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Freddy Fender is 'El Bebop Kid'

Has there ever been a more Houston-sounding music than that of Freddy Fender?

Think about it. Songs like "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" were pan-Gulf Coastal music. Here you had a Mexican-American guy from the Valley, singing heavily Fats Domino/New Orleans-­influenced country/R&B in both Spanish and English, filtered through the sensibilities of a Cajun producer and a mostly Anglo band. Even after he hit the big time, Fender would sprinkle in some conjunto, too — and that music was itself a hybrid of old Mexican music and the beery polkas of the ­Germans and Czechs who later settled among them.

What's more, he sang his songs in a cloudless tenor that was tailor-made to cut through the crackle and static on AM radio. You can't learn to sing like Fender — you have to be both blessed and then work hard at it. If Freddy Fender's music had been a dish, it would have been a Cajun-fried oyster po' boy con mucho pico de gallo spooned on top.

All of this is brought home in El Bebop Kid, a 33-year-old half-hour documentary written and narrated by former KPRC-TV employee Carlos Calbillo. Only about 12 people have seen this film since it originally aired back around the time Tricky Dick flashed his final V-sign on the White House lawn, but Calbillo plans to reintroduce the film publicly this Friday (February 1) at Bohemeo's, a Telephone Road coffeehouse/bar just two-and-a-half miles from Sugar Hill Studios, where Fender recorded his biggest hits.

There's a definite Les Blank feel to El Bebop Kid, in its overall sweet sincerity, the tranquil pacing and lingering shots of Bruce Bryant's direction, and Calbillo's probing yet informal interviews and heavy reliance on long playbacks of songs. To senses conditioned by the sensory overload of too many modern-day VH1-style music documentaries — all jump-cuts and five-second song snippets and smarmy, senselessly snarky talking heads — it feels like a soothing sunset walk on a pleasantly deserted beach.

The film lingers long on Fender's origins, with plenty of footage from his sleepy Valley hometown of San Benito, including a shot of the imposing downtown hotel where Fender holed up after a fight with his wife and wrote "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights." Calbillo also tells the story of Fender's life as a migrant farm worker, with long stints in the Arkansas cotton fields, and his musical sojourn in Louisiana, where Fender's possession of a single joint landed him in the notorious Angola prison farm for three long years.

Fender and Calbillo discuss Fender's initial reluctance to sing country, his past fame (in South Texas, he had a previous incarnation as something very near the Mexican Elvis Presley) and his status as an ambassador of Chicano culture across America and the world. Fender states his opinion that country and ranchera are basically the same thing when you strip away the language barrier, and there's also a somewhat defensive discussion of his decision to perform as Freddy Fender instead of under his birth name — Baldemar Huerta. ("El Bebop Kid" was another of his stage names, albeit one employed to market him south of the border rather than north.)

The story isn't told in the film, but on his release from Angola, Fender joined a Gulf Coast supergroup that also included Cajun swamp pop wildman Joe Barry and fellow ex-con Mac Rebennack, who would some years later sprinkle himself in goofer dust and transform into Dr. John the Night Tripper. This band's home base was Papa Joe's strip club in the French Quarter, and they were said to be so good that patrons would boo the strippers off the stage so the band could play longer. If that tale sounds unlikely, Dr John later provided a reality check: "Have you seen some of them strippers in New Orleans?" he asked a British interviewer a few years ago.

Fender, Barry and Rebennack would all eventually wind up in the orbit of Huey Meaux, the equally revered and reviled Houston record producer. Meaux, who would eventually go down in flames in the wake of several convictions ranging from cocaine possession to sex with minors, is interviewed at length in El Bebop Kid.

"Huey's in rare form," Calbillo says, of the producer's interviews. "I would love it if Huey came out. You know, in the old days, him and I did so much coke together I'm surprised he's still alive. But you know, those were the times, and it was all crazy."

Doug Sahm also makes an appearance. Sahm grew up in San Antonio as a Fender fan, and later would join forces with him in the Texas Tornados. Calbillo, a self-described Sahm fanatic, says he considers Sahm's version of Freddy's composition "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" to be the definitive one. Even today, Calbillo gushes when talking about interviewing Sahm, whom he tracked down in Austin's Soap Creek Saloon. "I was a kid in the presence of a legend," he remembers. "I asked him for an interview and he took me to his house. At the time he lived in this house around the corner from Soap Creek. To me, that interview is classic. He's sitting there fidgeting. He had so much nervous energy, his body language was a certain way. And I was sitting there and in walks Roky Erickson. I just turned to [my producer] Tony [Bruni] and said, 'That's fucking Roky Erickson!' And this was like what, 1975, '76? I mean, dude, all I could do was just look at Roky and just stare at him. I couldn't even talk." (Or sadly, turn the cameras around to document this chance meeting.)

Austin DJs Joe Gracey of K.O.K.E. — who shortly thereafter was rendered mute by the loss of his tongue to cancer — and El Sinsemilla Kid also drop in to pay their respects. Want to know what's wrong with radio today, kids? At least with commercial radio, people as cool as Gracey and El Sinsemilla Kid would not be allowed in the same room as a live mike today.

And it's not like TV stations are doing much like this anymore, either. Back in the early '70s, Calbillo says, local TV stations "had at least a little conscience or guilt or shame," and Calbillo often used to work on public service programs for the ­community.

El Bebop Kid, for example, was an installment of a recurring KPRC program called Reflejos del Barrio. Then, according to Calbillo, "the bad people, the Yankees, took over Channel 2 and made a lot of changes." The pulp-drenched, sensationalistic, glitzy KPRC of today is the end result.

Calbillo calls El Bebop Kid a period piece, and it is that. People just don't grow hair like Freddy's or sideburns like Huey's anymore, and many of the principals in this film have left us. But the thing that is most nostalgic about it is not the fashions or the music, but the fact that this film was made at all, that a local commercial TV news show would fund and air a lovingly crafted program about a guy like Freddy Fender.

john.lomax@houstonpress.com


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