Posted: Sunday, October 20, 2013 12:01 am
There’s a beautiful, old piano sitting in Carlos Guzman’s living room in Mission. He bought it from a friend for $200. He doesn’t play it, but it does a great job serving as a mantle for his numerous awards and plaques.
The 73-year-old tejano legend will need to make room between his Grammy and nominee medals for his latest accolade: Lifetime Achievement Award, which he received Saturday night at the 33rd annual Tejano Music Awards in San Antonio.
“Personally, I feel more excited for my family,” the singer said. “To me, I’ve been blessed with so many great things as far as recognitions are concerned. I’m not going to say this is just another one, it’s probably a culmination of a career without a doubt.”
Guzman has recorded hundreds of songs and continues to record and perform today. He has also hosted television shows and acted in TV shows and films, and is perhaps best known for his breakthrough song, “Vestida de Blanco.”
“To this day, I have to sing it everywhere I go,” he said.
His career started earlier than 1964, the year “Vestida de Blanco” became a hit.
“I come from very humble beginnings,” he said.
He grew up in a small community in Mission in a migrant-working family.
“My dad used to love — and try — to play accordion, and every Sunday we would gather underneath the trees because they would gamble — him and his neighbors — gamble away, drink beer and play accordion and bajo sexto. And then he would holler, ‘Margi!’ My full name is Margarito. ‘Come and sing a song!’”
Guzman would reluctantly oblige, singing along with his father’s accordion and the neighbor’s bajo sexto.
“So he taught me a song that, to this day, I don’t know what the hell it means,” he said. “It was a corrido about an airplane pilot that crashed in the Potomac River … I used to hate that song!
“So I guess that’s where it all started — my dad influencing me to sing and learn how to keep tempo.”
In fact, Guzman said he was so used to a faster tempo, he was scared to sing ballads.
“Turns out that has always been my strongest — the ballads, the boleros,” he said.
The crooner lists Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Andy Williams as some of his influences, so it was a natural fit when he slipped the song “My Way” — in both English and Spanish — onto his 2000 album, My Way (A Mi Manera).
Also honored with a Lifetime Achievement award was Paulino Bernal, another pioneer in conjunto and tejano music in Mexico and the United States.
“Paulino Bernal was the pacesetter for all of us — let me repeat that — for all of us,” Guzman said. “That man was so smart, because back in those days, they created a recording company that became huge. Most of us, if not all of the big ones, recorded for that one label: Bego Records.”
Guzman has long-standing relationships with other tejano artists, musicians and even promoters from years past.
“This young man came to me — not that young — and he says his last name is Banda. ‘My dad used to be your promoter in Saginaw and Grand Rapids and Flint (Mich.), blah blah blah.’ And I remember the old man,” he said.
“And then he showed me the picture when he was a little boy all dressed up with a tie and his father when he was younger, and he goes: ‘I’ve got a bunch of photos, man. And I want to show to you, but they’re not for you to keep. If you want copies, I’ll make copies for you before you leave and I’ll bring you a whole bunch of copies with one condition.’ And I said, ‘OK, let me see the photos.’”
His single condition: Guzman had to agree to go see the young man’s father in a nursing home.
So in the morning, the two had breakfast and then drove over to see Guzman’s former Midwest promoter. The man was sitting in his room, quiet, unresponsive.
His son called out to him: “Dad, you remember this guy?”
“He looks at me — no reaction,” Guzman said.
So Guzman tried another method to jump start the man’s memory: He started singing his most popular tune.
“Vestida de blanco …” he began.
The old promoter looked up.
“‘Carlos Guzman!’ he says. Freaked me out. I wanted to cry, man,” Guzman said. “He freaked me out because he remembered the words. He didn’t remember my face anymore. He was almost immobile and in a nursing home, you know? But he remembered the damn song.”
Although Guzman continues to release new music — his latest album Carlos & Freddie – The Best of Friendsdropped earlier this year — he did mention wrapping up his career after 52 years in the business.
“It seems like a never-ending story: recording and touring,” he said.
He’s ready to spend more time with his family, though, so the 2014 tour he’s planning is to be his farewell.
“Not that I can’t sing anymore — I enjoy singing — it’s been a long journey,” he said.
His advice for young artists hasn’t changed over the years — it’s how he credits his long, successful career.
“Your own identity, a lot of luck and the right song,” he said. “Those, to me, are the three key factors that make the artist.”
That and, as Guzman said, “the grace of God.”