National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow Manuel “Cowboy” Donley
It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the death of Tejano musician and singer from Manuel "Cowboy" Donley from Austin, Texas, recipient of a 2014 National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. A Mexican-American singer, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer, and arranger, Donley was known as both a bandleader in the orquesta style—which combines popular Latin musical styles, such as bolero and ranchera, with popular American musical forms, such as jazz and rock and roll—as well as the trío romántico style.
Donley was born in 1927 in Durango, Mexico, and his family resettled in Austin, Texas, when he was seven. In a 2014 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, Donley described how he first became interested in the guitar: “I happened to hear the guitar once while I was working, painting. [I heard] the guitar, and I just quit school and everything and went and got a dishwashing job to put a guitar on layaway. I was already a good 12 years [old] when I got hold of a guitar, but I didn't know anything about it. I couldn't even hold it.”
By the age of 18, Donley was performing in public, and in 1949 he formed his first band, Los Heartbreakers. After a memorable performance where the crowd requested that he sing “La Mucura,” crowds kept pestering him to sing as well as play guitar. In addition to performing on the electric, Spanish, and requinto guitars, Donley also played the trumpet and the alto saxophone.
In 1955, Donley formed the group Las Estrellas and wrote all of the arrangements for the big band which toured extensively on the dance hall circuit in Texas and the Midwest for two decades. Las Estrellas initially stood out from other Texas-Mexican orquestas for more prominently featuring the electric guitar, bass, and drum kit, reflecting Donley’s love of rock and roll. After Donley taught himself to write music, his band was additionally distinguished by the complexity and sophistication of his arrangements, differentiating Las Estrellas from other groups which purchased stock Big Band arrangements or employed outside arrangers.
Donley composed and performed for the movie soundtracks of Remember the Alamo, Los Inmigrantes, and Los Mineros and recorded more than a hundred singles, including the hit "Flor del Río," and three albums. Throughout his career he also performed in the trío romántico style, releasing the album The Brown Recluse Sessions with his trio in 2012.
In 1986 Donley was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame, and was recognized by inclusion in the Mexican-American Trailblazers exhibit at the Austin History Center in 2010, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in 2012, and a community park dedication by the Austin Latino Music Association. For more information about Manuel "Cowboy" Donley, including the full interview, visit arts.gov.
About the National Endowment for the Arts
Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the Arts Endowment supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. Visit arts.gov to learn more.
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