you can't help but love. Its happy music, low-down sense of humor and ragged-but-real stage presence make it irresistible. Going to a Tornados show or listening to the group's records is like hearing the best of the last 40 years of south Texas roadhouse jukeboxes. At a Tornados show, the only people having more fun than the audience are the four bandleaders. How many bands would dare to open the first song of their first record with the lines, "Who were you thinkin' of/When we were makin' love last night?"
While the music is happy-go-lucky, the marketing is buttoned-down Harvard Business school. This group is the kind of carefully constructed, eminently bankable creation that makes label execs twitch and babble about "crossing over" and utter that most potent of recording terms, "penetration." Consider it: two Hispanics, two Anglos. All songwriters, multi-instrumentalists and successful solo artists who can do anything from Buddy Holly to corridos and can sing in both Spanish and English. To get real Nineties about it, the Tornados are "cultural diversity." Despite their amiable exteriors, the Tornados are more than aware of these considerations. They've been around enough to know an angle worth working when they see one. It's kind of the same principle as the breakfast burrito: The Tornados have become experts at wrapping their multiculturalism around a capitalist urge, introducing the world to Tex-Mex music so they can sell more records.
"The McDonald's commercial is a breakthrough because I sing in Spanish," Freddy Fender says by telephone from his hotel room in Los Angeles. "They're showing it all over the U.S., and people can relate to what I'm saying. Now that's a breakthrough in our culture, man; that's great. You know we call this country the melting pot, but golleeee, man, lately it's been melting kinda slow. We got to put some more fire under that pot." About the ghastly gringo-Mexican food concoctions that the Tornados help move beside the Big Macs and fries, Fender laughs and answers, "They're really not that bad, man. I swear." Another aspect of the band's marketing approach exploits the idea of the "supergroup." The Texas Tornados truly are that magical coalescence of talent that record labels never get tired of trying to cobble together. Hard as it is to swallow, in their own hopalong, longneck-beer-and-flashing-neon-sign kind of way the Tornados are a dusty Tejano version of Blind Faith. But Blind Faith, the most famous supergroup of them all, turned out to be a one-hit wonder. The Tornados are just getting started, and so far the sum of their combined talents has proven bigger than each of their solo careers. Born in December 1989, when a spur-of-the-moment gig turned into an around-the-block sellout, the four amigos soon got serious. In early 1990 the group decided to change its name to Texas Tornados, a name Sahm had used for his band in the mid-Seventies. In what ranks as one of the more insightful artist-and-repertoire moves ever made by a major label, Warner Bros. signed the Tornados. Released without fanfare, the band's first record Texas Tornados took off like a shot. Without a speck of airplay, a hit single or a hot video, the record sold an astounding 250,000 copies. The group's second record, the appropriately titled Zone of Our Own, was released last July. So far, it, too, is doing well.
Suddenly, what had been a loose, easygoing, one-shot record deal turned into a career. No one is more surprised than the Tornados.
"I didn't really believe in the first record," Fender says. "I could see the chemistry was good, and I knew we could do it onstage, but I didn't know if our records would sell.
"My first reaction was `Hell, no.' You heard of New Kids on the Block. Well, we're the old farts in the neighborhood. I said, `Who the hell wants to listen to us?' One guy's playing accordion, another's on the organ, I'm playing guitar, Doug's over there doing something else--goddamn, we look like a carnival! We look like a bunch of misfit toys. But miracle of miracles, people respect and appreciate us for who we are."
Who they are is still in question. When it became obvious that the first album was selling without any airplay or a promotional push, Warner Bros. had Fender translate all the lyrics into Spanish. The group then rerecorded the entire album, using Fender's words, for marketing in Mexico. The result, Los Texas Tornados, promptly spun off the hit single "Rosa de Amor." Again, the Tornados just shook their heads and headed for the bank.
"It's a risky business to translate and try to market music in another country," Fender says. "You risk losing the feeling of the song when you change languages. Usually the only way it works is if you have an international type of song. Like when you heard `Volare,' or `Don't Worry, Be Happy' by Bobby McFerrin. We were very lucky that `Laredo Rose'--in Spanish `Rosa de Amor'--hit pretty good."
Fender has reason to be cautious about translations. Born Baldemar Huerta, Fender began performing professionally under his stage name by the late Fifties. His first hit was a 1957 Spanish version of Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel." In 1959 he cut "Ay Amor" for Falcon Records in McAllen, Texas. Retitled "Oh Holy One," it is the only Fender-penned tune to make the new Tornados record.
"The title got me in trouble from the very beginning. A lot of people thought it was sacrilegious. But in Spanish you can refer to a vir . . . er, a woman, as a `holy one.' It is a tribute to a woman," Fender says. "It doesn't sound sacrilegious because of the language. In the romance languages, which Spanish is a part of, you can actually sing a song sayin', `If you don't love me, I'm going to kill you and your lover and then I'm going to jump over a cliff,' and it sounds romantic. You can't do that in English.
