Tejano accordionist Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez is one of the 2012 recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowships.
Born into a family of conjunto musicians, Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez has led the way in expanding conjunto music from his community in San Antonio, Texas, to new audiences both in the United States and worldwide.
Born in 1939, Jiménez is the son of conjunto pioneer Santiago Jiménez, Sr. By age seven “Flaco” Jiménez was already performing with his father, even earning a nickname that had in the past attached to his father, “Flaco,” or “Skinny.”
Conjunto dates back to the 19th century and is a uniquely Texas tradition. It has a distinctive style, featuring influences from the German, Polish, and Czech immigrants who settled in the predominantly Mexican region of the Texan Rio Grande valley and brought with them popular forms of dance music such as the polka, waltz, schottische, mazurka, and redowa. Tied to this style of music is the diatonic button accordion, which was adopted by tejanos, or Texans of Mexican descent.
Jiménez apprenticed on the accordion with various San Antonio musicians, including Toby Torres, Joey López, and Los Caminantes, and built his reputation by performing in San Antonio saloons and dance halls.
In the 1960s, Jiménez began playing with Douglas Sahm, the founding member of the Sir Douglas Quintet, and went on to New York to perform with Bob Dylan and Dr. John. He continued to introduce new audiences to conjunto music, performing with Peter Rowan and touring internationally with Ry Cooder and David Lindsey, receiving international acclaim for his contributions to Cooder’s landmark album Chicken Skin Music.
He later joined Sahm again in the 1990s to form the group Texas Tornados with Freddy Fender and Augie Meyers, recording six albums and winning a Grammy. He also recorded with the “Mexican super group” Los Super Seven that included Fender, Joe Ely, Ruben Ramos, Rick Trevino, and Cesar Rosas and David Hildalgo of Los Lobos, netting another Grammy.
In total, Jiménez has received five Grammy awards, including three awards for his solo work. In 1999, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Billboard Latin Magazine and has been inducted into the National Hispanic Hall of Fame and the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in New York City.
Over the years, Jiménez has expanded conjunto music to include influences from country and western, rock, and jazz music. In an interview for American Roots on PBS, Flaco explained, “I started making conjunto more progressive because of the versatility that I believe in. I think it’s good to change it a little.”
His discography includes the following albums: Flaco Jiménez Y Su Conjunto (Arhoolie Records, 1977),
El Sonido De San Antonio (Arhoolie Records, 1980), San Antonio Sound (Waterfront Records, 1985), Flaco’s Amigos (Arhoolie Records, 1988), Arriba El Norte (Zensor, 1990), Partners (Reprise Records, 1992), Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio (Arhoolie Records, 1993), Best of Flaco Jimenez (Arhoolie Records, 1999), Squeeze Box King (Compadre Records, 2003), Freddy Fender & Flaco Jimenez – Dos Amigos (Back Porch, 2005).