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Tejano music legend Johnny Canales dies at 77

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Television host Johnny Canales died on Thursday in Texas at the age of 77. Canales was the host of "The Johnny Canales Show," which featured exclusively Tejano music - as, of course, the musical genre developed along the Texas-Mexico border that eventually made its way not just across Texas but throughout the U.S. and other parts of the world. And Johnny Canales had a lot to do with that. At least, that is the view of the co-host of NPR's Alt.Latino program, Felix Contreras, who joins me now to talk about Canales's legacy. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Felix.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott. It's a big loss for the Tejano music community, that's for sure.

DETROW: Yeah. I mean, what - how would you put into words just how big of a deal Canales was for Mexicans and Texans alike?

CONTRERAS: Scott, he was considered the Dick Clark of Tejano. He had every major act in the genre on his show, and it became a badge of honor for bands to be introduced by Canales and hear his signature phrase, you got it, take it away.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOHNNY CANALES SHOW")

JOHNNY CANALES: (Speaking Spanish). You got it. Take it away. (Speaking Spanish).

DETROW: How did this program grow over the years from, you know, essentially a local television show into such a huge part of the culture?

CONTRERAS: You know, it was his charisma and his authenticity. Canales was born in Mexico and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. So he embodied the music and who it was speaking to. He spoke the same mix of English and Spanish, often in the same sentence, that dominate that part of the country and the music. And it also didn't hurt that Canales could spot talent a mile away. He had Selena y Los Dinos on in 1985, years before she became a star.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SELENA Y LOS DINOS: (Singing in Spanish).

DETROW: I mean, you hear that, And you look at the time frame of the show, and the sound of Tejano spread throughout not just the U.S. but internationally as well. Can you tell us more about his particular influence on that and how it was so far-reaching?

CONTRERAS: You know, after the Spanish-language TV network Unavision (ph), or Univision, acquired the show in 1986, Tejano was beamed into homes not just in northern Mexico but across the country and Latin America, and framed as sort of a Latin pop music. And that set wheels in motion that we're seeing play out today as regional Mexican artists take over the global charts, bands like Grupo Frontera, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENCHANDOTE DE MENOS")

GRUPO FRONTERA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: You know, this music is basically a throwback to early forms of Tejano. You have acoustic guitars. You have accordions. You have cowboy hats, tales of love and broken hearts. You know, we have an upcoming episode of Alt.Latino focusing on super producer and composer Edgar Barrera. He has a closet full of Latin Grammys. He's very influential, and when we visited him in his home studio, he actually spoke about watching Johnny Canales as a kid growing up in the Rio Grande Valley. So the story arc of this moment that Mexican music is having around the world right now, it flows through "The Johnny Canales Show."

DETROW: What did Johnny Canales mean to you personally?

CONTRERAS: You know anyone who covers Latin music and culture in any medium radio, TV, TikTok, whatever, you know, we should strive for that kind of deep personal connection Johnny Canales had with both the bands and his audience. He made those communities along the U.S.-Mexican border feel seen and heard, and we all stand on his shoulders, man.

DETROW: Felix Contreras, thank you so much for talking to us.

CONTRERAS: Thank you.

DETROW: Felix is the co-host of NPR's Alt.Latino, where he covers Latin music of all kinds every week with co-host Anamaria Sayre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Felix Contreras
Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.