As evident by some of my recent blog entries, Chris Strachwitz is someone who I've really come to admire these last few months. There's a reason why he's a member of San Benito's "Texas Conjunto Music" Hall of Fame, and it's for his priceless contributions towards South Texas music. He's a guy that I've become quite fascinated by, not only because of his love for South Texas, but the love he's shown for all regions, cultures, and musical genres across the U.S. Strachwitz should be commended for bringing much needed attention and love to regional music that would have otherwise been lost throughout history.
I wanted to share a first class history lesson by Strachwitz, where he details the history of San Benito's IDEAL Records. He originally wrote this for the linear notes of Arhoolie Records' "Tejano Roots", and has since gone on to share this piece on his website. On this piece he discusses who the founders were, what lead to the formation of the label, the partnerships and a bit of rich South Texas history. One neat nugget of information includes a musician who is now a South Texas icon doing some "engineering chores" for the label. So enjoy reading about one of South Texas' most important record labels.
IDEAL Records was launched in 1946 after Armando Marroquin of Alice, Texas released several records by the vocal duet of Carmen y Laura, (his wife Carmen and her sister Laura) via a Los Angeles based firm. The success of these records in south Texas brought businessman Paco Betancourt from San Benito to Alice to propose a partnership with Mr. Marroquin. Under the agreement reached by the two men, Armando Marroquin would get new recording equipment, a studio, make all the recordings, and receive all the records he needed for his juke boxes. Paco Betancourt for his part would arrange for the manufacturing of the discs and their distribution both in the U.S. and in Mexico.
Armando Marroquin (September 12, 1912 – July 4, 1990) operated juke boxes in cantinas, restaurants, and other businesses in the Alice area. Before the war, records by the best known local artists were readily available from the major labels on their depression-special cheap 35 cent labels like Blue Bird, Vocalion, Okeh, and Decca. Narciso Martinez, Gaytan y Cantu, and the first female star of Tejano music: Lydia Mendoza were probably the most popular. When record production almost came to a standstill in the United States during World War II (1941-1945), the record industry in Mexico quickly tried to pick up the slack. But, the combination of not having recorded the music from up north (Norteño) and U.S. Customs making it very difficult and even illegal to import records, left most juke boxes high and dry for want of local favorites. Mr. Marroquin had purchased a disc recorder and sold acetate copies of recordings for up to $5 each to music hungry juke box owners. The first recordings were made in Carmen and Armando Marroquin’s kitchen. Carmen sang and a blind guitar playing neighbor, Reynaldo Barrera, backed her on guitar or bajo sexto. When the war ended Mr. Marroquin contacted Four Star Records in Los Angeles, one of the first independent pressing and production companies, to manufacture his first mass-produced 78 rpm records.
Among those first commercial releases was the timely song Se Me Fue Mi Amor (which can be heard on Arhoolie CD/C-343 Tejano Roots: The Women) sung by Carmen and her sister Laura accompanied by another neighbor, Isaac Figueroa, on accordion. The sound of an accordion, both solo and backing singers, was rapidly becoming the attraction which drew listeners and dancers to cantinas and ballrooms. The theme of the song of that first record was "My love has left me, he has gone off to war" and it was an instant success throughout the southwest. Once Armando and Paco began IDEAL Records, Armando supplied a steady stream of masters and soon went on the road with his rising stars: Beto Villa and his orchestra, singers Carmen and Laura, and accordion ace Narciso Martinez. This successful triumvirate had all the elements to appeal to every strata of Mexican-American society in the southwest during the immediate post war era. Armando Marroquin had a good sense for what music the public wanted to buy on records and he was soon besieged by talent from all over the south Texas area.
Paco Betancourt (January 15, 1903 - September 5, 1971) owned and operated the Rio Grande Music Co. in San Benito, Texas, primarily a retail record shop which, according to John Phillips from whom I purchased the IDEAL masters, also serviced over a hundred juke boxes and 25 pin ball games by 1946. In the 1920s Paco Betancourt had built and operated the Queen Theatre on Main Street in Brownsville, the first theatre in the Valley to show talking movies. He eventually sold out to a chain and went into the record business. By 1950 Tejano and Conjunto music had become a substantial business for record producers, juke box operators, nightclub, ballroom, and bar owners, composers, as well as the singers and musicians who comprised the orchestras and conjuntos.
