Manuel "Cowboy" Donley

Tejano musician and singer
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Ishta Weerakoon


Manuel "Cowboy" Donley is a Mexican-American singer, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer, and arranger. He is 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. His father was an accomplished violinist and bandleader, and Donley taught himself to play the guitar by watching other musicians. By the age of 18, he 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 ranged in size from six to 12 players with a horn section comprised of saxophones and trumpets. 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. A 2010 Austin American-Statesman article on Donley noted, "Donley poured all of it, all the genres and two languages, into one large bowl and shook it up hard, still keeping the Mexican classics but arranging them for orquestas ‘so it didn’t sound Mexican anymore.’"

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, most recently releasing the album The Brown Recluse Sessions with his trio in 2012. He continues to perform regularly and actively pursues new collaborations.

In 1986 Donley was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame, and has also been 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.

Interview with Manuel "Cowboy" Donley by Josephine Reed for the NEA

August 21, 2014

Edited by Lindsay Martin

NEA: You come from a musical family, don't you?

Donley: Well, my daddy was quite a musician. He played violin. He would play jazz to classical and mariachi. He was a complete musician.

NEA: And your mom loved opera.

Donley: Her sister used to sing opera, and she would [sing] with her all the time. Now their nieces, my cousins, they've been practicing with Plácido Domingo and things like that in Italy.

NEA: You are also a very talented visual artist.

Donley: Oh yeah, that was my main thing in school, because I just finished elementary and went as far as part of seventh grade. They would take me out of all the classes and just keep me all day long in the art room. And I would hear this from all the teachers, they would tell me, "You don't need to learn anything else. With what you know already, you'll have all the money you'll ever want."

NEA: How did you start playing the guitar?

Donley: 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.

NEA: Did you teach yourself?

Donley: Oh yeah, definitely. From day one. I was too bashful to ask anybody for any kind of instructions.

NEA: How did you learn to read and write music on your own?

Donley: I love music and I started playing with guys that didn't know any more music than I did, just by ear. But I would play chords, and people who knew chords [who] had an orchestra, they knew how to read, [and] they said, "Well, you can play all those?" And I would start playing it by ear the best I could, and when I learned to read chords and all that, that was a big step forward. Later on, I got pretty good at it, where I could read every note and then write it and all that, and that's how I learned to do instrumentation for my orchestra.

NEA: Tell me about your first paying job.

Donley: [When] I started playing the guitar, they would throw pennies at me. That was not paying, but it was tips. But I guess [the first paying job] had to be with the orchestra in 1949. We were playing with the Heartbreakers. It was just a bunch of young kids, and we just started playing by ear. And we actually would get paid. We would even play here in the Varsity Grill on Guadalupe Street on Fridays, and that was unheard of, because back then Mexicans were not too popular. But we were playing there for Anglos, and something called swing and bebop and stuff like that.

NEA: How did you become interested in rock-and-roll?

Donley: Well, most [of] the people that come across the border, they're humble people that don't have no education, so all they relate to is the accordion, and that's a simple instrument to play because you don't use too many chords or anything. There were hardly any Mexican orchestras back then. And so when I started hearing rock-and-roll, I liked it, because it involved [playing] guitar real loud, and I made my own guitar and started playing honky tonk and all that. And that's what really attracted the youngsters—playing by ear rock-and-roll. Nobody was doing that prior to me.

NEA: And you were combining it with sort of Mexican and Latin rhythm.

Donley: Yeah, by all means. Because the Hispanic[s] would ask me to play some of their latest popular songs from Mexico and this and that, so I started doing that, and I could relate to it because I was already into listening to trios like Los Panchos. So I knew good ballads, and I knew the difference between accordion music and ballads. I put all that together and I would take the Mexican ballads and put them with horns and everything, and then sing Anglo and Mexican and rock-and-roll. Nobody was doing that back then, not in the '50s. I had an electric bass already and [an] electric guitar and a real loud upbeat drummer, so we were heavy on the rock-and-roll. A big band couldn't play as loud as [us]—we were loud.

NEA: When did you first begin to sing?

