Before slain female superstar Selena brought tejano music to international prominence, there was Laura Canales. Known during her 1980s heyday as La reina de la onda tejana (The Queen of the Tejano Wave), Canales blazed a path for women in the border-crossing fusion music of Mexican-American Texans. "She was the lady who broke the gender barrier," Tejano Roots Hall of Fame chief executive Javier Villanueva was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. "At the time, it was taboo for female artists to front bands or perform in public. But here came Laura, and she just took the Tejano world by storm." In an interview quoted in the Austin American-Statesman, Canales herself said that she and her band "put femininity in a male-dominated genre."
Though preceded by a few other female singers in tejano music (the durable career of San Antonio's Lydia Mendoza began in the 1930s), Canales was the genre's first modern female star, and a runaway annual award winner until Selena came along. Known for her generosity to others, Canales mentored the young Selena during the first part of her career with her band Los Dinos. Even when the two began to compete for annual awards and for the top spot on music sales charts, they often shared stages and maintained a mutual admiration. Selena, according to tejano music chronicler Joe Nick Patoski (writing in his weblog), said that Canales "paved the way for everyone who has come after her, including myself."
Canales was born on August 19, 1954, in Kingsville, a ranch town in the flatlands of Texas south of Corpus Christi. Attending high school in Kingsville, she sang in the choir, and she was encouraged to develop her vocal gift by choir director Millicent Wiley. In 1973 Canales appeared with the band Los Unicos. It was her father, Perfecto Canales, not her mother Maria, who encouraged her early efforts at performing. "My dad was my only supporter," she told Patoski. "He used to go with me, pick up a six-pack and have fun, dance with all the girls. But he died in '77. After that I'd come home crying and Mom would say, 'Quit! Get out!'"
Between 1973 and 1975 Canales performed with Los Unicos and also took female vocal slots with one of the top tejano bands of the 1970s, El Conjunto Bernal. She became romantically involved with Los Unicos drummer Balde Muñoz. In 1975 they joined with accordionist Ramiro "Snowball" de la Cruz and two other musicians to form Snowball & Co., with Canales as lead vocalist. The unusual look of the pale, platinum-haired de la Cruz—an albino—helped put Snowball & Co. on the map, but the precise vocals of Canales, rhythmically hard-edged yet passionate as she turned the male-perspective themes of traditional tejano lyrics on their heads, stoked the group's popularity. Vocalist Ruben Cubillos told Houston Chronicle writer Ramiro Burr that she "will best be known for delivering a balanced yet soulful punch to her polkas, rancheras, and ballads." A cover of Mexican-American vocalist Linda Ronstadt's "Midnight Blue" sold well and made Canales's voice more familiar.
The band's name was changed to Felicidad in 1978 after Snowball's departure, but that didn't slow them down much. Canales drew large audiences in such venues as the McAllen Civic Center near the Mexican border. "She was always humble and happy-go-lucky," banquet-hall owner Nano Ramirez told the McAllen, Texas, Monitor. "She never got a big head even though she was the first major female star in tejano music." Others recalled that when Canales appeared on bills with other artists, she would come out and sit in the audience to listen after her own set was done.
The peak of Canales's popularity came in the 1980s, after her band changed its name once again to Laura Canales & Encanto in 1981. She and Muñoz also married that year; it was one of three marriages for Canales, all of which ended in divorce. One of her most successful recordings was her first under the Laura Canales & Encanto name; the title track of Si viví contigo was the first of a string of Canales hits that saturated tejano radio. In addition to the "Reina de la onda tejana" tag, Canales was sometimes dubbed the Barbra Streisand of Tejano Music. She never made a substantial effort to cross over to English-language pop, but, like other tejano singers including Selena, she did occasionally record country-flavored English-language songs like "Take Me Back."
