Austin lost a Tejano legend early on Sept. 5 when Guadalupe "Shorty" Ortiz, founder of the popular ’60s band Shorty and the Corvetts and the lauded family ensemble Mariachi Corbetas, died after a 2 1/2 week battle with COVID-19. He was 78.
Ortiz was a charismatic performer with a magnetic stage presence, a smile that could light up a room and an emotion-drenched voice that brought fans to tears.
"My dad would pick somebody, like a woman, to sing to," Ortiz’s son, Anthony Ortiz Sr., said on Monday. He wouldn’t just choose randomly, but he’d scan the crowd in search of "someone that he could really touch, and he would pick a song and sing to them," he said.
"Let's say eight times out of 10, they would start crying," he said.
Shorty Ortiz was born in San Marcos but grew up in Austin. For most of his adult life, the Montopolis neighborhood in Southeast Austin was home. He began playing young, and by the time he was 19 he had logged a hit with the song "Un Ratito," which was nominated for a Tejano Music Award.
He was known for bringing a high level of showmanship to joyous concerts. Marcus DeLeon, a former Travis County commissioner and longtime fan and friend of Shorty Ortiz, remembers his first encounter with Shorty and the Corvetts at a 1963 show at the Austin City Coliseum. DeLeon, who was a teenager at the time, said he was taken with Ortiz’s stagecraft.
"There on the stage was Shorty's band and go-go girls dancing," DeLeon recalled. It was a spectacle that reminded him of the variety show performances he saw on TV. He was blown away to see that Ortiz "actually had Chicanas dancing on the stage," he said.
He immediately became a loyal fan, and as he followed Shorty and the Corvetts, his respect for the band’s namesake dynamo grew.
"He was versatile. He could play anything," he said, noting that while Tejano bands "could do traditional Mexican music," they could also "get it rockin’."
The band was popular locally, and they toured extensively, including jaunts to Mexico and up the West Coast, but Shorty Ortiz had to put the music on hold for a few years when he was drafted into the Army. He served in the Korean and Vietnam wars and was honorably discharged in 1973.
Julian L Fernandez of the band Los Texas Wranglers met Ortiz not long after he returned to Austin and resumed playing. He began playing drums with the band.
"To me, as a young man, I was just overtaken by the crowd and the way people reacted to his music," he said. "It was always joyful, a lot of dancing."
Musician Joe King Carrasco met Ortiz and began playing with him around the same time. "Shorty had a hit with the song ‘Pledging My Love,’ the Johnny Ace hit. Shorty took an old R&B song and brought it to the Chicano groove," Carrasco wrote in a public Facebook post. Ortiz had recently played the Cotton Bowl with Little Joe Y La Familia, "so it seemed at this time that he was surfing on the wave of success and his reputation," Carrasco wrote.
A multi-instrumentalist, Ortiz was a standout bandleader who "jumped around the whole stage all through the night" as he switched between keyboards, bass and guitar, Fernandez said. All the while, he wowed fans with his magnificent voice.
Gregarious by nature, Ortiz exuded warmth. When the band toured, he had friends in "every town that we went to," Fernandez said. "I can't imagine anybody having so many friends."
While music was important to Ortiz, he was dedicated to his family. "He loved his children to death," Fernandez said.
He started teaching his twin sons, Anthony and Christopher, to play when they were 10. When they were good enough, he added them to the band. They played in clubs around town and at weddings and private parties.
He taught his sons to attack the songs with exuberant energy, to go full blast. "Try not to make it boring, (bring) excitement is kind of how we were taught to play," Anthony Ortiz Sr. said.
In the ’90s, the band fell into the background while Shorty Ortiz focused on work and family and his sons grew up and started families of their own. He was passionate about his community and active in youth advocacy efforts through the Montopolis Recreation Center. Recognizing a problem with paint sniffing among the young people in his community, he helped spearhead a spray paint and inhalant abuse program. He saw that kids were stealing cans of paint from hardware stores and successfully campaigned for a city ordinance that requires spray paint to be locked up.
In the early ’90s, he launched the Montopolis Fiesta of Mexican Independence.
"His heart was in the community," Deleon said.
In the early aughts, he returned to music, playing mariachi first with a friend’s group and later with the family mariachi ensemble, Mariachi Corbetas.
By that time, Anthony Ortiz Sr. had a son, Anthony Ortiz Jr., a young accordion prodigy who was rapidly outpacing his father in musicianship. Ortiz Sr. originally was playing accordion with his father’s friend’s ensemble, but then "little Anthony got into accordion and I got kicked out of a job," he said.
Shorty Ortiz sold sno-cones as a hobby, and Anthony Ortiz Jr. would spend hours sitting on the porch by his stand practicing with his grandfather.
"They were so in sync," Ortiz Sr. said. "I kind of stood in the background just to watch them, let them shine."
The interplay of grandfather and grandson made Mariachi Corbetas performances magical, and the ensemble was solidly booked every weekend for several years. They played weddings, parties and quinceaneras. Because of the rich emotion Shorty Ortiz could convey with his voice, they were an in-demand funeral act. "We had not just one, (but) three or four gigs back to back" each day, Ortiz Sr. said.
Anthony Ortiz Jr. was a rising talent in the Austin music scene when he died of cancer at age 24 in 2017.
Late in life, Shorty Ortiz was focused on "righteous living," Anthony Ortiz Sr. said. At the time of his death, he was working as a rehabilitation drug dependency counselor in two prisons and had recently become certified to teach DWI courses.
"He was hoping to build a sober house. That was (his) next goal," Ortiz Sr. said.
In August, Shorty Ortiz came down with a sore throat and cough. He thought he had the flu, but when he went to the doctor he tested positive for COVID-19. He quarantined at home, but after a blood clot was detected in his lungs on a follow-up visit to the doctor, he was sent to the hospital.
As his condition deteriorated, Ortiz refused to be placed on a ventilator, opting instead for palliative care. He remained upbeat as Anthony Ortiz Sr. spoke to him on the phone each day. When he no longer had the strength to talk, he sent texts saying he was fine.
"He never told me the truth," Anthony Ortiz Sr. said.
Guadalupe Shorty Ortiz leaves behind a legacy of good music and "helping out the community as much as he could," Anthony Ortiz Sr. said.
"Everything for Shorty was about growth, harmony and love," Fernandez said. "We came from a poor side of town, but we were rich in music."
Ortiz is survived by his sons, Anthony and Christopher; daughter-in-law, Laura; granddaughters, Samantha, Mary and Carolina; grandsons, Christopher Jr., Drew and John Eric; great-grandsons, Joe Angel and Bo Anthony; brothers, Pedro and Alberto; sisters, Modesta and Isabel; significant other, Yolanda Natal; step-children and grandchild.