Óscar “El Gallo Copeton” Martínez is a singer, musician, songwriter, painter and author whose love for music dates back to 1940 when wanted to play a musical instrument so bad that he would pretend to play drums by beating a galvanized bucket, “una tina,” as he says, with a stick.
As a songwriter, Martínez is best known for composing “El Tejano Enamorado,” a tune that has been recorded by Isidro López, Little Joe, Sunny Ozuna, Jimmy Edward, Joe Bravo, Rudy Tee González of the Reno Bops, Gilbert Rodríguez and the Blue Notes, Carlos Guzmán, Snowball, Ram Herrera, Ramón Ayala, Jay Pérez plus at least two dozen other bands and vocalists.
It is also the tune considered by many to be the “Tejano National Anthem.” And one fact does hold true, it was recorded during la onda Chicana’s music era and it is the first tune to contain the word “Tejano” in its lyrics.
That is what he is best known for and now, here’s his story: This living legend was born to Pedro and Eloisa Martínez in Loma Rosa, a tiny barrio situated next to la Mantequera and Rose Hill Cemetery, in Corpus Christi, Texas.
When he was eleven and before they had child labor laws, he saved $29 from his earning as a ‘linen boy’ at the Driscoll Hotel where his mother also worked, to buy an old cornet, which smaller in size to a trumpet produces a sweeter and more mellow sound.
“In 1948, I joined the Driscoll Junior High School Band and I wanted to play trumpet, but instead, they handed me a tuba,” Martínez recalled. “Unfortunately, I was stuck playing tuba all the way through the Roy Miller Buccaneers High School Band, where one of my band mates was Lito Martínez, Freddie’s brother.”
This however, did not stop Martínez from honing his skill on the coronet and he was seventeen when Henry Cuesta’s father, Mike; and Eddie Olivares’ father, Chalele, had a combo that would play at Ybarra’s Place plus other cantinas and car hop restaurants on Port Avenue allowed him to join them as they went from place to place in a 1947 Chevy.
In 1952, both Martínez and Isidro “El Indio” López, on alto saxophone, were paying their dues and honing their skills with The Jessie Falcón Band, which featured Juan Pérez on vocals and the band leader on upright bass. Other members were Bobbie García on piano, Vicente Serna, guitar; Rudy Alvarado, alto saxophone; and Cucu Casares on drums.
El Indio next joined the Juan Colorado and Balde Gonzales orchestras and the latter turned his orchestra over to López in October 1954. Then he brought in Martínez and Lezandro “Lito” Martínez as his trumpet players.
A year later, the then twenty-one musician married the former Eduvina Pérez in a union that produced his ‘number one fan,” Iris, Javier, Jaimé and Imelda. All was well, but in 1956, the added responsibility of being a husband and father forced Martínez to quit and join the regular work force delivering auto parts as a truck driver.
“Isidro was recording with Genaro Támez’s Torrero label and the popularity of his orchestra had skyrocketed to the point where they had too many gigs and I could only join him on Saturday and Sunday; and that’s why I quit.
Still, Martínez kept on writing songs and a year later, López recorded “Tu Sabes Que Te Quiero,” the first song he ever wrote plus El Gallo’s “Mala Cara” and Martínez’s signature tune.
In 1958, this living legend formed the Óscar Martínez Orchestra featuring Juan Pérez on vocals. Gonzalo Lizcano, piano, Joe Guajardo, guitar; José Morris, trumpet; David Reyes, tenor saxophone; and Tony Ornelas on drums; made up the seven-piece band.
Within six months Reyes and the bandleader were the only original musicians left as the band grew with José “Pepe” Cavazos as a lead vocalist. Rubén Galván, guitar; Domingo García and Johnny Peña on bass; Óscar’s brother Víctor Martínez on trumpet; Rudy “Yopo” Alvarado and Félix Trejo on alto saxophone; Jessie “El Cadillo” García, trombone and Eleazar “Chale” Mendiola on drums. Almost overnight, the five horns made them Corpus Christi’s most brass heavy orchestra.