"I still love that song, because there's a lot of innocence in the words. I wrote it when I was 19 years old and the naiveness still gives it a special shine."
Shining moments and years of despair have alternated throughout most of Fender's musical life. In 1960, after recording his first big hit "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," Fender's career was interrupted by a prison sentence. Arrested in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for possession of one joint of marijuana, Fender served three years at Louisiana's notorious Angola State Prison. The proud graduate of a drug and alcohol recovery program, Fender says he has been clean since 1985. Last year he even quit smoking.
Resuming his career in the mid-Sixties, Fender continued to release singles on small regional labels until 1974, when he recorded "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" to placate his producer, the now-legendary Gulf Coast musical entrepreneur Huey Meaux. To Fender's complete surprise, the record became a national hit on the country charts and locked him into that format.
"As much as I appreciate the things that happened to me because of country music, I was never a rooted country singer," he says. "As far as songs about honky tonkin' or walkin' the fields of Tennessee, I sang 'em, but they were not my roots.
"I have nothing against country music now except that it kept me from doing the music I wanted to do. The Tornados give me the freedom to do whatever the hell I want to. I can sing `Pop Goes the Weasel' or walk out onstage with tennis shoes and my Harley tee shirt and nobody says a word." Although Fender is the group's biggest name, and in concert it is his solo work like "Teardrops" that fills out sets, the Tornados are all distinguished players.
Probably the least-known member of the group, Flaco Jimenez ranks as the most influential nortena accordion player in the world. Flaco's father Santiago Jimenez is one of a small group of Mexican Americans credited with making the accordion the heart of border music, an accomplishment to which Flaco pays tribute by including his father's "El Pantalon Blue Jean" on the Tornados' latest album. A master of the Hohner Corona diatonic button accordion, Flaco began playing in his hometown of San Antonio in the Fifties. Since then he has collaborated with Sahm, Ry Cooder, Dwight Yoakam and others. He composed the soundtrack for the film The Border, and has been nominated for several Grammys, winning in 1986 for the album Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio. Childhood pals Augie Meyers and Doug Sahm are musical chameleons whose biggest moment came as members of the Sir Douglas Quintet, a mid-Sixties British-Invasion knockoff based in California but staffed by Texans. The band had hits with "Mendocino" and "She's About a Mover." A prodigy who was asked to join the Grand Ole Opry at 13, Sahm's fondest memory is of sitting on Hank Williams' knee at the singer's last public performance in Austin, Texas, in 1953. Between leading versions of his own band, Sahm also found time to play with Bob Dylan's mid-Seventies Rolling Thunder Revue.
Meyers is a skilled accordion and bajo sexto player. He is credited by Elvis Costello, among others, for having brought the roller-rink Vox organ sound into popular music. It's clear after talking to Fender that he and Sahm are the de facto leaders of the group. But with this much ego and experience in one band, trying to decide what makes a record--and what doesn't--is sure to mean a struggle.
For Zone of Our Own, the Tornados recorded 14 cuts, of which ten made the disc. Of the four tunes cut, Augie and Freddy lost one each. The other two were by outside writers--the Forbidden Pigs' Billy Bacon and former Blaster Dave Alvin.
But while Fender and Meyers both lost out, Sahm's surprising "I'm Not That Kat Anymore" made it. With its hard-rock guitars and AOR-friendly tone, the tune is the antithesis of the Tornados' style.
"There are tunes that I don't like and I tell Doug," Fender says. "And there are songs I do that he doesn't like and he lets me know. Hey, we got four different people shooting in different directions. But we're givin' our listeners four different things comin' out of one album, and somehow . . . it works."
In the future, the band has plans to record a second Spanish-language record and market it in Mexico and South America; there will be no more translations. The Tornados prefer the English versions of their songs--and being stars in suburbia may be the group's best revenge.
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"How far will it go? I have no idea," Fender says. "I'll be happy when we ask people in Pennsylvania or Vermont to listen to Tex-Mex and they even know what we are talking about." Texas Tornados will perform at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum as part of the Arizona State Fair on Saturday, October 19. Showtimes are 4 and 7 p.m.
There on the tube in the wilds of white-bread suburbia, the Texas Tornados are hamming it up for McDonald's breakfast burritos.
Still unknown outside the Southwestern U.S., Tex-Mex music has long been one of America's most underrated cultural treasures. Going to a Tornados show or listening to their records is like hearing the best of the last 40 years of south Texas roadhouse jukeboxes. To get real Nineties about it, the Tornados are "cultural diversity." "You know we call this country the melting pot, but golleeee, man, lately it's been melting kinda slow. We got to put some more fire under that pot." "You heard of New Kids on the Block. Well, we're the old farts in the neighborhood."
"The Tornados give me the freedom to do whatever the hell I want to. I can sing `Pop Goes the Weasel.'