DAVID GREENE, host:

They called her the Lark of the Border. Lydia Mendoza was the first star of recorded Tejano, Texas-Mexican music. She became a sensation in the 1940s and 1950s, taking her 12-string guitar and her clear, heartfelt voice throughout Latin America. She died three years ago at the age of 91, nearly forgotten.

John Burnett has the story of Lydia Mendoza, one of NPR's 50 Great Voices.

JOHN BURNETT: The Del Bravo Record Shop on the west side of San Antonio is one of the coolest record stores in America. It specializes in Tejano and Norteno music, the soul music of Mexican-Texas. It's also a living museum - they still sell LPs and styluses. It's only fitting then that the Del Bravo Record Shop would be a shrine to Lydia Mendoza, Tejano music's first superstar.

Mr. SALOME GUTIERREZ (Owner, Del Bravo Record Shop): (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: So this is the 12-string guitar of Lydia Mendoza.

Mr. GUTIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Del Bravo's owner is 79-year-old Salome Gutierrez, himself a performer and longtime Tejano music producer. In plastic cases, he reverently displays Mendoza's instrument and two colorful stage dresses she performed in. In a corner of the store is a large photo of the singing sensation from 1948, framed in glowing neon. Gutierrez recorded Mendoza on this CD in 1984.

Ms. LYDIA MENDOZA (Singer-Musician): (Singing in foreign language)

BURNETT: Gutierrez first heard Mendoza sing in a bullfighting ring in Nuevo Laredo in 1950. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Mr. GUTIERREZ: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: There were other female singing stars in Mexico and Brazil, he says, but for our people she was the greatest of them all.

Mendoza told her own story on the 1984 CD.

Ms. MENDOZA: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: She was born in Houston to Mexican parents who were part of the great wave of their countrymen who fled the revolution for south Texas. By the time she was 11, she was singing and playing guitar in the Mendoza family band. They performed in restaurants, street corners, barbershops, fiestas - anywhere they could pass the hat. They barely made enough to eat.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: The Mendoza family briefly followed the migrant trail, picking beets in Michigan, but they quickly learned that playing music paid better and was a lot easier on the back.

With her clarion voice, muscular guitar style and smoldering beauty, Lydia soon emerged as the star of the family ensemble. Her reputation spread. In 1934, she recorded this tango for the Blue Bird Record Company, which was in San Antonio looking for undiscovered talent.

(Soundbite of song, "Mal Hombre")

Ms. MENDOZA: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: As Mendoza tells it, "Mal Hombre" - "Evil Man" - became her signature song. The audience demanded it every night and she continued to play it for a career that spanned six decades. At some point she became known as Alondra De La Frontera, the Lark of the Border, and every aspiring young Mexican-American singer wanted to sound like her.

Ms. RITA VIDAURRI (Singer): My name is Rita Vidaurri. I was little and I remember - ooh, I get goose pimples - I remember Lydia Mendoza, La Alondra De La Frontera. And she would sing "Mal Hombre." That was the song that made her famous.

BURNETT: Rita Vidaurri was one of Lydia's oldest friends and a successful performer in her own right. She sang torch songs at the Tropicana in Havana, and posed as the leggy Jax Beer girl. Vidaurri, now 86, sits on the front porch of her tidy house in San Antonio, full of mementos of her music career.

Vidaurri usually sang with an orchestra or a Mariachi band. What made Mendoza different is that she stood on stage alone, with only her guitar as accompaniment. Mexican female solo performers were rare back then. But what also set Mendoza apart was her audience. She became known as the Singer of the Poor.

Ms. VIDAURRI: Thats what they would call her: Lydia Mendoza, la conciernida(ph) del barrio - from the bottom, from the poor, from the barrio.

Ms. MENDOZA: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. CHRIS STRACHWITZ (Owner, Arhoolie Records): My name is Chris Strachwitz and Im the owner of Arhoolie Records. Lydia sang in the vernacular, which means in the peoples' way of singing, not the highly trained or theatrical performers. She sang like the Carter Family - just their natural self, you know.

BURNETT: Strachwitz's Arhoolie label carries a half-dozen Lydia Mendoza albums. He co-produced the acclaimed 1976 documentary about border music in which she appeared. It's called "Chulas Fronteras."

Perhaps what made Lydia Mendoza the first great Tejana star was her approach to every song she ever sang. She describes it in his film.

Ms. MENDOZA: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: Polka.

Ms. MENDOZA: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: It doesnt matter if it's a corrido, a waltz, a bolero, a polka or whatever, when I sing that song, she says, I live that song.

Late in Mendoza's long career, though her crowds had diminished, she began to be recognized for her tremendous contributions to Mexican-American music. She received nearly every accolade available to a Tejana artist, culminating with the National Medal of Arts in 1999.

Few Tejano artists are aware today that it all started with Lydia Mendoza.

John Burnett, NPR News.

Ms. MENDOZA: (Singing in Foreign language)

GREENE: And if you want to hear more Lydia Mendoza music, you can visit NPRMusic.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

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