A major landmark or turning point in Martínez’s career occurred in 1964 when Cavazos, his lead singer was unable to make a gig in Víctoria, Texas and it wasn’t a question of just finding another singer, but one that knew their repertoire. Undaunted, Martínez was always one step ahead because always carried the lyrics to all the songs they performed on index cards and decided that he would save the night by stepping up to the microphone and make his vocal debut.
“After our first recording was released, we started performing all over Texas,” the 1999 Tejano Music Award Hall of Fame inductee said.
As for his personal influences, Martínez said, “Johnny Herrera was my maestro, my idol and my friend. He had a B.A. in music from North State University and he was one of the best songwriters around.”
El Gallo Copeton was referring to his youth, when he felt it was very important to write the music score for every tune in his repertoire and he was mentored by Herrera.
It was circa 1963 when the 78-year-old music pioneer wrote what is probably considered the most recorded song in the history of Tejano music. “And I used ‘Tejano’ before anyone had every thought of tagging our genre as Tejano music,” he clarified. “The downside is that we didn’t know anything about BMI and royalties, so I did not receive royalties for twenty years.
“As for our recording career, José Morante went to hear us at a Mexican club in San Antonio and shortly thereafter, he produced our first album.”
A follow up album, “Las Chicanas,” was such a hot seller that to keep up with the demand, Martínez would fold a flat piece of thin cardboard, insert the record, staple it and sell as many as 300 home-made LPs at each gig.
“In addition, I started selling my LPs to filling stations, an idea that Chano Elizondo of Vince Cantú and the Rockin’ Dominos and later of the Sunliner Band, also picked up on.”
Always one to give credit and pay respect, Martínez says he tips his hat off to Ruco Villarreal, who at one time had 14 musicians, also to Steve Jordan because as he says, “they were only four guys with two accordions and they sounded like an orchestra.”
As is the case of musical chairs with most groups, other band members included George “El Control” Rodríguez, trumpet; Gilbert “La Estrella” Ita, tenor saxophone; “Little” Rudy “Brown” Martínez, tenor saxophone and vocals; Pepe Reyes, guitar; Joe Mejía bass; plus Raúl Ornelas, trumpet; Richard Ornelas, Danny Garza and John Almaraz Alejos on drums. Johnny Rodríguez, Louie “Luey” Sifuentes; and Jessie Rivera would also fill-in as needed.
The face of la onda Chicana underwent a drastic change in the early 1980s as musicians took our music into a different direction and it became Tejano music. Keyboards, synthesizers, pyrotechnics, elaborate sound systems and new show bands emerged. So in 1983, the bandleader with the trademark large-frame tinted glasses officially retired. However, he never put his trumpet away.
In 1996, Martínez started to write a book on Tejano music history. His book, “Tejano Music Talk,” is illustrated with photographs, how own sketches and paintings; and best of all Martínez wrote out the sheet music to many historic compositions.
His book was published in 1999 and in 2003; Martínez was inducted into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame.
As for his drawings and paintings, Martínez says, “I began doodling when I was in elementary school and I never gave them any importance until they started selling. Now my daughter, Iris, sells 11 X 17 prints on her website and the sales are really snowballing. Now the University of Texas in Austin wants to do a book.”
Did Martínez state he had retired? In 2008, he released a 16-song compact disc and a few months ago he released a two-song CD featuring “Kiss Me Again Tonight” and “The Corpus Christi Rose,” so don’t be surprised if the latter is adopted as the official theme song by the Sparkling City by the Sea’s chamber of commerce. And don’t forget that he also wrote “Mi Corpus Christi.”
You can take him out of his element, but you can’t take the music out of Martínez, the result is that he continues to perform in restaurants and for special occasions. What is new in the way of his live performances is that as a gimmick, Martínez now plays a pocket trumpet and man does it sound fantastic. Now 78, this living legend has not lost his touch.
For bookings, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and to buy his artwork, which is owned and marketed by Iris, his book or CDs, go to www.soiris.com and click on “Music & Art by Oscar Martínez.” And if one is ever in Corpus Christi on a Sunday, one can listen to El Gallo Copeton from 1 to 2 p.m. on Majic 104.9.