El Mejor de lo Mejor
Mexican artists have recorded English-language songs for decades, but the opposite is rare: American musicians have historically treated Mexican music like they treat Mexicans, and when they do bother to cover a classic, they tend to sound terrible.
Here we present our favorite American covers of Mexican songs:
Anything by Nat King Cole: The man recorded three albums in Spanish during the 1950s and 1960s. And although he wasn't fluent in español and had to pronounce every line phonetically, Cole still earned the love of Latin America, not just because of his earnest effort tackling Mexican and Latin American standards but because his backing bands always rocked.
Pete Seeger: In addition to popularizing the Cuban anthem "La Guantanamera," Seeger also recorded a banjo version of "Cielito Lindo," the Mexican standard composed by Quirino Mendoza y Cortés in the 19th century. Perhaps it was Seeger's version that inspired Frito-Lay to adopt the song for their ill-fated, ethnically insensitive Frito Bandito campaign, which in turn inspired the iconography of the San Leon-founded motorcycle gang the Bandidos?
Doug Sahm: Sahm was an hombre of two culturas, all through his various projects and alter egos (including the Mexican-American "Doug Saldaña") and right up to the end of his days. "Hey Baby (Qué Paso)," the unofficial municipal anthem of San Antonio, finds Sahm leading the Texas Tornados through inimitable South Texas Spanglish as only he could.
Carl Stallings: The legendary Warner Bros. cartoon composer was more responsible than anyone else for popularizing Juventino Rosas' "Sobre las Olas" ("Over the Waves"), a slow waltz that Stallings sped up whenever a cartoon needed to show people getting seasick—think any adventures with Bugs Bunny on a ship and turning green.
The Breeders: How this alt-rock supergroup came across "Regálame Esta Noche" ("Give Me This Night") is a testament to their genius—and perhaps to their Hispanic rhythm section of José Medeles and Mando López. This wistful bolero—made famous by Mexican ranchera icon Javier Solis—is treated nicely by Kim Deal, even though her Spanish is a bit too gabacha. (And since we're tangentially discussing the Pixies, special mention goes to their "Vamos," which starts with Dominican-tinged Spanish and launches into some pro-immigrant moshing afterward.)
The Ventures: Besides "La Bamba," "Perfidia" is probably the Mexican song most covered by Americans, a melancholy remembrance written by Alberto Dominguez in 1939, sung by any major Latin American artist since, and attempted stateside by everyone from Glenn Miller to Jimmy Dorsey to ska gal Phyllis Dillon. The best version, however, is by surf-rock gods the Ventures, whose twangy reverbs add melancholy to the group's trademark relentless chug.
Jon Dee Graham: The native of Quemado, a small town on the Rio Grande between Del Rio and Eagle Pass, grew up hearing plenty of Spanish, especially renditions of the song "Volver Volver," the "Sweet Caroline" of south Texas. The gravel-voiced Graham recorded the tune on his 2002 album Hooray for the Moon, and if you've ever wondered what might have happened had Tom Waits learned Spanish and grown up in southwest Texas, this might give you an idea.
Big Walter Horton and Ronnie Earl: All you hear about nowadays is that Mexicans and blacks hate each other. Both sides should shut up and listen to the cross-cultural love that surfaces when these two blues legends do an awesome version of "La Cucaracha," a rendition so great, it might be the greatest "La Cucaracha" not played out of a car horn.
Robert Ealey: Fort Worth bluesman Robert Ealey's "Tica" finds the north Texas boogie king declaring his love for a fair señorita in what sounds very much like—but is most definitely not—actual Spanish. "Siño no noma tita," Ealey begins. "Sico camba ñe-yeeer." Later he shouts some even more garbled faux-Spanish encouragement to his guitarist. But the whole thing is too sweet-natured and funny to cause offense.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.