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.