Friday, July 25, 2014

Carlos Guzmán

Carlos Guzmán at Madison Square Garden
In Carlos Guzmán's home in Mission, you will find a small room near the refrigerator in his kitchen. The room contains several items — guitars, model cars, boxes, vinyl records and awards. But what he is most excited to show me is a collection of binders that his wife Melva assembled to tell the story of his long and storied career. Each binder represents a chapter in his life. They each contain photographs, newspaper articles, contracts, advertisements, checks, letters, and a wide array of other documents from 1958 to the present.

You pick one volume out, and you see glimpses of his years with Los Fabulosos Cuatro, one of the hottest acts in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1960's. Another entry will take you back in time to when he toured with internationally recognized singers. If you want to explore Guzmán's life, going through these pages would be the perfect place to start.

"The mistake a lot of us artists and musicians make is not collecting," Guzmán, 74, said. "I do have documentation though. Tons and tons of it. All those binders there."

Guzmán takes me to his kitchen, and asks me to relax. He had just finished cutting the grass on his large yard. His wife brings him over a bloody mary, and we start on page one.

Margarito Guzmán was born in Chihuahua, TX, a small community that according to the Texas State Historical Association was located six miles west of Mission, on February 22, 1940. Guzmán describes that occasion as a "bitter cold day".

He grew up with eleven siblings, plus three other children that joined the family after the death of a relative.

"We were people that migrated up north for the fields to work," Guzmán said. "My dad used to save as much money as he could and come back to sharecrop in the area with other farmers. So that was our lifestyle back in the old days."

He was first exposed to music by his father Teofilo, who loved the accordion. When his father would play card games or roll the dice with his buddies, he would often call his son to come sing for them.

When he wasn't singing at home, in the fields or at canals, his father would take him to the programas de aficionados (talent shows) at local theaters. He loved to sing Isidro Lopez's "Mala Cara". Guzmán sung it so often that he started being referred to by that title within the theater crowd.

One day when he was sixteen, Guzmán and his friends went to an armory in McAllen to see Isidro Lopez y su orquesta. Lopez was ill that night and began losing his voice. One of Guzmán's friends went up to Lopez, and blurted out that his buddy could sing his tunes. Lopez replied, "Tell him I will pay him to come over here (on stage) and sing a couple of songs."

"I was scared like crazy," Guzmán remembers. "He gave me a twenty dollar bill. That was a lot of money, I said, 'Wow!'"

He sounded strong enough that a musician from Los Continentales offered him a paying gig that night. That was the first band he regularly played with.

Guzmán then got to meet chromatic accordionist Oscar Hernandez through Armando Hinojosa Sr. He accepted an opportunity to record with Oscar Hernandez y Sus Alegres Del Valle for Del Valle Records around 1960.

The name of the album was Dedos Acrobaticos, which is a fine way to describe Hernandez's fingers on the accordion.

"One of the finest, if not the finest accordion player ever," Guzmán said. "(The album) didn't make too much noise but it was an experience."

In the early 1960's, he would still go by his birth name. That changed when his orquesta played at the Ranchito Club in San Antonio one evening.

Some patrons inquired what was the name of the group's singer. So the MC asked Guzmán what his name was.

"I said, 'Eduardo, Carlos, whatever,'" Guzmán said. "So he used the name Carlos. He told some of the girls, 'His name is Carlos.' So before you know it, the girls were like, 'Hey Carlos!'"

At this point, while Guzmán had enjoyed moderate success with his singing, he wasn't sure where he was headed. He had come close to becoming a certified optician, and wondered if that would be his future.

A new faction emerged from musicians that participated in his earlier collaborations with Hernandez. They were known early on as Carlos Guzmán y su conjunto. They would become better known as Carlos Guzmán y Los Fabulosos Cuatro.

"Los Fabulosos Cuatro," Guzmán said. "Great musician, great friends, and el nombre (that name) fit perfectly. Because during that time, which was the early 60's, the Fab Four from England came on-board. So as they were innovators in their own way, so were Los Fabulosos Cuatro. They were so advance in their music talent that other musicians would freak out."

The original four members were Carlos Guzman on the vocals, Ramiro "Snowball" De La Cruz on the guitar, Armando Hinojosa Jr. on the bass, Mel Villarreal on the accordion, and Balde Muñoz on the drums.

"Los Fabulosos Cuatro were a little bit ahead of the times," Muñoz said. "Snowball brought a lot of experience from different genres to the band. When he brought the guitar, instead of the bajo-sexto which is usually used in conjunto music, that was something not too often used. They were all great arrangers, everybody would contribute. The voices were great, it was Carlos, Snowball, and Mel. Great vocal harmonies."

Muñoz says the name change also reflected that they had gone beyond traditional conjunto music.

"There was conjuntos, and there were orquestas, with a four or five horn section, and we came in the middle (from those two styles) with a different sound," Muñoz explained.

Muñoz would later leave the crew to go serve his country, and Juan Hinojosa stepped in to be the new drummer.

In-between touring, the ensemble worked on a new album for Bego Records in 1964. They just needed one final track to complete the release.

They decided to go with an E.J. Ledesma composition that had previously been recorded by Los Cruisers. Guzmán notes that they went with it since it had a simple melody and arrangement.

Guzmán could not have imagined what would happen next.

"It caught fire on all the radio stations," Guzmán said. "That was the beginning of a long journey for Carlos Guzmán y Los Fabulosos Cuatro."

That cancion was "Vestida De Blanco", which continues to be Guzmán's most requested song.


Their success continued when they released Tiempo De Llorar (1967) on Bego Records. The LP featured strong interpretations of the title track, "96 Tears" and "She's About A Mover". Guzmán tells me that "96 Lagrimas", as it was re-dubbed due to it being sung in Spanish, became a surprise hit in Mexico.

As Guzmán entered the 1970's, members of Los Fabulosos Cuatro branched out, and founded new groups. In this decade, Guzmán worked with bands like Los Super Jets and Los Jovenes to back him up.

"They knew my songs," Guzmán said. "It just fell into place easy."

In the late 1970's, he grew tired of the constant traveling, and decided he was going to retire after a New Years Eve event in Chicago. Before he could make his exit, Rafael Ramirez of Discos Falcón requested that he record some of his material. Guzmán agreed to do so.

Ramirez sent the compositions to arranger Rigoberto Pantoja and scheduled Guzmán to record with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán in Mexico.

One of the tracks he recorded was "La Costumbre".

"It was a really nice tune," Guzmán said. "The arrangement was incredible. So I started getting calls again to go tour."

He stuck around and accepted an agreement with a promoter from California to travel with a company that also featured Vicente Fernandez, Lola Beltrán and Juan Gabriel.

"They offered me a good chunk of money," Guzmán said. "I was one of the headliners in most of the areas, cause the radio was playing my songs more than the others."

One moment he will never forget is his first time meeting Gabriel. Sitting in his plane seat, the Mexican music superstar walked down the aisle and noticed the Mission-native.

"Are you Carlos Guzmán?" Gabriel asked, according to Guzmán. "Oh my gosh, yo se tus canciones (I know your songs)."

He started singing several Guzmán hits on the spot.

"I am freaking out," Guzmán said. "How can this monster of an artist know my songs? I'll never forget that. We became real good friends to this day."

After he told me this story, Guzmán played a video for me on his living room TV. It showed Gabriel referring to Guzmán as "un buen amigo" ("a good friend").

While taking a tour around his house, Guzmán pointed to a poster and a prop that he secured through his filmmaking adventures.

The first film he appeared in was Los Siete Proscritos (1968). One of the ads describes it as being Mexico's answer to The Magnificent Seven, which was an American remake of the Japanese classic Seven Samurai. The leading actor in the picture was David Reynoso.

"I remember a scene that we were shooting," Guzmán said. "We were the cowboys shooting back at the Indians, and there was lineas de electricidad y autobuses (electrical lines and buses). Someone pointed it out to the director, (and he said) 'It's okay.' They left it on the scene, how could it be?"

Guzmán would go on to work on other productions with Lalo "Piporro" González, Edward James Olmos, and Pedro Armendáriz Jr. Outside of the motion picture industry, he was also a regular presence on local television stations. Arnaldo Ramirez Sr. handed Guzmán the reins to host "Fanfarria Falcón" on KRGV during the 1970's and 1980's.

"The old man taught me so much great stuff," Guzmán said, referring to Ramirez. "I was his representative for business affairs in Mexico. I became somewhat of an ambassador for him."

After that stint, he created and hosted his own TV show titled "Desde El Rio Grande" on KVEO in the 1990's.

By this period, Guzmán was spending part of his time working with his family in a TV repair store he opened in McAllen. One day, Rocky Beltran and Bobby Salinas walked in to talk with Guzmán.

"I was a fan because my dad used to play with him," Beltran said. "My dad gave me the idea. 'Why don't you do a song of Carlos from the 70's, but do it your style?'"

Beltran and Salinas played "Libre Como El Sol" with an accordion and bajo-sexto, instead of the keyboard.

"Blew me away," Guzmán said. "I said, 'Wow, that's awesome.'"

The duo asked him if he would be interested in participating on this new rendition. Guzmán joined the two young musicians at a studio in Edinburg, and the final product received a lot of airplay on Tejano radio stations.

With the help of that exposure, Guzmán had a late career resurgence in the 1990's. Freddie Martinez approached him with the idea of creating a supergroup of leyendas to record and tour together. The other two legends that were asked were Sonny Ozuna and Augustin Ramirez. The first CD the four cooperated on was Leyendas y Raices (1998).

"It was very successful," Guzmán said. "So we started touring the nation. We had a lot of fun."


"Que Es Musica Tejana" (2000) was the sequel, and earned the four musicians a "Best Tejano Album" Grammy Award in 2001.

"All this excitement late in my career is neat," Guzmán said. "The limos, the superstars, were out of this world (at the award shows)."

Guzmán still finds himself singing on a regular basis in 2014. He performed at the Monte Carlo Ballroom for a 50th wedding anniversary on July 12. He jokes that he had a fantastic evening even though he missed the Saul "Canelo" Alvarez vs Erislandy Lara fight that he was looking forward to.

The amount of people he credited throughout our conversion is immense. From fellow musicians to sound engineers, it would take up this entire issue of the Festiva to list them all. He tells me he likes to mention them because he "likes to give credit where credit is due."

After more than forty albums, and countless tours, Guzmán is thinking about organizing a farewell tour at the end of this year, or in 2015. When he does say goodbye, a new binder will have to be created to celebrate the final chapter of his legendary career.

"I'm proud of everything I've done in my life," Guzmán said. "I still feel good. I think I still sing good. I feel comfortable when I'm recording. I don't have any problems. But I look a little different. Los años start taking a toll."

Carlos Guzmán at his home in Mission, TX.

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