San Antonio record producer Manny Guerra helped define Tejano music, but he’d rather talk about something else

Record producer, studio owner and musician Manny Guerra’s role in igniting the glory days of Tejano music is the stuff of legend.

His musicianship, ambition, workaholic intensity, creativity and innovation on a shoestring budget helped shape some of the biggest records ever made in San Antonio, beginning in the early 1960s and continuing through the heyday of Tejano in the ’80s and ’90s.

The songs include “Talk to Me” by Sunny and the Sunglows, “It’s Okay” by Joe Bravo,” “Entre mas, Lejos me Vaya” by David Marez, “Te Aventaron Tus Brazos” by the Latin Breed and “Como La Flor” by Selena. The artists he produced included Emilio, Ram Herrera, Shelly Lares, Jimmy Edward, La Tropa F and La Mafia.

“He helped create the Tejano sound,” said music historian Ramon Hernandez. “He was the ‘it’ producer.”

Guerra, 83, has just written a memoir, “Tejano Music Award Producer.” As much as anything, it reveals his current ambivalence about his past accomplishments.

Manny Guerra produced recordings by the biggest names in Tejano music from his humble Amen Studios on the South Side of San Antonio.

Express-News file photo.

“The only difference between (Beatles producer) George Martin and me is he knew what he was doing,” said Guerra, showing a flash of pride, something he usually keeps hidden. But drawing inspiration from the pop R&B of Motown, he was Tejano music’s greatest record producer.

Hernandez credits Guerra with improving the fidelity of local records by bringing in studio musicians, background singers and outside songwriters like Luis Silva. He created distinctive echo and reverb effects with a massive metal gasoline storage tank equipped with a audio speaker, microphone and baffles. Guerra also rejected the accordion, his first childhood instrument — he sometimes jokes about building a giant bonfire of accordions — for the keyboard synthesizer.

In interviews about his memoir, Guerra downplays all of that. He would rather talk about his faith and Scripture than his fabled musical past.

“He’s kind of evasive,” Hernandez said.

If he’s soured on his secular music credits, Guerra said it’s because he “wasn’t serving God” and was using his talents “for the wrong reasons.”

His musical journey came with lows, too: divorces, bitter band disputes and drama, financial hardships, heavy drinking, guilt and depression.

“Tejano Music Award Producer” is the new memoir by Manny Guerra.

“Tejano Music Award Producer” is the new memoir by Manny Guerra.

Christian Faith Publishing

A spiritual awakening changed the course of his life. Eventually, he would turn his back on the secular music of his youth.

“Tejano Music Award Producer” is a quick, 114-page read. It’s dedicated to Guerra’s 102-year-old mother, Lucia R. Guerra. And its title is somewhat misleading.

“It’s a book, not to tell people what to do. It’s more or less showing people what not to do, by the mistakes that I made,” he said.

Guerra’s talent was evident from the start.

Early in his music career, as a young drummer with the famed Isidro Lopez Orchestra, Guerra earned the reputation as “the Gene Krupa of Tejano,” Hernandez said. He also was a good singer and songwriter.

As bandleader for Sunny and the Sunglows in the 1960s, he produced and played drums on such enduring San Antonio hits as “Golly Gee,” which he co-wrote with Sunny Ozuna, and “Peanuts (La Cacahúata).”

Behind his drum kit, Guerra was a taskmaster. He was a few years older than the other musicians.

“He called every song onstage. He counted every song in. And he corrected everybody afterward,” Ozuna recalled. “We were the young teenagers that didn’t know what we were doing. He was being the teacher for the little kids in class.”

“Talk to Me,” the first Chicano record to become a national hit, was his greatest production, something even Guerra acknowledged at a book signing on Sunday.

Manny Guerra (second from right) with Sunny and the Sunglows. Guerra produced the band’s big hit “Talk To Me.” Also pictured are Henry Nañez (from left), Rudy Guerra, Sunny Ozuna and Tommy Luna.

Manny Guerra (second from right) with Sunny and the Sunglows. Guerra produced the band’s big hit “Talk To Me.” Also pictured are Henry Nañez (from left), Rudy Guerra, Sunny Ozuna and Tommy Luna.

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He set up the recording sessions and was the one who insisted on adding real strings on what would be Ozuna’s signature song. Arturo “Sauce” Gonzalez’s Wurlitzer organ is characteristic of what would become known as the West Side Sound.

The record was released on Guerra’s Sunglow label. When Ozuna left the group just as the song was taking off, Guerra said he felt betrayed and humiliated and wondered if the Sunglows could survive.

“I wanted for the earth to open up and swallow me,” he said.

Ozuna, who performed at the book signing, maintains he was forced out.

Guerra, in any case, would continue to shape the sound of Tejano music as a producer.

His humble Amen Studios facility on the South Side — Tejano singer Shelly Lares still describes it as a magical shack — was where the Latin Breed first assembled its horn-driven fusion and where Selena recorded her early albums and cumbia pop hits.

The studio was the epicenter, a Tejano hit factory. .

“He was the studio guy,” said Abraham Quintanilla, father and manager of the late Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla Perez. They made five albums with Guerra.

Selena’s signature hits “Como La Flor,” “Amor Prohibido” and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” were recorded at Amen Studios.

“He could give you a real good sound. Manny is one of the pioneers of Tejano music,” said Quintanilla, though he added that it was his son, A.B. Quintanilla, who really produced Selena.

“Tejano Music Award Producer” skims over much of those details.

Tejano fans looking for the San Antonio equivalent of how Phil Spector created his wall of sound, how George Martin produced the Beatles or how Tina Turner survived her marriage to Ike Turner may find Guerra’s book lacking.

But the memoir does offer insight into his complicated, often conflicted persona and his spiritual awakening as well as a clear-eyed dissection of his successes, failures and family strife.

A born-again experience in June 1968 is central to Guerra’s book and to how he views his life — and his life’s work.

Reading the story, some may see parallels in his attitude to those of rock ’n’ roll architects Little Richard Penniman and Jerry Lee Lewis. Their religious views often were in conflict with the music they popularized. Both referred to secular rock ’n’ roll as the devil’s music.

Guerra’s opinion of the secular records he produced is not that different.

“None of it came from an inspiration of God,” he said. “It came from within me, and I was living in a sinful nature.”

Singer-songwriter Rene Ornelas of Rene & Rene fame doesn’t see anything sinful about his innocent early hits.

“Most of my music is romantic, and I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Ornelas said,

Ozuna agrees. Both men perform oldies concerts and Christian shows.

Guerra, who only records gospel music now, is hard to pin down when it comes to his early music or the records he produced.

“I never loved music,” Guerra said. “It was just a vehicle.”

Even people who know him have a hard time swallowing that.

“I don’t get the whole ‘I never loved music’ thing,” said Lares, who was signed to Guerra’s Tejano label,

“Manny Guerra is music,” said Henry “Pepsi” Peña, the longtime radio personality. “He would tell you it’s about creating something that wasn’t there. That’s the ecstasy of what he was doing. That’s what moved him and motivated him.

“Is he complicated? Yes. Who understands Picasso? The guy was a genius … but there are a lot of unanswered questions.”

“Tejano Music Award Producer” (Christian Faith Publishing, $24.95) is available at Amazon.com and other online retailers.

Hector Saldaña is the curator of the Texas Music Collection at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos