Beautiful Songs and Good, Heavy Sounds
By Belinda Acosta
NOVEMBER 30, 1998: There are people who remember when Sixth Street was Mexican. Before the calle ancho (I-35) appeared, and even some time after, the Sixth Street that was Mexican didn't end at San Marcos street. It continued west through Sabine, Red River, Neches, Trinity and San Jacinto, ending at Brazos street. Today's Sixth Street is what tourists and college kids "do." It's a pulse point for South by Southwest, Halloween, and New Year's Eve street parties, and where UT football fans converge to celebrate victories or drown their defeats. But when Sixth Street was Mexican, it was different.
Though its existence was as much the result of segregation and containment as necessity, it was also a vital hub of social activity, where gente who worked as porters, dishwashers, bus boys, and maids, along with field workers from Taylor, Bastrop, Manor, and other outlying areas converged on Sixth Street every weekend to take care of business. The señores would have a drink or two (or three) in a cantina, get a haircut, buy a tool, a new shirt, or a pair of shoes. The señoras went shopping at Piggly-Wiggly on the corner of Sixth and Red River for the week or the month, depending on how much there was to spend and how long it had to last. Children tagged along, eavesdropping on adult talk, or escaped in search of their own fun. Young people came to Sixth Street to check out the scene and each other, and the old people watched it all over coffee and pan dulce.
When Sixth Street was Mexican, nightfall didn't put it to sleep. Clubs like Los Cuatro Copas, El Gato Negro, Blue Sky, Dante's Palladium, the 609 Bar, the Brazos Bar, the Austin Bar, and Rio Rita were havens for people who worked hard during the week and came to Sixth Street at night to relax, drink, dance, and listen to music.
"This street was the mecca of orquesta in Texas, right here in Austin, Texas," says Manuel "Cowboy" Donley, nodding toward the present-day Sixth Street outside the Hernandez Cafe near Sixth and Waller. "We'd have musicians -- good musicians -- come from all over: Houston, San Antonio, Corpus. Back then, it was songs, beautiful songs, and good, heavy, original sounds."
For Donley, "back then" means the Forties and Fifties, and when he says the musicians were good, he should know. He was one of them. A composer, arranger, and performer, Donley is considered a pioneer of Tejano music, the hybrid of American pop forms like big band and rock & roll, with traditional Mexican conjunto. While he does not have the mainstream recognition of Tejano musicians like Little Joe Hernandez, Ruben Ramos, or Freddie Fender, one thing is clear: The Sixth Street of Donley's youth -- now situated as the Eastside of Austin -- has never forgotten him. When the dapper 70-year-old musician entered the Hernandez Cafe for this interview, he was greeted with friendly nods and handshakes, and addressed with the ultimate of sign of respect: Maestro.
Donley was born in Durango, Mexico in 1928. He moved to Austin with his family at the age of seven. He took an early interest in music, following the lead of his father, a classically trained violinist who once played with the Durango Symphony. By day, Donley's father was a barber, but at night, he led his band, La Orquesta de Ramon Donley. The young Donley began his apprenticeship as a musician hanging out in his father's barbershop, where musicians were as likely to come by for a haircut as they were to break out a fiddle or accordion for a couple of tunes. By the time he was 11, Donley had taught himself how to play the guitar and later, the requinto (a type of six-string guitar). At 17, Manuel and his brother Robert were playing informally for church festivals and street fairs.
"It was usually, 'Hey, you want to play? You know this song? Okay, okay, let's do it,'" chuckles Donley.
In 1949, the 21-year-old Donley formed Los Heartbreakers, the first Mexican-American band to play rock & roll and rhythm & blues in Austin. They played all the Sixth Street clubs and at Parque Zaragoza, a popular venue for the biggest Mexican-American bands of the day. But it was the orquesta music of the early Forties that captured Donley and led him in 1955 to form his own orquesta, Las Estrellas.
Not content to simply reproduce what had been done before, Las Estrellas infused Mexican rancheras, polkas, boleros, and ballads with expressive horn arrangements, influences such as big band, rock & roll, and rhythm & blues obvious in the band's music. It was during the early days of Las Estrellas that Donley earned the nickname, "Cowboy," given for his performance style of standing near the front of the stage like country & western singers, instead of sitting behind a music stand. On the surface, the gesture seemed innocuous, but it turned out to be a symbolic breakdown of the barrier between "high" class and "low" class.
"You cannot underestimate what that did," says Isidoro López, a longtime Austin-area DJ. "That [performance] style made it more loose, made [Las Estrellas] more accessible to the public. It also helped break the stereotype of orquesta music being rigid. You have to remember, we were all working people, blue collar workers -- it was a question of attitude and perception. Manuel and others before him took the best of both worlds: the sophistication of orquesta and the enthusiasm of conjunto. The result is Tejano."
The original Las Estrellas were six, including Rudy Sánchez, Joe Sánchez, Andrew Zuniga, Emilio Villegas, Mike Amaro, and Donley. Like many Tejano musicians, they were all self-taught, with one important difference: They knew how to read music. As the group's arranger, Donley taught himself to write music.
