Sunny Ozuna is an icon of Tejano music. Not only has he been making music since his high school days in the 1950s, but he’s an artist whose discography goes on for days. The 74-year-old San Antonio native has a new album that is a retrospective of his oldies R&B hits of the '60s and early '70s. It’s called Mr. Brown Eyed Soul. Texas Public Radio's Norma Martinez recently had a chance to talk with "El Cancionero" about the new album and a reflection on his life and career.
Tell us about your start. You grew up here in the Alamo City.
Yes. Actually, I went to Burbank High School on the south side of San Antonio. In my early years, I started liking music coming out of my high school years. There was a recreational park in my neighborhood. After we got out of school, instead of going straight home we would go to the park for a couple of hours before our moms & dads got out of work, and then we tried to beat them to the house so they think we went straight home. But all my friends were checking out the baseball and basketball and football, and I wouldn’t. I would go inside the building and I would wait for this one gentleman to come pound on the piano. And that’s kind of where I first got the thought that I was going to like music.
If you can imagine, he was about seven or eight years my senior, and I was about 12 or 13 years old. Not really knowing what I was doing, except I would stand there to hear this one song that he would eventually play. And if he wasn’t going to play it, I had to push him to make sure he did it, because I had to be home before mom & dad! At the right time, he would go into a song called “Talk to Me.” And that was it. Through the years, he became a very well known musician here, too. His name was Randy Garibay, and he went and did Las Vegas, and they did a lot of big gigs. They used to do the music behind Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, but they came back home and didn’t do a lot after that. And during that time, I’m growing, and I’m getting to record my first song in the recording studio. Guess what song it was! God is good. To make a long story short, it got to be the #1 song in the country on Top 40 radio stations across the country, became the #1 song for 17 weeks in a row, and the song was called “Talk to Me.”
And it also made it onto American Bandstand.
It sure did! I was like every young teenager. When school was over we’d rush home to sit in front of the television to watch Dick Clark. I was seeing what everybody else was doing, how they were expressing themselves, but what happened, when I physically got there to do the program with Dick Clark, I looked at him like every other teenager, that he was a really tall guy because he stood up on that podium. But he was shorter than I was!
Let’s fast forward a little bit. You’re talking about the kind of music that gets you on American Bandstand. But you’re also known for playing Tejano, country, your music has an oldies feel to it. And you also sing in English and in Spanish. Your music covers quite a broad swath of genres. When you look out into the audience, the people who come to your shows, who’s usually there?
Over the last 53 years, what...well first of all, let me say that I didn’t realize that when I got to the point of Tejano music, is that I did not realize – only the Lord knew – that Tejano music was going to be a genre of its own, but it was going to have a wide variety. We like jazz, we like salsa, we like cumbias, we like Boleros, we like polkas, we even like rock-n-roll, we like it all! And being bilingual, that has been a big gift for us! I was able to do the rock and roll thing and sound a little bit Black, that was a plus for me. Talking a little bit about the writing, I got to a point where I really needed to write songs. I wrote "Golly Gee," "Just a Moment," "Put Me in Jail," "Smile Now Cry Later," and it goes on and on. I realized that the songs I was writing kept me there for one more year. They all helped to identify Sunny with those particular signature songs. Over the years you can imagine how many signature songs we have! Because I did that same thing to country, to oldies, to Tejano, now we’re tapping into Christmas carols. And we’re still adding more genres.
What are your favorite songs to write? You’re known as El Cancionero. What are your favorite songs? Is it love and heartbreak, or do you branch off?
I kind of stayed into the heartbreak thing in my younger days, but then after that I went more and more, probably because of the Tejano, more into the, I can’t say... beer drinking. I have this friend Little Joe out of Temple TX, and he does the beer drinking thing. I don’t do that. It’s not my forte.But I do like ‘man, you broke my heart, look what you’ve done to me, how can you be so cold, you’re gonna pay,’ that kind of thing. We’re tejanos, what do you want?
A lot of that is on this new album, “Mr Brown Eyed Soul,” it’s a lot of your soul songs. It’s all in English, and you can’t have soul and R&B without heartbreak. Tell us about the history behind these songs. Where do they come from in your career?
A lot of the English songs come from growing up. We were listening to a lot of other groups on television and on radio. We were called Garage Bands here in SA. We were practicing in our garages. We could only practice in one guy’s garage maybe a good five times. Every night that we played, the police would come to shut us down. So we did five of those, then we’d pick on the drummer, then we’d go to the guitar player’s. By the time they caught our number, we were back to the first guy again! So we developed this thing called the Garage Band sound. The oldies we developed because of what we were hearing on radio and our friends in school, and living as a teenager. Our experiences with life and pain and growing up. We put it into our songs not realizing we were touching a lot of our younger kids who were going through the same things.
You’ve been in San Antonio for so many years. What changes have you seen in the music scene and in San Antonio over all?
Quite a few. We reached a point especially around the height of Tejano music – I know everybody likes to say San Antonio started Tejano – but we have a much better shot to claim that than other cities because most of your major artists. It’s humongous. And a majority of your artists that became big stars in Tejano music all resided in SA. And you do have your Little Joes in Temple, Rene y Rene in Laredo, so we keep ours coming anyway! We call ourselves old school now! We’re old school!
Sunny Ozuna’s latest CD, is “Mr. Brown Eyed Soul” on Big Crown Records.