July 29, 2011, was the last day on the air for the original KEDA 1540 AM, Radio Jalapeño. For the last few months, the legendary conjunto station has resumed operations in a new building on West Laurel with four deejays of the original KEDA (Nelda “La Reina de Conjunto Music” Sáenz, Luis “Lucky Louie” Gonzales, Eloy “Double E” Espinoza, and Héctor “Via Via” Alanís) and a new voice, Tejano/conjunto star Raulito Navaira (brother of Emilio).
Notoriously absent from the new lineup is Ricky “Güero Polkas” Dávila, a songwriter and deejay who started airing his show in 1959 at Radio KEXX, then moved to Radio KUKA in 1961, and started in KEDA in 1966. He's known as "the Tejano Wolfman Jack" and one of the greatest living legends and symbols of conjunto music.
On June 2, friends and colleagues of Güero Polkas will have a fundraiser for him at Los Cocos Lounge (see info below this interview), so last week we took the opportunity to have lunch with Güero who, among other things, talked about his last show, what it would take for him to come back, and whether he’d even want to.
July 29, 2011. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
A bittersweet day, with me trying to play all of my real close friends in the music business: Flaco Jiménez, Henry Zimmerle, Nick Villarreal, Los Aguilares, Little Joe, Rubén Ramos, Joe Bravo
I was trying to play all the people that I had actually met and worked with throughout the years, brother.
It was an emotional show, yet there was no drama. How were you feeling deep down?
It was kind of sad but, at the same time, the run on the radio inevitably had to come to an end. I had really started back in October 1959, many years broadcasting. So it was kind of sad in a way but, you know, you got to make room for the young blood. That’s what it was all about.
Did anyone, at any point, asked you whether you wanted to continue?
No, nobody asked me. But I figured that after, you know, tantos años [so many years], it was time for a change and, at the same time, maybe I could make it into something different. Maybe God had something planned for me aparte de la radio [aside from radio]. I’ve been a songwriter since I was 13 years old. There’s a lot of other things I wanted to get into doing, like producing some of the songs that I had written with or for different other artists.
But if they had asked you to stay, would you have accepted?
I don’t think I would have wanted to continue, not as long as it wasn’t under the Dávila realm. I had many chances to tour with James Brown and Willie Nelson, for example, but I stuck around because of the family. It was all for la familia Dávila. That’s why I stayed in the radio for so long. It was actually por la familia Dávila and my dad’s dream, which was to have his own Mexican radio station. He only had a fifth grade education and I was real proud of what my dad did, so I figured I’d stick with it as long as it was under the Dávila rule. But as soon as the Dávilas ceased to have control of it, I figured, what for?
Does that mean you're not particularly fond of the new owners?
No, I don’t have a problem with anybody. In fact, I wish them all the best because if they can continue to keep conjunto music alive, that was my dad’s dream. He wanted to play conjunto music. When KEDA got on the air, no conjuntos were getting airplay, especially locals like Henry Zimmerle, Flaco Jiménez, and Los Aguilares. You’re talking about legends in music and Flaco taking the music all over the world, yet he didn’t get played in his own hometown. So that’s basically what my dad stressed: that we were going to play the local conjuntos first.
Have you heard the new KEDA?
Yeah, I have heard it. And what I like about it is the fact that they are keeping the conjunto music alive. If we weren’t playing conjunto music, what would happen to the conjuntos in San Antonio?
Did you, by any chance, saw the Flaco/Santiago Jiménez Jr. reunion at the Tejano Conjunto Festival?
