FULL OF SUPRISES

Freddy Fender has a new kidney, a new album and - just maybe - a new Grammy

For 18 months Freddy Fender has stayed alive by taking four-hour dialysis treatments every other day. Last April, he almost died of cardiac arrest. And he's got diabetes, hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, a condition that may eventually require a liver transplant.

But believe it or not, Freddy feels lucky.

And with good reason. On Jan. 24, he received a kidney donated by his 21-year-old daughter, Marla Garcia - a perfect match. But, amazingly, Freddy felt fortunate even before the uneventful two-hour operation at San Antonio's University Hospital.

"I'm very lucky," he declares with a smile during a conversation in early January. "Just seeing the messages on my website makes me feel the love that's been given to me by so many people. I am lucky."

And Freddy now expects a dramatic health turnaround, with dialysis a thing of the past. His doctors agree.

"The kidney is doing very well," says Dr. Ken Washburn, Freddy's surgeon. "He and his daughter are doing very well, and we anticipate that his recovery will be smooth."

"If all goes according to schedule," says Dr. Jay Bishoff, leader of the medical team, "Freddy should be able to attend the Grammy Awards next month." He's also got the medical green light to resume touring in April.

And, on Feb. 27, if his luck holds, he'll take home the Best Latin Pop Album Grammy for his newest CD, La Musica De Baldemar Huerta.

Freddy, whose given name is Baldemar Huerta, won two Grammys in the '90s as part of the Texas Tornadoes and Los Super Seven. And he had No. 1 hits in the '70s with such classics as "Wasted Days And Wasted Nights," "Before The Next Teardrop Falls" and "Secret Love." But another Grammy would be mighty sweet.

"My album's in a category that competes with the entire Latin world," explains Freddy. "Being nominated with international artists makes me feel that, at last, I'm where I belong - and not as part of a group for support. That's why I feel so good about it."

Then, there are the songs - direct links to Freddy's youth in the little south Texas town of San Benito.

"This album brings back the roots of the '50s in Hispanic music," declares Freddy with a trace of nostalgia in his voice. "It's a kind of beautiful music that dominated the Hispanic world back when I was a very young man."

The CD cover features Freddy as a very, very young man - about three years old - perched proudly on a pinto pony. "That's me in 1941," notes Freddy with a grin, "with a hat, chaps, boots and the whole outfit. I was a rootin' tootin' cowboy way back then. So don't tell me I'm not country!" he laughs.

While Freddy's new album is targeted toward a Spanish-speaking audience, he hasn't forgotten country fans. The CD contains new tracks of "Teardrop" and "Secret Love" - in English - with a production style that's decidedly mariachi.

If he does win another Grammy, it won't be because of some master plan.

"Back in San Benito when I was young, and even until recently," he explains, "I have never known how many tortillas it takes to fill me up. In other words, I never planned a damn thing. Everything that has happened to me - especially the good things - has been more or less wonderful surprises. And I like it like that.

"I have gotten serious financially, so that my family will be ok, but before that I just wanted to sing and have fun."

As his health problems have progressed, fun has been harder for Freddy to have.

"I don't feel up to par," he admits, although he's kept performing. But he was more than ready for the operation.

And, he confides, he's amazed that his youngest child is the one who gave him a kidney. His three older children weren't suitable donors, but Marla hadn't been asked because of her age - and because she and her husband have a one-year-old daughter, Valencia, to care for. Then Marla told her mother, Vangie, she wanted to be the one to help her dad.

"When Vangie told me," recalls Freddy, "I got blown away completely! Life is full of surprises."

"What do you say about your daughter giving part of herself so her father can live?" asks Vangie. "Every time I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes."

It moves Freddy, too. And he admits to reflecting on his life as his surgery date approached. "I've thought about it," he says quietly. "I have had my share of negative, and I have been overwhelmed by goodness. But I got a funny feeling that more's gonna happen!

"Yeah, I hope I still keep feeling like I'm being surprised."

-- David Scarlett

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