"We forced ourselves to learn how to read and write," says Donley, "in an impressive way, you know, so we could attract good musicians. There were guys coming through who played with Stan Kenton, Harry James, Pérez Prado, Luis Alcaraz -- guys involved in world-wide orquestra. Also, there were a lot of music majors at UT, good readers, good musicians from all over the country. Horn players were in abundance. At times, I had gringos and some blacks sitting in with us, good musicians from all over the country who could cut it."
Eventually, Las Estrellas grew to 12 musicians with four trumpets and four saxophones. Fred Salas of San Antonio ("he was a genius"), Luis Guerrero, Fernando Villareal, Roy Montelongo, Nash Hernandez, Edward Coronado, Manny Guerra, and Homer Salinas were a few of the prominent musicians who played with Las Estrellas.
"That's one of the things about the band," says Leon Hernandez, owner of the Hernandez Cafe and a longtime friend and admirer of Donley. "There would be a lot of musicians that Manuel would bring in, break them in, and then they'd go play with other groups or start their own bands."
Donley expresses no hard feelings for this fact of music life. One thing that becomes clear when talking with Donley is that he's apt to praise the accomplishments of the musicians he's worked with more than his own. This is not so much humility, it seems, but a devout appreciation for fine musicians and the music they make, along with a sense of accomplishment for having worked with them.
"Homer [Salinas] had two degrees in music, but was a UT law student when he played with me," Donley recalls. "He played with Luis Alcaraz, and did some recording with him, and even sat in with Stan Kenton and Harry James."
Salinas was the soloist in the Pérez Prado 1955 instrumental, "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White."
"With Homer Salinas, it became a big, big hit. Now, it's a classic."
Attracting talented musicians to Las Estrellas encouraged Donley to write arrangements that featured their talents, and in doing so, demonstrated his own talent for creating complex harmonies for several horns, guitar, bass, and other instruments as needed.
"I wrote dozens and dozens and dozens, maybe even a hundred arrangements," Donley estimates. When asked just how many instruments he can play, he's characteristically self-effacing.
"Real good? I don't play any!"
"No, I guess you can say I know the fingerboard of just about every instrument. I have to know the depth of an instrument as an arranger. I have to know the trombone, how it sounds where I want it to sound, and the flutes, the clarinets, the altos, your trumpets and treble horn. When you do orchestration, that's something you have to learn. And then the guitar itself, it has such a wide range."
San Antonio musician Fred Salas played with Las Estrellas for three years, and is another of the musicians Donley regards as one of the most talented with whom he has worked.
"He would come to my house and we would hang around and then I'd catch him with all my arrangements spread out on the floor, and he said, 'Some people say you're lazy. How'd you manage to write all this?' That was flattering."
Again, Donley laughs.
"I've never known as complete a musician as Fred Salas. He was the one who played the keyboard on Freddie Fender's 'Before the Next Teardrop Falls.' We were buddies. He was always at my house on Monday morning, ready to get the lowdown on everything that happened over the weekend."
Donley and Las Estrellas cut their first single in 1955 on the Crescent label with "Lluvia en Mi Corazon" and it quickly became a hit. Another hit, "Flor Del Rio," came in the early Sixties, and is credited with inspiring parents to name their newborn girls 'Flor.' Because Mexican-American or Spanish language music was unrepresented in the mainstream recording industry, a cottage industry of small record labels began to emerge throughout Texas -- Corona in San Antonio, Valmon in Austin, El Zarape Records in Dallas, Disco Grande, Nopal, Crescent, and many, many others. All were catering to an ignored but hungry audience.
The process was no-frills. When a band like Las Estrellas came to town, a record label owner (sometimes with connections to a small radio station) would offer a one-time fee to cut a single or an entire LP. It was quick pocket money up front, but with little or no return from subsequent sales. Yet, this makeshift approach of making a few hundred platters and broadcasting them where Mexicanos were most likely to see and buy them was an important marketing aspect for musicians whose success largely relied on word of mouth. It also made the albums a precious cultural commodity. Leon Hernandez remembers when Las Estrellas's Flor del Rio was cut.
"The band was going to play in Seguin, so I said to Cowboy, let's take a couple albums to Rosita."
Rosita Ornelas hosted a Sunday afternoon radio program featuring Tejano music, a new and growing occurrence in the Sixties.
"We took her two albums, and I said, 'Rosie, this one's for the station -- and before I could finish, she said, 'And this one is for me to take home!'"
Few commercial radio stations would play Tejano music, but during the Sixties, small stations began allowing more and more air time, providing another vital link between musicians and their audience. Cowboy Donley y Las Estrellas toured Texas and points across the nation, recording dozens of 45s, vinyl, and even wax platters along the way. In 1978, they made their last recording. Though Donley continued to perform, with and without Las Estrellas, they lost widespread visibility, particularly in the then-exploding Tejano music industry.
