In an era of reverence for the latest technology, the newest device or a way to do something different, it is not always necessary to replace what exists because it is considered “old.” For award winning singer/songwriter and performing artist Johnny Degollado, who began his career as a teenager generations ago and is still going strong as a composer, vocalist and accordion artist, the journey he started under the mentorship of Camilo Cantu, continues.
According to the music legend, born November 24, 1935, he has recorded songs somewhere in the 400–500 range. “I have 45s, eight track tapes, and CDs (32 so far), not counting cassettes, etc.,” said Degollado in an interview last month from his home in Austin. “Some are re-recorded and I do my best to change it up – and at another studio. Salomé Gutiérrez (of San Antonio Music Publishers) gave me a contract for 49 years. Now, he is sick and had to close his business. What he did for me still works.”
“I got started because I liked accordion music,” said Degollado. “Camilo taught me to repair and tune accordions. He was known as ‘El Azote’ in the 1930s-40s and I saw him for the first time at eight years of age. I loved how he played. Before he died, he said he would teach me all he knew. I’ve got it. He passed the torch before he died. I’ve done a lot that he wanted me to do; I’ve done it.”
Does this accordion master want to pass the torch on like his mentor? “I have already tried to teach a lot of guys, but they go another direction. They all want to play rock and other music. There will never be another guy like me sticking to Conjunto music.”
At the 25th annual Austin Tejano Conjunto Festival, hosted by Degollado, the accordion master released his latest CD, “Johnny Degollado y su Conjunto Arriba Austin,” featuring 10 songs recorded in about 3-4 hours at Alnico Studio by Nico Leophonte in Austin.
The tracks include two new, original songs by the band leader, “La Bolilla” and “Este Amor.” The song selection on the rest of the tracks are “other songs that I like; some are old like #6 – ‘Los Jacalitos.’ ‘La Chicarronera’ was written and recorded by Narciso Martinez in 1930. It was the first polka recorded in Texas by Bluebird Records. (Bluebird Records) came here looking for him and they recorded all day. He made a hit with it!”
“El Taconazo” is an old song written by Edinburg native, Ricardo Guzman Sr. “Viva Seguin” is also on the CD, which bandmate J.J. Barrera said, “In the studio it was a different version. It is always spontaneous and fresh and it is different, even live.”
Degollado is currently trying to garner focus on his new song, “La Bolilla.” As for the inspiration for the new Ranchera song, the artist eagerly spoke, “For every pretty girl I met, I wrote a polka over the years. Twenty-five different polkas for 25 different women – 25 friends, passing through; some are old now, using a walker – this was over 50 years ago. On the new CD, I have ‘La Bolilla’ for a lady I met and so I wrote the song.”
Over the course of his 60-plus year career, Degollado has seen many changes. “They pay more now than 40 years ago and now it is a matter of having good health to make it. I don’t want to go far anymore, plus I don’t want to play 4-5 gigs (in a week) and I only play 1-2 hours. “Johnny and Vicente Alonzo have been together for over 50 years and he has had different bass players, some deceased now,” said Barrera.
As for difficulties, life as a musician has taken a toll on relationships. “My first wife left because of my playing too much and being gone so long. The second wife was from Mexico and we had different ideas. My third and present wife was my first girlfriend in the 50s – she was 15 and I was 19 and we met in West Texas. She lived in Yoakum and I would go see her.” They reconnected at a show he performed on Congress Avenue and were married in 1993. “She wants me to have a good mind. She doesn’t get mad – she feels good that I have a clear memory, still active with what I am doing. She helps me a lot to keep going and was at the festival selling the CDs.”
Barrera stated that along with the yearly album, Degollado also purchases t-shirts that read “Conjunto Forever” with an accordion across the back. “I have 14 shirts from the 14-15 years I have been with the group,” said Barrera. In a gesture to old-school marketing, Degollado said the public can buy this CD by “calling local Turntable Records to see if they have it or can get it direct from me by calling my phone.” He stated he does not have a website. “I am old- fashioned and have a regular address, no email.” There is a Facebook page and Barrera helps handle social media and other work, including the new LP’s artwork.
During the interview, Degollado showed me items from his archives, including the UT Press book, “Conjunto,” wherein Degollado is featured for his 150 compositions (as of 1995). Today, the number is about 200.
“I am registered with BMI and receive a quarterly check,” he shared. “The royalties have arrived since about 1975 – some big/some little, but they never fail. There are also royalties from Mexico they send to Nashville, Tennessee, then to the San Antonio Music Publishers.” He added, “But sometimes, somebody else would record my songs and put their name on it.”
The sturdy elder made sure to give credit to those who have helped him in his career. “Alfonso Ramos helped me a lot. He is sick now. He recorded my first songs and when my daughter was hit by a car when she was four years old, he helped with a benefit dance. He was at the top – famous and popular – and he helped.” He also appreciates help from former Councilmember Mike Martinez, Sylvia Orozco from Mexic-Arte Museum, Councilmember Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Little Mexico Restaurant and Joe’s Bakery, among others who have helped support his endeavors over the years.
Degollado paused when asked about all the awards and recognitions he’s received and which one is the most significant to him. It really did not take long for him to say as he pointed to a photo. “I really felt good when they put my name on the pavilion (at Fiesta Gardens) about 5-6 years ago.” Being inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame in 1986 was another highlight. He was honored for his songs: “La Unica Mujer,” “Un Amor Diferente,” “Un Cielo,” “El Pintor” and “Eres la mas Bonita.” In 2014, he received the Narciso Martinez Award for Conjunto Music Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, Degollado y su Conjunto continue with a regular gig at Hard Luck Lounge. A CD release party is Sunday, June 21, from 3-4 p.m. in Antone’s Record Shop.