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Fred Zimmerle Interview

Chris Strachwitz interviews Trio San Antonio bandleader, Fred Zimmerle. Zimmerle recalls his early experiences with music, “we used to have a console Victrola that I used to wind it all the time. And it must’ve been around the age of six, when I started to sing and play the guitar.” … “And when I reached the age of four… At that time, I became a leader of a band at that school.” – Fred Zimmerle

Trio San Antonio - Juan Viesca, Fred Zimmerle, Andrés Berlanga
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  • Fred Zimmerle Interview 00:00
Interviewee: Fred Zimmerle
Interviewer: Chris Strachwitz
Date: May 1974
Location: San Antonio, TX
Language: English

This is an interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. info@arhoolie.org

To learn more about Trio San Antonio, visit the Andrés Berlanga interview

For more about Fred Zimmerle and his trio, visit Agustín Gurza’s biography of Fred Zimmerle and his Trio San Antonio, at the UCLA Strachwitz Frontera website

Fred Zimmerle Interview Transcript:

Chris Strachwitz:

Fred, I’ve got to try to write up some stories and so I might as well start- what’s your birthday?

Fred Zimmerle:

February 13, 1931.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh, you’re just, you’re-

Fred Zimmerle:

That’s when I was born. February 13.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). Did your parents play music at all?

Fred Zimmerle:

Yes. My father, he played the accordion and my mother played the accordion. And the guitar also.

Chris Strachwitz:

So they both played.

Fred Zimmerle:

Yeah. And then at times they used to play together at dances. Way back in their times, my father playing the accordion and my mother playing the guitar.

Chris Strachwitz:

And you said your grandfather was German. Did you ever know him?

Fred Zimmerle:

No, but I understand that he came from someplace in West Germany. He was originally from Germany.

Chris Strachwitz:

Where did he live when he came here to Texas? Do you know?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, that’s a little further back than my knowledge on that, but I think… I couldn’t really tell you where he lived. It was so far back. But I think he spent some time here in San Antonio.

Chris Strachwitz:

And do you know anything about whether he played any instrument? Did your father ever tell you or?

Fred Zimmerle:

No, not that I know.

Chris Strachwitz:

Okay. And did your father have brothers too who played music or?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, they all played. His next brother was Jimmie Zimmerle.

Chris Strachwitz:

What was your father’s name?

Fred Zimmerle:

Willie Zimmerle.

Chris Strachwitz:

Willie Zimmerle.

Fred Zimmerle:

Willie.

Chris Strachwitz:

Okay, and-

Fred Zimmerle:

And he played the accordion. And then it was my uncle Jimmie. He played the accordion also. And then Felix, his elder brother, he played the fiddle. And Cecilio Zimmerle, he played the guitar.

Chris Strachwitz:

That’s quite a clan.

Fred Zimmerle:

So they used to have a group of their own, you know- They didn’t specialize in playing music because back at that time, they didn’t have nothing like this, of getting together, other than my mother and he.

Chris Strachwitz:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). That was all. All right. As a child, do you remember them playing together?

Fred Zimmerle:

No. That was a little bit before my time, but they used to play here around the house and different parties, dances, family affairs.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

Yeah.

Chris Strachwitz:

Did they live here in San Antonio most of them?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, they were around Medina County, Atascosa County and Guadalupe County. Different counties around San Antonio.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

And that’s where they used to play mostly.

Chris Strachwitz:

And you were born here in San Antonio?

Fred Zimmerle:

I was born here in San Antonio. Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). And when did you start playing at all? Or when did you get interested in music?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, I don’t know. To me, my beginnings of music… Let me see. I was a kid, I was just a baby then. I used to like music all the time and we used to have a console Victrola that I used to wind it all the time. And it must’ve been around the age of six, when I started to sing and play the guitar. And also it was the beginning of my school. I attended Pauline Nelson elementary school here in San Antonio. And when I reached the age of four… At that time, I became a leader of a band at that school.

Fred Zimmerle:

It was a harmonic band. I was awarded a… Well, I would say a picture frame that contained two beautiful dogs. It was in a picture frame. And I received it very proudly, which I showed to my neighbors, friends and relatives. And it was also at this time, age of 10, that I played my first job with my uncle Jimmie, whom he also played music. And this was at a wedding that took place in Boerne, Texas. That was 14 hours, with four 15 minute breaks, at that time. And-

Chris Strachwitz:

What did you play then? Guitar?