No. I actually emcee'd the first 26 or 27 years [of the TCF]. In fact, it was my idea after I emceed the very first Tejano Music Awards. I saw they gave no credit at all to conjuntos or mariachis, so the very next day I met with Juan Tejeda at a Cantina at Guadalupe [Street] and said, "Juan, we got to do something good for the conjuntos; they were completely ignored last night at the Tejano Music Awards." Therefore, you see, the Tejano Conjunto [Festival] in San Antonio [is] one year behind the Tejano Music Awards. It [is now] the 32nd Tejano Music Awards and [we just had] the 31st Tejano Conjunto Festival. And I actually helped plan it. Juan Tejeda was the man at the time, but I would suggest, “Hey, mix norteño with conjunto, [Colombia's] vallenato with conjunto,” because the accordion is worldwide and I made Juan see he could bring in a lot of these international groups and mix it with Cajun. He had [Zydeco legend] Queen Ida on the stage, and it was historical to see her play with Steve Jordan at the conjunto festival. We did so many shows and so many festivals. But I just know it got done the right way because the very first one had Santiago Jiménez [Sr. and Jr.] and Flaco playing on the stage at the same time, and we featured Narciso Martínez, el Huracán del Valle [the Hurricane of the Valley], in one of his last live performances. He was old, viejito, and he had to be helped to the stage, but it was amazing. I saw right then and there, when he put the accordion on and put the straps over his shoulders, and he took a deep breath, that he looked like he took 20 years off his appearance and he kicked butt like he always did. And then, when he got through performing and he walked back off the stage, they had to walk him again.
Still, weren't you a bit curious about the Flaco/Santiago Jr. reunion?
Yeah, but ... I’m not trying to say that yo soy chingón ni nada de eso [I'm a big shot or anything like that], but I wasn’t really going to see anything I hadn’t seen already.
You had already seen them and their father in 1982.
Yeah, I was right on the stage, brother, standing there in awe. I didn’t even come off the stage after I introduced them. I was just standing there looking at them saying, “Man, what a heck of a thing.” And I looked at the people and said into my mind, “Man, you don’t know how lucky you people are to see this happening in San Antonio." And I was very proud and I even get chills on my skin to say that I helped Juan Tejeda start it. My dad’s life was devoted to conjunto music. He always played conjunto music, even though he didn’t have a radio station. Back in the old days there was no Spanish stations, so he would buy time on English stations and play conjunto music.
C'mon, Güero, KEDA is nice, but we need you. No matter how good conjunto radio gets, if you're not part of it there's a big hole.
Well, if they make me a good offer and pay me right, I don’t see why not, because I really don’t have anything else to do. All I did all my life was radio. I never got away from it, you know. But if I ever come back, I want to do it right. Someone offered me a show somewhere for minimum wage, and then "let's see what happens." I refused, of course. That's insulting.
It sure is. At the very least, write and record some new songs. You gotta be out there, can't just disappear. Have you written anything lately?
I’ve still written. By the time we started the radio station I had written a little over 300 songs and I didn’t get out and produce them. And some of the English ones I recorded myself and they became lowrider hits in Los Angeles. In East L.A. they would play my English-language music on the radio.
You know all you have to do is call Joe Treviño or someone like that, get a band together, and record, right? Who would say no to Güero?
Yeah, I recorded in Joe Treviño’s studio and he’s a fine engineer, one of the best in San Antonio. There are not too many studios in San Antonio or Corpus Christi that I haven’t been in. I have recorded a whole bunch of songs. Not all of them have been released and, you know, they probably won’t come out until I kick the bucket. You know how that goes.
Yeah, you're gone, and someone else gets the money...
Well, doesn’t it always end up like that? I don’t feel bad because I know personally Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino. And they used to tell me how they would get screwed over and they never got royalties. They didn’t start getting their royalties maybe until the late '80s.
You used to hang with a lot of those guys, didn't you?
James Brown was a personal friend of mine. I had an offer from him to go on tour. In fact, I did the Texas tour with him. I took off from the radio to make sure I was in Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and El Paso. I would come up and sing with James Brown’s band and then I would introduce him and he would come out and kick butt like he always did. I really felt almost out of place, because yo parezco gabacho [I look like a white American], and there I was, working with all these black people. But hey, the music was the music. I got a chance to work in San Francisco with Sly and The Family Stone. We got a chance here in San Antonio to work with Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Etta James ... You know, that’s just the English part of it. But my heart was in conjunto music.
