Trumpeter extraordinaire Crescencio “Chencho” Hernández — one of the most colorful, influential, and contentious figures in mariachi music — passed away at age 71 on July 19, 2017 after a long bout with cancer. Mariachis he played with during his nearly six-decade career include Los Camperos, Mariachi Águila, Mariachi Vargas, Los Galleros, Sol de México, Mariachi de América, and the two groups he founded: Los Gallos and Los Potrillos.
In the mariachi world, Chencho was much admired and imitated. Exceptionally talented, highly intelligent, and articulate in both Spanish and English, Chencho was multifaceted in the extreme. In addition to the trumpet, he played piano and all of the mariachi instruments, and was an outstanding vocalist and showman in general. His multiple musical talents included those of composer, arranger, director, producer, bandleader, and recording engineer.
Crescencio Hernández Ledezma was born on June 18, 1946 in the village of Chapala, Jalisco, on the shore of Mexico’s largest lake, about an hour’s drive south of Guadalajara. His parents, Esteban Hernández Montoya and María Eva Ledezma Calvillo, had eight children in the following order: Pedro, Antonio, Crescencio, Humberto, Jesús, Guadalupe, Josefina, and José. Crescencio, better known as Chencho, descended from an extensive line of mariachi musicians going all the way back to his great-great-grandfather. His immediate family constitutes one of the most impressive dynasties in the history of mariachi music.
The Hernández family in the mid-sixties
Clockwise: Antonio, Crescencio (†), Pedro, Humberto (†), Jesús, Guadalupe, Josefina, don Esteban (†), doña Eva (†), José.
According to Chencho, he began playing the triangle at age three, and later graduated to playing the saxhorn (saxor) in his village’s municipal band. His music teacher was that band’s leader, José Odilón Navarro. Chencho’s father, Esteban Hernández, played in local Mariachi Chapala, and in 1949, their group found steady work in the border town of Mexicali, Baja California. Chencho’s entire family moved there, but his grandparents soon brought him and his two older brothers back to Chapala to live with them for nearly a decade, a separation he would later describe as traumatizing.
It wasn’t until 1959, at age 13, that Chencho’s parents finally brought him from Chapala to Mexicali to live with them. Seeing that mariachi trumpet players were in short demand, Esteban bought Chencho a trumpet, hoping his son would take an interest in that instrument. “Within six months, he had already learned to play it!” his father recalled. No one could believe it was possible to master the trumpet in so short a time. Within a year, young Chencho was playing with one of the best mariachis in Mexicali.
Mariachi Los Camperos, circa 1964
Back row: Crescencio Hernandez, Pablo López.
Middle row: José Ordaz, David Coronado, Natividad Cano.
Front row: Ricardo González, Febronio Cobarrubias, Clemente Delgadillo.
By age 15, Chencho had moved to Los Angeles, where he was playing alongside his father in Mariachi Águila, one of the best groups in southern California at that time. Nati Cano soon took notice of Chencho’s abilities, and in 1962 invited the precocious teenager to Los Camperos, a mariachi he had recently taken over the leadership of. After about a year with Nati’s group, Chencho returned to Mariachi Águila, Los Camperos’ leading competition at that moment. Águila’s musical director was Pepe Martínez, who would later go on to found Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán and direct Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. In his second period with Mariachi Águila, Chencho paired on trumpet with his older brother Pedro, later known as “Pedro Rey.”
Mariachi Águila in the mid-1960s
Top row: José Martínez, Pedro Hernández.
Middle row: Crescencio Hernández, Esteban Hernández, Jesús Montijo, Luis Aguilar.
Bottom row: Roberto Gutiérrez, Miguel González, Rafael Aguilar.
