Thursday night, San Antonio celebrated the 80th birthday of one of its most beloved and famous native sons, conjunto music legend Flaco Jiménez.
Appropriately, the birthday party for Jiménez was held at The Squeezebox. The star accordionist and Max Baca, his trusted bajo sexto player of nearly 30 years, entertained the room with a brief set of classic songs, including Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio, written by Flaco’s father, Santiago Jiménez Sr.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg was on hand to honor Jiménez with brief remarks, followed by the presentation of a cake featuring 80 pink, yellow, blue, red, and green candles and a birthday song sing-along.
“We know we’re in the presence of true greatness tonight,” Nirenberg announced, noting that “the proudest thing about Flaco is he’s still a San Antonio homeboy,” drawing applause from the crowd of 60 dignitaries, news staff, and members of the public on hand for the private event.
Edwin Cabaniss, founder of Kessler Presents, which puts on the annual Old Settler’s Music Festival, joined Jiménez onstage to introduce the 32nd edition of the festival in Tilmon, southeast of Lockhart, April 11-14. Jiménez will be a featured performer as part of the Los Legends group, including Ruben Ramos and Rick Treviño.
Jiménez’s birthday was actually March 11, but celebrations have continued in the weeks following. A party was held March 15 at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, with a crowd singing and dancing along to sets by fellow musicians including Treviño and the octogenarian star’s brother Santiago Jiménez Jr.
Flaco also played a brief set with Baca’s band Los Texmaniacs, and Baca said of Jiménez’s performance, “He was on it, musically … sharp as a tack.”
Recovering from the pain and discomfort of a recent knee surgery has given Baca a newfound respect for Jiménez’s vitality, he said via phone on Wednesday. Jiménez endured a “triple whammy” three years ago, Baca said, when he had back surgery to relieve herniated discs, then slipped and fell at home, winding up with a hip replacement. Recovering from that surgery, Jiménez fell and broke two ribs. Yet, Baca said, Jiménez is still sprightly and energetic onstage.
“When I’m onstage I don’t really feel my age, because I always have fun with the guys playing. And of course for the people and for the fans,” Jiménez said from his home the day before his Squeezebox party. “They cheer me on, they boost me up so I don’t feel 80. It’s scary man, 80,” he admitted.
Yet “being on stage I forget about pain,” he said. “Music, it’s my painkiller.”
Jiménez learned to play accordion from watching his father practice at home. “At the time, my dad, he was considered the pioneer of conjunto music. He started recording [as a conjunto accordionist] in 1936,” Jiménez said. “I caught on right away. I knew every polka and waltz.”
Jiménez worked hard and paid his dues, Baca said in recounting the legend’s long career. Eventually, all the work began to pay off, Baca said, resulting in tours all over the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe.
Jiménez invited Baca to play on a 1990 Texas Tornados tour of Spain, replacing longtime bajo sexto player Oscar Tellez, who had recently died. He has played with Jiménez ever since.
“It was like a dream come true for me,” Baca said. He first met Jiménez at age 7 and dreamed, even then, of one day playing alongside his musical hero. It came true 20 years later, he said, and the two went on to tour the world together, Baca always looking after his elder.
“We became like family,” he said. He learned from his mentor, and now “we have a special bond together, a chemistry. When we play together, Flaco is magical, man. … He’s just so in control, so smooth. He plays with heart and soul.”
That special bond paid off when the Rolling Stones came calling, asking Jiménez to play on a track for their 1994 album Voodoo Lounge. Jiménez told Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that he would play, but the key to the conjunto sound they sought was the combination of the accordion and the bajo sexto. Baca was conscripted to join in, and the song eventually won a Grammy Award.
Richards had so admired Baca’s bajo sexto, handcrafted by another San Antonio legend, Martin Macias, that he offered to pay any price. In part because it had been a gift to Baca from his father, Baca declined. “When I told the story to my dad, Baca said, ‘He called me a pendejo! We could have bought 10 bajos! We could have bought the factory!’” he says his father told him.
Jiménez went on to much recognition with the Texas Tornados and as a solo artist, including a 2015 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, and playing President Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball in 1993.
“As the years went by, it seems like he gets more popular,” Baca said. “We’re still very blessed to have him. Flaco is the Willie Nelson of the Chicanos, man, you know?”
Asked what hasn’t already been said about Jiménez’s stellar career, Hector Saldaña, curator of the Texas music collection at the Wittliff Collections research center at Texas State University, said, “Maybe something that’s been lost in translation is that he’s an American artist, born in the United states, and he’s an ambassador for that [conjunto] sound.”
Saldaña first saw Jiménez play with his father and brother at the Tejano Conjunto Festival in the 1980s. Placing Flaco’s legacy in context, he called songwriter Santiago Jiménez Sr. “the Bob Dylan of conjunto.” Saldaña compared son Flaco’s influence to that of Louis Armstrong, who popularized jazz in a similar way to how Jiménez brought what had previously been considered ethnic music to a popular audience.
Asked to name a highlight of his long career, Jiménez said, “It’s been so many things I’ve done along the way, it’s hard to pick one. I take it day by day.”
He named the Rolling Stones experience and playing alongside fellow Tornados Doug Sahm and Freddy Fender, who passed away in 1999 and 2006, respectively.
Reflecting, he summed up, “But still I have fun playing.”