Yet, I only see one of your albums online [El Güero Polkas: Más de mis rolas favoritas].
I have two CD’s that are available that have 20 songs on each. The amazing thing about this is that each song is a different set of musicians, a different studio, and a different night in which they were recorded. These are some that I have just been able to find the masters and put together and put out. So, let me ask you a question: You’re in the San Antonio Current, aren't you?
That’s great. About 10 years ago I ran into some people from the Current magazine, when there was no QueQue or Ask a Mexican! and I was talking to some of the higher-ups because [the Current had] changed all of a sudden. I said, "You’re blowing off the Chicanos in San Antonio. We're Mexicans. Our money is just as green as anybody else's. We go to all the clubs that you guys advertise, yet you don’t have anything that appeals to the Mexicans at all in your magazine." I went on, "The Current couldn’t really be 'current' if you don’t take care of the Chicanos, mexicanos, latinos, hispanos, whatever you want to call us."
But we do now, I hope...
I understand that. That’s why I feel good [about the Current]. And I feel a little responsible for maybe getting you in there. Hey, man, for years the Current magazine was always good, but it was like Mexicans didn’t exist. "Puro gabacho, bolillo... [It was all about white people] You kidding me? Stop it!" I said. So ... How did you end up here?
I was in L.A. for 19 years, and came to San Antonio in 2004 to work for Rumbo. I was the music editor there.
Yeah, I remember. I used to read Rumbo all the time.
I always loved the Spurs and the Texas Tornados, but coming to live and work here was always very special for me.
Yeah we got you one way or the other. Texas Tornados, huh? I was the first one in 1959 to play Freddy Fender, Flaco Jiménez, Doug Sahm, and Augie Meyers. I played them all with their individual bands so, when the Texas Tornados came together, all I did was play the same music I had already played because they weren’t recording anything really new. They were doing the monster hits of all four members. But I had known all four members since 1959. I go way back with Augie, Flaco, Freddy, and Doug Sahm, God rest his soul. Doug would say, “Hey, you’re the man.” They would plug us in Los Angeles when the Texas Tornados played L.A., and then I'd get people calling me from L.A. saying, “Hey, they were dedicating to you. We thought you were here.” I said, “No, but I’m just in their hearts, and that’s great because they are in mine also.”
So tell me about this upcoming fundraiser.
What do you mean?
Aren't you having a fundraiser on June 2? Is it legit?
Oh, yeah, yeah ... No, everything is cool. There is no problem. They are just doing this for me. Actually, it came up this way because of all the public service that I did on my radio show. KEDA's FCC license specified we had to "serve the community," so we used to announce, por ejemplo [for example], a plate sale to bury somebody. We were the only ones. If at one time a family didn’t have money to bury their loved one, I figured that family was part of the community, so we would announce those for free. We would announce the plate sale and I would go out and call in on the radio live from some of these plate sales to raise money to bury people. And that’s why they wanted to do this [June 2 fundraiser] to start with, because all the community service that I did. You know, my dad would always say, “Don’t forget, the people make you or break you. You got to serve the community. That’s what our license says." We really believed in it. We were not just in it for the money.
— Enrique Lopetegui (photo of "Wolfman" Güero courtesy of Ramón Hernández)
San Antonio Salutes Ricky "Güero Polkas" Dávila feat. Bene Medina, Smiley & Locomotion, Rudy Padilla, Joe Hernández & friends, Chalito Johnson, Nikki Mendoza, Rocky Hernández & OBG Band, Flavio Longoria, Linda Escobar, Juanito Castillo e Innovación with Roger Velásquez, DJ Bongo Bob, Max Baca, David Farías, Juan Tejeda, Senator Leticia Van De Putte, Councilwoman Lourdes Galván, and many more
2pm-12am Sat, June 2
Los Cocos Lounge (outdoor patio area)
(254) 339-0719 or (210) 573-5649