Johnny Rodriguez set a country music precedent when he became the first Mexican-American to garner a #1 record on the Billboard charts. Born December 10, 1951, Rodriguez grew up in Sabinal, Texas, about 90 miles from the Mexican border. Johnny was the next to youngest of ten children in the family, living in a four-room shack, and his growing years were split between the violent street life of the Chicano neighborhood and the middle-American standards set in the white school system.
Chameleon-like, Rodriguez functioned well in both environments. He gained A’s and B’s in school and served as captain of his high school football team. Unfortunately, he landed in jail four times before his eighteenth birthday. During one of those incarcerations, a Texas Ranger heard Johnny singing in his cell to pass the time, and was impressed with the teenager’s vocal abilities. He put Rodriguez in touch with entertainment executive Happy Shahan, who then employed his new singer in a show at his theme park, Alamo Village. Tom T. Hall happened to catch one of his performances, liked what he heard, and offered Johnny a job playing guitar in his band The Storytellers. Hall later introduced Rodriguez to Mercury label chief Roy Dea, who signed him immediately. Johnny’s debut record, “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)” brought him to #9 right out of the gate. Hall and Rodriguez teamed up to write the next single “You Always Come Back (To Hurting Me)” which became Johnny’s first #1 hit.
Johnny wrote his second #1 hit himself while riding in Hall’s touring bus between shows. “Ridin’ My Thumb To Mexico” was inspired by his youthful experiences in south Texas. He hitch-hiked a lot during his travels from town to town and would go down to Mexico sometimes. Rodriguez’s producer at Mercury, Jerry Kennedy, strongly believed that Johnny had delivered a powerful cut of “Ridin’ My Thumb To Mexico,” and it was shipped to Mercury’s home office in Chicago immediately after the mixing of it had been completed. The company executives were just as excited about it as Kennedy was, and the label’s promotions department decided to push it toward the pop market. However, the Top 40 stations just weren’t that keen on the record, although “Ridin’ My Thumb To Mexico” somehow did manage to reach the #70 mark on the Billboard Hot 100. Of course, it had no problems cruising into the #1 slot on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart October 13, 1973. Two days after the record made the summit, with just three singles under his belt, Johnny Rodriguez was voted one of the five finalists for the Country Music Association’s “Male Vocalist of the Year” award.
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