The Texas Tornados
The Texas Tornados
Called the “Tex-Mex equivalent of the Traveling Wilburys and Grateful Dead” by Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press, the Texas Tornados are Flaco Jimenez, Augie Meyers, Doug Sahm, and Freddy Fender. Each an accomplished solo artist in his own right, the four joined forces in 1989, creating a soulful mix of country, rhythm and blues, ballad singing, Texas rock and roll, and conjunto—a type of music that mixes Mexican Norteno with German and Czechoslovakian polkas and waltzes. As a Pollstar correspondent put it, “The Tornados are not country, they’re not rock and roll. They’ve taken their sound straight from the sawdust-floored cantinas of South Texas and spiced it up a bit.”
The Tornados made their first appearance in December of 1989. Though all had played together at various times, the band members did not actually perform as a group until Sahm brought them together for a gig in San Francisco. “Cameron Randle, at Refugee Management, sort of put the whole thing together, and got together with Warner Brothers,” Sahm told the Tulsa World. “They were lookin’ and we were bookin’.”
Members include Freddy Fender (born Baldemar Huerta in San Benito, TX), vocals, guitar; Flaco Jimenez (born Leonardo Jimenez in 1939; son of Santiago Jimenez, Jr.), vocals, button accordion; Augie Meyers (born in San Antonio, TX), vocals, Vox organ, keyboards, accordion, and bajo sexto; and Doug Sahm (born in San Antonio), vocals, guitar.
Country/rock group. Sahm and Meyers had been members of the Sir Douglas Quintet; group formed in San Francisco in 1989; signed with Reprise Records; released first album, Texas Tornados, 1990; toured throughout the United States, early 1990s.
Selected awards: Grammy Award for best Mexican-American performance, 1991.
Addresses: Agent —c/o Monterey Artists, Inc., 33 Music Square West, Suite 106-B, Nashville, TN 37203. Record company; —Reprise Records, 1815 Division Street, P.O. Box 120897, Nashville, TN 37212.
Initially, not all were excited about giving up solo careers to join the group. “I was not very enthusiastic about being with any group at all,” Fender admitted in the Austin American-Statesman, “but the only way I could get on a major label was with four people, so I said what the hell.”
The Tornados’ first record received critical acclaim— the Houston Chronicle called Texas Tornados “almost too good to be true… Jalapeno-laced, tequila-spiked cross-cultural border music the way you always imagined it could sound in your sun-baked dreams.” The album also sold better than the band had expected. Sahm, for one, was ecstatic: “One week in Billboard, we were charted in rock, 21 in Latin and 29 with a bullet on the country album chart…. We’re selling more country records than half those country artists with white hats.”
The critical reception to the group’s second effort, 1991’s Zone of Our Own, was even better. Country Music called Zone of Our Own “a clear improvement from a group whose musical standards are beyond reproach.” An Austin American-Statesman correspondent announced, “This second blow by the all-star, Tex-Mex aggregation is stronger than the first…. [It] underscores the crucial connections between the… rock of Doug Sahm, the border (and border transcending) musics of Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez and the Tejano-flavored country of Augie Meyers.”
Like their records, the Tornados’ whirlwind live shows prompted ecstatic critical reactions. A Houston Chronicle reporter wrote, “The Texas Tornados nearly blew the roof off at Rockefeller’s;” a CMJ writer observed, “The Texas Tornados reminded some hardened New Yorkers just what a kick live music can be;” and in the Chicago Sun-Times a reviewer summed up the opinion of many: “They delivered everything a fan might have hoped…. A killer show.”
All members of the Texas Tornados joke about their ages; at the group’s inception, Sahm, at 48, was the only member under 50. “You’ve heard of [the pop group] New Kids on the Block?” Fender told People “Well, we’re the old farts in the neighborhood.” Each had come to the Texas Tornados after long careers in border music.
Doug Sahm burst on the national seen in 1965 as a member of the Sir Douglas Quintet, which released the hit “She’s About a Mover.” Sir Douglas was one of the most outlandish groups in rock history. Conceived by Sahm and producer Huey “Crazy Cajun” Meaux, the group wore Edwardian costumes and pretended to be part of the wave of British groups that were dominating the charts at the time. In reality all were from Texas and two were Mexican.
Sahm began his career at age 12. Known as “Little Doug,” he was a steel guitar-playing prodigy who was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry at 13. Little Doug even sat on Hank Williams’s knee at one of that singer’s last public performances. Over the course of more than 40 pre-Tornados albums, Sahm proved himself equally at home assaying acid-drenched psychedelia, country, Gulf Coast blues, big band pop, and conjunto. In 1983 he reunited the Sir Douglas Quintet for a huge international hit, 1983’s “Meet Me in Stockholm.”
Augie Meyers’ career has run parallel with Doug Sahm’s since the 1950s. Meyers had begun playing guitar as therapy for polio, and later a black gospel pianist introduced him to the rudiments of the keyboard. When Sahm and his parents started going to Meyers’s mother’s grocery store in their mutual hometown of San Antonio, young Doug and Augie would talk about their respective bands. Later, when the Sir Douglas Quintet exploded, Meyers’ Vox organ sound—described by some as “cheesy”—was an integral part of hits like “She’s About a Mover” and “Mendocino.” Upon the Quintet’s split, Meyers formed the Western Headband and showed a deft touch with the accordion and the bajo sexto, a Mexican gut-stringed guitar. Since then Meyers and Sahm have remained close, often touring and performing together.
Like that of Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender’s career has hinged on a few hits and a mass of talent. Born Baldemar Huerta in the Rio Grande Valley town of San Benito, Fender had his first hit, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” in 1959. Some called him the “Mexican Elvis,” or “El Bebop Kid.” He had the potential for a promising career, but his rise was cut short in the early 1960s, when police caught him with marijuana and sent him to jail for three years.
In the early 1970s the same Huey P. Meaux who turned out the Sir Douglas Quintet steered Fender into country music. The resulting hits included the bilingual smash “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and a remake of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.”
Fender released his last solo album in 1981 and spent much of the 1980s playing more mainstream country music.” In 1988 Robert Redford cast him as the mayor in his film The Milagro Beanfield War. Before the formation of the Texas Tornados, Fender was playing solo gigs for what he called “peanuts.”
Of all the group’s members, Flaco Jimenez has had the steadiest, if the least flashy, career. Born Leonardo Jimenez in 1939, he grew up in a musical household. His grandfather, Patricio Jimenez, was an accordion player. His father, Santiago Jimenez, Sr., was one of the inventors of conjunto. In the mid-1950s Flaco had his first hit, “Hasta La Vista,” which he followed with a long string of Spanish-language hits based on the rancheras, polkas, and boleros of his native San Antonio.
In 1973, Sahm called Jimenez to play on Doug Sahm and Band, a rowdy, loose album that featured rock legend Bob Dylan and New Orleans pianist Dr. John. In 1974 Jimenez appeared in Les Blank’s groundbreaking documentary Chulas Fronteras. As his reputation grew beyond the Mexican and Mexican-American communities, Jimenez began collaborating with more mainstream artists. He played on Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to the film The Boarder and on albums by Cooder, Peter Rowan, Dwight Yoakam, and, of course, Doug Sahm. His own album, Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio, won a Grammy Award in 1986. When not playing with the Texas Tornados, Jimenez brings his Hohner Corona diatonic accordion from San Antonio’s El West Side to the capitals of Europe and even Japan.
Coming together in 1989 after years in the music business as solo performers was a venture that elicited mixed emotions in the members of the Texas Tornados. Fender, for example, told the Detroit Free Press’s Graff, “If we were kids, it would be different. But we’re grown men, and the older you get, the more you value your independence.” Nevertheless, the Texas Tornados materialized “thanks to mutual respect and interest in each other’s music,” according to Graff.
While all four Tornados enjoy playing in the group, none has completely given up on his solo career. Most see the band—which in mid-1992 had just completed their third album and were under contract to complete a fourth—as a springboard to renewed individual popularity. Sahm explained to Graff in 1992, “We’ve got to do our individual projects, but by doing those, we don’t burn out on the main one, which is the Tornados.” When asked if solo stardom was a hard dream to give up, Fender responded in the Los Angeles Times, “Is pork chops greasy? I guess we all want it.”
Texas Tornados, Reprise, 1990.
Los Texas Tornados, Reprise, 1991.
Zone of Our Own, Reprise, 1991.
Austin American-Statesman, September 16, 1991; November 14, 1991.
CMJ, October 19, 1990.
Country Music, March/April 1991.
Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, October 18, 1991.
Houston Chronicle March 14, 1991.
Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1990.
Metro Times (Detroit), June 10, 1992.
New York Times, September 30, 1990.
People, December 2, 1991.
Pollstar, August 27, 1990.
Sun-Times (Chicago), September 24, 1990.
Tulsa World, July 15, 1990.
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