Fred Zimmerle:

I played the guitar.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

I played the guitar at that time and… At the age of 11 and 12, I started working at a neighborhood store around here. And I also kept playing all this time. Then I went to different orchestras. I started playing with the orchestras here in San Antonio …

Chris Strachwitz:

You didn’t usually play bajo sexto, you just played regular –

Fred Zimmerle:

No, that came a little bit later. I went to play for another friend, named Felix Borrayo. I used to play bajo sexto with him.

Chris Strachwitz:

Who was that?

Fred Zimmerle:

Felix Borrayo.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

And we played for quite a while, together-

Chris Strachwitz:

Was that the first conjunto that you played with?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, other than my uncle-

Chris Strachwitz:

… Yeah.

Fred Zimmerle:

Other than my uncle Jimmie. He was professional.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

And then I went-

Chris Strachwitz:

Jimmie Zimmerle had a professional-

Fred Zimmerle:

Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

Did he ever make any records?

Fred Zimmerle:

No. No. He never recorded.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). No. Yeah, before we get too far, who are your other brothers? That…

Fred Zimmerle:

Well my brother Henry, that’s the oldest. Now I have a sister before him, Carolina. And she’s married… She was married. And she also used to sing.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

She used to sing. Then Henry, my brother, he played with Ciego Melquiades. And made a lot of recordings with him.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh is that right?

Fred Zimmerle:

Right.

Chris Strachwitz:

Did he play guitar?

Fred Zimmerle:

He played guitar. Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

He’s the guitar player with him.

Fred Zimmerle:

Right. Uh-huh (affirmative).

Chris Strachwitz:

I see. That’s Henry Zimmerle senior then.

Fred Zimmerle:

Senior, right.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chris Strachwitz:

He played guitar or bajo sexto?

Fred Zimmerle:

Guitar and bajo sexto. Both.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

And then I have another brother. We lost him in 1968. He also used to sing with me.

Chris Strachwitz:

Who was it?

Fred Zimmerle:

Joe Zimmerle.

Chris Strachwitz:

Joe Zimmerle.

Fred Zimmerle:

Right. And Luis Zimmerle. That’s the one next to me.

Chris Strachwitz:

Louie?

Fred Zimmerle:

Luis.

Chris Strachwitz:

Luis Zimmerle. Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s the one who was over here?

Fred Zimmerle:

Right.

Chris Strachwitz:

Ah yeah, uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

That’s Louise Zimmerle.

Chris Strachwitz:

And then you’re the youngest?

Fred Zimmerle:

I’m the youngest of the family.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh, you’re the baby.

Fred Zimmerle:

The coyote.

Chris Strachwitz:

… And the only sister was the oldest.

Fred Zimmerle:

That’s the oldest. Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). Now some of your brothers also have kids now who are playing music, including yourself. Could you give me some of them that are playing music?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, my older brother has a son also named Henry Zimmerle Jr.

Chris Strachwitz:

That’s the one that’s recording for Falcon?

Fred Zimmerle:

Right. He’s recording for Falcon now.

Chris Strachwitz:

Yeah, because they asked me which one that was and I said, “Yeah, that’s your brother’s son.” Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

And Larry, he’s been taking up music. He started as a little boy, playing… Eight years old, he started playing the saxophone.

Chris Strachwitz:

This is Larry your son?

Fred Zimmerle:

Right.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative) …

Fred Zimmerle:

And he picked it up quite well. And he played several dances with me at the age of eight. But I had to get him off of the saxophone since he was so small, I was afraid that he would probably get affected by wind instrument. So, after that he knew that I didn’t want him on the saxophone for that reason. And then he asked me if he could have another instrument. So he went ahead and took drums. And just about the age of nine and nine and a half years old, he was playing quite well the drums. And then from there on, he went to playing the bajo sexto, he picked it up. He played with me for a good while in my group, up to about the age of 14 or 15. And then he kept on playing here and there. Jimmie came up, Henry introduced him to a group named the Pavos Reales here in San Antonio, Texas. And he is playing with them active now. He’s in professional business, not with the group of the Pavos Reales.

Chris Strachwitz:

He plays the guitar.

Fred Zimmerle:

Right. He plays guitar and bajo sexto. Both.

