National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow Manuel “Cowboy” Donley

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A man wearing a cowboy hat plays a guitar and sings on a stage with a band behind him.

Manuel "Cowboy" Donley performs at the 2014 National Heritage Fellowships Concert. Photo by Michael G. Stewart

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.

Contact

NEA Public Affairs, publicaffairs@arts.gov