The Corrido Of Esteban 'Steve' Jordan, World's Best Accordionist At 70, Esteban "Steve" Jordan is a legend of Tejano music -- an illiterate, eye-patch-wearing, hard-knock prodigy of the button accordion. Even as liver cancer encroaches, he's still preparing to issue nine CDs' worth of unreleased material.

The Corrido Of The 'World's Best Accordionist'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the world of Mexican-American music, Steve Jordan is a legend. He has done things on the button accordion that had never been done before, or in some cases, since. Jordan is 70 years old, and his health is failing, but he is still performing.

As NPR's John Burnett reports, he is set to embark on a new phase of his career.

JOHN BURNETT: It's a warm night under a full moon on the west side of San Antonio. Tonight, all the bands at the annual Tejano Conjunto Festival are paying tribute to Steve Jordan.

From the door of an RV, steps the gaunt accordionist. At 70, he's still the peacock in a shiny gold shirt with puffy sleeves, a purple vest, purple bell-bottoms, black boots, and the iconic black eye patch. When people catch sight of him, the effect is electrifying.

Unidentified Woman #1: Steve, can I have a picture? Steve…

Unidentified Man #1: Steve?

Unidentified Woman #1: …can I have a picture?

BURNETT: His fans are fanatics. One longtime follower has a picture of El Parche, Jordan's nickname because of the eye patch, tattooed on his bicep.

Mr. JOE RODRIGUEZ: My name is Joe Rodriguez, and I've been listening to Steve since probably 1980. There hasn't been any other fascinating musician that can defy gravity, actually, and can bend time, bend sound.

BURNETT: Welcome to the world of Steve Jordan, where time and sound bend and accordions can fly.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: You're hearing the influences that Jordan absorbed when he played guitar with Willie Bobo's Latin jazz band in 1964.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Jordan was a musical prodigy who never went to school and, to this day, cannot read or write. Blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other, a result of a clumsy midwife at birth, he picked up the accordion for the first time at a migrant labor camp in Texas when he was 7.

Over a long, turbulent career drenched in booze and drugs, he played everything he heard and learned every instrument he got his hands on. They say Steve Jordan is his own genre.

Mr. SUNNY SAUCEDA (Accordion Player): What Steve Jordan did was he electrified the accordion.

BURNETT: Sunny Sauceda is a rising star on the squeezebox.

Mr. SAUCEDA: He used pedals. He brought in jazz influences to the accordion playing. He brought in, you know, the effects that had never been done on the accordion. To this day, nobody does it.

BURNETT: Those effects — like phase shifters, fuzzboxes and echoplexes — gave rise to the label that Jordan hates to this day: the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion.

Then there's the whole jazz thing, says Joel Guzman, an acclaimed traditional accordionist from Austin, Texas.

Mr. JOEL GUZMAN (Accordionist): He's playing, you know, flat-fives and raised 11ths and just rhythmically so deep, you know? So from a musical standpoint, he's a genius.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Jordan's music and Jordan's persona are inseparable.

Mr. JUAN TEJEDA (Coordinator, Conjunto Festival): The patch, right. I mean, that just adds a whole other mystique, you know, his pirate-pachuco man, barrio dude and hip cat. Yeah, man, he's too much.

BURNETT: Juan Tejeda, coordinator of San Antonio's Conjunto Festival, says Jordan is getting frail and sometimes appears to be in pain.

Mr. TEJEDA: This is his destiny, man. He's going to die playing. Man, he's going to die onstage, you know, that's Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Steve Jordan's liver is diseased with cirrhosis and cancer. He underwent chemotherapy last year. He says he feels good these days, and he's finally begun granting interviews. He used to be notoriously elusive. Though he's ailing, he still got the old attitude.

Mr. STEVE JORDAN (Accordion Player): Right now, I'm so far advanced that nobody can catch up to me. Nobody. I mean, that includes nobody. Do you understand what I'm saying?

BURNETT: Esteban Jordan grew up the youngest of 15 siblings in a family of South Texas farm workers. They picked sugar beets in Colorado, cotton in Arizona, figs in California, but Esteban couldn't work in the fields.

Mr. JORDAN: I couldn't see a damn thing. I was a young kiddie, and I was turned loose at that age. Go ahead on, find yourself something to do.

BURNETT: Jordan says he started making a living as a musician when he was 7. By the late 1980s, it looked like his career was finally taking off. He played at the Berlin Jazz Festival, had a Grammy-nominated album, and played the soundtrack for Cheech Marin's "Born in East L.A." Hohner even sold the Steve Jordan Tex-Mex Rockordion. Back then, some people started calling him the world's best accordionist.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Jordan should have ridden that wave 20 years ago. He should be set now, sitting back, enjoying the fruits of his international renown. He has rabid fans in Germany and Japan.

So, you don't get any royalties?

Mr. JORDAN: No, not a half a penny. They've been taking advantage of the handicapped.

BURNETT: Do you ever have a manager or an agent?

Mr. JORDAN: Never have because everybody wants to (BEEP) Steve Jordan.

BURNETT: You sound bitter about this.

Mr. JORDAN: Of course I'm bitter. Everybody's living in Oceanside, and here I am living over here, a poor little dude.

BURNETT: The interview takes place in the living room of his rundown rental house with cracked linoleum and two dogs in a bare front yard, but Jordan has a plan to finally take charge of his music. He says he has nine CDs worth of unreleased material in which he plays and overdubs every instrument. He's mixing it at home, which he shares with his two sons, Esteban III and Richard.

Mr. RICHARD JORDAN: He did it all himself: He recorded the bass, the guitar, the violins, cellos.

Mr. JORDAN: People are asking me, man, they call us: Hey, man, when can we get the record, blah, blah, blah? They're just waiting like a shot in the arm, you know, they're waiting for it.

BURNETT: The backroom studio is crammed with all the equipment they need to mix and produce albums on their own. The first CD will be titled "Carta Espiritual," "Letter to God;" quite different from earlier compositions like "Piedrecita," "The Little Rock," a paean to cocaine, but you won't hear a sample of it here. I tried. Jordan is famously paranoid about people ripping off his music.

Just give me a taste of it.

Mr. JORDAN: I can give a taste, but not in there. I don't want it here, I'm just saying. I don't.

BURNETT: He taps my microphone suspiciously. When the recorder is turned off, he plays some of his new material. It's good; it's vintage Steve Jordan. He says the first CD on his new label will be available at later this summer.

If you want to hear the essential Steve Jordan, go to San Antonio, to a tiny club called Salute on North St. Mary's Street, where he and his sons play every Friday night under the name River Jordan. That's where this rare recording was made last year by a rep for Hohner accordions when Jordan was still recovering from chemo.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: You'll hear one of the best accordion players in the world.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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