Chris Strachwitz:

Now I’d like to get back to your days I guess, you’ve finished school… I guess and… When did you have your first group of your own, and start. Oh, you said you played with-

Fred Zimmerle:

Felix Borrayo.

Chris Strachwitz:

Felix –

Fred Zimmerle:

Okay. Now when I got through with him at that time, it must’ve been in the middle ’40s, I guess. Right. And about 1946, I started taking up on my own group called El Trio San Antonio. And at this time-

Chris Strachwitz:

You mean until then you played guitar mostly.

Fred Zimmerle:

Well guitar, bajo sexto and then I played the accordion …

Chris Strachwitz:

When did you start the accordion?

Fred Zimmerle:

The accordion must’ve been around 1945.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

I took it up after my father. He had some accordions around here that I used to pick on him all the time and… I guess that’s where I picked it up.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). So you start Trio San Antonio by ’46 –

Fred Zimmerle:

’45, ’46.

Chris Strachwitz:

’45. And who was in the first group? Remember-

Fred Zimmerle:

That was Esteban Jaramillo and …. Gonzales-

Chris Strachwitz:

He was a bass-

Fred Zimmerle:

He was a professor… Bass player.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). And-

Fred Zimmerle:

He was a professor in music.

Chris Strachwitz:

Were you working day jobs at the time too, or? I guess you were still very young.

Fred Zimmerle:

No. No. I was working around all different places here. 1945, that must have been, yes. I used to work for a battery company. Commerce battery company. And then from there on, I went on working different places. Piggly Wiggly’s warehouse and from there on, I went on into Kelly Air Force Base where that’s where I’m at now.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

I’ve been there for 23 years now.

Chris Strachwitz:

You’ve been there for 23 years.

Fred Zimmerle:

There was a wrong interpretation about this, that I had retired from music, but I have been active all the time.

Chris Strachwitz:

How did you come to make your first records for the Trio San Antonio? Was that for Victor?

Fred Zimmerle:

Okay. That is a long story. Some fellas came in that heard Trio San Antonio. They wanted to record it. And they got in contact with different persons that then it got it to me, came to me. And then we went to recording for RCA Victor at KLMO radio station here in San Antonio. And that was my first experience in recording and I took… I made 12 records for them at that time.

Chris Strachwitz:

How many of those were issued, do you know?

Fred Zimmerle:

I don’t actually know how many were issued. There were two that came in to San Antonio from Mexico. This was a recording company from Mexico city, on RCA Victor. Now they made a release of two songs and that would be four sides.

Chris Strachwitz:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

Two records. Yes, that’s right. Four sides. Now the other records, the other recordings I wouldn’t have… I don’t know what happened to them. They never did get across.

Chris Strachwitz:

Okay. After that, what was the next company that you made some numbers for? Was it for Alamo or?

Fred Zimmerle:

I recorded for Alamo. Yes. In San Antonio, Texas. At the KCOR radio station.

Chris Strachwitz:

Who was the owner of that company? Do you know?

Fred Zimmerle:

The Alamo? I think it was managed by Raul Rodriguez. He was an announcer at KCOR radio station.

Chris Strachwitz:

I see. Uh-huh (affirmative). And then after some on that label then you went to… Rio was it?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, I went to Rio and I recorded for different companies. I also made some recordings for-

Chris Strachwitz:

Ideal-

Fred Zimmerle:

Falcon, Ideal. Ideal records. And I also made another recording, some more recordings for Quinn recording company in Houston, Texas.

Chris Strachwitz:

Ah yeah. That was with Maxie-

Fred Zimmerle:

Maxie Granado… Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

Maxie Granado, yeah. I have that 78…And all during this time, you pretty much kept working your day job and played weekends-

Fred Zimmerle:

Right-

Chris Strachwitz:

Dances and things-

Fred Zimmerle:

I have always been working on music all along.

Chris Strachwitz:

Yeah. I think that’s what’s the great thing. I think that, that you keep a regular job and do the music, mostly for fun don’t you? I mean –

Fred Zimmerle:

Right. And then there’s another thing that there isn’t that people thought I had gotten away from music was because I started playing mostly for social clubs and derbies and weddings. And things like this. And that’s the reason that people thought that I was away from these, but I have been active all the time.

Chris Strachwitz:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Are your father’s brothers or anyone in that line still alive? Are any of your uncles still living?

