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Güero Polkas reflects back on 48 years

Story and photos by Ramón Hernández

He was born Ricardo “Richard or Rick” Peña Dávila, but is best known as Güero Polkas and the Wolfman Jack of Tejano radio.

His radio experience dates back to 1954 when he was nine years old and used to cue the vinyl records for his father, Manuel Sr., who would follow Willie Nelson’s 3-5 p.m. shift at KBOP in Pleasanton, Texas.

“I would pull my ear close to the record so I could hear and cue the records without earphones. Many years later Willie remembered me as that little kid at KBOP radio since my dad relieved him, then Willie would come back to do the 7 p.m. to sunset shift,” Rick said.

During the time his father, also a songwriter, was on radio, Rick would watch Humberto Lozano López become Capirucha. He would also listen to and watch José “Pepino” Villarreal, Raúl “El Chapulin” Hernández, Willie Ramos, Mario “El Pico de Oro” Gutiérrez, El Gavilan Pollero” García, Ronquillo Chávez, José Pérez Del Rio, Roy “Que Piquito” Valdez and Fidel Cuellar – who later went to Voice of American in New York – work their on-the-air magic.

In 1957, his father and Pepino became partners and signed a contract with Manuel Leal, who owned KUKA. In October 1959, “Teen’s Choice” was born with Manuel Jr. and Rick; and later Pepino’s son, Gilbert Villarreal.

“We kind of spun off ‘Tops and Bops,’ which was hosted by Manuel Leal’s daughter Sylvia and her friend, Teresa Garza, who gave us her massive record collection when we came in,” Rick continued.

A big reason for the Dávila’s popularity is because they played the songs KTSA and KONO would not play, tunes by Sunny and the Sunglows, Doug Sahm and Rudy Tee. Since then the Dávila’s have been the champion for the underdog.

“Our Spanish wasn’t worth a crap, but it was a hit because of the dedications and because we spoke English,” said Manuel Jr. “We also played the slow stuff and the tunes other stations stopped playing once they were six months old. So people saw us as the first oldies station.”

Rick always sang along with records, but after he entered George W. Brackenridge High School, he became a featured singer at school assemblies doing ditties such “What’s Your Name” and other early 1960s soul hits.

What few people don’t know about is the connection between James Brown and KEDA and his friendship with Rick. The result is that Rick would emcee or did an opening comedy act at all the “Godfather of Soul” shows at the Municipal Auditorium or the Joe Freeman Coliseum. In fact, Rick and bandleader/sax man Maceo Parker once sang “Soul Man” with the originator of funk music’s orchestra.

The hazel-eyed teen idol graduated in 1964, joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the USS Shangri La, then home ported in Mayport, Florida.

During one of his trips back home, Rick recorded two of his own compositions, “Laughing to Keep from Crying” and “Can’t Keep You off My Mind” with the musical backing of the Royal Jesters for Abe Epstein’s Dynamic label.

At the time, the 66-year-old radio icon was stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda in San Francisco Bay and in 1966; Rick went to KSOL to make a pitch for his single. The place was like Fort Knox however, both the security guard and the secretary were nowhere to be found and he simply walked all the way to the back of the building and startled Sylvester Stone.

He and his siblings, Freddie and Rose, were known as Sly and the Family Stone, so the two radio personalities hit it off.

“Sly let me hear ‘Dance to the Music’ before it ever came out. Then much to my surprise and without listening to the single, he put it on the turntable and said, ‘Here’s my great friend from Texas . . .” and my song was heard from San José, the Golden Gate, Oakland and the entire bay area.

“I did the same thing with ‘The Bob White Flight’ program out of KDIA in Oakland and Abe couldn’t figure out how he sold close to 10,000 copies of that record at a time when they hated Mexicans in other states, more so one that sang rock’n’roll.”

Collectors can find both sides of this Güero-Royal Jesters tune on the “Más De Mis Rolas Favoritas” CD on the Toby CRS label.

Another must-have CD is “Sus 20 Éxitos.” This one contains “The Day I Found You,” which Rick recorded with Little Henry and the Laveers. Now back to our story.

On August 14, 1966, KEDA went on the air as a sunrise-sunset station with the slogan of “La Tejanita.” Rick was in the Navy, but he was still heard via a pre-recorded tape.

They brought ‘Teen’s Choice’ to KEDA with Manuel Jr. and his brother Roy as the show’s hosts, but that’s when the Davila’s realized that the real money was in Spanish-language radio and by now all the Chicano bands, such as Sunny and Little Joe, had started to record in Spanish.

Meanwhile Henry Pena, Jesse Vallardo Jr. and Rudy Rocha filled in their void when they spun off with their own shows on KUKA.

When Rick finished his two-year military stint, he hit the airwaves with his antics and became an instant hit. But according to Gilbert Rodríguez of Gilbert’s Restaurant, he said, “what endeared KEDA to everyone is that they gave everybody a chance by playing their music regardless of fame or no fame.”

“Our father taught us to fight for our local talent because there are musicians out there that are good,” Rick said. “They just have to be given the opportunity. So we played music that nobody else would play. We were a mom and pop operation and we didn’t make any hones about it because ours was a blue collar worker station.”

In regard to his monikers, Rick says that one day Capirucha walked in and corrected a word he mispronounced, than he turned to his father and said, “’Ese pinche Güero Polkero’ and from that point on I started saying, ‘les habla el güero polkero.’ Chalito Johnson told me to stop saying it that way. Then Manny Guerra came up with ‘Güero Polkas’ when I recorded for GP Records.

“As for the ‘Wolfman’ I actually met Wolfman Jack, but it was Ben Tavera King that kept referring to me as the ‘Wolfman Jack of Tejano music’ in his San Antonio Express-News column when I was playing keyboards. Then Jim Beal and his wife picked up on that and kept it going.”

There’s so much more the average person does not know about the 5-feet-7-inch tall radio legend, but he’s got such a long history and we only have so many inches for this story. So we now fast-forward to the day when the University of Jalapeño was sold on July 31, 2011.

“In a way I felt kind of bad towards the end because this was dad’s pride and joy, his biggest accomplishment and our home for 45 years, solo que me aguite.”

We didn’t mention, Rick’s quiet brother, Albert, who started out as a gofer and worked his way up to general manager, nor his sister and his mother, both named Madeline, who could all be found at KEDA on any given day.

On the personal side Güero and his wife, Mary Louise, are the proud parents of Richard John, Michael Anthony, Robert Sebastián, José Luis, Manuel Alberto, Mary Louise and Marla Anna Dávila.

“They all sing, write songs and produced 17 grandchildren. So I’m now a stay-at-home grandpa and I love it,” Güero said with one of his famous growls.

“As for the future, if something comes my way and they are willing to pay, I’m available and I’m established so don’t ask me to try out or audition.”