At 83, Tejano music pioneer still playing

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At 83, Tejano music pioneer still playing

For the cover of his so-called "comeback album" in 1997, Manuel "Cowboy" Donley peered from behind dark glasses into the distance, leaning against the wall of an East Sixth Street cafe and pressing his guitar to his chest. He wore a dark suit, a bolo tie and a crisp shirt the color of fresh white paint. He wore, too, a vapory grin, suggesting a man who knew all the secrets.

Told recently that the photo had him looking every bit the cool vato — classic Chicano slang for dude — the white-haired, 83-year-old Donley playfully blurts, "That's what I am — a cool vato." And really, who could argue?

In a city overflowing with stellar musicians, Donley might be the coolest cat of them all, and one of the most enduring and influential. In an extraordinary career that caught fire in the late 1940s in East Austin cantinas and Central Texas dance halls when he carved out a new Tejano sound, Donley is still performing. Indeed, he says he's never once had to call anyone to ask for a gig.

A seventh-grade dropout who taught himself to play the guitar and to read music and write complex musical arrangements, Donley pushed the envelope and in the late 1950s infused electric guitars and rock 'n' roll into the ranchera-heavy repertoires of Mexican American musical groups, laying the groundwork for a whole new, ebullient Tejano sound.

"He was a pioneer and a visionary," says Luis Zapata, a veteran music producer.

"The Latino music scene is ... now recognized on a worldwide level. Manuel Donley had a huge hand in that," says Austin-based musician and producer Michael Ramos .

Younger musicians like Ramos seek out Donley and consider him a hero, particularly for his mastery of boleros, the romance songs made famous in the late 1940s by trios such as Los Panchos and characterized by their lush vocal harmonies, melodic phrasings and soulful guitar stylings. But Donley can sing and play it all, and he has — Elvis and Little Richard, wop-bop-a-loo and Bach.

Earlier this year, an Austin History Center exhibit named Donley a Mexican American Trailblazer for his groundbreaking musical contributions, adding to his extensive list of accolades and accomplishments. Despite that, the serene, soft-spoken Donley has little if any rooster strut in his step. He is so modest, it is endearing and almost painful, Ramos says.

"He's probably one of the sweetest persons I've ever met in my life," says Zapata.

Donley is a giver, too, says Marcelo Tafoya, another Mexican American Trailblazer and an influential disc jockey during Donley's heyday. Tafoya counts 28 young men — including some of the brightest musical stars to come out of Johnston High School — who played with Donley and went on to lead their own bands in Austin, kindling the Tejano scene into a wildfire.

"Manuel is one of those very rare individuals, a creator, an innovator who was willing to share and not keep it a top secret," Tafoya says.

Music has been a way of life

Donley is still trim, almost wiry, and his cafe con leche-colored skin bears remarkably few lines. He has milky blue eyes that are warm and expressive.

At his home, reflecting on his career, Donley steers the conversation as if driven by a musical motor, bursting into song in full-throated tenor to make a point, mimicking sounds — taca-taca-taca or ti-ri-lil, ti-ri-lil, ti-ri-lil — to emulate a beat or a melodic line, strumming an imaginary guitar. Listening to a slow-tempo bolero he recently recorded, Donley closes his eyes and sways gently, anticipating the entrance of a percussive instrument that sets the song in motion. Clack-clack. He slaps the beats on his thigh.

Manuel Donley was born under a musical star in Durango, Durango, during one of his family's periodic trips to Mexico from Austin. His father, Ramón Donley, of Mexican and Irish descent, was a violinist with the Durango municipal symphony, and his mother, Dolores Quiñones, loved opera. The family settled in East Austin when Manuel was 7. Ramón and Dolores would have nine children.

The Donleys were poor. Ramón made his living as a barber and musician. Manuel made do with one pair of overalls for summer and one for winter. "If you had a pot of beans every day, you were lucky," he says. "But we never asked for help." Donley never left the barrio, either. With his second wife, Herminia, he lives not far from where he grew up, in a modest home surrounded by a chain-link fence near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

First at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic School and later in public elementary school, Manuel struggled mightily in the classroom. He didn't know English, and he was shy. "I considered myself almost retarded," he says.