Fred Zimmerle:

Yes. My uncle Cecilio he lives in California.

Chris Strachwitz:

He does.

Fred Zimmerle:

Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

And I would very much like to… Does he speak English?

Fred Zimmerle:

I would think so. Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

Maybe I could talk to him because I would really like to find out something further back from your parents, maybe he can tell, anyway. How did you usually decide what songs to record when you made a record?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, usually they have always given me preference of picking my own songs. I’ve been lucky in that respect. They always let me record what I want to record. Usually different artists in different groups they select the records that they want from them, but in my case, I have always been the selector.

Chris Strachwitz:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). I noticed that on that record that I issued on that album Que Me Gano Con Llorar that you guys must have had a real good feeling. Was Mr. Wolf particularly more… Or was it due to Berlanga …

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, I think one reason is… Let me see. I think that record came out… That was the Wolf’s recording.

Chris Strachwitz:

Yes it was.

Fred Zimmerle:

Was it?

Chris Strachwitz:

It’s on Rio.

Fred Zimmerle:

Okay. I think that that recording was mostly because, when you get to working with a person singing with him playing, it makes a lot of difference who you play with. And I have always loved to sing with Berlanga since he’s an old timer and I just love to sing with him. He has a great voice and I think that he’s voice and mine blend in quite well.

Chris Strachwitz:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). But also it seems to me like Mr. Wolf must have been a man who was more at ease with you all, rather than like Mr. Rangel or something. Is that possibly true you think?

Fred Zimmerle:

Yes-

Chris Strachwitz:

Did he enjoy himself-

Fred Zimmerle:

Very possible because… It’s like I said that he always let us pick the songs. He would let me go mostly on my own. I didn’t have any thing to hold back on.

Chris Strachwitz:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right. Mm-hmm (affirmative). And all those records were all made here in San Antonio, even the ones for the Ideal and Falcon?

Fred Zimmerle:

No. Ideal we went to Alice, Texas to make that recording over there, yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). And Falcon, that was done here or…

Fred Zimmerle:

Falcon has… Yes, they used to record me here in San Antonio.

Chris Strachwitz:

Did your parents work in the fields at all? Or was it?

Fred Zimmerle:

No. My father used to have six teams of mules and they used to work for the city.

Chris Strachwitz:

Six teams of mules…

Fred Zimmerle:

Yes. And you asked me anything about that line of work and I think I know just about… I can cover just about every bit of it.

Chris Strachwitz:

What did he do for… Did he hall things for the city or?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, they used to plow streets. Plow the streets and redo them all over again.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). Oh you mean level them out or something?

Fred Zimmerle:

Right.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh, I see.

Fred Zimmerle:

They used to use some extra large plows that were pulled by six horses and we used to turn over the dirt and redo the whole streets over again.

Chris Strachwitz:

Was that in the days when almost all the streets were just dirt, was it?

Fred Zimmerle:

Right.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). You mean it just had a few paved ones?

Fred Zimmerle:

A few, yes. Just the main streets were paved at that time.

Chris Strachwitz:

I see. And then how did you redo… Do you remember how they redid it? Did they plow them all up and put rocks down or gravel or anything-

Fred Zimmerle:

They refilled it up with new gravel. That’s what they did. And then they rolled it down. Just-

Chris Strachwitz:

I see. Six mules, did you keep those mules here in town?

Fred Zimmerle:

Right.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh, is that right.

Fred Zimmerle:

In fact, right here, where I live right now, this is a place where we used to have all our corrals and everything and… We used to have all kinds of animals, mules, horses, cows, chickens, back in the old days, yeah.

Chris Strachwitz:

I see. It must have been, like Mr. Berlanga said, in the old days, people seemed to enjoy themselves more. Do you think they have gotten … ?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, in a way I think it was a wonderful time.

Chris Strachwitz:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

It has been a great experience now in this… Up to date, from the old time to this time, I don’t think there’s a… Especially persons of my age, I don’t think they would know anything about what I’m talking about, when I say mules, horses and all this.

Chris Strachwitz:

But you also played outside of San Antonio, didn’t you, you went around…

Fred Zimmerle:

Yes. We had quite a bit of doing in music business, out of San Antonio. We used to go from San Antonio, play all the surrounding little town like Seguin, New Braunfels, San Marcos and all this. And then I knew of a fellow by the name of Gustavo Lavanal (SP?), And he became our manager. And we used to go… He used to take us through here all the way down into the valley. McAllen, Texas.