Donley: Well, that was back with the Heartbreakers. We happened to be playing nothing but instrumentals—swing and a little bebop, stuff like that. And they started asking in 1949 [for] the song "La Mucura." We were playing at Zaragoza Park, and [the people said,] "We want to hear 'La Mucura.'" And the saxophone players, they [had] never heard it. It was brand new. They asked me, "Have you heard it?" "Yeah, I've heard it," but I [had] never sang before. [But it was] funny, anything I could hear, I could turn back and sing. So that night I sang the first song, "La Mucura," by demand, only to get people off our back. And all the rest of the guys started relying on me.

NEA: Let's talk about the difference between the Heartbreakers and Las Estrellas. What made you want to start an orchestra?

Donley: Well, I had already played with big bands that were reading all the sophisticated arrangements—"In the Mood" and the Glenn Miller beat, all that. I could play it on the guitar, and it was pretty interesting. But by mid '50s, it was already old. So the rock-and-roll attracted me, and that's when I made my own guitar and started—and this was about 1954—practicing, practicing. We got alto, tenor, trumpet, bass drums, and guitar. It was six of us. And we practiced and we work[ed] on the rhythm—heavy, real loud, upbeat—and that was something new. Everybody would be standing [with] me, standing up with a guitar, singing in front of the mic. That was new. Prior to that, all the big orchestra was sitting down.

NEA: How many instruments were in the orchestra?

Donley: Alto, tenor, and trumpet, and that went on all the way through the '50s 'til the '60s. Money was very good, so [we started] bringing in more. By then, some of the original horn players had accidents [and] couldn't play anymore, so I had to be trading—bringing in another alto player, another tenor, and show them note for note. And that's what made me learn the music, because I would show them on the guitar how to get the harmonies, and they would tell me, "Well, this is E, this is B." And that's the way I learned how to read and write, because everybody was quitting. And then when I learned to write, orchestrate, well, it was easy. I started writing the charts in the late '50s.

NEA: How did you get your nickname, "Cowboy" Donley?

Donley: Dell Martinez was a big promoter in the Skyline Club, and he saw me standing up with the guitar in front of the mic. Prior to that, only the cowboy, the Anglo county bands, would have a singer singing in front of the mic. So I was doing that with the guitar because I couldn't be sitting down, and it's easier to sing standing up in front of the microphone in front of the band. And that was totally new. So when that promoter saw me, he said, "You're a hillbilly. You're a ranchero—cowboy. You’re a cowboy." I said, "Yeah, call me whatever." I didn't mind it.

NEA: And how did the orchestra get its name?

Donley: Las Estrellas? That same man, Dell Martinez, he started noticing that we had a totally different sound from the big band arrangements, and he [said], "Oh, y'all are a star, las estrellas." He put us above all the other musicians, you know? He thought we were better because we were loud and playing the latest new sound, which was rock-and-roll, in the mid '50s, and bringing in the Mexican ballads.

NEA: That orchestra was really hot for 20 years. Then around the mid '70s, you began doing less work with them and more work on classical guitar again and with trios.

Donley: Right, right. The guitar is such an interesting instrument that there's no end to what you can do. And in the '70s, I was doing quite a bit of classical solos. I lost my eye [sight] about 12 years ago—macular degeneration—but I could take arrangements and I could still play "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" and some of Bach's major works on the classical guitar. And in the '70s, all the bossa novas were popular, and show tunes. So I would do all that as a complete instrument.

NEA: How many record labels have you recorded with over the years?

Donley: I counted 16 [record] labels with mine. I had my own company, Para Todos. At one time we had another one called Estrella label also. So [I've recorded with] a total of 17 labels.

NEA: That's amazing. You were out of the recording studio for years, but then you made a couple of CDs—you made one in 1997 with Las Estrellas. What got you back in the studio?

Donley: Well, vinyl was very old, antique. So I said, "Well, I better catch up to date," and I recorded a CD. And then just after that, maybe a year or a couple of years [later], I recorded one with a trio. That's always been in the back of my mind because I love the trios, like Los Panchos, and I got a chance to meet them and play. And I was even offered a job by the guys that play with Los Panchos to go traveling, in the '50s. But no, I was doing real good with Las Estrellas. Money was good.

NEA: "The Brown Recluse Sessions"—that's what you recorded with your trio, Trio Romantico. I thought that was an amazing CD. Some of those songs were really so beautiful, I would just have to stop what I was doing and sit there.

Donley: That's amazing, because my two friends that helped me, they had no experience with [a] trio or anything. Michael Ramos was the one who record[ed] us, for nothing. He said, "Just go down there," because he liked what I did. He said, "You can do whatever you want to, by yourself or with a trio." So I took these two guys, and no practice, no nothing. It was just one time through. It didn't cost us anything. But, you might say, that's life—no rehearsal. That CD was made live—one time through and that's it.

NEA: What's the difference for you playing with an orchestra versus playing with a trio?

Donley: A whole world of difference. [In an] orchestra, I play the guitar, ES-335, the electric guitar. And with a trio, a requinto, that's a fourth dimension of the guitar. It's a smaller Mexican instrument. I always joke, "Well, in Mexico there's no electricity," so you have to make your instrument project louder, and that's why the little guitar is tuned a fourth above the regular guitar. And it's totally different to play the requinto than the guitars. And the guitarron, that's something else. It's a big box, and it projects a real loud "boom, boom."

NEA: And you also play the trumpet and the alto sax?

Donley: Yeah, by necessity. I play the alto because most alto players had a little problem playing staccato sixteenth notes. They can do things like that, but it slurred, and sometimes I wanted a staccato, especially on the sixteenth fast notes. They're not easy. And then the trumpet, in the mid '70s, my good friend lost some teeth so he couldn't play anymore, and the other good trumpet player, Mr. Homer Salinas, he left town. So the rest of the trumpet players around here, they were all right, but they didn't have much of a tone, and their range was limited. So I played that for five years, by necessity. But when I had to sing, I would put the mic around my mouth and I almost knocked my teeth out. So first chance I got to hire somebody to take my place, I quit playing the trumpet. But I love the trumpet. Well, no, I love all the instruments.

NEA: You were on the road for 20 years with your orchestra. How often were you playing?

Donley: We used to play [on] Friday, [for] four hours, [with a] 15-minute intermission in between. Four hours. And on Saturday we always had a wedding or a private birthday or something, so that was another four hours. Saturday night, another four hours for a business dance somewhere in the Valley or up north. And then Sunday, the same thing—daytime four hours, nighttime we were booked out of town. Now you don't have that anymore. Nobody plays four hours continuously.

NEA: And you're still playing.

Donley: I'm still playing, yes, ma'am. And I still have some arrangements—I have at least maybe 200 arrangements that I wrote, and I save them because I no longer can write. I cannot even read. I cannot see. But I have a suitcase full of arrangements that I'm glad I kept. I thought I was going to have my eyes all my life, so I would write arrangements [then] two, three months later I'd get done and I'd throw them out. 'Til somebody said, "What are you doing?" "I'm throwing some away." "No, no, no, no, no. Don't throw them away. I'll go out there and pick them." So no, I started saving some. It's a good thing, because I can still play my classic hits or whatever. No way I'll ever have all the arrangements I've ever written because I don't even remember half of what I recorded.

NEA: What first made you attempt to write arrangements?

Donley: Well, necessity. In life, I always heard the phrase, "Necessity is the mother of invention." No truer words were ever said. And musicians come and go, and I would write the parts, [it would] sound good, and all of the sudden [someone] got sick or had to leave, and that part was missing. So I'd make sure I knew what line he was playing. And when I started writing, well, I didn't have that problem anymore. I was making all the arrangements.

NEA: You're somebody—and this is so rare—who has managed to support yourself through your music your entire life.

Donley: Not only that, but my first wife never worked a day in her life, and we had four kids, and they're all better off than I am. [They are] three girls and one boy. And with my [current] wife, I have two girls and one boy. So I only have two sons, and I told them, "Music was good in my times, but I don't recommend it now. You find a musician in every corner. You better get you a real job, because if you want paid vacation, [a] doctor, and retirement, you ain't going to get it by being a musician."

NEA: In the past decade you've received so many honors. You've had a park named for you. The Tejano Hall of Fame, Austin Folk Life, and now a National Heritage Fellowship.

Donley: Right, yes, ma'am. Not in my wildest dreams, I would have never figured it. I just wanted to learn to play my guitar. And I could have been an artist. My teachers would tell me right off the bat that I didn't need to learn anything else, what I knew back then. And I was only ten years old when they would tell me that. I could do anything. [But] I could [also] hear a number and play it that night. I did that many times.

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