By the mid-1960s, Mariachi Vargas was transitioning from one solo trumpet to a trumpet duet, and was continuously trying out different trumpeters. In 1966, they invited Chencho’s brother Pedro to replace the legendary Cipriano Silva, who had become unreliable due to excessive drinking. After trying out different segunderos, Pedro convinced musical director Jesús Rodríguez de Híjar to bring his younger brother, Chencho, into the group. Already having outstanding musical rapport from their recent tenure together in Mariachi Águila, the two brothers were well-received in Mariachi Vargas. “Pedro and Chencho had completely opposite personalities, but they complimented each other perfectly. “They were like yin and yang,” says their brother, José.
Rubén Fuentes recalls the Hernández brothers as the very first trumpet duet in Mariachi Vargas that he personally liked. Of all the trumpet duets the group auditioned during that era, he recalls, “They had the best rapport, and I wrote specific arrangements to take advantage of their qualities; Pedro on first, Chencho on second. They harmonized beautifully, more expressively than any previous duet.”
Federico Torres, trumpeter for half a century with Mariachi Vargas who performed and recorded extensively with both brothers, clarifies that while Chencho was by far the most technically proficient of the two, Pedro was naturally gifted with an extraordinarily beautiful tone. “Of all the trumpet playing Hernández brothers [Pedro, Toño, Chencho, and José], Pedro always had the most attractive sound. It’s basically a gift you’re born with, as opposed to something you acquire.”
But Pedro’s magnificent tone inadvertently caused discord between the two brothers. Here’s how he tells the story:
“Chencho always wanted to play first trumpet. I would explain to him, ‘I don’t mind at all playing second or even third, but I have strict orders from Rubén [Fuentes] and Chuy [Jesús Rodríguez de Híjar] that I’m supposed to play first, which is why I can’t let you have that part.’ But my brother never accepted this, and he grew more and more resentful. One night in Mariachi Vargas’ dressing room at the Teatro Blanquita, we had a heated discussion, and that was the end of our duet. I asked Chuy for permission to return to Los Camperos, telling him, ‘Call me in case you ever need me.’ A couple of months after I left, Chencho left the group as well.”
— Pedro Rey
Returning to Los Angeles after his initial sojourn with Mariachi Vargas, Chencho formed his own ensemble, Mariachi Los Gallos, which included his father and his brother Antonio. Chencho soon left that group, but it continued on without him. When he forbade them from using his group name, they changed it to Mariachi Los Galleros, and his brother Pedro eventually took over the leadership. Upon leaving the original group, Chencho organized a brand-new Mariachi Los Gallos made up of very young players. Vihuela player José “El Pozole” Arellano, a founding member of the juvenile incarnation of Los Gallos, recalls: “I joined around October of 1968. Chencho had recently returned from Mexico. Under his direction, we played five days a week, from 3-7 pm, at a restaurant called Casa de Fritos, in the Frontierland section of Disneyland. Nati Cano opened his restaurant around that time, and evenings we would often play at La Fonda to substitute for Los Camperos when they had out-of-town engagements or went on tour.”
In 1966, during his first period with Vargas, Chencho had recorded several songs as a guest on the futuristic self-titled album Mariachi Los Monarcas. One of the selections on that LP was “La Bikina.” Chencho mounted this novel piece with Los Gallos, and they recorded it on a 45-rpm single that received regional airplay, previous to Mariachi Vargas’ famous release of that song.
Courtesy of the Arhoolie Foundation
In the late 1960s, Chencho disbanded Mariachi Los Gallos and returned to Mexico to play with Mariachi Vargas once more, where his brother Pedro was now playing guitar, and sometimes trumpet. Vargas changed trumpet players with extreme frequency during that period.
Members of Mariachi Los Galleros pose with members of Mariachi Vargas backstage at the Million Dollar Theater, circa 1969. Both mariachis were on the same show that day. Young José wasn’t yet a mariachi musician.
Left to right: José Hernández, Humberto Hernández, Heriberto Molina, Esteban Hernández, Crescencio Hernández, Pedro Hernández, Antonio Hernández.
