By Tania Soussan
Freddie Chavez didn’t need any formal training to develop a successful career as a musician with a loyal following. His band opened regionally for legends like the Platters, the Drifters, and Fats Domino, and he had fans as far away as the United Kingdom.
Chavez started playing the piano at age 9 by simply listening to a song and then replicating it. He never learned to read music. He learned instead by watching his father, who was also a self-taught musician.
“Freddie had one of the biggest followings in the whole state,” said Ben B.T. Torrez, who played guitar and trumpet with Chavez for 22 years. “Anywhere Freddie would play, there would be people.”
Chavez, a New Mexico Music Hall of Fame inductee, had two bands over the years: the Spinning Wheel and Freddie Chavez and the Foundation. They played at all kinds of venues, from weddings and fundraisers, to nightclubs and restaurants, including El Patron, Yanni’s, Nick & Jimmy’s, and El Bruno. Torrez said they often played a club four or five nights a week over two or three years, compared to the two-week runs that were customary for some musicians.
His sister, Patsy Montoya, said Chavez also recorded many songs, working with labels Soul7 and Look Records. She remembered him as an incredible man who doted on his wife and daughters and cared for his aging parents.
Indeed, Chavez decided early on to trade his chance for an even bigger career for a life that allowed him to be close to family. He didn’t want his daughters to grow up traveling with him to gigs or to be separated from their father for long stretches.
“He did that for his family,” said his oldest daughter, Denise Meyer. “He could have been big.”
The 75-year-old, who also sang, has suffered from health issues and played his last gig about a year ago.
“I have phone calls almost every day from people asking about him and wanting to do something for him,” Meyer said.
Chavez was born and raised in Albuquerque and married his high school sweetheart 57 years ago. They raised three girls and stayed in town. He was a positive role model to his three sons-in-law and helped them become successful fathers, said his niece, Brenda Aragon.
He also remained involved in his community and helped other musicians to succeed.
“My dad is pretty much like a live jukebox,” Meyer said, adding that she remembers him playing ranchero and other styles of Spanish music as well as covers of Kenny Chesney, Elvis, and Earth, Wind and Fire songs.
Torrez said Chavez was a people pleaser, always talking with fans, acknowledging them, and playing their favorite songs. Chavez could make people cry with his rendition of “Proud to Be an American.”
“He would do whatever it took,” Torrez said. “His voice was incredible. He used to bring the house down all the time.”
Meyer added: “Every single solitary time I go and see my dad play, … I have a couple come up to me with tears in their eyes and tell me how he moves them. He has not just entertained, but he has been a part of people’s lives.”