Chris Strachwitz:

The people who came to your dance, where they almost all Mexicans or were there sometimes Anglos who would come to them?

Fred Zimmerle:

At this time, it was back in… Mostly accordion music. Mostly Mexican people. Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

Yeah, who were some of your favorite performers when you learn to play except for your father, who you learned a lot from-

Fred Zimmerle:

I always admired Narciso Martinez music. And I think that mostly of my music was picked up on the Narciso’s music. And I understand that there were other accordionist before him, but I still think I… Up to this time, I still think I’ll stick to Narciso Martinez music.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). Did you hear Santiago Jimenez play-

Fred Zimmerle:

Very well. Yes. In fact, I even recorded some of the music with Santiago. Santiago has a tremendous style of playing music. I have nothing against him. He’s a personal friend of mine. I love his music. The only thing is that he plays slower pace of music.

Chris Strachwitz:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Fred Zimmerle:

Slower timing. His timing is a little bit slower.

Chris Strachwitz:

Uh-huh (affirmative). Were there any other accordion players that you admired and kind of looked up to?

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, El Gallito, Jesus Casiano. He used to come around here to the house and we used to practice for recordings and it never got to where we made a record or anything, but I recorded some of his music. One piece was Rancho Polka, that belong to him. He made it.

Chris Strachwitz:

Is he still alive? Do you think?

Fred Zimmerle:

I don’t really know. I don’t think he is. He may be.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh …

Fred Zimmerle:

Yap. Well, I don’t know. If people say that he’s still around and… I haven’t seen him in such a long time that I couldn’t really tell you.

Chris Strachwitz:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Were there any favorite singers that you ever had that you heard?

Fred Zimmerle:

In the old time, in the old days?

Chris Strachwitz:

Yeah.

Fred Zimmerle:

Well, to begin with, Lydia Mendoza was one of my favorites. That’s when I used to crank that console Victrola.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh yeah, yeah.

Fred Zimmerle:

And then from there on came El Ciego Melquiades, he used to have a lot of wonderful music. And then-

Chris Strachwitz:

He didn’t sing though, did he?

Fred Zimmerle:

Yes. Yes. He sang. He sang and played the accordion and the bajo sexto and the guitar. Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

Now who’s this?

Fred Zimmerle:

El Ciego Melquiades.

Chris Strachwitz:

Was he also playing accordion?

Fred Zimmerle:

Oh yes. Yes. He played different instruments.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh, I didn’t realize it

Fred Zimmerle:

Yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

Because I do have an-

Fred Zimmerle:

He played the violin. His strongest instrument was the violin.

Chris Strachwitz:

I see, because I have a record from on Ideal that he is on. And I didn’t know, because I couldn’t hear any violin on. I didn’t think he was on it. It does give his name on it.

Fred Zimmerle:

I see.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh, he could have played the accordion.

Fred Zimmerle:

Oh yes, he played different instruments.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh I see. And did you see him out in the streets? Was he playing out in the streets?

Fred Zimmerle:

Oh yes. We used to… In fact he and I, we got at times to where we used to sing songs together. Oh yes.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh yeah …

Fred Zimmerle:

It’s like I said, he was a personal friend of my brother. That’s where they became to be partners in recording business. They made records together.

Chris Strachwitz:

That’s Henry.

Fred Zimmerle:

Right, Henry.

Chris Strachwitz:

Oh I see. Oh, good.

Fred Zimmerle:

I also met Pedro Rocha y Lupe Martinez and we also used to sing a couple of songs together. Every now and then. Hermanos Chavarrias, and they also used to visit our home and they’re very, very good friends of ours.

Chris Strachwitz:

It seems to me, you were about the only-

Fred Zimmerle:

My music was basically mostly on the old timers because that’s the type of music that I love most of all. … Always been picking up on the… To see what I can learn from the old people and it has been an advantage to me and I think I’ve done pretty well in the past time now

Chris Strachwitz:

Well I think you’ve got this probably on into your family …

Fred Zimmerle:

I hope to keep going. I hope to keep going and recording for the people and bringing this old songs back again.

Chris Strachwitz:

Well, I sure try do my part. And that’s just about it.

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