Special to The Monitor
Standing firmly at the root of the local tejano music scene is Mel Villarreal.
Whether it was in his Carlos Guzman y Los Fabulosos Cuatro period or in Los Unicos, Villarreal has led the way in establishing tejano music in the Rio Grande Valley. From playing various instruments like the button diatonic accordion, bass and bajo sexto to starting his own record label, he has worked in many capacities in his storied music career.
Villarreal was born to Gamaliel Sr. and Cruzita Villarreal on October 18, 1940, in McAllen. His actual birth name is Gamaliel Jr., and he was the first child for Gamaliel Sr. and Cruzita. His parents were migrants and had a musical pedigree. Both his grandfather and his uncle Alfredo on his mom’s side were accordion players. Villarreal’s mother and his uncle Santos were bajo sexto players. His father played the accordion and his uncle Lupe was a bajo sexto player.
"So my mother says when she was pregnant with me, she used to play, either accompanied by my grandpa or her brother," Villarreal said. "She had a big tummy and the bajo sexto would be next to the tummy. She would play the bajo sexto, so that's probably what got me to learning music."
Villarreal still remembers the faithful day when he first got his hands on his dad's button diatonic accordion. He was 7 years old and with his family in Arkansas picking cotton during a very cold time of the year. Gamaliel Sr. deemed it was too cold and decided that it would be best for his son to stay home.
"So I was allowed to stay home that day, so I asked my mom, 'Mom you suppose maybe I can borrow dad's accordion and play around with it?'," he said. "She said, 'Well I guess so, but you better be very careful with it, don't damage it cause you and I might get in trouble.' I started fiddling around with it, and by the end of the day, I came up with a tune. It's a song that I used to sing as a little boy, actually the song, not too long ago was recorded by Little Joe. It's called 'Ya No Lloras Margarita'."
When Gamaliel Sr. came home that evening, Cruzita told him about their son’s talent with the accordion and about the tune he had worked on. After Gamaliel Sr. listened to his 7-year-old play the accordion, he told him that he could borrow the accordion anytime he wanted to on the condition that he would be careful with it.
Eventually, Villarreal also developed an interest in learning how to play the bajo sexto.
"I remember my uncle used to hang the bajo sexto from a string and nail by the wall," he said. "I wouldn't dare get it down but I would get a chair, get close to it, climb the chair and start playing the bajo sexto right there where it was hanging."
When Villarreal was 12 years old, he was playing in family gatherings with a guitar his father gave him. The young musician had modified the guitar with four strings — his attempt to make it sound like a bajo sexto. At 14, he joined his first group.
"There was this boy who was about 7, he also learned to play the accordion, his name is Armando Hinojosa Jr.," Villarreal said. "He wanted a young bajo sexto player, because he also liked to be accompanied by a bajo sexto. They couldn't find anybody as young as him to play bajo sexto, the youngest they could find was me. So we got together and became a duet."
They used to play amateur hour competitions and talent shows, and Villarreal remembers the duet being awarded first prize most of the time thanks to how young Armando was. Shortly thereafter, the duo added some new members to their group.
"The next couple of years or so, he started playing drums and I was playing the accordion," Villarreal said. "We got somebody to play bajo sexto, and we made a conjunto called Conjunto Del Valle. We played around for a while."
After that, he had a brief stint with Edinburg's Gilberto Lopez y su conjunto. He would then join the legendary group Conjunto Bernal, playing bass and bajo sexto for the group while Paulino's brother, Eloy, was in the army. Villarreal left his newlywed wife Lupita to go on a three-month tour with Conjunto Bernal. Sadly, he missed out on the birth of his first child due to the tour and missed being there for his wife while he was away. He decided to leave Conjunto Bernal, and spent a period with Conjunto Acapulco.
In 1964, he was invited to join Carlos Guzman y su conjunto. At the time, Villarreal recalls most local groups either being conjunto or orchestra, but the original name of the group was changed soon after to something more dynamic.
"Later we decided that we wanted to change the name, and make a name for the four guys,” he said. “Carlos Guzman already had his name. But us, we didn't have a name to identify the four guys. So we called them Los Fabulosus Cuatro."
Carlos Guzman y Los Fabulosos Cuatro enjoyed great success, recording for many local labels like Discos Falcón and Bego. Villarreal originally played the accordion for them, but they eventually replaced the accordion with a keyboard. That led to the local musician playing bass for the group. He played for them on and off for several years until he got involved to lead, what would eventually become a legendary tejano group.
"After Los Fabolusos, then I joined Los Unicos in 1971," Villarreal said. "It was Balde Muñoz again on the drums, Snowball, Oscar Soliz [on] keyboard, myself in bass, and Tacho Rivera singing."
The arrangements and Mexican-American style music were totally unique to Los Unicos. After gaining a passionate following, the group decided it would be a great idea to start their own record label in the Valley.
"We started saving money to start a record label when the contract was over with the last company that Los Unicos were recording for, which was Zarape in Dallas," Villarreal said. "We started [Uniko Records], it was a partnership that we had, (and) nobody earned any more money than the other guy."
Not only did they release their own work on Uniko Records, they also released albums by Los Kasinos, Eddie Olivares y Los Playboys, Los Dos Gilbertos, and many other South Texas groups.
The original version of Los Unicos split up in 1976, so Villarreal bought out the previous members to carry on label of the group.
"I started doing vocals. We always had a vocalist, but when the first time that the original Unicos split, somebody said, 'Why don't you sing'," he said. "So that's what I did after the original Los Unicos became Los Unicos de Mel Villarreal."
Villarreal continued with his group into the 1980s and early 1990s in various incarnations. All together, he composed around 30 to 40 original songs, while also creating unique arrangements for standards like "Veinte Años".
"The last time I recorded was sometime in ‘91 or ‘92, after a year or so I decided to retire," he said.
Now he enjoys being at his home in Pharr with his wife Lupita and close family. He still keeps up with his musical friends — they join him once a month at his home to jam out and have fun. He has had his music converted over to CDs and has worked at selling and distributing his music from his home office. Also he has created his own salsa (which reads on the label "Not For Wimps"), which he sells locally.
He just celebrated his 72nd birthday last month in October at the Pharr Events Center. He was joined by his wife, his family, friends, the local tejano and conjunto community that evening as they paid tribute to his musical journey. He even got on stage to sing.
"I miss the fun of it, it's a lot of fun getting up on stage, and having people singing with you," Villarreal said. "But, by the same token, it's a lot of fun being at home, after so many years that I spent away from home."