By Juan Montoya
We have written in the past about the fire that destroyed the 123 Lounge, an institution on Brownsville’s 14th Street strip of honky-tonks and beer joints.
But while owner Javier Ruiz is busily rebuilding the bar, someone reminded us that before it was a tavern, it was also a restaurant owned by none other than the parents of Chelo Silva, one of the pioneers of traditional Mexican music. In fact, she used to wait on tables for her parents.
Her biographers say that Chelo, called La Reina del Bolero (Queen of the Bolero), reigned over Tejano music scene with her romantic ballads and passionate performances in 1940s and into the 1960s.
She was born Consuelo Silva on August 25, 1922, in Brownsville, the oldest of seven children. She began singing as a teenager at school and in her church (Guadalupe Catholic Church on Lincoln Street). In fact, locals say her first public performance was at a Guadalupe Church Kermess.
Vincent Crixell says Chelo had been noticed by local musicians while still in her early teens. A few years later, she was singing regularly with a local group, the Tito Crixell Orchestra, headed by Vincent’s father.
“Chelo performed in the first Charro Days in 1938,” he remembered. “My dad had to ask permission from her parents so she could sing.”
Her online biography said Chelo made her mark on a wider audience in 1939 when she was asked to sing on a local radio program hosted by the poet, composer, and author Americo Paredes.
That radio show gave her wider exposure and opened the doors for her. It wasn’t long before she was performing regularly at Corpus Christi’s Continental Club. Silva also later married, and divorced, Paredes.
However, breaking into recordings was difficult for Chelo and it wasn’t until she was 30 that she landed her first record deal with Discos Falcón of McAllen, Texas, where she would go on to record over seventy titles.
Liner notes on a compilation of her hits indicate that by 1955 she signed with Columbia Records. The move paid off almost immediately as Silva put together an impressive string of hit songs, including “Imploración,” “Esta Sellado,” “Sabes de Que Tenga Ganas,” “Soy Bohemia,” “Inolvidable,” and “Amor Aventurero.”
A few bars in her old neighborhood have Silva’s recording on their jukeboxes, notably Willy Garza’s Border Lounge, Maria’s El Siete Mares, and Mike Chapa’s La Catorce Bar. Most of the bars on Market Square also have her most popular songs on disc.
“Many people in my generation remember Chelo,” Garza recalled. “We kind of grew up with her music.”
The success of the Columbia recordings led to several touring opportunities throughout the Southwest and Mexico, including tours with then-notable stars such as José Alfredo Jiménez, Javier Solis, Vicente Fernández, and Lola Beltrán.
By the 1960s, Silva was the most well known of the female Spanish-language singers, her popularity reaching outside the United States and into Latin America.
Silva died of cancer in 1988 at the age of sixty-five. Fortunately for fans and historians, much of her music has resurfaced in the form of reissues and compilations. Following the death of the Tejana superstar Selena, there was a resurgence in the root music that had paved the way for younger generations.
In 1995, Arhoolie Records released “Chelo Silva,” a best-of collection that includes some of Silva’s most-loved songs, including “Imploración,” “Esta Sellado,” and “Amor Aventurero.” Now, after her death, Chelo Silva remains one of the most influential figures in the history of Mexican music. And where do you think Chelo is best remembered?
Not in her hometown, that’s for sure. Except for some indications that Chicano-In-Residence Meme Maldonado at UTB-TSC is working on yet another cultural documentary, no one seems to remember that Chelo put Brownsville on the musical map.
Yet, the program at last year’s Water Street Market Music, Art and Surf Fest held in June 6, 2008, included tributes to Chelo alongside rock legend Bill Haley.
“Brownsville is like that,” Ruiz said. “We would rather recognize people from outside than to remember our own artists.”
Small world, I grew up listening to Chelo Silva’s songs. I never know She was from Brownsville.