At 13, Donley dropped out of junior high school around the same time he became smitten with the guitar he had heard on the radio, deciding at that moment that it was for him. He got a job washing dishes at El Toro restaurant, giving his meager wages to his mother and using some to put a beat-up guitar on layaway.

Only when he paid for the guitar did he realize it was virtually unplayable. "But I made it work for me," Donley says. He laughs. "And the rest is history."

A teen learns to perform

Donley taught himself to play, and soon he was honing his skills any way and anywhere he could.

When he knew but two chords, Donley and his friend Jovito Carrión would venture to the Rock In, a 12th Street bar popular with African Americans. "We would beat chords and sing," Donley recalls. The first time, they belted out "Mi Lupita" and the barflies tossed them pennies. Manuel and Jovito were floored. "Five pennies could buy you a soda pop then, and you could share it with your friends," Donley said. Their first paying gig.

Donley and his friends kept hustling for tips in bars. "The bars, they just wanted entertainment," he says. At a gloomy haunt called the Green Room, Donley sang for a melancholy barmaid who would inevitably cry when he was done.

At 15, Donley began joining neighborhood friends in impromptu jam sessions in alleys and under Austin's moonlight towers, playing late into the night until the police ran them off.

By the time he was 18, Donley had learned enough to assemble his first band, Los Heartbreakers, a group that generally played only instrumentals. In 1949, at a memorable gig at Parque Zaragoza — the community gathering spot for Mexican Americans in East Austin — the band was stumped when the large crowd unrelentingly called out for "La Mucura," a traditional cumbia. No one knew the lyrics. Or so they thought. Then Donley, who had shunned the spotlight to that point, admitted that he did. Reluctantly, he sang.

"There I became famous," he says. "But I never wanted to be a vocalist. The guitar, that was my passion."

From the park to the bandstand

After the Parque Zaragoza breakthrough, bands came after Donley, and he happily played with as many as he could while still performing with Los Heartbreakers. "I was playing in cantinas every night of the week," he says.

In 1950, the Heartbreakers got a regular booking playing for University of Texas students at the Varsity Grill on the Drag, a rare happening because it exposed Chicano musicians to white audiences in Austin. Band members stood atop the U-shaped bar, wowing the jitterbugging students with a mix of bebop, rhythm and blues, and samba. "The dancers were jumping all over the place," Donley says with a smile. The gig was also remarkable for the times. Mexican Americans suffered discrimination in Austin during that era, Donley says, and it was not considered safe for them to venture out of their neighborhoods.

The Varsity Grill performances were memorable for yet another reason — they stretched the traditional boundaries of the 1950s-era Mexican American ensembles called orquestas , which played big-band instrumentals and Mexican rancheras and the achingly romantic boleros.

In 1955, Donley formed a new group, Las Estrellas (the Stars), and pushed the boundaries some more, adding rock 'n' roll, boogie-woogie, and rhythm and blues. Donley poured all of it, all the genres and two languages, into one large bowl and shook it up hard, still keeping the Mexican classics but arranging them for orquestas "so it didn't sound Mexican anymore," and adding ditties such as "Rock Around the Clock" and "Tutti Frutti."

Then the bandleader turned the tables on how it was presented, moving from behind the orchestra bandstands that were fixtures then to center stage, plugging his guitar into an amplifier, replacing the stand-up bass with an electric one and brush drums with drumsticks. (Donley got his nickname, "Cowboy," after moving out front with his guitar, reminding a promoter of the country singer-guitarists then.)

Donley's core Chicano fan base embraced the new loud, modern sound, and soon Donley y Las Estrellas were in demand at dance halls and ballrooms across Central Texas. Fans traveled from San Antonio and Houston to see them, and as word spread, so did bandleaders from around the state who wanted to know what the fuss was about. They incorporated some of what they saw in their own acts. Riding the crest of their new fame, the band began touring across the state, from Dallas to the Rio Grande Valley.

Donley kept pushing the limits, adding more horns — a Tejano signature — and writing more complex, layered arrangements. In the studio, Donley had the remarkable ability to write the parts for his big bands on the fly, says Leonard Davila, a sax player and one of those Johnston High standouts who played with him in the 1960s, singing backup on songs like James Brown's "I Feel Good."