By 1985 Canales was being booked into venues such as the vast Billy Bob's club in Fort Worth. She won both Female Entertainer and Female Vocalist Tejano Music Awards for four consecutive years beginning in 1983, a record exceeded only by Selena in the 1990s. Canales felt under pressure on both personal and professional fronts, however, and during the late 1980s she dropped out of sight for several years, emerging briefly in 1988 as a disc jockey on Houston radio station KYST. Various rumors surrounded her absence from the scene, but the publicity may have helped give her a renewed run in the spotlight: she was signed in 1989 to the major label EMI Latin. Her recordings up to that point had been mostly released by the regional Freddie label.
Appearing with the group Los Fabulosos Cuatro, Canales released the hit album No Regrets. She also recorded for the Fonovisa label in the mid-1990s, and she continued to perform on group bills. In 1992, however, Canales began to look ahead to a life after the music business. She enrolled at the Kingsville branch of Texas A&M University, majoring in psychology and studying speech therapy, graduating in 1997. "The realization to go back to school came when I read about the high suicide rate in teenagers," she was quoted as saying on the Ondanet website. "I never realized teenagers would even consider suicide as an option." "If I could do it all over again," she told the Monitor, "I would have finished college before I started my music career."
In 2000 Canales became part of the first group of inductees to the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame, and she was still a strong concert draw. She began graduate studies in psychology at Texas A&M. Fans and friends were shocked when Canales died in Corpus Christi on April 16, 2005, after complications from routine gall bladder surgery. United States Representative Solomon Ortiz issued a statement, quoted in the San Antonio Express-News, praising Canales as "a true Texas talent and a pioneer."
For the Record . . .
Born on August 19, 1954, in Kingsville, TX; died on April 16, 2005, in Corpus Christi, TX; married and divorced three times. Education: Graduated from high school in Kingsville, TX; Texas A&M University at Kings ville, degree in psychology and speech therapy, 1997; worked toward master's degree at Texas A&M Kingsville.
Performed with Los Unicos, 1973; performed with El Conjunto Bernal, 1973-75; formed and performed with group Snowball, 1975-78; group changed name to Fe licidad, 1978; group changed name to Laura Canales & Encanto, 1981; worked as disc jockey, 1988; signed to EMI Latin label, released No Regrets album, 1990.
Awards: Numerous Tejano Music Awards, including both female vocalist of the year and female entertainer of the year, every year from 1983 through 1987; first-year inductee, Tejano Roots Hall of Fame.
La Reina, Freddie.
Dame la mano, Freddie.
Esta sed que tengo, Freddie.
Mas querido, Freddie.
Midnight Blue, Freddie.
Si viví contigo, Freddie.
No Regrets, EMI Latin, 1990.
Personal Best, CBS International, 1990.
Sensualmente, EMI Latin, 1991.
Laura Canales, Sony, 1992.
Dile a tu esposa, Capitol, 1992.
Con mucho amor, Laura, Capitol, 1994.
Mis mejores canciones: 12 Super Exitos, EMI International, 1995.
Frente a frente, Fonovisa, 1996.
15 Exitos, Freddie, 1996.
Tres deseos, EMI Latin, 1998.
30 Hits, Freddie, 2003.
30 Exitos Insuperables, EMI International, 2004.
Original Masters, EMI International, 2004.
Austin American-Statesman, April 19, 2005, p. A1.
Billboard, April 30, 2005.
Houston Chronicle, April 19, 2005, p. B1.
Monitor (McAllen, TX), April 19, 2005.
New York Times, April 20, 2005, p. C19.
San Antonio Express-News, April 19, 2005, p. B1; April 20, 2005, p. G1; April 22, 2005, p. B4.
Washington Post, April 23, 2005, p. B7.
"Laura Canales," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 30, 2005).
"Laura Canales," http://www.ondanet.com/tejano/artists/Laura.Canales/bio.html (June 30, 2005).
"Laura Canales," Tejano Roots Hall of Fame, http://www.tejanorootshalloffame.org/laura01.html (June 30, 2005).
"Laura Canales, RIP," Notes and Musings blog, Joe Nick Patoski, http://www.joenickp.com/notes/pivot/entry.php?id=52 (June 30, 2005).
—James M. Manheim