Friday, February 27, 2015

Wally Gonzalez

Wally Gonzalez in his home in McAllen.
Conjunto comic Wally Gonzalez resides on 25th ½ Street in McAllen, an area of the city he's called home since the 1940's. Gonzalez and his wife Rosa were on the side of the house when I dropped by one Thursday afternoon. Gonzalez greeted me and lead me to a room that was filled with photographs, posters, a few accordions, a keyboard, and recordings that touched many hearts.

"Le doy gracias a dios," ("I give my thanks to God,") Gonzalez told me when looking at what he's accomplished in his life.

Behind Gonzalez, a poster on his wall noted that he was born on February 17, 1940 in McAllen. I asked to confirm if he had just turned 75.

"Tres pesetas, three quarters, 75," Gonzalez said, confirming and laughing.

While some friends suggested a fiesta to celebrate, Gonzalez decided not to do anything special for the occasion.

When Gonzalez attended a local store in his barrio, instead of buying dulces like his two younger brothers and sister, he used the few coins his parents gave him to listen to music on a coin-operated pianola. In his youth, he fell in love with music and became a fan of conjunto accordionists Pedro Ayala, Tony De La Rosa and Valerio Longoria. He got his hands on his first accordion through his friend Mel Villarreal.

"We started learning to play the accordion, both of us," Villarreal said. "We were just children, we used to go to the same school."

One day, Gonzalez went to visit his classmate on his bike. He saw Villarreal throw away an old, two-row button diatonic accordion in the trash. He questioned why he was throwing it away when he went up to his buddy.

"Yo necesito una acordeon, pa' tocar yo," ("I need an accordion, to play myself,") Gonzalez remembers telling him.

"Pos mira, llevate esta," ("Well look, take this one,") Villarreal replied.

"Le di un dolar," ("I gave him one dollar,") Gonzalez told me.

When Gonzalez got home, he soon found out why it was being thrown away. The accordion was a mess, and when he opened it up, a rat leaped out!

"Honest to God!" Gonzalez claims. "He had a nest inside!"

I asked Villarreal if he remembered this story. He recalls getting $2.00 as opposed to just $1.00. When I brought up the rat, he just started laughing.

"I wouldn't doubt it, (the accordion) was all torn up," Villarreal said after he collected himself from laughing. "Back then, we used to live in frame houses, no dry walls or anything. They were on concrete blocks, there was all kinds of animals there."

The accordion was patched up, tinkered around with and used until Gonzalez's mom bought him a three row, button diatonic accordion when he reach his teens. A photo of him and that second accordion is displayed on his wall, next to a bed.

Gonzalez credits Lupe Cabrera and Rumaldo Zapata for teaching him the accordion during those early years. His first experience playing in front of an audience came at school assemblies at the now demolished Sam Houston Elementary school in McAllen. Eventually he left school as a teenager, and went up north to work as a migrant worker. When he wasn't picking cotton, he would be playing his accordion on the side for extra money.

"Tocaba alla y le mandaba feria a mi mama," ("I would play over there and send money back home to my mom,") Gonzalez said.

One of the first public places he performed at in the Rio Grande Valley was La Concordia in McAllen. His conjunto consisted of him on the accordion, Roberto Mata on bajo-sexto, Israel Segura on bass, and Gilberto Garza on drums.

Why did he use the name Wally instead of his real birth name of Guadalupe Gonzalez Jr.?

"Porque yo compongo mis canciones en ingles  y español," ("Because I compose my songs in English and Spanish,") Gonzalez said. "Por eso le puce Wally, porque Wa-lly, Gua-dalupe, see there?" ("That's why I made it Wally, because Wa-lly, Gua-dalupe, see there?")

What Gonzalez was showing me was that "Gua" and "Wa" sound the same in their respective languages. He moved forward with his new name in his 20's.

Gonzalez points to a photo of the late bajo-sexto player Mario Saenz up on his wall and says, "See that right there..." He then begins to tell me the story of him and Saenz.

In the mid-1960's, the two teamed up to form Los Gavilanes de Mario Saenz y Wally Gonzalez. Gonzalez estimates that they recorded 4 LP's for Falcón Records. Their repertoire carried "El Riky Riky", "Del Moño Colorado", "Frijolitos Pintos", "La Minifalda De Reynalda" and "La Triste Gata".

"Lo fuimos en gira," ("We went on tour,") Gonzalez said after their recordings got positive response on the radio.

They spent five years together before they went their separate ways. In 2011, they reunited at La Joya High School for a conjunto workshop and as part of the district’s third annual Conjunto Festival. Gonzalez described that experience as beautiful. Saenz would pass away in 2014 at the age of 87.

"A good man, a real good friend," Gonzalez said of his late partner. "We helped each other out. When we were in las giras, we took care of each other."

In the 1970's, Gonzalez went on his own as Wally Gonzalez y su conjunto. He became known for his comedic compositions that covered everything from local cultural observations, to parodies of mainstream hits, to whatever was being discussed in the news at the time.