Success brought competition and several smaller companies, including Falcon Records in McAllen, Texas, were soon on the scene. Due to their location close to the border, these companies recorded many artists from Mexico, especially from rural areas in the state of Nuevo Leon. Along with increased opportunities for the artists, problems and complaints arose and the partnership between Armando Marroquin and Paco Betancourt came to an end around 1959 although the two remained good friends. Mr. Marroquin retained the services of some of the artists, the recording studio, and started his own label, Nopal. Paco Betancourt’s Rio Grande Music Co. continued to distribute the IDEAL label from San Benito where a studio was opened and new recordings were made by Paco and John Phillips. Some of the engineering chores were soon taken over by a talented young local singer and musician who also recorded for the label, named Baldemar Huerta who would soon be known to the music world as Freddy Fender. Many of the best artists however, including Paulino Bernal, went on to greener pastures at other labels or formed their own production companies. Towards the end of his career, Mr. Betancourt entered politics and was elected mayor of San Benito, Texas.
I purchased all IDEAL masters in 1990 from John Phillips, Sr. who had inherited all the rights to the label. John’s grandfather on his mother’s side was a brother of Paco Betancourt’s father. The Betancourt brothers had both been officials of the Mexican government under the Diaz regime and were sent from Mexico City to Matamoros to supervise customs and immigration. When the revolution spread through Mexico the Betancourt family fled across the Rio Grande to Brownsville and lost their property in Mexico. Paco Betancourt grew up during the boom days of the 1920s and as an enterprising young man started several businesses. John on the other hand, born in 1922, grew up in the depth of the Depression and went to work for Pan American Airways in the early 1940s. After World War II, Pan Am relocated their Western regional headquarters and John did not want to make the move. He stayed in San Benito and in 1946 went to work for Paco Betancourt and IDEAL Records when the label was releasing record number 15. While Paco shipped masters, ordered the 78 rpm records pressed in California, made up the label copy, packed and invoiced in the shop, John was responsible for sales and contacting the various wholesalers, shops, and juke box operators throughout the southwest. When the partnership with Marroquin ended and the master recordings no longer poured in from Alice, Texas, John was made responsible for installing a recording studio next door and a record pressing facility in the back of the Rio Grande Music Co. building. From that time on Paco and John Phillips did most of the recordings in San Benito and pressed the records, which by 1960 were all 7" 45 rpm or 33 1/3 rpm LP discs.
Armando Marroquin was the perfect recording director. He got along well with the musicians, had a good ear for talent and for what the public wanted to hear, and obtained a good sound with the recording equipment on hand. Looking back at the many fine master recordings he produced for IDEAL, we begin to realize how much excellent and historic Tejano and Conjunto music has been preserved on record thanks to the many talented singers and musicians and the tireless and patient Armando Marroquin.
I personally have been interested in Tejano and Conjunto music for over 30 years and have recorded Flaco Jimenez, Trio San Antonio, Santiago Jimenez, Los Pinguinos del Norte, and others for ARHOOLIE. I have been an avid collector of historic 78 rpm recordings from South Texas and have made many of these available again on LPs and Cassettes on the Folklyric label. In the 1970s I produced two documentary films, CHULAS FRONTERAS and DEL MERO CORAZON with film maker Les Blank and editor Maureen Gosling. These films/videos have introduced some of the best historic Tejano and conjunto artists, songs, corridos, and dance musics to audiences around the world. (See the Arhoolie catalog for details.)
When it came to my attention that IDEAL Records was for sale and that, contrary to local rumors, the masters were not lost or destroyed but carefully stored at the Rio Grande Music Co. building in San Benito, I suddenly found myself in the position of the ultimate record collector. I felt obligated to buy these priceless artifacts of a vital and strong culture not my own, to preserve this wonderful music for future generations and rescue it from oblivion. I have spent the past year listening to a lot of tapes and 78s and contacted many of the leading artists to get their approval and stories. The music is no doubt the most important aspect of the IDEAL catalog, but I feel that these pioneer recordings of Tejano music deserve special attention. These recordings and the musicians and singers who created them are a part of our national heritage. Lydia Mendoza, Narciso Martinez, and Valerio Longoria, all of whom are represented in the IDEAL catalog, have been honored by receiving the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts and many of the other artists have received formal recognition in one way or another. The songs are part of the vernacular literature of the people of south Texas and like books, deserve to be in libraries, class rooms, and homes. We hope that these researched presentations on CDs and cassettes of The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music will be appreciated and enjoyed by the people of south Texas as well as by new audiences around the globe. (Chris Strachwitz - 1991)