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Flaco Jimenez . . . By Popular Demand : Pop music: He never expected to have global appeal, but just about everyone likes his Tex-Mex style. He's in Long Beach on Wednesday.

July 19, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Q: What's the definition of an optimist?

A: An accordion player with a beeper.

*

That and other squeeze box-insensitive jokes may have been common in years past, but the wheel has turned, to the point that now there are prospective employers who wish accordionist Flaco Jimenez would start sporting a beeper.

It would sure make things easier for people like producer Don Was, who had a tough time locating the hard-touring Norteno musician to appear on the new Rolling Stones album.

"I understand it took awhile for him to track me down," Jimenez said by phone recently from his home in San Antonio. "I was on tour playing in San Francisco three months ago while they were recording in Hollywood, and at the gig I get a message in the dressing room from Don Was.

"I said, 'Who in the hell is Don Was?' Then they said he was producing the Stones and they wanted me to go record with them. I almost flipped, man. Wowee, good news. The next day I was in the studio with them--didn't have time to listen to the song or do homework at all."

The track on "Voodoo Lounge" that resulted, "Sweethearts Together," has been getting played all over San Antonio radio, and stations have been calling Jimenez for interviews.

He's already one of the city's better-known citizens: He was one-fourth of the hit-making, genre-busting Texas Tornados (he and members Freddy Fender and Augie Meyers still do gigs, though Doug Sahm left to do other projects and took the band name with him).

He has recorded with Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, Santana, Dwight Yoakam, Linda Ronstadt and a host of others; and before all that he was a dance-hall favorite at home, the pioneering son of conjunto music pioneer Santiago Jimenez Sr.

In 1937, Santiago Jimenez Sr. had been the first San Antonio accordionist to make a record of the gloriously celebratory border music. (Flaco's brother Santiago Jr. also follows their father's footsteps as an accordion-playing performer and recording artist.)

Flaco, who was born in 1939, took his father's style and updated it with rock and country influences, but still with a familial warmth and dignity, while maintaining the essential traditions and emotion of the music. Then he took it to the world.

He may be treated like royalty in London and Japan, but at home, "I'm just old Flaco Jimenez. I like to go to the 7-Eleven store like anyone," he said. "People do recognize me and ask what's up next or ask for autographs, but it's not a big star thing. I feel as human as anyone else. I like to be just me."

As much as he loves the music he plays on his three-row button accordion, he never expected it to find a global audience.

"I thought that it was always just going to be a local thing. I'd only hear my dad and other groups in San Antonio, or even here just in the barrio. I think that audience started changing when I began to 'bilingual' a lot of stuff and started playing rock 'n' roll and with a little country to it. Then the reaction of the people, not just the Chicanos but the Anglos, was stronger."

He went from local light to modest international recognition on the folk scene when musicologist Chris Strachwitz recorded him for his Arhoolie label and when he was featured in a 1974 Les Blank film on Texas-Mexican border music.

Then in 1976, Cooder tapped him to be a member of his Chicken Skin Revue, and he has since worked with Cooder on several projects, including the soundtrack to the 1982 film "The Border," which starred Jack Nicholson.

"I really have to credit Arhoolie and Ry with giving me the hand to get this music heard by a larger audience. I recorded for ages here, man, with local labels, and I was known around San Antonio, and that was it. It was like I was in a crater here. I was really surprised the first time I went to London and found that, because of their help, people there had heard of me," he said.

The outside attention he and his music have received has made the conjunto scene better in San Antonio, he said.

"Instead of someone just saying, 'Oh, there goes another Tex-Mex accordion player,' it has gained more respect because of the exposure it has gotten. This type of music and this instrument for years was just classified as a party joke. An accordion? Now it's a different story. Everyone wants an accordion.

"It took somebody to introduce it, and I'm lucky it was me who got to say, 'Listen to this blend with the Stones or Dwight Yoakam.' People say, 'I didn't know.' Well, now you know," Jimenez said with pride.

The music industry is among those who have showed tangible appreciation for Jimenez's brand of Tex-Mex music: He won the first of his two Grammy Awards for Best Mexican-American Performance in 1986 for his "Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio" album. The second came in the same category in 1990 for "Soy de San Luis," a song written by his father that appeared on the Texas Tornados' debut album.

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