Whereas Pedro and Chencho had opposite personalities, Cipriano and Chencho were perhaps too much alike. Both were highly competitive and had short fuses. Not surprisingly, the two never got along very well. Musically speaking, though, they made an incredible combination. Some of the most memorable recordings of that era were made with Chencho and Cipriano in duet. One album from this period that stands above all others is the iconic El Cantinero, by José Alfredo Jiménez, a personal favorite of countless mariachi musicians and fans today. Manuel Valle “El Chivo,” probably the most recorded mariachi trumpeter of all time, considers this his personal favorite: “In my opinion, it’s the greatest ranchera album of all time, featuring one the most outstanding mariachi trumpet duets to ever be captured on record.”
This 1971 RCA Victor release featuring Chencho is considered one of the greatest mariachi records of all time.
Cipriano didn’t remain long during his final stint with Mariachi Vargas (1970-71), and for a year or so after he left (1971-72), Rigoberto Mercado played in duet with Chencho, who would later refer to Rigo as the finest segundero he had ever worked with. Mercado likewise speaks highly of Hernández. After Chencho left, Mariachi Vargas’ era of trumpet instability ended, and the duet of Federico Torres and Rigoberto Mercado continued uninterruptedly for more than 20 years.
After leaving Vargas for the last time in 1972, Chencho returned to Los Angeles, where he basically spent the next two decades alternating between Los Camperos, his own group, and, less frequently, Los Galleros. By the mid-1970s, he had reorganized Los Gallos, and they were back at Disneyland. Los Gallos was an important training ground for many budding musicians, not the least of whom were Chencho’s younger brothers. Jesús and José acquired their first performing experience in Los Gallos during the summer of 1975, while both were on school vacation. Their brother Humberto had gotten his start a decade earlier, in the band’s original incarnation.
Mariachi Los Camperos, circa 1978.
One of the last photos Chencho took with Los Camperos.
Back row: Pablo López, Eduardo González, Arthur Gerst, Natividad Cano, Luis Damián, Arturo Palacios.
Front row: Rebecca Gonzales, Manuel Vásquez, Febronio Covarrubias, Roberto Gutiérrez, Crescencio Hernández, José Luis Salinas.
Los Gallos regrouped again in the mid-1980s and were one of the headline acts at the 1986 Universal Studios mariachi festival. Between the years 1990-1992, Chencho was an on-and-off early member of Mariachi Sol de México. For a couple of years during the mid-1990s, he revived Mariachi Los Gallos for what would be that group’s final reincarnation. Although it wasn’t a stable ensemble, Los Gallos de Crescencio Hernández existed intermittently for over four decades.
Chencho at Disneyland in the late 1970s,
performing under the artistic name “Antonio Bravo.”
Chencho could definitely be impatient and hypercritical, but he could also be charismatic and charming, and he had a large number of friends, students, and admirers. Although he had been married several times, Chencho was single at the time of his death. He is survived by 10 children — Maricela, Crescencio Jr., Mónica, Andrea, Michelle, René, Steven I, Joseph, Steven II, and Claudia — and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Singer Lucha Villa was one of many artists Chencho accompanied during his career.
In the early 1990s, Chencho moved permanently to Mexico, establishing simultaneous residences in Chapala and Guadalajara. In 1992-93, he and his brother Antonio played trumpet in Vicente Fernández’s mariachi, a group from León, Guanajuato ironically named Mariachi Chapala. After a year, the brothers grew weary of the three-hour drive to León and left the group. Around that time, Vicente’s son Alejandro had recently launched his own singing career, and Vicente secured Chencho a position as his son’s musical director. Chencho’s original theme “El Potrillo” was released on Alejandro Fernández’s 1995 CD Que Seas Muy Feliz. He remained with Alejandro for about a year.