Donley estimates he recorded well over a hundred singles. Zapata stumbled onto some of those old 45s in a jukebox at the old Hernandez Cafe on East Sixth Street in the mid-1990s. "We are talking about 16 horn players in his bands and this guy coming through with that incredible voice and delivering a sound you cannot find anywhere," he says.

In 1965, Donley recorded perhaps his biggest hit, "Flor del Rio." It was so popular, fathers told him they named their girls Flor after the song, and Donley got calls from promoters who wanted to book him in Chicago, Albuquerque, N.M., and elsewhere.

With Las Estrellas, Donley's star blazed for two decades. Around 1975, the "good money quit coming," and the gas crisis made touring too expensive — Donley says he was never too fond of it anyway. The music business required more self-promotion, which Donley disdained because he considered it bragging.

The gigs became smaller and more infrequent, and the venues became smaller, but Donley says he never quit playing. Tafoya, the disc jockey who went on to own five radio stations and is a Tejano music expert, considers it amazing that Donley has sustained his reputation so long without touring. Tafoya still gets calls from across the country from people who inquire about Donley and how to get his music.

In 1986, Donley was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame because he is considered by some the Godfather of the "brown sound," and in 1997, backed by Las Estrellas, he recorded his CD "Adios, Chiquita — Exitos de Ayer y Hoy (So Long, Darling — Hits From Yesterday and Today)." The album came about after Zapata heard those old jukebox singles, tracked down Donley and coaxed him into the studio.

That jubilant voice

Some things remain constant: Donley's mastery of the guitar, his signature soaring, soulful voice and his love for the boleros.

Those beloved songs about love celebrated, love unrequited and love lost are featured on a new CD he recently recorded that is due for release probably in the spring.

Ramos, who produced it, becomes emotional describing the experience. Donley, a perfectionist, would apologize profusely whenever he fell short. "From my perspective, just listening to him was a profound moment in itself," Ramos says.

During production, Ramos called Donley to confirm a recording session later that afternoon. He learned that Donley was practicing his parts.

"That just melted me," says Ramos, who has played for Paul Simon, Patty Griffin and John Mellencamp, among many other prominent acts. "We're all so jaded — no one practices before a work session."

Age can do cruel things to the singing voice, eroding elasticity, clarity and soft edges. Donley pushes hard but still sounds great, Ramos said. "There's this pain and adversity, and still he has this total jubilant quality in his voice."

The next generation

Sitting at his kitchen table, surrounded by pictures of his family — he has seven children, including four with his first wife, Julia — Donley says music has pretty much been his life. "I can't imagine it without it," he says thoughtfully, drawing his voice down to barely more than a whisper.

Earlier this year at a semi-regular gig at El Gallo on South Congress Avenue, Donley fed his musical soul while a diverse crowd — whites and Chicanos, young and old — fed their Tex-Mex cravings. Over the din of silverware clanking on plates and loud conversations across tables, Donley performed some of the timeless classics that have provided the soundtrack for generations of Mexican Americans. Chestnuts like "Poquita Fe," El Reloj," "Sin Ti," "Sabor a Mi" and "Contigo." Performing them is a dying art, Ramos says. Donley has played them thousands of times.

With younger musical partner Jorge Tamayo, Donley stood by a water fountain in a cavernous main dining room. He shifted fluidly from high tenor to low, his voice filling the room without a microphone. As you would expect from someone who practices before work, Donley swung for the fences. During a requinto guitar solo in the breezy Cuban standard "Guantanamera," a part that requires speed and finesse, Donley played in such a high register that the notes seemed to disappear into the air, letting the mind fill in the rest.

Restaurant audiences are not the most attentive. Many songs ended without applause, although a few people handed the musicians tips or offered warm thanks as they headed out into the night.

Donley seemed uplifted just to be playing. He finished a 12-song second set — a craftsman's display — with a quick, gracious goodbye and ambled off.

Later, he said he was tickled that in more recent performances he has been approached by young men — players, he supposes — who praised his guitar play.

"I'm just grateful for the chance to keep playing, to keep trying to get it right," he said.

At 83, Manuel Donley, ever humble, still the cool dude, says he is a work in progress.

jcastillo@statesman.com; 445-3635

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