Moisés “Blondie” Calderón
June 26, 1940 – October 23, 2000
Moisés Calderón, known to all as “Blondie,” was born in Del Rio, Texas on June 26, 1940 to Guillermo “Memo” Calderón, Jr. and Leonor “None” Lopez Calderón. He was one of five brothers and three sisters. “Blondie” was appropriately nicknamed for the blonde curly locks he had as a child. Blondie’s interest in the piano began at age 8 when he learned his first song, “Chopsticks.” He would sit at an old upright piano in the corner of his parents’ restaurant and practice daily. Before long, he was playing such songs as "Blue Moon” and “Mona Lisa.” Seeing Blondie’s natural talent, his father decided to enroll him in piano lessons, but after one lesson of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” Blondie quit. He would go to the movies instead, using the money his father gave him to pay for his piano lessons. Hence, he never learned to read music, but he was blessed with the uncommon ability to learn songs simply by hearing them. It was in this way that he taught himself to play songs of the early 40’s including the big band sounds of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington. Blondie had a perfect ear for music, playing what his heart heard, and his soul interpreted.
From age 7 until his high school years, he shined shoes in his father’s barbershop. By 13, he was playing the drums in several local bands with musicians three times his age. With the money he earned, he was able to purchase his first vibraphone, or "vibes," which he learned to play at the age of 16.
In the days of segregation, being raised in Del Rio was challenging for any Hispanic. While on a road trip with his father, Blondie recalled going to a restaurant and being asked to sit in the back. He would always remember a sign posted in another Texas establishment that read, “No Dogs, No Mexicans.” Still, Blondie lived a good life growing up in Del Rio, and succeeded in doing what he loved best – making music. He never passed up an opportunity to demonstrate his talent. In high school, Blondie was a member of the San Felipe High School Band, as well as the football team. After playing the first half of a game, Blondie would quickly suit up in the band uniform to play drums for the half time show. He also played the part of a drummer in a band for the movie, “The Alamo.” Blondie was a fun, spirited, and energetic young man determined to keep music in his life. It is not surprising that he was voted Most Popular Senior by his classmates.
Blondie graduated from San Felipe High School in 1958 and attended college at San Jose State University in California. To support himself, Blondie started picking pears, then eventually worked in the local cannery. He was also hired by a local band to work weekend jobs, and he never missed a chance to attend, and sometimes take part in, the live performances of the many popular bands that toured through the Bay Area. One night he had the opportunity to play the vibes with Tito Puente. On another occasion, he sat in with Cal Tjader at The Blackhawk in San Francisco. Tjader, accomplished vibes player and jazz legend, had begun infusing his unique form of jazz with the Latin sound that was so popular at the time. Because of his love for the vibes, Blondie held Tjader especially high on his list of inspirations. This experience had a profound influence on him, and it was then that Blondie decided to form a band of his own, to play the music that he fell in love with, Latin Jazz. Shortly thereafter, in 1959, his father had become ill. Blondie returned to Del Rio to take over the restaurant and support the family. He was only 19 years old. It was during this time that he taught each of his brothers to play a musical instrument and fulfilled his dream of forming his own band, “Blondie Calderón and The Latin Sextet.” The group played salsa, cha-chas, bossa novas, mambos, boleros, polkas, as well as jazz standards.
In 1963, Blondie married his junior high school sweetheart, Dolly Martinez. Together they created a musical family of their own. Jana, Jacque, Moisann, Patricia, and Cinco were all inspired by, and learned music from, their father. Each of his children can either sing, or play piano, vibes, bass, or percussion. And of course, they performed and cultivated their talents on the bandstand at Memo’s Restaurant at a very young age and continue this tradition with their children. The gift of music was a true expression of Blondie’s love for his children, as well as his grandchildren.
In February of 1966, Blondie thought he would try his luck in Las Vegas. However, because he lacked the ability to read music, it was difficult to find a steady job with a band. So, after four months, Blondie returned to Del Rio. The big break in his music career came in December of that same year, when he got a phone call from country music star, Ray Price. After dismissing the first phone call as a prank, Blondie received a second call, and realized it really was Ray Price. Ray had been given Blondie’s phone number from a trumpet player with Adolph Hofner and The Pro Wranglers Band. He had recommended Blondie to Price as the best vibes player he had ever heard, after having shared a bill at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio with Blondie’s Latin Sextet. Since Blondie was uncertain that he could make the trip to Dallas for the audition, he was given $20 from his oldest brother, and his brother-in-law loaned him his station wagon with a full tank of gas. Blondie made the audition and got the job after only playing one song. For the next 7 years he was the vibes player for Price’s Cherokee Cowboys Band. Shortly thereafter, Blondie assumed the role of piano player and band leader/conductor for the group. It was with Price that Blondie traveled across North America and Japan, playing hits such as “For the Good Times,” “Release Me,” “I Won’t Mention It Again,” “Crazy Arms,” "Heartaches by the Number,” “Danny Boy,” and countless others. However, he didn’t just play the piano. A highlight of the show, and one that endeared him to every audience, was when Blondie sang “El Rancho Grande” wearing a big festive sombrero, adding a different flavor of country music to Ray’s show.
