Friday, May 30, 2014

Paulino Bernal

Paulino Bernal, at his offices on McColl in McAllen, on May 21, 2014.
When talking to different musicians and fans across the Rio Grande Valley, one name tends to be mentioned a lot. It's a name that carries a lot of weight for many in a crowd that tends to be over the age of fifty. To a younger demographic, he's likely known as the local evangelist who they have probably heard on the radio or from their parents. Some up and coming accordionists know him because of the thrilling polkas that he fixed ages ago. To some young people, the name might not even resonate.

However, to folks who witnessed his rise, it's a man who did it all in the Valley music scene. He paid his dues working with regional attractions until he broke out on his own with his bajo-sexto playing brother. He built up his conjunto into possibly the best, most innovative conjunto we've ever seen in the 1960's. When discussing the greatest three-row, button diatonic accordionists of all time, he's one of the few that has an argument for greatest ever.

That would be enough to make one a legend around these parts but that's not all he did. He took part in creating two different record labels in an era that was loaded with local Tejano, conjunto and norteño talent. He released music from Carlos Guzman, Ruben Vela, Ernesto Guerra, Pepe Maldonado and Little Joe Hernandez. He established a weekly Monday night series in McAllen known as El Baile Grande. He discovered and promoted new acts. He scheduled and created his own unique touring system.

To a generation of Valley music fans that were alive in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, he was a cut above the rest.

This man's name is Paulino Bernal.

In 2014, his age hasn't slowed him down. Church gatherings and business engagements keep him traveling on an almost daily basis. The allure of the road is still strong with him. On this particular afternoon, he returned to the Valley and stopped by his Christian radio offices in McAllen to reminisce about his past with me.

He walks in speaking with a remarkably polished voice and exchanges greetings with me. He closes the door, and asks me to speak up since decades of being around loud music has made it difficult for him to hear.

Born in Raymondville on October 18, 1939, Bernal's childhood was far from the world of luxury that he currently lives in. His parents divorced when he was five years old, making life difficult for Guadalupe De Anda Bernal, Bernal's single mother, and her children. The family relocated to Kingsville after the separation.

"We lived in poverty for years," Bernal, 73, said. "My mom used to clean homes, apartments, take care of the family — two brothers, three sisters."

As children, Bernal and his younger brother Eloy worked extra jobs to help their mother out. By the age of ten, Bernal already had plenty of experience working in the fields and polishing shoes.

During the evenings in the barrio, a group of neighbors would mingle in a nearby patio for a guitar jam session. Standing next to a fence, Bernal was captivated by the sound he was listening to.

"I used to love the way they played the guitar," Bernal remembers. "I wanted to know what they are doing, how they are doing (it)."

One day, one of those neighbors stopped by the Bernal residence. He was trying to sell his guitar and Bernal argued his case to his mother.

"I told my mom, 'Buy it, I'm going to learn how to play it and I'm going to help you,'" Bernal promised.

A few weeks later, Bernal was outside his home, picking at his guitar when a stranger stopped by. It was an older man that played the accordion, and he invited Bernal to accompany him at nearby cantinas during the evenings.

"I was a young kid, 10 or 12 years old at that time," Bernal said. "They would give me tips and put coins in my guitar. At midnight I was shaking the guitar to get those coins out and give them to mom."

Bernal observed that man closely and learned how to play the accordion on his own. He says he was a fan of Tony De La Rosa, Valerio Longoria and Narciso Martinez growing up.

"Those were the accordionists of my time, when I started as a little kid," Bernal said. "I would go and hear them play, and they were a great inspiration for me."

Discos Ideal promotional photo of Narciso Martinez, one of Paulino Bernal's inspirations.  
He explored the three-row, button diatonic accordion, studying what it was capable of for eight hours a day. Bernal notes how other accordionists would use several boxes to switch to different keys throughout their live performance. Bernal himself experimented so much with it that he figured out how to find everything he needed on a sole box.

"People used to say that the three-row accordion didn't have all the chords and all the music," Bernal said. "That's not true, I proved it all these years that all the chords are there."

Eloy learned to play the guitar before arriving to the bajo-sexto. The two formed Los Hermanitos Bernal, which would later evolve into the legendary Conjunto Bernal.

"Eloy, in my opinion, is the greatest bajo-sexto player that I have ever known," Bernal reflects on Eloy, who passed away at the age of 61 in 1998. "There is a lot of good musicians out there, but to me, he had the greatest touch to that bajo-sexto. He would spend hours just playing by himself. Until he got the right sound, not only the chords or everything else that goes with it, but the sound on that bajo-sexto. (It was) like nobody else. Not only that, he's a great composer."

Paulino Bernal and Eloy Bernal. 
During those early days, radio personality Domingo Peña of Corpus Christi took a liking to Bernal. He gave Bernal advice that he's eager to share with us.

"He told me, 'Paulino distinguish yourself, even if you distinguish yourself as an idiot,'" laughs Bernal. "He was always joking. Oh man, he was so great."

The two hermanos would indeed stand out, as Peña suggested. They scored the opportunity to record for Discos Ideal in Alice and San Benito as the 1950's unraveled.

"I would skip school and go to (Ideal) or other guys (who were) recording," Bernal said. "One day the accordionist didn't show up and I was there, and I told (Ideal founder) Mr. (Armando) Marroquín, 'I can play the accordion.' He said, 'Well, let's see how you do.' I played it as best as I could so he could like it. From there on, he would go pick me up in Kingsville and take me to play the accordion with other singers. Then he gave us the opportunity to record our first record with my brother and I. It was a hit."

Carmen y Laura are two of those singers that Bernal touched upon.

That first record from 1955 included "Mujer Pasada" on Side A and "Desprecio" on Side B. The bigger hit came later that same year when the duo dropped "Mi Unico Camino". Influenced by Los Panchos and Los Tres Reyes, two popular acts of that era, Bernal introduced three-part harmonies to the conjunto music genre. To pull of this feat, he enlisted vocalist Ruben Perez. The two teenage brothers were starting to be seen as pioneers.

Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, has released three Conjunto Bernal CD's that feature those rare, early recordings from Ideal — 16 Early Hits, Mi Humilde Corazon, and Mi Unico Camino.

One of the Arhoolie re-releases. 
"Bernal is a brilliant musician," Strachwitz said. "Similar to what (Zydeco accordionist) Clifton Chenier was like. He (as in Clifton) was an amazing musician who once told me, 'Chris, you got to be a little bit ahead of the audience, just to have something new all the time.'"

Conjunto Bernal began touring all across Texas after those first hits. They eventually became big enough draws that they started touring throughout the country.

"I was making a lot of money with Conjunto Bernal," Bernal said. "No more picking cotton, no more shoe shining, I'm going to dedicate my life fully to playing music."

Mike Lopez, who once operated a Valley record label titled Mestizo Records, remembers seeing Conjunto Bernal in those days.

"They were incredible," Lopez said. "Widely imitated, never duplicated."

Marroquín started Nopal Records in 1960.
During the 1960's, Bernal introduced the chromatic accordion to his audience after Oscar Hernandez joined the gang. The dynamic of the group progressed with it now featuring two maestros. One day a fan asked Bernal why he invited Hernandez to join his conjunto.

"I said, 'Well I started hearing him, he was a tough musician playing great accordion (music) and if you can't beat him, join him,'" Bernal laughs hard, slapping his thighs. "We did incredible things with those accordions."

Oscar Hernandez, Paulino Bernal and Conjunto Bernal during the 1960's.
Joel Guzman, arguably the most versatile accordionist today, recalls seeing Conjunto Bernal in the Valley and in Washington during the early-to-mid 1960's. While he grew up in the Pacific Northwest, his parents would bring him to South Texas at least once a year to visit family. He projects that the venue he saw the group in for the first time was either Blue Moon in Pharr or Vera's Palladium in Weslaco.

"Bernal was very innovative," Guzman said. "Instead of just playing the accordion, (Bernal) got up and played the bass in a rock and roll tune."

I bring up this story to Bernal, and he notes that he tried to raise the profile of his band by attempting to draw fans from outside regular conjunto followers. To do that, he brought in elements from other styles, like the aforementioned trio style, orquesta, ballroom, various Latin@ forms and rock & roll.

"These guys were dressed like rock stars," Guzman said. "They had something going on. They knew how to market themselves."

This recollection from Guzman gives Bernal a flashback to the early part of his career, which gives us a glimpse into the early class divide in the early Tejano and conjunto scene.

Bernal me dice que when he was growing up in Kingsville, there was two patios. One was called Junior's Patio, and it was for conjuntos. The other one was known as El Patio, and it was used for Mexican-American orquestas like Beto Villa and Luis Alcaraz. He described the former as being for “la raza” (his exact phrase), while the latter was for upwardly mobile Mexican-Americans, or jaitones.

"I would see people all dressed up in their suits and everything," Bernal observed of the crowd at El Patio. "Y aqui (en Junior's Patio), pura raza, which was okay but I wanted to (play) over there too."

He impressed fans on the first site but aimed at getting a gig on the upscale stage, which rewarded musicians with more lana. Thanks to that hybrid style that was covered earlier, it didn't take long until he pressed on to the second patio.

Bernal made several key moves that shook up the conjunto business in the 1960's. One of them was when he partnered up with Joseph H. Gonzalez and Lillie A. Gonzalez to form Bego Records.

The Gonzalez's promoted Conjunto Bernal when they performed in Michigan. The married couple were admirers of the way Bernal and his musicians sung. However, Lillie was perplexed by some of the material that they were recording at the time.

"(She) couldn't understand why most of their music was all polkas, huapangos, and things like that," Yolanda Gonzalez, Lillie's daughter, said. "They were such a good band. Paulino (Bernal) told them, 'Well that's what the record labels there in the Valley (want).'"

After listening to Bernal's answer, Joseph asked him how much it would cost to start their own record company.

"They came up with a figure," Yolanda said. "My dad says, 'Okay let's do it.' My mom said, 'Let's get it rolling.' She wrote out the first contracts for those musicians (that night)."

The name of the new company was agreed upon early. "Be" and "go" would stand for the first two letters of the last names involved.

Offices were opened at 415 S. 17th Street in McAllen. Most of the recordings were completed at Jimmy Nichols' studio on Dallas Ave. in the same city. Bob Tanner's TNT (Tanner N Texas), a pressing plant in San Antonio, manufactured the vinyl records.

"My mom and dad were the money people," Yolanda said. "Paulino was doing a lot of the producing. It was him and Armando Hinojosa."

The label became one of the most successful Mexican and Mexican-American record companies in America at the time. Yolanda notes that their only competition was Discos Falcón.

Bernal is credited with discovering several talented artists that recorded for his company. Judging by the excitement in his voice, he seems most proud of two in particular.

Bernal's cuento begins in 1963, at a cantina in Reynosa where two young performers came over to sing for him. After a few songs, Bernal bluntly told them that they were never going to amount to anything. When they asked why, Bernal replied that their act was just canciones from Los Alegres de Terán. That if they wanted to make it big, they needed their own material. The two men fired back saying that they had original work.

The pair started singing, "Ya no llores mujer, ya no estes triste..."

As he heard "Ya No Llores", Bernal saw the future of norteño music before him.

"Cornelio Reyna and Ramon Ayala," Bernal said. "So I told them you go tomorrow to McAllen, I'm going to record you."

In our conversation, Bernal made no reference to Hinojosa. However, others have stated that it was Hinojosa who advised Bernal to go to that bar, to specifically see Ayala and Reyna.

Those early Bego recordings of Los Relámpagos Del Norte can still be seen popping up at second-hand stores in McAllen and Weslaco from time to time.

"He's a brilliant businessman," Strachwitz said. "He really knows how to take care of business and find out where it's at."

Los Relámpagos Del Norte's first release for Bego. 
The two parties officially split off after a financial dispute near the end of the decade. The Gonzalez's bought Bernal's share of the company, and he used that money to launch Bernal Records, which also specialized in the same market.

One successful idea that Bernal came up with is the Bego (or Bernal) Caravana. As he described to me, he would start two separate tours simultaneously in two different cities across the U.S. After a performance, the act(s) would leave one city to go to the next one on the tour. As the journey came to an end, each course would be completed in the other's starting point. He did that both on a national and local level.

In the second half of the 1960's, he created what is known as "El Baile Grande". He went to the McAllen Civic Center, requesting to book the venue every Saturday night. Bernal tells me that they responded with, "No that's impossible, we have a lot of bookings." When Bernal asked what dates would be available, they replied with Monday. He took all of those dates, placed his deposits, and rented the venue for what would become a weekly extravaganza. He was a frequent headliner at his own dances.

