Ruco Villarreal accomplished and achieved much during the late 1950s and up to the early ‘70s. However, he is just another of many unrecognized vocalists.
“Back then, no one wrote about Latin musicians,” the 75-year-old pioneer said referring to the lack of exposure for local and regional Hispanic artists in the San Antonio Express-News and San Antonio Light.
“Therefore the main reason for not getting any respect and no one being aware of what I did in my era is because there is no documentation of our genre – that is until you came along in the early 1980s.”
In all due fairness, Ramiro Burr was also instrumental in giving local talent publicity through his column in the San Antonio Light. The difference is that yours truly continues to bring recognition to the members of the older artistic community.
The fact about Ruco Villarreal is that he was able to carve a successful career with only a total of three vinyl long-play albums while it took others forty to fifty plus albums to establish a name for them-selves. He was also the first Tejano orchestra singer to perform at KCOR’s 1st Hispanic State Fair on July 17, 1983. Other artists on this bill were Miguel Aceves Mejia, Angelica María, Yolanda De Rio, Federico Villa, Leo Tropical and Taxi Band. In addition, Villarreal was the first, the last and only Tejano to perform at the prestigious Villa Fontana during the late 1960s.
Sharing a bit of his musical history during an interview at Rocko’s Art Welding, Villarreal said he was born Abelardo “Abel” Aguilar Villarreal in the same house, on Saltillo Street, that his eleven siblings were born in. It was also here that each night, the San Antonio-native would listen to XEQ and XEW on his father’s shortwave radio.
“My first musical influence was the bolero. That’s why my first recording (“Yo Vengo a Decir Adios”) was a bolero. I also like listening Andres Huesca, a blind harpist who played with Los Costeños plus how Gilbert Urquiza played electric guitar.
“I was a little boy when my father, Alberto, bought a two-line accordion for my brother Beto. However, he wasn’t interested so I would take the accordion out from under the bed and mastered it without one lesson.”
Villarreal was nine when Father Calletano Romero of San Juan Evangelista Catholic Church nicknamed him “Ruco” because of his thick heavy manly voice.
Three years later, Villarreal and Raúl “Boom Boom” Sánchez, on bajo sexto, formed an unnamed duet. In 1950, Juan Fuentes, claves; and Paul González, maracas; joined their still unnamed group.
At 15, Villarreal learned to play trumpet, added Miguel Balderas on saxophone and Gabino González on upright bass and Neto Arizmendi on drums plus Veco on backup vocals. The photo of this group also features Police Officer González and Martín Sáenz, the owner of El Gancho Club, which was located on the corner of El Paso and Navidad streets.
In 1951 they recorded their first 78-rpm single for México Records. However, they now had to come up with name for his group and he chose Conjunto San Juan in honor of the church the family attended.
All this transpired while he was still a student at Lanier High School, where one of his classmates was La Prensa’s Tino Durán.
Two more 78 rpm vinyl singles followed on Jaimé Wolfe’s Rio label. “By the late 1950’s, I was already performing in West Texas, Chicago, Indiana, Ohio and New Mexico – way before Little Joe and Sunny Ozuna toured in those states.
Villarreal’s brother Fransico a.k.a. Pancho joined the group in 1962 and by the mid 1960’s, Villarreal and his conjunto was in the same league as Paulino Bernal and Manuel “El Sargento” Guerrero with releases on the Lira, Cometa and Bravo labels.
“Then came the transition, I took up the saxophone, I added two more saxophones, three trumpets and two trombones to the band. I kept the accordion, but we turned into an orchestra and I became the first to start doing cumbias and change the direction of Tejano music.”
The 2010 Tejano Roots Hall of Fame inductee had become so famous that the famous Zuniga promoters would fly the group to Chicago for gigs at the renowned Aragon Ballroom.
When HemisFair ’68 ended in October and KCOR owner Raúl Cortez opened the prestigious two-story Villa Fontana in the Pearl Pavilion parallel to the mini-monorail tracks where 95 percent of its club-goers where from Mexico. The other five percent were from Central and South America.
“Although we were often on the same with Augustine Ramírez, Roy Montelongo and Latin Breed, we were not considered a Tejano band and our recording were heard on KCOR, we were hired to be the house band and from six to 9 p.m. we packed the house for seven straight years. Jesse Borrego Sr. y Las Cuatro Espadas would open to pull in the people that frequented the remaining outdoor food booths.”
Villarreal’s brother Pancho had quit and joined Rudy and the Reno Bops when in 1972, “Avioncito De Papel” on Falcon Records hit the airwaves, elevated Villarreal to megastar status and young girls would drool and throw themselves at him during performances when he sang love ballads in that unique voice of his. Women were also attracted to his Elvis-styled sideburns, mustache, shoulder-length hair and his virile macho looks didn’t hurt either.
“I was a parrandero, callejero, borrachito, marijuano, peleatista y mujeriego when I met Annie González in May 1974” Villarreal said of his faults and habits.
She was 17, he was 37 and in spite of all the protests, warnings and against all odds, the blue/green eyed red-head, she chose Villarreal over her parents.
“Once she came into my life, I changed. I settled down and I left my old life behind.”
Fast forwarding to 1985, the 75-year-old pony-tailed pioneer decided to call it quits while he was at the height of his career and performing at the Kelly AFB, Lackland AFB, Randolfo AFB and Fort Sam Houston NCO clubs. He never had a problem with musicians playing musical chairs because his initial requirements was that they all hold down full-time jobs, be married and not smoke or drink on the job.
“By now there were too many orchestras, the money wasn’t there and when my musicians got older, one by one they started to quit. So I told them that our December 31, 1985 gig at the National Armory in Hondo, Texas would be our last gig – and that was it!”
Villarreal learned to weld early in his youth and by 1970, he owned his own business, Rocko’s Art Welding, four doors down from Joe Posada’s house on Ceralvo Street.
“We create metal art and we also do fences and railing and that’s why I’m still in business,” he said. They say money can’t buy one good health or happiness so the three to $4,000 they made per week could not buy a cure for his wife’s stomach cancer.
“When I sensed Annie’s imminent death and felt she was going to die, I lay down with her and an hour later, she stopped breathing. She passed on at 52, but she gave me the best 30 years of my life,” Villarreal recollected.
Three years ago, Villarreal proved his lasting popularity mostly senior citizens filled Pueblo Hall to its full capacity to relive the late 1950s to ‘70s. That night, club owner Mary Jane Parrilla ran out of beer three times.
Villarreal continues to have the full support and love from his son and five daughters – Abelardo Jr., Olga, María Elena, Rita, Rosa and Elena.
So what’s next?
“Now I’m going to take verses I wrote for her – ‘You changed my life from black to white, you who transformed me from bad to good’ – record them and dedicate the compact disc to my wife.”
The now grandfather of 24 and great-grandfather of 31 also plans to buy the Falcon and Teardrop records masters to release a ‘greatest hits’ CD.
“That’s what’s in the immediate future,” a still working youthful Villarreal said in closing this interview.