In addition to the countless shows in which Blondie led the Cherokee Cowboys, he also conducted several symphonies that Ray Price performed with, including those of Denver, Miami, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Boston, and Tokyo, Japan. This was a real honor for a musician from Del Rio who could not read music. One of the biggest highlights of his career, though, was playing for two U.S. Presidents: President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969 at Governor Connolly’s ranch in Texas and President George Bush in 1992 at the White House. From honky-tonks to the White House, the Cherokee Cowboys played them all including performances at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the Houston Astrodome, Reunion Arena in Dallas, Disneyland, Radio City Music Hall in New York, and other venues in Las Vegas, Reno, Branson, Osaka, and Tokyo, Japan. Additionally, there were numerous television show appearances including, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Dinah Shore Show, Hee Haw!, The Mike Douglas Show, The Dick Cavett Show, Pop Goes the Country, Nashville Now, The Hank Williams Jr. Show, The Johnny Cash Show, Crook and Chase, Grand Ole Opry, Austin City Limits, The Jerry Lewis Telethons, a special with Danny Thomas for the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and many more. Blondie also played on every album that Ray Price recorded after 1967.
Throughout the course of his musical career, Blondie also recorded a few of his own albums and singles: “Blondie Calderón and his Latin Sextet - Soft Soul,” “Feelings - Sentimientos,” “Los Dos” featuring Ray Price singing Mexican ballads in Spanish, “Blondie Calderón - Live at the Paul Poag Theatre for the Performing Arts,” and his unforgettable lighthearted singles, “Acuña Red Light Blues” and “El Rancho Grande.” His Latin Sextet played parties for actor Robert Duvall at Memo’s Restaurant during the filming of “Lonesome Dove” and was invited to play for the wrap-up party for the mini series in Santa Fe for Entertainment Tonight. The Latin Sextet also played for a party hosted by Duvall in Wilmington, North Carolina, while filming “Ramblin’ Rose.”
Through it all, Blondie continued to operate Memo’s. He transformed what was once a bar and small café with great hamburgers, into a well known family restaurant serving the finest Mexican food and the best live Latin music in town. He incorporated his many musical talents with his jovial, charismatic personality and entertained not only the people of Del Rio, but also those who came from all parts of the world to see and hear this musical genius play. Whether it was the piano, vibes, drums, congas, or timbales, Blondie was a master of them all. He inspired many musicians both young and old. They looked up to him, respected him, and sought to learn from him. One such student, Radney Foster, would bring his guitar to Memo’s for a 30-minute lesson with Blondie that soon became a 2-hour lesson.
Music wasn’t his only love; he also had a deep appreciation for antique cars. His hobby was purchasing old cars and restoring them to their original state. He was particularly fond of Chevy’s from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s. When he took on projects, he took them on wholeheartedly. One of these projects was to market Memo’s hot sauce, and in 1995, he did just that with “Burning Memories Hot Sauce.” It is the original recipe that his mother made when Memo’s Restaurant opened in 1936, and is still being served in the restaurant today.
In August 1998, flooding caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Charley, created a mile-wide body of water, devastating most of Del Rio. Blondie risked his life to save his daughter, Patricia, from the raging floodwaters that within hours, engulfed his home and business. Although Calderón family members survived the enormous flood on Calderón Lane, many people in Del Rio lost their lives. Through the heartache of losing literally everything he owned, the one thing Blondie was sure of was his profound love for his family. Faced with the struggles and hardships of the year that followed, Blondie, Dolly, and the family persevered, and with the help of God and many friends, were able to move back home and reopen Memo’s Restaurant in September 1999. When asked about this life-changing event, Blondie recounted that after a brief depression, he vowed that he “wanted to live.” That shift in his attitude is what his family needed to lead them into recovery. They were able to rebuild their lives and start anew.
Sadly, a year later in Lubbock, Texas, tragedy struck the family once again. While on his way to play with Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys at the Bob Wills Theatre in Turkey, Texas, Blondie had a heart attack and lost his life during heart surgery on October 23, 2000. He was 60 years old.
Blondie lived to play music. He considered it a great honor to play for Ray Price, a true legend in country music. Blondie was a big part of the show for almost 34 years. During that time, he and Ray developed a lasting friendship. He used his comedy as part of the act, stabbing at racial stereotypes with his jokes, and all the while proving that it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s what you do in your life that counts. He loved absolutely every second of his musical career. No matter where he traveled, he always longed to come home to his family in Del Rio. It was at Memo’s that he was able to play the music he loved to play, with such passion. It was his character and persona that audiences loved. He truly earned the title of Musical Goodwill Ambassador for the city of Del Rio given to him by the Val Verde Friends of the Arts. In April 1987, John Kelso of the Austin American-Statesman featured a front-page article on Blondie as one of 10 Interesting Texas Characters. On April 5, 2001 he was honored by the state of Texas for his contributions to the community, and on that day the Texas Legislature adjourned in Blondie’s honor. The following year, in a ceremony held in San Antonio, Texas, he was inducted into the National Hispanic Music Hall of Fame .
Moisés “Blondie” Calderón was a happy and fulfilled man with a successful musical career, a loving family, and a business that completed him; he was one in a million. Blondie, and his music, will truly be missed, but certainly never forgotten. His spirit lives on in his music.