Friday, June 20, 2014

Los Fantasmas Del Valle

From 1968 to today, Hector Barron estimates that his conjunto, Los Fantasmas Del Valle, have recorded over 60 releases. That includes 45's, LP's, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, and CD's. Of the hundreds of songs that he's interpreted over the decades, his biggest hit is "Bellos Recuerdos" ("Beautiful Memories"), a composition by the late Ramon Medina.

The song tells the tale of a man looking back at his past, which involved him working on the fields in a bygone era in South Texas. The hardships of labor, along with sweet flashbacks of his parents, converge gracefully in this tender piece.  

It's a tune that resonates for many Valley natives that worked in the fields. It's especially true in Barron's case, who was born in 1943 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, but was raised in San Benito and Mercedes. The title and narrative of the song not only resemble his childhood, but also share traits with his music career, where he encountered his fare share of struggles along the way.

"Piscando algodon y estaba cantando," ("Picking cotton and I was singing,") Barron, 70, answered when I asked him when he started singing. "I was raised in la labor. I always liked to sing."

While he was singing early on in life, he wouldn't pick up the bass guitar until he was in his early 20's. When he finally did, he was guided by the music of Ruben Vela, Gilberto Perez, and Tony De La Rosa. By that point, he had already established a lifelong friendship with bajo-sexto player Julian Figueroa.

An only child, Barron met Figueroa when his family moved to Mercedes in the early 1950's. The two struck up a friendship jugando canicas in the barrio they shared.

As they got older, they stopped playing with marbles, and started playing with musical instruments.

They teamed up with accordionist Gilberto Rodriguez, another Mercedes musician, to start the band that would later come to be known as Los Fantasmas Del Valle.

They broke into the crowded conjunto scene by recording their first song, "Mis Pasos Andaran" at Gilberto Perez's Nuevo Records in 1968.

"The song is about a guy who dies," Barron said. "He came back to haunt his girlfriend. 'Mis Pasos Andaran', my footsteps will follow you."

The nameless ensemble were still wondering what they should brand themselves as. Alejandro Perez, Gilberto's brother, spoke up after listening to that song, and asked "Why don't we name it Los Fantasmas Del Valle?" The name has stuck since.

Shortly after that recording, Rodriguez left the group for health related reasons. Times were tough, according to Barron. There was even a period where no one wanted to record them.

While working a variety of different jobs, he was forced to record on his own in the early 1970's.

"I started a label, I called it Cucuy," Barron said. "I recorded and produced several 45's by myself."

Eventually he got an offer to record for Canasta Records. Several other companies followed like Reloj, Hacienda Records, Joey Records, and JB Records. He was a full time musician by 1975.

Different accordionists filled in until 1975 when Mike Gonzalez joined the group. He held that position for twenty-five years until health problems surfaced in 2000. Rodney "El Cucuy" Rodriguez stepped in for Gonzalez after Barron took a recommendation from his friend Freddie Gonzalez.

Julian Figueroa retired after suffering a stroke in the 2000's. Bobby Salinas took over Figueroa's role of bajo-sexto player. Other current members include Martin Cortez on the drums, and Benito Fonseca on the bass guitar. At this point, Barron just concentrates on his singing.  

Some other misfortunes that happened over the years include their instruments being destroyed on a trip to California. Similar types of accidents happened to their equipment and trailer on different tours.

Still, those rough patches don't get Barron down. He is amazed that he and his group continue to be in demand after almost 46 years of performing. He is regularly invited to most of the major conjunto festivals, including the upcoming 23rd annual "Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival" this Fall. Barron tells me that he usually has at least two gigs a week in 2014.

He attributes his success to being able to understand what a conjunto audience wants.

"Para nosotros, la gente is number one," ("For us, the people are number one,") Barron said. "We go out there to please the people, not ourselves."

Barron, who still resides in Mercedes, feels blessed that throughout his career, he's always been surrounded by buena gente (good people), as he describes them. It's made all these years go by quick.

"Muchas memorias bonitas," ("Lots of pretty memories,") Barron said. "I'm lucky that the compañeros, comenzando con Julian y con Mike, que en paz descanse, y los muchachos que traigo ahorita, they are the best." ("I'm lucky that the companions I've had, starting with Julian and with Mike, may he rest in peace, and with the guys I have now, they are the best.")

