The majority of musicians with extensive careers will echo the same refrain when asked about commercial achievement. That in reality, there is little truth behind the term “an overnight success.”
Fernando Bustamante Soto, known to friends as “Freddy” or “Fred,” knows that reality all too well through his travels on a musical path of hard toil and persistence which has led to recognition for his unique talent. Starting out in Gonzales, Texas, his birthplace, the noted saxophonist started playing professionally at the age of 12 with bands in the area, from Tejano to R&B. During the course of a 46 year career, he has received recognition and awards including being inducted into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame next month in Alice, Texas, as well as being the recipient of a lifetime achievement award, Idolos del Barrio, from the Austin Latino Music Association Award for his many contributions to the local Latino music scene.
Being inducted into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame is “an honor and a blessing,” said Soto. “It’s recognition that I’ve worked hard for my entire life in my music career, a dream come true.”
Born to migrant farmers, Julio and Julia B. Soto, Soto states, “technically speaking,” there were no musicians on his father’s side of the family, but several uncles played guitar on his mother’s side. Julia and all his aunts sang corridos and rancheras as the uncles played their guitars at family gatherings. He attributes this as his first music influence. Complimenting that background were his sisters, brother and neighbors, the Canales family, who possessed a vast collection of Tejano albums which Soto immersed himself in, exploring varied styles of polkas, rancheras, cumbias, valsiadas, chotis and canciones romanticas.
This informal education in music led him to learn to play the saxophone. “I was primarily self-taught and played by ear,” explained Soto. “Once I got into private lessons and formal music training and education, my whole world opened up to a higher level. Education is a wonderful thing and we never stop learning. Increased knowledge is crucial in advancing your career.”
Soto turned to the blues for more inspiration and to a black gospel choir from a church in his humble barrio, as well as an unknown blues guitarist in the neighborhood. His first break was gaining the attention of award-winning band directors, Herb Karnau and Randy Kohlenberg, who recognized his talent and “took me under their wings.” Through this association, Soto was able to take private saxophone lessons and attend music camps that helped him earn many distinguished honors, awards, medals and accolades.
Although Soto began playing with Tejano bands in his youth, La Raza Incomparable, La Buena Vida and Amistad Mexicana, he also played with a variety of funk, soul and R&B bands in the area.
After receiving music scholarship offers to attend the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Miami and other colleges, Soto settled on a four-year ride at Texas Lutheran University where he advanced his saxophone studies with the late Dr. Roy E. Norton, who he credits much of his learned proficiency to. He also started his early training in jazz studies through the school’s jazz band and played professionally with Die Grosse Capella, a popular Big Band from New Braunfels at the time. He took the opportunity to also perform at area military bases in addition to dance halls and ballrooms.
“I was and am self-driven, with dedication in everything I do,” said Soto. “Music is more than a priority, it’s a passion I instill, not only in the things I have to do, but also in the things I love to do in life.”
After undergraduate years in Seguin, he decided to look further into more advanced jazz studies and received a music scholarship from the world renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he attended from 1979-1981, routinely making the dean’s list. He studied harmony, arranging, composition, chord scales, jazz saxophone, ear training and counter-point with noted world famous instructors Phil Wilson, Andy McGhee and Steve Prosser. Learning as much as possible in the classroom, he was also “rubbing elbows” with world-class musicians such as Branford Marsalis, Walter Beasley and Donald Harrison, drummers Marvin “Smitty” Smith and Jeff “Tain” Watts, the late, great Kenny Kirkland on piano, guitarist Kevin Eubanks and trumpeter Terrance Blanchard.
He returned to Texas after his university studies to follow his heart and music, winding up in Austin to join outfits including Salero Salsa, El Tiburon and Big Band Tejano, AJ Castillo, Ben Marines & Salaman, Lo Nuestro, Dino Lee and The White Trash Review, Guitar Wizards Glen Rexache and Chris Duarte, Jump Start and The Pictures.
That led to recognition as a three-time Grammy nominee for recordings with Ram Herrera, Bob Gallarza. Soto more recently was part of the band that performed with Manuel “Cowboy” Donley, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. when Donley was the recipient of the 2014 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
There’s been a lot of highlights along the way. “My performance in front of 10,000-plus people in Houston with The Latin Breed in 2009 when we individually received a proclamation from the late Senator Mario Gallegos was a highpoint,” Soto recalls. “My performance with country legend Ray Price in Stafford in 2010 and my performance with ‘Cowboy’ Donley were also memorable.”
The list of performers and recordings on his resume is extensive, with Ruben Ramos, Roger Velasquez and the Latin Legends, Rick Vasquez and Bandango, coupled with music festivals and dance hall performances playing with Jerry Lopez, Sunny Ozuna, David Marez, Little Joe and Johnny Hernandez, Elsa Garcia, Joel Guzman, Humberto Ramon, Gilbert Alba and Super City, Steve “Rat” Silvas, Rick Fuentes, Fandango USA, Augustine Ramirez, Balde Muñoz, Beto de La Cruz, Carlos Guzman, El Charro Negro, Tony “Ham” Guerrero & Tortilla Factory, Gilbert Velasquez, Jimmy Edward, Robert Dorantes and Azizzo, Lorenzo Antonio and Grupo Sparx, and Gary Sutton and the System.
Soto, the proud father of three sons and a daughter, was inducted in the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame on Friday, January 8, with “El Primo,” Roberto Pulido y Los Classicos and Robert Ray and the Midnight Rodeo at the Jim Wells County Fairgrounds Pavilion.
He enters in the category of Million Dollar Band Saxophone, joined by Austin residents Isidro Lopez (Broadcasting), and Steve “Rat” Silvas (Million Dollar Band Keyboards), among others.
Special thanks to Liz Lopez and