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TORNADOS STORM MIDDLE AMERICAIN AN UNLIKELY MARKETING MOVE, TEX-MEX TOUCHES DOWN AT THE DRIVE-THROUGH

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"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.

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Robert Baird