Who: Los Fantasmas Del Valle
Time: 6:00 PM
Date: 6/22
Cost: $10.00
Phone Number and Website: 956-867-8783 or visit
Location: La Lomita Park, in McAllen.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Lillie A. Gonzalez and Her Role in Bego‏

Joseph, Lillie, Joseph Jr. and Bob Tanner. 

On May 17, Lillie Arcos Gonzalez passed away. She was 98, and would have turned 99 on June 12.

"She was something else," said Yolanda Gonzalez, 61, Lillie's daughter. "If you never met her, she was a fabulous woman."

Most know about her contributions in restaurants and grocery stores.

However to fans of Tejano, conjunto, norteño, and garage rock music, she is best remembered as a producer that captured the regional sounds of the 1960's and early 1970's.

Her foray into the music industry began when Lillie's second husband, Joseph H. Gonzalez, started promoting dances featuring Mexican and Mexican-American bands in Michigan. One group they contracted was Conjunto Bernal.

Lillie loved the way they sung, but was perplexed by some of the material that Conjunto Bernal was recording during that period.

"(She) couldn't understand why most of their music was all polkas, huapangos, and things like that," Yolanda 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 what Bernal was saying, about the lack of freedom to record what he wanted, 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."

Bego Records was launched around 1963. The company name stood for the first two letters of the last names involved. Initially the Gonzalez's owned 51 percent while Bernal was given the remaining 49 percent.

"He's a mover and a shaker," Yolanda said of Bernal. "He has the talent, he has the voice, the gift of gab."

When Rio Grande Valley bands would travel up to Michigan to perform, Joseph would ask how much money it would take for them to sign with his new company. Lillie would then draw up the contracts. Along with Conjunto Bernal, Bego released music from musicians like Tony De La Rosa, Agapito Zuñiga, Ernesto Guerra, Ruben Vela and Los Relámpagos Del Norte.

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

Most of the recordings were completed at Jimmy Nichols' studio on Dallas Ave. in McAllen, TX. Bob Tanner's TNT (Tanner N Texas), a pressing plant in San Antonio, manufactured the vinyl records.

The company started growing, so to better manage the finances, the Gonzalez's began making trips from Michigan to McAllen around 1966. They bought a house here in the Valley, and Lillie started overseeing the Bego office at 415 S. 17th Street in McAllen.

"She was the wheeler and dealer, let's put it that way," Yolanda said. "She was the one behind the scenes making sure that the company was growing."

Lillie's most nationally recognized musical achievement happened outside the Valley though, with a band she was managing at the time. In 1966, she recorded Question Mark and The Mysterians for a subsidiary record label known as Pa-Go-Go. One of the songs they recorded with her, titled "96 Tears", would go on to become a number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Bego would later release a conjunto cover of that tune titled "96 Lagrimas" by Carlos Guzman y Los Fabulosos Cuatro, which proved to be a great Spanish remake.

By the end of the 1960's, Bego Records had emerged into one of the most successful Mexican and Mexican-American record companies in North America.

"It was always a competition between Discos Falcón and Bego," Yolanda remembers of that time period.

The Gonzalez's and Bernal went their separate ways around 1970. Bernal started up Bernal Records, while the Gonzalez's continued with Bego for a few more years.

In the early 1970's, the Gonzalez's sold their stock and rights to Discos Falcón. Lillie felt it was the right time to move on.

"At that time, we were getting ready to move back to Michigan," Yolanda said. "So they wanted out of the recording business. My mom was kind of like, 'There is so much pirating going on.' A lot of labels were popping up at that time too. She goes, 'Right now might be the time to get out.'"

Lillie's parents fell ill, and a decision was made between her and Joseph to stay in Texas permanently. The warm climate was a factor in their decision to stay in the Valley.

Her role in Bego Records is something that Yolanda hopes is never forgotten. At times, she feels that her mother doesn't get the credit she deserves. Lillie's work provided musicians and fans with years of quality music during a special era in Valley music. For that, we should all be grateful.

"My mother loved music," Yolanda said. "She lived a good long life, and did a lot in her lifetime."

To those who want to pay their respects, a memorial mass for Lillie A. Gonzalez will be held at the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen on June 14. The ceremony will start at 1:00 PM and the public is welcomed to attend.