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Chencho Flores, renowned Austin conjunto musician since the 1940s, dies at 91

Chencho Flores at the 2017 Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival at Stubb’s. Flores died Jan. 10 at age 91.

Chencho Flores, who began playing music in Austin in the 1940s and remained active in the local community with Conjunto Los Pinkys and others through the 2010s, died Jan. 10 of complications from COVID-19. He was 91.

Bradley Jaye Williams, who played with Flores in Conjunto Los Pinkys, confirmed in a statement from the band that Flores recently had been in hospice care after being diagnosed with COVID-19. "He spent nearly a decade with our group and was a part of our White Horse Sunday afternoon crew, performing on accordion, singing and doing MC work," the statement noted.

Flores was born June 2, 1929, on the edge of Bastrop and Travis counties, according to an interview he did in 2017 with Baldomero Frank Cuellar of conjunto music nonprofit Rancho Alegre Radio. He lived in the Austin area all his life.

His musical talents were wide-ranging. Flores began with guitar as a teenager in the mid-1940s, soon gravitating to accordion and later becoming renowned as a singer and emcee. Throughout, he was beloved for his congenial personality both on and offstage; as Cuellar told him in the radio interview, “Your charisma carries you.”

His early days included working with Manuel “Cowboy” Donley, the “godfather of Tejano music” who died last year at age 92, in a trio called Conjunto Cielito Lindo along with Domingo Villarreal. Some of their work is documented online as part of UCLA’s Strachwitz Frontera Collection.

In the Rancho Alegre interview, Flores explained why he learned to play accordion. “I noticed there was a guy there with an accordion whenever people were dancing, see? And that’s what I wanted to do — I wanted to make people dance, make them feel good.”

He got lessons early on from Camilo Cantu, a renowned accordionist Flores called “the best in Austin at that time.” That eventually led to Flores joining Ben Garza y Los Gavilanes Alegres, with whom he performed for years at cantinas along East Sixth Street.

Garza’s group eventually got hired to play at weddings, then hit the road to perform at dancehalls throughout the state. Conjunto fans from other states encouraged them to tour nationally, but Flores remained committed to the day job that supported his wife and two young children.

“We’d bought a new home and were just barely making it,” he recalled in the Rancho Alegre interview. Flores did one tour out west with Garza when he had three weeks of vacation saved up but opted to stay home after that.

When big band-style orquestas with horn sections began to eclipse accordion-based conjuntos in the 1960s, Garza transitioned to the newer style but kept Flores aboard because of his talents as a singer and emcee.

In subsequent years, he played with other conjuntos, including his brother’s group, Frank Flores y Su Conjunto. They recorded a single, “Buscandote”/“Contigo Nomas,” for local label Para Todos Records in the 1970s.

Flores had been essentially retired from music for many years when he suddenly began turning up around town again with Conjunto Los Pinkys, a group that Bradley Jaye Williams launched in the 1990s after moving here from the Bay Area. 

Los Pinkys drummer Augie Arreola and accordionist Isidro Samilpa were old friends of Flores, who turned up at a Pinkys gig in Lockhart one day. “Chencho was out of a place to hang out and enjoy conjunto music, so we’d get him up and have him play some polkas and sing third-part harmony,” Williams said.

Chencho Flores performing with Conjunto Los Pinkys at the White Horse.

Flores regularly appeared with Los Pinkys at east Austin haunts such as the historic Cisco’s and the newer White Horse. “Chencho Flores was such a wonderful man and an inspiration to all of us that knew him,” White Horse co-owner Denis O’Donnell posted on Facebook after hearing of Flores’ death. “I am grateful we had so many good times.”

In recent years, Flores had finally fronted his own group, Chencho Flores y Su Conjunto, playing accordion and sharing vocal duties with his brother, Frank. Other members included Arreola on drums, John Majalca on bass and Vicente Alonzo on bajo sexto. Arreola died in 2019; Alonzo died in April 2020.

All members of Chencho Flores y Su Conjunto were inducted into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame in Alice, Texas, in January 2020. At the 2015 Austin Music Awards, Flores was among the full lineup of Conjunto Los Pinkys inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame. The city of Austin honored him by proclaiming June 26, 2014, as "Chencho Flores Day."

Flores' wife of 64 years, Josephine, died in 2015. Survivors include his second wife, Beth Placek; his brother, Frank; and many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.