"It was the biggest dance, I'd say, in the state of Texas," claims Bernal. "Monday there was no competition and all the musicians were free (as in, not booked). Nobody would hire them anyway on Monday's. I had the choice of booking whatever I wanted to."

Bego release named after "El Baile Grande". 
In 1968, Conjunto Bernal was invited to Vietnam to entertain the troops as part of the USO. For 21 days they toured with the help of three helicopters. The musicians were in one aircraft, the instruments in another, and the soldiers that were protecting them were in the third.

"We would go down there to sing to those guys," Bernal said. "Guys from the Valley, El Paso, San Diego, California, from all over the United States."

Professionally he was successful as a musician, promoter, and record producer. Personally he describes himself as being "lost" in the late 1960's to the early 1970's. He credits a young person for taking his life and career into a different direction. That new camino led him to becoming a born-again Christian in 1972. Since then, he has dedicated his life to spreading the gospel.

"Everyday we are out," Bernal said. "Going to auditoriums, dance halls, everywhere that we can go. We rent them and we tell people about salvation."

Even though certain aspects have changed, some characteristics have remained the same. He's still playing music, his ensemble is still Conjunto Bernal, and the style he originated has stood strong through generations of fans.

"We sing songs that we used to do before, but now with Christian lyrics," Bernal said. "It's the same trio, the same style, the same everything. Just the lyrics changed. Once in a while, I play them a good polka."

The biggest hit of his Christian-era is "Un Dia A La Vez", which is a Spanish version of "One Day At A Time", written by  Marijohn Wilkin and Kris Kristofferson.

Paulino Bernal's most popular Christian release. 
While he's been dedicated to his ministry and radio stations for the past 42 years, he's had a few moments where he's returned to the field that made him famous. In December 2007 and February 2008, Bernal visited the Mafia Studios in Houston to record El Maestro Del Acordeon Y Sus Polkas, his first non-Christian recording in 36 years. He doesn't want his conjunto contributions to fade away.

"I did it to bring all those polkas into digital sound," Bernal said. "Also to do some new stuff in there, to leave for the young people."

From those new slick recordings, along with YouTube videos of "Idalia", "Elegancia", "Dolly" and "Morir Soñando" that have popped up online recently, it's clear that he still has first class skills. It's quite the sight seeing his agile, vibrant fingers work their way up and down the three rows on the Dino Baffetti that he is holding on those clips.

"He still plays every bit as good as he ever did," Guzman observes. "He's been somebody that's always been on the top of my list as one of the biggest influences of my life."

Bernal tells me about how he's been watching internet videos as well. He likes seeing young people playing his polkas. I tell Bernal that I recently saw a teenager at La Joya High School perform one of his piezas. He smiles, then starts talking about what surprises him the most is when he sees videos of kids from other countries interpreting his material.

Paulino Bernal's only non-Christian recording in the past 42 years.
As our chat nears its end, he tells me he's going to do service later that day in McAllen at his Valley Worship Center on McColl in McAllen. Then he's back on the road, as he visits Mexico the following day.

Bernal continues to be a mesmerizing character to discuss in 2014. Most people I've talked to, that know his work, have something spirited to say about what he's accomplished over the course of seven decades. A man who has successfully navigated though the life that Bernal has sprinted through is unheard of. One way to get across his unrelenting drive for success, is to point to an answer he gave me when discussing his job as a shoeshiner.

"When I see a young kid with a shoeshine (kit), I go and give him a big tip," Bernal said with a big smile. "I know what it is, you know. I always said to myself (as a kid), 'I'm going to give him the best shine that he has ever seen, because I want him as a client.' When I started playing the accordion, I said, 'I'm not going to be just any accordionist. I'm going to be the best.'"


  1. I remember as a kid my uncles and cousins would play his music and talk about him but I never really knew much about him than hearing his name, a lot! Thanks for the article, Eddie and keep it up :-)

  2. Really the one that told Poulino about Ramon&Cornelio was Don Armando Hinojoza i think he forgot about that .

  3. Great man of God!! Mr. Anonymous go back to what you do best.