Bobby "El Charro Negro" Butler was the first African American to become an award winning Tejano singer.
Image Credit: www.DignityMemorial.com
Robert Butler was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on October 14, 1937. Butler Was born into a poor Black family trying to make ends meet in the segregated South. When he was five years old, his father left the family in Pine Bluff in search of a job that paid well enough to support them. Butler’s mother also worked as a maid for wealthy white families that often mistreated her because of the color of her skin. At 78, Butler still remembered the trauma and pain of his mother’s experience working for those white families.
By seven, Butler spent days toiling in the hot sun picking cotton, sometimes with his mother and younger brother. It was in those cotton fields that he found comfort and camaraderie, working alongside the Mexican laborers. By listening to the laborers, Butler learned to sing in Spanish even though he didn’t understand the words. What he did understand was the emotions that these Tejano songs conveyed and the acceptance of the Mexican laborers teaching him their music.
In 1956, Butler graduated from high school and received a two-year scholarship to Arkansas State University based on his abilities as a gifted drummer. By then, his family had saved enough money to relocate to St. Louis and join his father. After fifteen years apart, Butler’s reunion with his father was very brief as Butler had to return to Arkansas to start college.
While in college, Butler joined a blues band that performed at local bars called Chester Juydan and the Hot Brown Boys. In one of these performances, the band caught the attention of Chuck Berry. One of the biggest singers during that time, Berry hired the band to be his opening act at several of his shows. The dream ended two years later when Butler had to return home because his scholarship expired, and his family in St. Louis could no longer afford to support him.
In St. Louis, Butler’s neighborhood was overflowing with drugs, crime, and violence, the temptations of living in the urban ghetto. Rose, Butler’s girlfriend at the time, worried that he would succumb to those temptations and convinced him to move to Temple, Texas where she had family. Once there, he found work as part of the city’s sanitation department. In 1961, a coworker introduced Butler to Joe “Little Joe'' Hernandez, a fellow musician. Hernandez had a band with his three brothers, Johnny, Rocky, and Jesse, called Little Joe and the Latinaires who were looking for a new drummer at the time.. Butler would sit and listen during their rehearsals, and one night they asked him to sit in for their unreliable drummer. While setting up, he began to sing a song he had learned in the cotton fields. La Enorme Distancia was a challenging song for even the best Tejano vocalist. Hernandez was so impressed that he asked Butler to sing the song during their performance that night. The audience loved it, so Hernandez just kept asking Butler to sing more and more songs. During this time, Hernandez nicknamed Butler “El Charro Negro”, the Black cowboy because of the effortless way he sang Tejano classics. Butler was also an excellent showman, just as comfortable in a suit or in a full mariachi outfit with a sombrero.
Despite this amazing reception, Hernandez still had reservations about letting Butler join the band because he was black. He quickly changed his mind, though, when his younger brother Jesse reminded him that Butler wasn’t just Black, he was a drummer. With Butler now in the band, they faced higher levels of discrimination despite their popularity. The band took on an all-for-one mentality and boycotted any place that accepted them but denied Butler entry because he was Black, even Mexican restaurants.
With this added level of discrimination and scrutiny, Butler decided to learn Spanish so he could better understand and convey the emotions of the music he sang. Butler struggled with success though, eventually moving back to St. Louis to fix his marriage with Rose after succumbing to the temptations on the road. The couple divorced soon after the birth of their fourth child. Butler went to live with his ailing mother. In 1973, while taking care of his mother, Butler received a call from Tony “Ham” Guerro, a trumpet player who used to play with Little Joe, asking Butler to join him in San Angelo, Texas. Butler’s mother gave him her blessing, and he flew off to join Guerro. In San Angelo, Guerro and Butler formed a new band called the Tortilla Factory.
In 1976, Butler married Imogene Samuel. Tortilla Factory thrived until the 1980s when Tejana music waned in popularity. The band took a 23-year hiatus, during which time Butler worked for San Angelo’s water and parks and recreation departments. The Tortilla Factory reunited in 2009 and 2010, producing two Grammy-nominated albums, All That Jazz and Cookin’. Tony Guerro died in 2011, halting the band’s comeback. At 76, Butler received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Talent Musicians Association. He was also inducted into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame. At 78 years old, Butler retired from music. He died at 79 on October 14, 2016, a week after the death of his wife Imogene. Butler was best known for breaking down barriers as the first African American Tejano singer.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard