Gilberto Perez has been playing conjunto music in the Valley and beyond for the past seven decades. It's been a life full of cherished memories for this proud accordionist and vocalist.
"So many years, so many things," said Gilberto Perez, 77-years-old. "We can sit here for a whole day and I wouldn't get through (all of them)."
Perez was born on August 3, 1935, in Mercedes, TX. He was the youngest member of a family of 12 children.
"We were only 12 in the family, no mas," laughs Perez.
To most, he is the epitome of what good, old-fashion conjunto music is. Interestingly enough, he actually got his start in a different genre of music.
"When I was in the teens, I started playing guitar, rock and roll," remembers Perez. "(Then) I started liking the accordion. Only one of my brothers didn't play the accordion, it was Alejandro. Most of my brothers were playing accordion. And I went to conjunto music."
In 1957, he got married with Amelia and the two would go on to have four children; two daughters and two sons. The two sons, Gilberto Jr. and Javier, have become well-known musicians in the Valley.
His first big break was joining Ruben Vela's conjunto in 1958. Vela, Perez and Manuel Medina recorded a few songs together before the latter two split off the following year.
In November 1959, Perez recorded with his own conjunto for the very first time. At Mission's Discos Falcón , Perez recorded "El Dia De Tu Boda" (The Day of Your Wedding), a tear-jerker ballad of a man, as he witnesses an old-flame getting married. Written by Medina, the song went on to become a major regional hit at the time.
When talking to my dad about this tune, he still remembers working on the fields and hearing some of the women singing this powerful tune — Me lloran gotas de sangre, al verte tus labios rojos (I cry drops of blood, as I see your red lips).
The group would eventually be dubbed Gilberto Perez y Sus Compadres, and they would become known for other popular tunes like "Mis Parpados", "Con Cartitas", "Por Que Dios Mio", "Aguanta Corazon" and "Te Estare Esperando".
"We tried as much as we could to record our own stuff. Alejandro, my brother, and Ramon Medina would do most of the writing. Everybody played a part but they were a little better at writing songs."
From 1962 to the 1980's, Perez would be on the road, from four to eight weeks at a time. From coast-to-coast, he and his fellow musicians toured across various states, bringing their original style of working-class music to the people working in the fields.
"Back in the early 60's, there was a lot of people that used to migrate to work on the fields," Perez said. "That's what we did at the time, we followed the people."
He stopped going on the road during the 1980's, but if an opportunity arose for something that interested him, he would make plans to travel for the performance. One such example was in 1999. Perez was invited to perform at the Smithsonian Institute, an honor he is deeply proud of. Shortly after that, he started making appearances in Monterrey, Mexico, where he played in front of thousands of fans on multiple occasions.
Unfortunately, open-heart surgery on November 2003 put an end to Perez going to Monterrey on a regular basis. A few years after that, he went back to the hospital for a pacemaker implant.
"That slowed me down, I have to take care of my health but I still play," Perez said.
When asked how many albums he's released over the years, Perez provided an honest answer. He says, that the market has seen about 50 of his albums, but many of those albums were using the same material as previous releases. Perez explained that re-releasing tracks was common for some of the labels he recorded for. Some of those labels include Freddie Records, Joey Records, Hacienda Records, Discos Falcón, and Ideal Records.
He still has the urge to record music at this stage in his life.
"I'm working on some new material that I'm writing up," Perez said "We just got through recording one (album) on instrumentals."
A recent song of his that caught a lot of attention is titled "Mi Ultimo Deseo" (My Last Wish). The heartfelt song is a personal one for Perez.
"Me and one of my friends thought of the idea of writing up a song about when I pass away," Perez said. "(The song) means I'm asking what I want my family or friends to do, because when I'm gone, I'm gone."
Let's hope it's a very long time before that happens. For now, the soft-spoken accordionist is looking forward to celebrating his birthday this upcoming weekend by performing at two gigs — La Villita in San Benito on Saturday and La Lomita Park in McAllen on Sunday. He says to those who plan on attending, be ready for a lot of singing.
"I love what I do, my plans is to keep doing it until the big man says you can't do it anymore," Perez said. "I'm no quitter and I won't change the music. When I started (from) rock and roll, I went to conjunto. I decided I was going to stay with conjunto because it's what my father liked and I'm going to please my father until the last day."