"Something funny," Gonzalez said was his mission. "Not like a clown (laughs), funny like in songs and the way I am."

Gonzalez started by poking fun at himself. His short height and lack of hair became his favorite targets. He began drawing ideas from listening to people talk and observing what was going on around him.

"Platicando con la gente, se vinieron las canciones," ("Talking with the people is how the songs came to me,") Gonzalez said.

Director and actor Pedro Garcia first met Gonzalez during this time frame.

"It was 1973," Garcia said. "He played at a 'Political Pachanga' for my dad's campaign in Hidalgo, when he was running for City Commissioner as Pedro Pirucha Garcia. I remember Wally energetically setting up his instruments and cables with a couple of his bandmates. I'd be running around excitedly anticipating the music and dancing that would come that evening. He was funny, cheerful and when he played, it was magic. Everyone loved him and my dad knew he would draw a large crowd, so more people could hear his political speech."

Some of Gonzalez's most popular hits were released during this period. They include "El Taco Kid", "El Tiquetito", "Las Mujeres y Las Novelas", "Traigo Un Hickey", and "La Leyenda Del Pajaro Gigante".

"Wally is an awesome talent," Garcia said. "I believe lots of his songs can be like good medicine, as they cheer you up."

"La Leyenda Del Pajaro Gigante" is about the legend of the giant bird who supposedly haunted the Valley in the mid-1970's. Nano Ramirez of Falcón Records asked Gonzalez to write a song about this mysterious creature after four weeks of local buzz.

"Tuve que ir al Monitor," ("I had to go to The Monitor,") Gonzalez said, explaining he used the newspaper coverage to do research on this bizzare tale.

Near Gonzalez's door, he has a promotional photo of himself wearing a full-body bird suit, and his friend Carlos Guzmán yanking off the head of the costume.

"Me quito la cabeza del pajaro, eso no estaba planeado," ("He took away my bird head, that wasn't planned,") Gonzalez said smiling.

"I do remember que se vistio de pajaro," ("that he dressed up like a bird," ) Guzmán said.

Guzmán praised Gonzalez's success and concluded his thoughts by saying, "Wally and I have been friends for the last 100 years and when I get older, I want to look just like Wally."

The popularity of his work led him to tour outside of the Valley in the 1970's and 1980's, and even landed him on a December 1983 issue of the Texas Monthly.

Sandra Ortega, Gonzalez's granddaughter, has been enjoying her abuelo's comedic spirit since she was a little girl.

"Growing up with someone like my grandfather was always interesting and there was never a dull moment," Ortega said.  "I'd come home from school and my grandfather would be rehearsing his funny songs with my uncle Abel. I'd forget about my homework and just watch them. Now those were the good ole days!"

He continued into the 1990's, although now with a Yamaha keyboard at his helm instead of a conjunto. He delivered amusing tunes like "El Chupacabra", a parody of "El Coco Rayado" and a playful take on the chupacabra craze, and "Que Me Entierren En Walmart", a cult classic about how he wants to be buried at Walmart, so his wife could at least see him regularly.

Gonzalez credits the idea of the Walmart song to a late friend of his, whose name he can't recall. By the time he finished recording it, his friend had unfortunately passed away. For publicity, he would often perform this number at local Walmart locations.

"They didn't pay me," Gonzalez said. When he asked the manager permission to showcase his music at stores, he remembers them saying, "Orale ta' bueno, no mas no muy recio." ("Alright, just don't play too loud.")

In 2011 and 2012, Gonzalez was inducted into both the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame in Alice and the Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in San Benito. Ortega accompanied him to one of those ceremonies.

"When I attended his induction into the Hall of Fame in San Benito, I felt amazingly proud of him," Ortega said. "He's accomplished so much in his life with his musical talents and now he's being honored for it. All his music, his hard work, and his contribution to the Tejano music industry, everything he's done with so much passion and enthusiasm. Seeing him on stage being recognized was inspiring and emotional. He's an amazing individual."

Gonzalez considers himself retired now, but will still take the occasional, rare gig if it's during the day and nearby. No more performing in the evenings or in distant locations for him. He likes to relax at home with his wife of 53 years and spend time with his family. When he is near his instruments, he enjoys challenging himself on a 7 button, toy accordion. He has been experimenting by going from using all 7 buttons to slowly working his way down to just using 3 of them. He tells me proudly that he figured out how to play a vals using 3 buttons.

A few times during our meeting, Gonzalez recited excepts from his funniest songs. While spitting out wild verses about chupacabras and el pajaro gigante, he had this giant smile on his face. The self-described 'Short-Legged Texan' is most at home when he's making people happy.

"Toque muchos corazones," ("I touched a lot of hearts,") Gonzalez said. "No mas con comedy entre las canciones y el amor mio. It's just the way I am." ("Just with the comedy through my songs and the love I shared. It's just the way I am.")

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