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Ruben Naranjo

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They used to call him "El Si Señor" because he had a habit of shouting "Si señor!" between numbers by his spirited band of drums, accordion, bass, and the simultaneously chiming and thumping bajo sexto. His good looks and charming smile also won him the moniker of the Clark Gable of conjunto. And in general, this accordion player, whose fingers never seemed to stop moving when he was taking a solo, lived a charmed, if a bit too short, life. In a music that seems sustained by traditions being passed on from generation to generation within a family, it should be no surprise that the Naranjo name lives on in Texas music, or that at the age of 16, one Ruben Naranjo III was already gigging on accordion in the tradition of his legendary uncle. Sixteen? Small potatoes. The senior Ruben Naranjo himself began at 14, and in dancehalls, no less. The environment in these south Texas honky-tonks was anything but pristine and without lurid qualities. But in 1959, these sorts of places would be the home to many a young musician joining conjunto bands. The music combined German polka accordion influence with the tradition of the Mexican folk song or corrida. One of the popular styles that developed out of this fusion was ranchera, in which Naranjo was a master. A conjunto needed a hot accordion player to be successful, and after biding his time and learning a few ropes as a sideman, Naranjo began his own group in the early '60s, making a name for himself based on his flashy and rapid-fire soloing style. He also encouraged his combos to push, or be aggressive rhythmically, a move that went over well in the dancehalls. He made a national reputation and began a series of hit records, most of them on the Freddie label. These sides include his most popular songs such as "Sin Delito," "Prendo de Alma," and "Mis Ojitos Querendones." The label has released a healthy number of titles by this artist. As the years went on, the influential Naranjo began to be regarded as a classic figure in the genre, similar to the role played by Hank Williams in country & western music. The accordion player's final concert was the night before he died, in his hometown of La Villita. The festivities once associated with his birthday have developed into the annual Ruben Naranjo Festival in the town of Alice, TX. Musician offspring are often involved, most notably son Ricky Naranjo who leads his own conjunto named the Gamblers. Whether nepotism was involved in the hiring of nephew Ruben Naranjo III for the accordion job in the band hardly seems to be a concern. ~ Eugene Chadbourne

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