Latin Music History: Ranchera Icons Part 1 – Jose Alfredo Jimenez


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Mexican Ranchera music has enjoyed great popularity for the last half-century, in large part due to the contributions of two artists; Jose Alfredo Jimenez and Juan Gabriel.

Jose Alfredo Jimenez with a Mariachi
Jose Alfredo Jimenez wrote over 1000 songs, many of which became standards of the Mexican songbook.

Between them, they have written over 2,000 songs, and some of them (or perhaps I should say many of them) have become standards of the Mexican songbook. Two artists, from two different eras, with two different lifestyles, and at the same time with many similarities and nexus.

You may be thinking that there have been many other famous Ranchera artists through the last 65 years, and you would be correct. Among them, Pedro Vargas, Antonio Aguilar, and Vicente Fernandez are worth mentioning.

However, as song-writers, Jose Alfredo Jimenez and Juan Gabriel not only created hits for themselves, but their songs impacted many other artists. For me, this is the reason why their contributions to Ranchera music are perhaps the most impactful in the Mexican songbook.

In this 1st of a 2-part series, I highlight Mexican singer-songwriter Jose Alfredo Jimenez, who emerged from the poor streets of Guanajuato, Mexico to international fame, and while doing so, elevated Ranchera music to new heights, and inspired the next generations of Mexican artists, including Juan Gabriel. However, his glorious career contrasted with his tragically short life.

From Ranchera Origins to Jose Alfredo Jimenez

Let me give you a quick summary in order to weave the story from the origins of Ranchera music to Jose Alfredo Jimenez.

Mexican singer-songwriter Jose Alfredo Jimenez
Jose Alfredo Jimenez is one of Mexico’s favorite songwriters.

Although some people place the origins of Ranchera in the mid-19th century as the music played by the early Mariachis, the common wisdom is that Ranchera music actually started during and just after the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900’s. It became the song adopted by the common people of Mexico as a way to protest against the aristocracy of the time, best exemplified by excesses of then dictator Porfirio Diaz.

The name Ranchera comes from Rancho (ranch), in other words, the music from the ranch. Early lyrics were allusive to the Revolution. This perhaps explains the insertion of the “Grito Mexicano” (Mexican yell) in the interludes of Rancheras, and perhaps it’s the reason Ranchera themes are mostly about patriotism and love. A good example is the ranchera “Adelita“, which touches on both themes.

Perhaps the most prominent artist coming out of the Revolution years was Lucha Reyes, considered the “mother of Ranchera” and the “Queen of Mariachi”. She began creating Mexican standards like “Ay Jalisco, no te rajes!“, a reference to her home state. Lucha was very popular during the 1920s through 1944, when she met a sudden early death, being only 38 years old.

To help you can get a feel of her talent, here’s a video cut from a 1941 movie where Lucha Reyes sings the song she help popularize, “Ay Jalisco No Te Rejes“.

Two Mexican movie stars (I remember seeing some of their old movies) took Lucha’s work and help popularized it nationally and internationally. Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante carried the Ranchera through the next two decades. They were not great songwritters, but as singers and actors, they spread the popularity of Ranchera music throughout Latin America using the many movies they made via the prolific Mexican movie industry beginning in the 1940’s and through the mid-50’s.

Jose Alfredo Jimenez Re-writes the Ranchera

Despite all the great performers of Ranchera music that preceded and even were his contemporaries, Jose Alfredo Jimenez became the first prolific singer-songwriter of Ranchera music . Jose Alfredo struggled to find his way in life, but once he focused on music, he went on to write some of the most memorable songs in Ranchera music to this day. Tragically, his newfound fame, money, and bohemian lifestyle, led him to an early death.

Jose Alfredo Gets Into Music:

The love Jose Alfredo Jimenez had for music showed early on, as he began writing and singing his first songs when he was just 14 years old. But his love for soccer led him to pursue his ambition to become a professional in that sport, and Jose Alfredo became a very good goalkeeper. At 18 he moved with his aunt from Dolores Hidalgo to Mexico City, and when his plans in soccer didn’t work out, he found other ways of making a living, like selling shoes and as a waiter in a restaurant.

Jose Alfredo Jimenez performs in the TV show "Siempre en Domingo" his last Ranchera "Gracias".
Jose Alfredo Jimenez performs in the TV show “Siempre en Domingo” his last hit “Gracias” as he anticipated his upcoming death.