"All these things were happening at once," explains Isidoro López. "You had the newer generation of Tejano musicians performing and recording. At first, only a few radio stations might give an hour to Tejano music. Then, all of a sudden, you had whole stations with a Tejano music format. Promoters were taking chances on the 'new' sound, and recording and getting airplay was real important."
By the late Seventies, Tejano music had finally caught the attention of the music industry. Labels like Arista, Sony, and EMI created whole divisions devoted to Tejano or Latin music, and began to pour money into new, young musicians who could appeal to a young and more affluent audience. By the time Tejano music finally began to take off, Manuel Donley was 50. Though many of his early compositions are performed and recorded by a newer generation of Tejano musicians including Ruben Ramos and Nash Hernandez, the use of horns, and more importantly, the complex horn arrangements Donley created, were being diluted or dropped altogether.
"Manuel's music, even when it gets complex, he keeps it harmonizing at fifths and thirds and so on," says Luis Zapata of Gatopardo Productions, who first encountered Donley's music in 1995. "But when other groups try to do his music, the layers disappear because they can't keep it up."
"Nowadays, it's real hard to find a good horn player, because there's not much demand for them," says Donley. "The newer Tejano musicians are hardly utilizing the saxophone, the clarinet, the trumpet -- it's just keyboards and synthesizers and all that. The human element is gone."
Zapata further points to the arrival of late-Seventies easy listening music as a factor in Donley's disappearance during the Tejano boom.
"Easy listening is based on simplicity with arrangements that are easy to digest. Manuel never changed his sound. Not because he was an idealist, I think, but because it was natural for him to keep it. But the result was that [commercially], he stopped being popular."
Raúl Salinas, an East Austin-born writer and activist, takes a more acerbic view.
"I think Manuel got passed by because the music industry recognized a couple of marketing commodities and went for the trendy. This society goes for the fax copy, instead of the original, which is what Manuel is."
The accordion has such a prominent place in the Tejano music of today, it's difficult to imagine Tejano music without it. That is, unless you're Manuel Donley. He does not use the accordion in any of his music and his opinion of it verges on blasphemy to today's Tejano music fans.
"It's a bad, tonic instrument. It's not a legitimate instrument, [because] it's limited to one key. It's okay for rancheras and for playing at the rancho grande or los laureles, and that's about it. You have to have at least two or three octaves to play [music]. You have to have all 13 keys available, all flats and all sharps and all that. But an accordion? There's no way I could use an accordion."
As the Tejano music industry was coming to a rolling boil, Donley's career cooled to a low simmer, and he directed his attention back where he began -- to the guitar and requinto. This time, his interest was not in nailing rock & roll riffs, but in continuing to master classical guitar. When bossa nova became popular in the late Seventies, Donley was in good form.
"The first time I heard an Andres Segovia recording, I couldn't believe it," exclaims Donley about the Spanish classical guitar master. "I couldn't believe it was one man. Where did he get all those fingers? But being as ignorant and determined as I was, I said, 'Well, I have one mind, like he does, and I have 10 fingers, like he does.' So I forced myself to go buy some music and I learned all the scales. All those seven notes, I learned them inside out. I explored all the combinations. I said, 'Music can't be that complicated. It's only seven notes.' I forced myself to learn all the classics on the guitar."
Donley has been fortunate to have made a living as a musician, even when his visibility had faded. Weddings and social functions keep him occupied, as well as teaching music classes at Huston-Tillotson College. Over the years, he's written music and arrangements for several movies, including Remember the Alamo in 1954, Los Imigrantes in the late Seventies, and local filmmaker Hector Galan's Los Mineros in the Eighties. Donley may have retired in relative obscurity had it not been for an empty stomach, an old jukebox, and a few loose coins.
"How did I find Manuel?" asks Luis Zapata. "Here, [at the Hernandez Cafe], in that jukebox over there. I was out with some friends that had played at the Victory Grill, and we came here for some food. I saw his name and it automatically attracted my attention because of his name: 'Manuel,' which is Hispanic, 'Cowboy,' Western, and 'Donley,' Irish. I put some coins in and the music came out, and there was this sound, this big orchestra with all these horns and harmonies, and such a beautiful voice."
A former intern with local indie Catfish Records, and now associate producer of Latin Alternative music with La Plaga Productions, Zapata was working on a special project and invited Donley to participate. The project was never completed, but it did get Donley back into the studio after a 20-year absence. With the support of Tary Owens, president of Catfish Records, Manuel Donley y Los Estrellas recently released their first CD, Adios Chiquita, Exitos de Ayer y Hoy.
Zapata is hopeful that the new CD will bring Donley some much-deserved recognition and introduce him to new listeners. Although the nature of Tejano music, which Donley played a part in defining has changed, Donley's talent hasn't. "He's a true artist as well as a musician," says Zapata. "Which is allowing him to [make a] comeback.'"
Is Donley, at 70, ready to kick his career into high gear again? The gleam in his eye says "yes."
"I always wanted to do anything that could be done," says Donley, stopping to think a bit. "I always wanted to prove, to see if I was for real or not."
It's time for the rest of the world to know what East Austin has always known about one of their own: Manuel Donley is for real.
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