Whether formally employed or not, Chencho always remained musically active. In Guadalajara, he gave private lessons and rehearsed several groups, including Las Perlitas Tapatías, Mariachi Cuahutémoc, and Mariachi Los Toritos. He gave workshops and master classes as far away as Colombia. He built his own recording studio, recorded as a guest with other groups, and arranged and produced two solo CDs of his own, as well as productions for other artists. From 2000 to 2003, he directed his own ensemble, Mariachi Los Potrillos, which turned out to be a training ground for musicians who would later join mariachis Sol de México, Internacional Guadalajara, Los Pérez, and other renowned groups. In 2005, he recorded and toured with Jesús Rodríguez de Híjar’s famed Mariachi de América.
Chencho was innately studious. “Of all of our family, Chencho was by far the most disciplined,” asserts brother José. “Outside of work, Chencho really didn’t have a social life. He spent all his time making himself better at his craft.” I once asked Chencho where he acquired his unusual degree of discipline from, and he attributed it to Nati Cano. “Anything I ever learned that was worthwhile,” he assured me, “I learned from Nati Cano.”
Chencho and Nati Cano
Chencho’s studiousness was not limited to music. He was constantly studying new disciplines. He held an AA degree in Language Etymology from Río Hondo College and had certificates in Audio Engineering, Computer Technology, Real Estate, and Automobile Repair. He had studied arranging at the Dick Grove School of Music and was finishing his prerequisites to enroll as a music major at California State University, Los Angeles when his failing health sabotaged those plans.
Crescencio Hernández was — and continues to be — an inspiration for countless mariachi trumpet players. His brother José credits him as being the reason for his choosing that instrument:
“When I was about nine years old, around 1967, I heard Chencho play with his group, Los Gallos, at the Million Dollar Theater. It was the first time in my life I literally got goose bumps. Chencho was backing Amalia Mendoza and playing the introduction to José Alfredo’s ‘Cuando Nadie te Quiera.’ That was the moment I knew I wanted to play trumpet.”
— José Hernández
Chencho had three primary trumpet influences: Stylistically, it was Miguel Martínez and Cipriano Silva. He mastered the styles of those two and added to them. Technically, it was Rafael Méndez, particularly in the area of articulation. “One thing that always distinguished Chencho was his precise articulation,” says his brother José. In addition to those three, Chencho had certain jazz and pop influences, like Harry James and Herb Alpert. He was one of the first to introduce jazz and pop trumpet stylings to mariachi music. “He enriched the vocabulary of the mariachi trumpet,” says José. “Chencho was the most complete mariachi trumpeter of his era,” adds brother Antonio. Those who wish to explore the wide range of Chencho’s stylistic dimensions are invited to listen to the audio and video links at the end of this article.
Raised Catholic, around the beginning of the millennium Chencho became an evangelical “born again” Christian. One would think this newfound religion would have tempered his impatience and softened his sharp tongue, but it only did so to a limited degree. Jesús Hernández views Chencho’s unvarnished criticism of others as a product of his brother’s refusal to tell little white lies for the sake of politeness: “Chencho was always a very point-blank person. If you suggested he be more diplomatic, he’d reply, ‘The Bible says to always tell the truth, and I’m telling the truth!’”
In the summer of 2013, Chencho was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After surgery, his disease went into remission, only to return two years later. While his health went gradually downhill, his faith and his will to live remained strong until the very end. He practiced his trumpet daily until it became physically impossible for him to do so, and even in the final months of his life, he continued to give trumpet lessons via Skype.
Over 300 people attended Chencho’s funeral on July 24, 2017 at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California. At least 100 of these were uniformed mariachi musicians, including members of Sol de México, Reyna de Los Ángeles, Los Camperos, Internacional de México, Los Reyes, and ex-members of Los Galleros.
Timoteo “Tello” González sings his final adiós to Chencho
No matter where you rank Chencho Hernández in the pantheon of departed mariachi musicians, he was definitely one of the greats. On behalf of the entire mariachi community, mariachimusic.com extends its sincerest condolences to the Hernández family for their irreparable loss. May our dear friend and compañero rest in eternal peace. He will be greatly missed.