It was at that restaurant where his life would change. Jose Alfredo would occasionally join the “trio” of the son of the restaurant owner, and practiced some of his own songs with them. As he got more confident in his songwriting, he tried to give his songs to some famous singers of the time (Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, Pedro Vargas, and others) for them to sing , with no luck.

Legend has it that a record producer heard one of the studio singers performing one of Jose Alfredo songs, and got interested on his material, which by then had grown to a numerous collection. He liked what he heard, and signed Jose Alfredo into what would become his path to immortality.

Famous Songs of Jose Alfredo Jimenez:

Jose Alfredo Jimenez didn’t study music, it just came naturally to him. Despite the fact that he did not know how to read music or play any musical instrument, Jose Alfredo Jimenez went on to record over 20 albums and participated in about the same amount of movies. However, his most important legacy are the over 1,000 songs he wrote, including the many that became part of the Mexican songbook.

So you would ask…how did he write so many standards of Mexican Ranchera without even knowing music? I suppose he did it in a similar way in which Cuban percussionist (and also musically illiterate) Chano Pozo did it. Jose Alfredo would hum or whistle the tune to a musician friend (usually the maestro Ruben Fuentes), who would then create the musical arrangement. Chano Pozo used the same technique with Dizzy Gillespie when both made history together in the early days of be-bop jazz in the New York City of the 1940’s.

So let’s get back to Jose Alfredo. The theme of most of his songs were about love, although he also explored patriotic songs, and even some where he would highlight drinking alcohol. Among the many songs that he wrote that became classics of the Mexican songbook are “Tu y Las Nubes“, “Que Te Vaya Bonito“, “El Rey“, “Si Nos Dejan“, “Media Vuelta“, “El Caballo Blanco“, “Me Equivoqué Contigo“, “Amanecí en tus Brazos“, “No me Amenaces“, and hundreds more. After he attained fame, he still wrote songs for particular artists, like Irma Dorantes, “Muy despacito“; Columba Domínguez, “Si nos dejan“; Irma Serrano, “Te quiero, te quiero“; Lola Beltrán, “Qué bonito amor“; Irma Serrano “No me amenaces“; Lucha Villa: “Amanecí en tus brazos“, and Alicia Juarez, “Debí enamorarme de tu madre“.

Here’s a movie clip from the 1958 film “La Fiera” where you can get a taste of Jose Alfredo Jimenez singing his classic “Tu y Las Nubes“, a song also popularized in Salsa by Willie Colon and Celia Cruz:

One of the things I find fascinating about Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s songs is his ability to easily convey his message in a way we can all relate to. Although he was poetic, he kept his songs simple. Perhaps his modest upbringing and the fact he didn’t know music helped him focus on delivering his message in the way most of us would if we were able express our feelings so eloquently.

Jose Alfredo Jimenez: his Life, Death, and Legacy

A curious fact I found was that Jose Alfredo, like several of the artists that lived before and around his time (Lucha Reyes, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, and Javier Solis), lived “fast and furious”, which resulted in an intense and productive life, but also a short one.

Mexican songwriter Jose Alfredo Jimenez drinking
Jose Alfredo Jimenez looked much older due to the effects of alcohol.

Although he spent much of his life with longtime wife Paloma Galvez (they had 2 children), towards the end of his life he also married a young Alicia Juarez who was still a teenager. He actually never divorced Paloma, as he married Alicia in the United States where she lived, more as a formality to appease her parents. In between these two women, he had plenty of other relationships, several of which (including his wives) inspired many of his songs.

The creative genius of Jose Alfredo Jimenez was not confined only to songwriting, as he was also an avid joke teller, many of them of his own creation.

But it was another of his passions; his love for alcohol, that brought him to an early end. As with his other passions, he also wrote songs with alcohol as its theme, like “Llego Borracho el Borracho“, which brought him a fair share of criticism for idolizing the vice of drinking. And so, with liver cirrhosis consuming his life, he appeared in the famous Mexican TV show “Siempre en Domingo” an evening in 1973 to sing his last song “Gracias“, with which he showed his appreciation and said his farewell to the public that worshiped him as much as his songs.

The death of Jose Alfredo Jimenez closed one of the richest chapters in Mexican music history. A singer-songwriter that, perhaps because of his musical illiteracy, was able to write simple poetic songs that reached the essential humanity in all of us!

Juan Gabriel on Part2:

In the 2nd part of this blog series on Ranchera Icons, I explore how Juan Gabriel picks up where Jose Alfredo left off.

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