As hurricanes go, no matter how bad or devastating, in time, their memory fades. The same, however, cannot be said of another kind of ‘hurricane’ whose very name causes grown men and women to not only look forward to it touching down in their town but counting the days until it arrives.
After nearly sixty years of life on the road – playing every imaginable venue, from honky-tonk to the Hollywood Palladium – this unique force of nature, known formally as Alberto Nelson Sanchez but more intimately to his fans as Al Hurricane, is winding down a career – and what a career! Never a wallflower, this musical legend, known by many as ‘The Godfather of Latino Music,’ is leaving the stage not with a whimper but with a high-octane pachanga.
The 79-year-old Mexican-American troubadour, recognized for his signature eye patch and pompadour, is in the midst of yet another tour. Almost every week for the rest of the summer, Hurricane and his band will be playing somewhere in New Mexico or Colorado. New Mexico stops include Albuquerque, Farmington, Las Vegas and Socorro. The Hurricane then hits Colorado with gigs in Alamosa, Colorado Springs, Trinidad and, on August 29th, the Adams County Fair.
With a career that began before most of his fans were even born, Hurricane could not be blamed for calling it a day. But, taking it easy just isn’t his style. From his home in Albuquerque, Hurricane looked back on the journey, one that could have gone in a completely different direction.
“Fats Domino offered me a full time job,” said Hurricane. It was tempting. How could anyone turn down a job with Domino? At the time, the New Orleans superstar sat comfortably atop the charts with his iconic “Blueberry Hill.” In the end, it was an offer he could – and did – refuse. “They were going on a six-month European tour,” remembered Hurricane. “I just couldn’t see leaving my family for that long.”
Over the years, Hurricane’s played gigs with some of music’s biggest names. Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, Marvin Gaye and Tina Turner all counted on his musical skills. “They were always happy when I would tour with them, but I decided I wanted to stick with what I had here.” But what exactly did he have? What was it that made Hurricane a wanted man with so many big names and in so many places?
“His appeal, his style of music has always been one that took the talents around him and combined them so that when you hear them, you know it’s Al,” said Flo Hernandez Ramos, former General Manager of Denver’s KUVO. KUVO and Ramos originated ‘Cancion Mexicana,’ a Sunday morning show featuring a liberal dose of Mexican-American music and musicians. Hosting the show also meant getting requests – sometimes several times an hour – for Hurricane’s songs. She understands its natural appeal. “You just latch on to it as your own.”
What she isn’t so sure about and what many others who know Hurricane’s music so well aren’t sure about either, is why such an amazingly talented musician and showman never jumped to a bigger stage. “It’s bittersweet,” said Ramos. “He deserves that kind of national prominence.”
Hurricane got an early start in music. His father, Jose, a miner and musician, taught him the guitar basics at age five. Young Al was a natural and music came easy. But the part his mother, Bennie, a registered nurse, played in his musical life cannot be understated.
As the young guitarist, later saxophonist, trumpeter and occasional accordion player was polishing his craft and making a name, his mother was making sure he was getting the right bookings. She put nursing on hold to become his full-time manager as president of Hurricane Productions. She also became something of a regional legend as a concert promoter, booking acts like James Brown, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Little Richard. She also gets credit for the name ‘Hurricane.’ She gave it to him because of his inability as a child to get through a room without breaking something.
As a performer, Hurricane may have also broken a few other things, like the record for playing more towns in the Southwest than just about any other performer. He’s sold out shows from Reno to Roswell and Pueblo to Pacoima. But wherever he’s played, he finds his audience, even when he took the band to Europe.
“When we played Malaga, Spain,” he recalled, “there were no Americans.” It was one of the few times he had no idea how the gig would go. “Once we started playing the music, ‘La Bamba,’ ‘El Rey,’ they got into it and started chanting ‘Hurricane, Hurricane.’ We won them over.” Hurricane has also won over fans in shows in Argentina, Germany, Holland and Paraguay.
Today Hurricane’s role is mostly observing the band. He often sits as his son, Al, Jr., takes the lead. Of course, Junior, isn’t the only blood in the band or the family, for that matter. Hurricane’s brothers, Tiny Morrie and Baby Gaby have also carved out their own niche in the industry. The siblings have also performed together on a number of albums. And then there are his children. Hurricane has a total of eight from two marriages. One, a daughter, died in childhood. Several of his children are prominent members of his band.
Junior, a dead-ringer for a younger Hurricane, does most of the vocals. “I’ve been (performing) with him for 43, 44 years,” he said as his father took a break from the interview. But, after four decades, the road can be a grind. “I’m looking forward to taking some time off.”
But the younger Hurricane, who does double duty on trumpet and keyboard, does admit, this tour has taken on a different vibe. “Yes, people are still buying tickets. But, lately, you see people in the audience crying. I guess they don’t want to say goodbye to us.” He says that from time to time, he’ll also hear voices from the audience pleading, ‘please don’t quit.’ “It gets really emotional.”
But in the music world, you can’t get too satisfied or too emotional, he says. That’s why when he sings his father’s signature song, “Sentimiento,” a song he’s sung a nearly infinite number of times, he sings it like it’s new. “You do what people want. That’s why they’ve supported us for all these years.”
The Adams County Fair may be the band’s last stop in Colorado for a while. There are no plans at present for a 2016 schedule. But the state has been good for the band despite it also being the place where Hurricane’s band was involved in a serious wreck on its way to a job in Denver. The wreck cost Hurricane his eye. But, in a painfully ironic way, the eyepatch he had to wear as a result, may have secured his signature look.
The loss of an eye proves that life is sometimes not fair. But also unfair may have been timing for Hurricane and two of his close musical friends, Sunny Osuna and Little Joe. While all have sold out shows across the Southwest for decades and earned the respect of their fans, none really had the boost necessary to slingshot them to national fame. But even knowing what might have been, you will never a word of regret from Hurricane. Even now, he’s got plans.
It may come as a surprise that this musical Pied Piper is also a big fan of opera’s Luciano Pavarotti. “I admire almost any musician or singer, but Pavarotti is one of my favorites.” He also includes legendary country icon, the late Hank Williams, among his inspirations. “I got my start with country.”
On hiatus, he’ll have a chance to finally sit back and listen to this unlikely pair as he dabbles with his coin collection, a pastime he picked up along the way. Perhaps people walking past Hurricane’s Albuquerque home will be able to hear him singing along with them.
What you won’t hear is a hint of bitterness from a satisfied man. He’s played with the best, earning their respect and, often, their friendship. “I’ve had good experiences,” he says. But now, it’s time to rest and, for that, he’s where he wants to be. “New Mexico is my home. I’m happy here.”