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PROGRAMS & CONCERTS
Alejandro Fernández “La Enramada” (Chencho de solista)
Vicente Fernández “Usted” (Chencho 1ª, Toño Hernández 2ª)
Mariachi de América de Jesús Rodríguez de Híjar Popurrí de Guadalupe Trigo (Chencho de solista con Felipe San Agustín y Jesús Villegas, trompetas)
Mariachi Sol de México “Celos” (Chencho de solista; José Hernández, José Manuel Ramírez y Santiago García, trompetas) 1997
Mariachi Sol de México “Paloma Negra” (canta Chencho; José Hernández y Jorge Contreras, trompetas)
Mariachi Sol de México “Homenaje a Nuestra Madre” (Pedro, Toño, Chencho y José Hernández, trompetas)
Mariachi Sol de México Popurrí España (Chencho de solista) 1997
Mariachi Sonidos de América “Cuando Vivas Conmigo” (canta Chencho; Francisco Xavier Serrano “el Loco” y Francisco “Paco” Aguilar, trompetas)
Mariachi Sonidos de América “La Gitana” (Chencho de solista; Francisco Xavier Serrano “el Loco” y Francisco “Paco” Aguilar, trompetas))
Mariachi Sonidos de América “Oh, Gran Dios” (Chencho de solista; Francisco Xavier Serrano “el Loco” y Francisco “Paco” Aguilar, trompetas)
Mariachi Los Potrillos “Las Trompetas del Diablo” (Chencho de solista con César Becerra, Martin Díaz y Jorge Contreras, trompetas)
Felipe Arriaga “Fina Estampa” 20 de mayo de 1972
Charro Avitia con el Mariachi Vargas “Ya lo Pagarás con Dios” (Pedro y Chencho)
Aída Cuevas y Vicente Fernández “Quiéreme Mucho”
Yolanda del Río con el Mariachi Vargas “La Hija de Nadie” 21 de enero de 1972
José Alfredo Jiménez con el Mariachi Vargas “Gracias” (Chencho 1ª, Cipriano 2ª) mayo de 1972
Mariachi de América de Jesús Rodríguez de Híjar “La Nueva Guadalajara” (arreglo y composición de Chencho)
Mariachi Águila “Los Machetes” (Pedro y Chencho) circa 1964
Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán “Mi Amor es Una Trompeta” (Chencho toca las tres trompetas) circa 2006
Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán “Desengaño” (Pedro 1a, Chencho 2a) enero de 1967
Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán “Duda” (Pedro 1a, Chencho 2a) enero de 1967
Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán “El Faisán”(Chencho 1ª, Jesús Córdoba 2ª) enero de 1967
Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán “Tristes Jardines”. ”(Chencho 1ª, Jesús Córdoba 2ª) enero de 1967
Pedro Rey con Los Galleros “Grande, Grande” (Chencho de solista)
Gerardo Reyes “Sin Fortuna” 22 de mayo de 1972
Rubén Rodríguez and his Guadalajara Kings
Tequila & Cream (1966)
Rubén Rodríguez and his Guadalajara Kings
The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of… (1966)
Roberto Sasián y su órgano con el Mariachi Vargas “El Jinete” (Chencho de solista)
Mariachi de América de Jesús Rodríguez de Híjar Popurrí de Guadalupe Trigo (Chencho de solista)
Alberto Vásquez con el Mariachi Vargas “Qué Suerte la Mía” (Chencho 1a, Rigoberto Mercado, 2a)
Alberto Vásquez con el Mariachi Vargas “Rogaciano el Huapanguero” (Chencho 1a, Rigoberto Mercado 2a)
Lucha Villa con el Mariachi Vargas “Mi Ciudad” (Chencho 1a, Rigoberto Mercado 2a)
Lucha Villa “No te Arrepientas” (Chencho de solista con el dúo de Federico Torres y Rigoberto Mercado)
Lucha Villa con el Mariachi Vargas “Te Traigo las Flores”