Musicians help one of their own

Oct. 17, 2008 at 5:17 a.m.

When you hear that voice, you know who it is. Roberto Sustaita is acknowledged by many throughout the state as the original Tejano scene’s ‘voz de oro’ (golden voice) and as a great entertainer.

But Roberto, as he prefers, who gave his all to music, is now in need of help from his fans, friends and neighbors.

The legendary vocalist, who helped get Tejano into the mainstream of modern music, has been hit hard in a tough battle with cancer.

Some fellow musicians and friends have gotten together to hold a reunion dance and fundraiser for Roberto on Sunday at the Club Westerner.

In his own crooner style, he was one of the few vocalists of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s Tejano scene who was recognizable in any venue, even when he wasn’t present. Names mentioned in the same category were Little Joe Hernandez, Isidro Lopez, Sunny Ozuna, Joe Bravo and Alfonso Ramos. And, in 1989, he was rewarded for his efforts and talent and inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame.

And because he had no formal musical training, Sustaita advises youngsters to get a good education, and if pursuing a musical career, learn to read and write music and practice, practice, practice. Education is the only way to survive and make it in this business today, he said.

“We (Sustaita, Julian Gaona and Rudy Cavazos) began presenting our music as a trio in 1952 at the Venus Theater’s amateur hour,” Sustaita said.

He credits his success to those who gave him the singing opportunities like Paulino Bernal, Tony De La Rosa and Chano Cadena. He also credits Manuel Villafranca, Club Westerner owner and promoter, for having the foresight and courage to open his venue to the brass sound of Tejano music.

In the late 1950s, Sustaita began his local career with Darío Perez y Orquesta Perla. Sustaita felt a calling to the everyday music scene, and moved to Houston where there was a need for daily entertainment, and organized a big band group. But destiny returned him to Victoria and, in 1964, he inherited Perla and began his own group.

Sustaita recorded with 14 labels including Zarape, Ideal and Nopal, according to Richard Gonzales, recognized locally as a music historian.

He recorded only one long play album but is credited with more than 50 single 45s along with some 78s. The door opened to the upper echelons of the scene with recording “Tres Semanas,” which led to top singles “El Celoso,” a song by Darío Perez, and the Vietnam-era hit “Promesas a la Virgen,” by Johnny Alegría, of Gone Country fame.

Though in demand, the Sustaita orchestra struggled with the enigma that without going on tour consistently, the end was near. The orchestra made a national tour in 1969 to Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, where fans of Tejano music demanded his performances. However, because of the lack of recognition or sponsorship by big labels, this was to be the only tour the group would make.

“It was hard for most of us to get up and go. Most of the band members had daily jobs, families and other commitments that kept us close to the area,” said Freddy Reyes.

They did play on the same venues with the most popular groups of the era, including Little Joe y Los Latinnaires, Alfonso Ramos Orchestra, Sunny and the Sunliners and Joe Bravo. However, with most members unable to give up their local commitments, true and deserved fame would not become part of his legacy.

In 1984, Sustaita decided to disband and allow his fellow musicians to return to their families and some guaranteed income.

Reyes, trumpet player, and drummer Leslie Monroe, original members of the 1964 Sustaita Orquesta, remember Sustaita as one of the most fair and easy band leaders to work for.

“He could not write music, so Leslie and I wrote most of the music,” Reyes said. “But he could and can still sing.”

Reyes said their relationship extended into an almost father-and-son relationship with Sustaita, until this day, calling him son. Reyes, who hired Sustaita in 1998 as the vocalist for Mariachi Tejano, recalls when, in April, Sustaita confided in him that cancer had befallen the elder statesman of the local Tejano and mariachi scene. What was harder for Reyes was to hear that Sustaita would sing no more.

“Unlike other band leaders of the time, he hardly ever pushed you to do the job. You did it because Roberto commanded the best from everyone, you could tell he loved and cared for the sound but he was never demanding,” Monroe said.

“It was heartwarming for me to hear the guys trying to do this for me and remembering the great ride we had together,” Sustaita said. “My final words are to say thank you all for thinking of me. And the opportunity to have sung my songs with you.”



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