In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“If he brings you happiness, then I wish you all the best. It’s your happiness that matters most of all. But if he ever breaks your heart, if the teardrops ever start, I’ll be there before the next teardrop falls.”
That’s not exactly poetry. It’s not even gracefully written; the repetition of “teardrop” makes it look like a first draft. But it’s romantic enough to wreck you anyway. It’s pure sentiment: a heartbroken man accepting his own heartbreak, attempting to reckon with and accept it, and offering up whatever’s left of his dignity for even the slightest fleeting chance of a future hope. If a line like that catches you at the right moment, it can be absolutely devastating. And that’s “Before The Next Teardrop Falls.” It’s country music distilled — a whole life predicament drawn up in a couple of gentle and courtly lines. You could hear this song 10 times and never notice it’s on. And then you hear it an 11th time and find yourself fighting back tears in a fucking Home Depot.
The mere existence of “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” is a minor miracle. Freddy Fender, nearly 40 when he scored his first #1 hit, wasn’t supposed to get a second shot. Fender, born Baldermar Fuerta, was the son of migrant Mexican farmworkers. He grew up in Texas and learned to sing and play guitar when he was just a kid, imitating the country music that you would hear if you had a radio and you grew up in postwar Texas. At 16, Fender dropped out of high school, joined the Marines, and got himself discharged within a couple of years for alcoholism-related reasons.
Soon after, Fender started playing rockabilly in Texas clubs. He found some regional and international success by recording Spanish-language covers of Elvis and Hank Williams songs. He had a minor English-language hit with “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights,” a song he wrote in 1960. He got stabbed in the neck while playing a show in Corpus Christi. And then he got busted for weed. That should’ve been the end of it.
Police in Baton Rouge went right up onto the stage where Fender was playing and arrested him; he later said that they’d found some marijuana seeds in the house where he was staying. In 1960, Fender was sentenced to five years in prison, and he served three at Angola before governor Jimmie Davis, a musician himself, interceded on his behalf. Legend has it that Davis would only parole Fender if he agreed to stay away from the corrupting influence of the music business. Fender himself said that the legend was overblown, that Davis had merely warned him to stay away from establishments that served alcohol. But when you’re a nightclub musician, that’s more or less the same thing. Freddy Fender’s career was over, until it wasn’t.
Fender returned to Corpus Christi. He studied sociology at a local college, and he worked as a mechanic during the day. Eventually, he started playing local bars on the weekends. And then Huey P. Meaux came into his life. Meaux, a local legend, had been producing Texan music, in all its permutations, since the ’50s. He’d worked with Lightnin’ Hopkins, George Jones, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. He’d discovered the Sir Douglas Quintet, the San Antonio garage rock band who’d made it up to #13 with the sidelong stomper “She’s About A Mover.” Later on, Meaux would spend a decade in prison for child porn.
Meaux had an instrumental track of “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” that a country session band had recorded, and he got Fender to sing over it. Nobody had any reason to think this would go anywhere. This was, after all, an old song. Vivian Keith and Ben Peters had written it in 1967, and it had been a tiny blip of a country hit for the Wisconsin-born singer Duane Dee. Jerry Lee Lewis had recorded a version in 1969. Two black country singers, Linda Martell and Charley Pride, had both recorded versions of it, and I would love to know why this song, among all country songs, would be so appealing to so many country singers of color.
Fender knocked out his version of “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” in a few minutes, and Meaux released it on his Crazy Cajun label. This could’ve easily been a tiny regional record, the sort of thing that went unheard and undiscovered for decades before popping up on a Numero Group compilation or something. But the national label ABC-Dot picked the song up and pushed it to radio. It became a huge country hit and then crossed over to the pop charts. All of a sudden, a Mexican-American ex-convict who’d never even had a chance at a career was one of the biggest country stars in America.
There are a lot of reasons why “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” might’ve connected the way it did. Fender guessed that it might’ve had something to do with the way he sang — a high, tender tenor with no Southern twang. Fender figured that he didn’t have a country voice, so maybe that’s why the song crossed over outside the country audience. He also sang the song’s second verse in Spanish, and maybe that drew in listeners who wouldn’t have otherwise cared about country music. And Meaux’s production drew on Mexican conjunto music, adding accordions and lilting pings of guitar. It’s a powerfully appealing combination of sounds, one that might’ve put together an unlikely coalition of fans.
But I have my own theory as to why “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” resonated the way it did. I think so many people liked it because it’s a fucking masterpiece. Fender sings it with a soft and plainspoken devotion. He doesn’t want to say goodbye to this woman, but he knows he has to. So he offers her whatever support he can muster: “It’s your happiness that matters most of all.” This doesn’t sound like a line. He sings it like he means it. And then he sings it again in Spanish — as if he has such a burning need to get his message across that he’ll try a couple of languages just to make sure she understands him completely.
It’s a fragile and unassuming song — just two and a half minutes, with none of the sweeping strings or drippy backing vocals that were so common in Nashville country. Fender sings it simply and plainly, without bombast. He doesn’t even do the obvious thing where you hit the final chorus a little harder, draw the vowels out a little more. (Every time I try to sing along with the song, I fuck it up; you just naturally expect that final line to be the showstopper. It always catches me flatfooted.) But Fender’s narrator isn’t singing this song to draw attention to himself. It’s as if he’s said what he needs to say and he can’t wait to get out of there.
I wasn’t expecting to give “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” as high of a score as I did. I knew it was a good song, but I figured it would be a 7 or an 8. Then, last weekend, something clicked. I couldn’t stop listening to the song. I’d drive around with it on repeat. I’d try to listen to Fender’s other music — a lot of it is great — and then I’d find myself immediately putting “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” back on repeat anyway. I couldn’t shake it. Every single time, the song sucked me into its quiet drama. Every time, it crushed me.
After “Before The Next Teardrop Falls,” Fender suddenly had a career. He crossed over again with “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights,” a new version of the rockabilly song he recorded in 1960. (The new “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” peaked at #8 later in 1975. It’s an 8.) Fender kept making country hits until the end of the ’70s. Addiction derailed his career in the ’80s, but he cleaned up and kept working. He acted in Robert Redford’s 1988 movie The Milagro Beanfield War, and he led a couple of supergroups, the Texas Tornados (with a couple of former members of the Sir Douglas Quintet) and Los Super Seven (with a couple of members of Los Lobos). He died of lung cancer in 2006, when he was 69. He’d lived a life.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s LA punk band Manic Hispanic’s cover of “Before The Next Teardrop Falls,” from the 1995 album The Menudo Incident:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1996, Dolly Parton recorded a cover of “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” with Los Lobos frontman David Hidalgo, Fender’s bandmate in Los Super Seven. (Both Parton and Los Lobos will eventually end up in this column.) Here’s that cover:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Just last year, Al Green, a man who has already appeared in this column, released a ?uestlove-produced cover of “Before The Next Teardrop Falls.” It was Green’s first new recording in more than a decade. Here it is: