Interview With Blondie Calderon
Phone Interview with Blondie Calderon
Monday, Oct. 16, 2000
Rose Murray interviewing for Ray Price Fan Club
I caught up with Moises "Blondie" Calderon at his family restaurant in Del Rio, Texas, on Monday, October 16, 2000. His brother Ferdy had suggested this was the best place to reach Blondie for an interview. I had already interviewed Ferdy Calderon and Scott Crossman on September 18th at a Ray Price concert in Bakersfield, CA. I asked each the same list of questions for the Cherokee Cowboys Pages. Now I needed to get Blondie's answers, and I was looking forward to discovering the secret of his multiple talents and abilities.
Blondie wore a festive sombrero when he sang on Ray's shows, but wore many, many other "hats" as well in his multiple roles as Ray's pianist and featured performer, back-up singer, comedy sidekick, band leader, musical director, road manager, etc., etc., etc. In his private life, he was a restaurant owner and manager and entertainer, as well as husband, father and grandfather.
I'd tried to contact Blondie the Wednesday before I finally reached him, but was told he was off on a "family emergency." Fortunately, I was able to reach him on Monday, October 16th. He passed on suddenly from a heart attack one week later on October 23rd, 2000, in Lubbock, Texas. This was probably Blondie's last interview.
I could not help but be awed and impressed by Blondie's answers to my list of questions. This was a man of such great musical genius that he taught himself to play the piano at age 8, and later went on to play and teach a number of other musical instruments, without any training from others. He was very proud of the fact that he had worked for and with Ray Price for 33 1/2 years. During that time, he had toured the U. S. and foreign countries, appeared on countless television shows, and even conducted thirty symphony orchestras.
At one point in the interview, I exclaimed, "That's really interesting. People should know more about your story."
"Yeah, well, you let 'em know!" he said.So here's Blondie's story.
Blondie's Last Interview
Fan club: Blondie, were you musically inclined and talented from an early age?
Blondie: Yes. I started playing the piano at age 8.
Fan club: Did you take lessons?
Blondie: No, I just started playing the piano.
Fan club: Where did you learn all the other instruments that you play?
Blondie: Well, around here. We have a Mexican family restaurant. And I grew up here, helping Dad at the restaurant. There was a little upright grand over in the corner and I went and dusted if off and started picking on it when I was 8 years old and then I started learning songs. Like that. And then my Dad tried to force me to take piano lessons and I told him I didn't want to take piano lessons and he insisted and I think I went to one lesson and I didn't like what the professor had in store for me. I sat there and played "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." And I was already playing "Blue Moon" and "Mona Lisa" and others.
Fan club: That's what you call "playing by ear?"
Blondie: Right. And so, I didn't take lessons, and my Dad whipped me anyway. (Laughs) And then when I finished high school is when I started playing with anyone I could play with.
Fan club: So you never took piano lessons?
Fan club: Did you ever take lessons on any instrument?
Blondie: No, m'am.
Fan club: (With awe and admiration) You sound like a musical genius.
Blondie: No, not a genius, just got after it. Back then, you had to "get after it." They didn't just hand it to you on a silver platter. I used to go sit in on jam sessions. When I was 12, I was playing with a group already. Because I knew a lot of songs and they just played most of the songs that I knew. And as we went along, I learned more songs and more songs.
Fan club: You learned about playing in different keys and things like that?
Blondie: Oh, yeah. When I learn a song, I learn it in five or six different keys. Like I'll learn it in C; I'll learn it in F; B flat; E flat; A flat; G.
Fan club: Well, most people who play by ear, I guess, don't do that.
Blondie: No, they go and try to play everything in the key of C. And not me. I'll tell you why. Because every time I played for a girl singer, she'd sing the song in a different key than the boy singers. The boys had lower voices, naturally, so I'd have to learn the songs in those keys, and when the girl got up there to sing them, she'd be singing them in a different key with her higher-pitched voice. So I'd have to jump to the other key.
So I went on and on and on, and I wound up playing with Ray Price. In 1958, I graduated from high school, and I went to San Jose, California, to college, and I used to sit in with different Latin groups. I used to like the Latin sounds that they'd come up with back in 1959. I sat in with Tito Puente, who just died recently. He was called the king of the mambos. He wrote "Oye Como Va;" Santana, who was really hot at that time, recorded it. So he made it a big hit for Tito. When I was 19, Puente was playing at a ballroom in San Jose, and I got up and sat in on the xylophone. I had learned to play it when I was 16.
And I also sat in with Cal Tjader in San Francisco at the Blackhawk. Cal Tjader was into the jazz scene and he was playing Latin also. And so I sat in with him one time, and it tickled the hell out of me, and I just decided right then and there that I wanted that kind of group too. So that's the kind of group that I have here at my place.
Fan club: How many in your group?
Blondie: Six. I call it Blondie's Latin Sextet. We play each Tuesday and Thursday night here at Memo's Restaurant.
Fan club: Is there anything else you'd like to mention about your musical training, teachers, mentors, or persons you credit as keys to your success?
Blondie: As I said, I taught myself. When I went to college at San Jose State, I enrolled in Beginning Piano to learn to read music. But one time the professor came in and I was sitting at the piano playing songs like Body and Soul, Tenderly, Stardust, and other difficult songs, with all the correct jazz changes, and he turned around and said, "What are you doing in here?"
I said, "I'm signed up for Beginning Piano."
He said, "Well, you don't belong in this class," and then he told me to get out. He didn't even give me a chance. So I got out and I just went on.
Fan club: And that was it! That was your musical training?
Fan club: Sounds like you taught yourself.
Blondie: I taught myself well enough to play with Ray Price. I've been with him 33-1/2 years.
Fan club: Well, I think you're fantastic myself. I had no idea that you just did that all on your own. I was so amazed when Ferdy told me that you taught all your brothers to play an instrument, including the saxophone, vibraphone, piano, drums and bass.
Blondie: Well, at first they didn't want to learn, but then when we started playing together, they had a lot of fun. I taught Ferdy how to play the drums when he was ten. Then when he was 15 or 16, I started showing him how to play the bass.
When I had been with Ray for twenty years, I told Ferdy, "Hey, why don't you learn Ray's show, then you can go on the road with us. Then whenever I need a bass player, you can go, and if you can't go, I'll get another bass player." Well, Ferdy learned the show and he loves it and he's been with us 12 years.
Fan club: And what about you-you've been with Ray for 33-1/2 years. How did you start working with him? Is there an interesting story about that you'd like to share?
Blondie: Well, there really was. I really wasn't after country music because I only knew about eight or ten country songs. And they were the standard ones like "Your Cheatin' Heart," "San Antonio Rose," "Heartaches by the Number"-you know, standards. So I wasn't really following country too much. I was more into the Latin jazz. And then when we were doing a show here in Del Rio at the airbase, we shared the bill with Adolph Hofner and the Pro Wranglers. He had a trumpet player in his band who liked my Latin jazz.
He told me, "You ought to go and play at Texas University. You guys would really make a killing with that stuff you do." So I said, "Well, why don't you set it up and we'll go." So here's the interesting part. He wrote my address and my phone number on a napkin in the restaurant and put it in his wallet. That napkin was still in his wallet two years later when he was talking to the band leader that Ray had back then-his name was Billy Gray-and Billy said, "I don't know what Ray's trying to do, but he's looking for a xylophone player. What's he going to do with a xylophone player in country music?"
Well, not long after that, I was sitting here and the phone rang. I picked it up and I thought somebody was pulling my leg because he said, "This is Ray Price."
"Yeah, right," I said.
"No, really. This is Ray Price."
And I said, "Bullshit!"
"Well, are you Blondie Calderon? Are you the one who plays the xylophone?"
I said "Yep."
"Well, you're the one I'm looking for. I'm trying to hire a xylophone player and I'm going to have an audition in Dallas. I've got two xylophone players coming already, but they told me about you and I want you to come."
And so I said, "Well, I need a job. So I'll go audition."
Fan club: What year was that?
Blondie: It was 1967-February 10, 1967. Thirty-three years ago. So anyway, I went to audition, and I outplayed the other two guys, and he hired me. I've been with him ever since.
Fan club: Well, then, subsequently you became his musical director?
Blondie: Yes, after about six months, Ray had a little talk with me. "How would you like to be my band leader?" he asked. I told him, "Well, if you back me up, I'll be your band leader, but if you're going to not back me up the first decision I make, then I don't want to be your band leader. So, well, that's the way it started.
Fan club: Now, a band leader does a lot of different things, I understand. You also hire and fire?
Blondie: I hire, I fire, and I write the checks for Ray, and keep the band in order. Somebody gets out of hand, he's gone.
Fan club: Sounds to me like a very responsible position.
Blondie: And then I take care of his business on the road-I'm the road manager. You know, I go get the money. I make sure he gets the right amount of money. So that's the way it is.
Fan club: Did you become road manager then too?
Blondie: Just band leader, and then when the road manager that he had was fired by Ray, then he gave me that job too. He had a booking agency out of Nashville, but I did the road work.
Fan club: You know, when you're on stage, I see you doing so many different things at once.
Blondie: Well, that's barely the beginning, all the other stuff I do, like off the bus and on the bus, that's probably why I'm still with Ray. (Laughs)
Fan club: Well, I know you help sell CDs and pictures when Ray is signing.
Blondie: Yeah, I help sell the product, I keep his money straight, you know from the product. I make sure it's all there-and my brother and I sell the product. And whenever somebody's trying to con Ray out of something, I jump right in there.
Fan club: Sounds like you're pretty invaluable to him.
Blondie: Well, we've just been together for so long, he just knows that I'm not going to let anyone try to chisel him out of anything. And whenever he needs some help or whatever, I'm there.
Fan club: From what I've heard already, I know you're very versatile and have taught your brothers to play many instruments. Which ones do you usually play or have played?
Blondie: Well, I play piano. I play xylophone. I play drums, and I play the Latin stuff, like congas and timbales. I used to play sax a long time ago.
Fan club: The next question on my list is: Are you a singer, composer or songwriter? I already know you sing.
Blondie: Yes, I sing El Rancho Grande on the show, but I'm not a crooner-type singer. A rabble-rouser type singer. (Laughs) You know, I can sing tunes like Kansas City, La Bomba, and such, and, of course, I sing harmony with Ray on the show.
Fan club: Yes, I see you singing, conducting, and playing the piano, all at the same time. I don't know how you do it all. It's really something.
Blondie: That's what I do.
Fan club: What about composing?
Blondie: No, I'm not a composer and I'm not an arranger, and mainly because of the fact that I never studied music.
Fan club: What about writing songs?
Blondie: I can write down some lyrics and put a melody to them, you know, I can do that. But I haven't written any songs.
Fan club: And also you have a comedy role on the show?
Blondie: Oh, yeah, that's another thing we started doing in 1988 in Branson. We made everybody laugh so hard that Ray decided to leave it in the show. Ray and I started out just ad libbing, but everybody was getting such a big kick out of it that we sort of put it in order-and we do it.
Fan club: And you have your own little comedy bits when you're singing.
Fan club: And my next question you already answered and that was "What other roles do you play in the musical, managerial or business side of the band." And you play them all.
Blondie: All of them.
Fan club: Have you performed with other groups or singers in the past?
Blondie: No, as a matter of fact, Ray is the first orchestra that I started working with on the road. Otherwise, just little groups around town. We used to play the air base and the country club and such like.
Fan club: What do you like best about the music business?
Blondie: Well, I like doing what we do here. Tuesdays and Thursdays. We jam, and we're doing what we like, and people come and hear what we do.
Fan club: What do you like least about the music business?
Blondie: The way they've conned Ray out of a bunch of big deals just because they think he deserted country music and stuff. That's what I hate the most. Ray doesn't deserve that.
Fan club: Yes, he deserves so much more. Any awards or honors that you've won that we should know about?
Blondie: No, except for being with Ray for 33-1/2 years.
Fan club: On tour, do you have a favorite city, venue, or area of the country that you like most to visit?
Blondie: Well, I don't like to go up North when it's cold and I don't like to go down South when it's hotter than hell. You know, I like the in-between things, like when we play Denver, Colorado, or Nashville and Kentucky, Texas and California.
Fan club: What's the worst weather or road conditions you've ever run into on a tour?
Blondie: Going on a tour in Canada and there was ice all over the road. Back in about 1969. We had nothing but ice on the road, and that bus just kept sliding across the freeway. That was the worst road conditions and then getting there and it being like 12 or 14 below. You know, that kind of stuff.
Fan club: Do you have a sideline career or business that you'd like to mention? I know that you do.
Blondie: Yes. Memo's Restaurant, here in Del Rio. We make the best Mexican food in Texas. I took over in 1959, and in March, the restaurant is going to be 65 years old. And the Ray Price Burning Memories sauce. This is where it originated.
Fan club: Are you married or single? Any children or other family members who figure prominently in your life? Are any of your children musically inclined?
Blondie: I'm married and have five children-one boy and four girls. They're grown now, and all are musical. My four girls sing together when they're here at home, and they're really great. They sound like the McGuire Sisters. My boy plays music too. There were seven kids growing up in my parents' home. Two of them were relatives who were adopted by my family before I was born, so I always considered them as my siblings. My parents had five children, all boys. I taught most of my brothers to play musical instruments. We've played here for the customers at Memo's on Tuesdays for 26 years; we've played on Thursdays too for the past 20 years.
Fan club: You have such a musical family. Were your parents musical?
Blondie: No, but my grandfather-my mother's father-had a band. He lived back in the days of Pancho Villa. That must be where I inherited my talents from.
Fan club: Any favorite sport, hobby, recreation, or objects you like to collect?
Blondie: I love to watch pro football and boxing. Mohammed Ali was my all-time favorite. My brother tries to get me to play golf. But I can't see the point of that game-you hit a ball off-and then you spend time going after it and trying to find it-and then you just hit it away again. (Laughs) Recreation? Music, that's what I love to do most; so it's my recreation, not just my work. As for collections, I have a great collection of restored antique cars. They all run. I lost a lot of them in the recent Del Rio floods, but I still have a few.
Fan club: What events stand out in your 33-1/2 years with Ray?
Blondie: Well, being with Ray we've covered damn near every TV show you can think of. I'm just going to name a few but we've covered a lot more than that. Like the Mike Douglas show, the Johnny Carson show-even when it was in New York…
Fan club: I hear that Johnny Carson is a good fan of Ray's…
Blondie: Yes, he is a good fan. We did the Dinah Shore show, we did the Dick Cavett show, we've done the Nashville HeeHaw, the Johnny Cash show, the Hank Williams, Jr., show, and the Nashville Now network, and TNN, and all that. All those we've done. We've even done some Jerry Lewis telethons, we did a thing with Danny Thomas out of Memphis and Ray really knocked them out.
We've also gone to Japan. Two times. And Ray and I have performed for two Presidents. For President Bush at the White House and for Johnson in 1969. That was at Governor Connolly's Ranch in Texas.
We've also played with about thirty symphonies. And I've conducted every one of them. And you know what was funny about that? Ray told me, "Well, we're going to play with the Dallas symphony, but you've got to conduct. "Hey, man, I can't do that," I said. "Hell, I can't even read a score." He said, "You just get up there and set the tempos and let me worry about the rest." But I said, "Well, I'm telling you, man, I can't get up there and conduct a score. Now, if it's for you, fine, but I'm not going to conduct a score for anybody else because I don't know how to follow scores. So I don't really want to conduct the orchestra." But he said, "Well, you're going to do it." And I said, "Now, remember, man, I'm not going to take any damn lessons to do any of that." He looked at me and said, "Well, just look at it this way, I haven't ever taken any voice lessons either." (Hearty laughter)
Fan club: He's never taken any voice lessons?
Blondie: No, not voice lessons. You know, he's sung in school choirs and things like that.
Fan club: Well, he really must have worked on his voice himself to sing the way he does.
Blondie: That's what I'm talking about. I couldn't say anything to that! (Laughs)
Fan club: So you learned to get up there and conduct a symphony orchestra?
Blondie: Oh, yeah. About thirty of them.
Fan club: That's really interesting. People should know more about your story.
Blondie: Yeah, well, you let 'em know!
Fan club: Thank you, Blondie. I will.