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Texas music pioneer Roberto Sustaita dies at 81

By Bianca Montes
July 27, 2014 at 2:27 a.m.

Roberto Sustaita

Roberto Sustaita had some voice - the "voz de oro," some would say - that caused fans to swoon the moment it floated away from the speakers of a record player and practically melt when heard live.

He crooned.

"He didn't even need a microphone," Roberto Rodriguez said about the artist he luckily had the chance to play with a few times after graduating in 1965. "He was one of the last big singers."

Sustaita was revered as a legend in the Chicano music scene - one of the pioneers of what is now considered Tejano music - and compared to the likes of Little Joe Hernandez, Joe Bravo and Isidro Lopez. Some even considered him to be the Texas version of Pedro Infante, hailed as one of the greatest actors and singers in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

Sustaita died July 21, three weeks after being diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. He was 81.

Sustaita was hit hard in a tough battle with breast cancer in 2008, a diagnosis that gathered his musician friend and family for a benefit at Club Westerner.

Inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame in 1989, Sustaita came from a generation that pioneered Tex-Mex music, a blend of polka and popular Mexican music of the time. In his early years as a musician, there were two options for Mexican bands - orchestra or Conjunto, a smaller ensemble.

"There was nothing else," Rodriguez said. "He could do anything."

Sustaita's daughter, Lucinda Cano, said her life is filled with fond memories of her father's performances and being able to meet all of the great Tejano musicians back stage at his concerts.

When Little Joe Hernandez returned to Victoria for an intimate meet and greet July 20 at Club Westerner, he made it a point to call Sustaita.

"I told him my dad couldn't come to the phone," Cano said, because he was incoherent at the time, "but he still sang all the words to one of my father's favorite songs - in Spanish he sang, 'I'm tired of begging and pleading,' and I laughed and told him I would sing it to him."

Cano said her dad never stopped singing, and even after his vocal cords were damaged from his cancer, he still tried.

Lifelong friend and bandmate Freddy Reyes said Sustaita's death shocked him.

"He was almost like a brother to me," he said. "It was real sad. I hated to lose him, but when a person is so sick, he is better off not to be here suffering."

Reyes, 69, of Bloomington, said he'll always remember his friend's smooth voice, ability to holler with the excitement of a great song and his love for his family.

Sustaita is survived by his daughter, sons - Robert Lee (Sandra) Sustaita, of Victoria; Richard A. Sustaita, of San Antonio; Raymond C. (Mary Ann) Sustaita, of Victoria; and Roland J. (Ruth) Sustaita, of Fort Worth - eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

His grandchildren and great-grandchildren were his true passion, his daughter said.

"They were always excited to go eat with grandpa," Cano said. "He would make them laugh, and he would sing to them, 'Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?'"

Victoria native Mona Gonzales said Sustaita was one of the few musicians who did justice to the music of famous Mexican composers such as Jose Alfredo Jimenez.

"His voice was as sweet and as smooth as the finest honey," she said. "He could make make all your troubles melt away and your heart soar."

Gonzales said her mother was a huge fan of Sustaita and would see him perform live at the Venus Theater.

"They said his songs were so romantic," she said. "They would swoon over his rich-toned voice and felt like he was singing just to them. It is very hard for me to imagine that he will not be singing live anymore."

John Davis, 62, of Victoria, played with Sustaita's band in 1971 when it toured in Chicago.

"Back in the day, we didn't get paid very much, but it was so much fun for someone coming out of high school - it was unbelievable."

Houston-based radio host Gus Garza called Sustaita's death a great loss.

"To me, he was a true legend - I don't even know how to explain it," he cried. "He was a legend in his own style and his own time."

Garza said the last time he saw his friend was at the funeral of Manuel Villafranca, then the Club Westerner owner and promoter.

"I told him hi, and I told him I love you," he said. "He earned every good thing you can say about him. He never hesitated to help anyone play or sing; he was a true-blue friend. I wish I could have been there at his rosary to give him the last applause."

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