Bobby “El Charro Negro” Butler (1937–2016)
Bobby “El Charro Negro” Butler broke down barriers as the first African American to become an award-winning Tejano singer. Butler’s career spanned over fifty years and included two Grammy nominations as part of the Tortilla Factory band.
Robert (Bobby) Butler was born in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) on October 14, 1937, to Cora Butler; the name of Butler’s father is unknown. His mother worked as a maid for wealthy white families who often mistreated her because of the color of her skin. His family moved to Fort Worth, Texas, and by seven he was picking cotton alongside his mother and younger brother. In the fields, he learned to sing the Tejano music the Mexican laborers taught him.
In 1956, Butler graduated from high school and received a two-year scholarship to what is now Arkansas State University in Jonesboro (Craighead County) to play the drums. By then, his family had saved enough money to relocate to St. Louis, Missouri, and join his father. Although they had been apart for fifteen years, Butler’s reunion with his father was brief, as he had to return to Arkansas to start college.
While in college, Butler joined a blues band called Chester Juydan and the Hot Brown Boys that performed at local bars. The band caught the attention of Chuck Berry, who hired the band to be his opening act. Two years later, however, Butler had to return to St. Louis because his scholarship had expired and his family could no longer afford to support him.
In St. Louis, Butler’s neighborhood was overflowing with drugs, crime, and violence. Butler’s girlfriend at the time and future wife, Rose, convinced him to move to Temple, Texas, where she had family. In 1961, a coworker introduced Butler to Joe “Little Joe” Hernandez, who had formed a band called Little Joe and the Latinaires with his three brothers. One night during their rehearsals, the band asked Butler to sit in for their unreliable drummer. While setting up, he sang “La Enorme Distancia,” a challenging song for even the best Tejano vocalist. Hernandez was so impressed that he asked Butler to sing the song during their performance that night. The audience loved it, so Hernandez kept asking Butler to sing more Tejano songs. Hernandez nicknamed Butler “El Charro Negro”—the Black Cowboy—because of the effortless way he sang Tejano classics. The band faced some discrimination because Butler was Black, but they boycotted any place that denied him entry, even Mexican restaurants. Butler decided to learn Spanish to better communicate the emotions of the music he sang.
Butler moved back to St. Louis to work on saving his marriage with Rose, but they divorced soon after the birth of their fourth child. In 1973, while taking care of his mother, Butler received a call from Tony “Ham” Guerro, a trumpet player with connections to Hernandez, asking him to come to San Angelo, Texas, which he did, with his mother’s blessing. In San Angelo, Guerro and Butler formed a new band called Tortilla Factory.
In 1976, Butler married Imogene Samuel. Tortilla Factory thrived until the 1980s, when Tejano music waned in popularity. The band took a twenty-three-year hiatus but reunited in 2009 and 2010, producing two Grammy-nominated albums, All That Jazz and Cookin’. Guerro died in 2011, halting the band’s comeback success.
Butler received many awards during his lifetime, including the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Talent Musicians Association. He was also inducted into the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame. In June 2016, at seventy-eight years old, Butler retired from music. He died in San Angelo, on October 14, 2016, a week after the death of his wife, Imogene Samuel Butler.
For additional information:
Martinez, Federico. “Tejano Legend Bobby Butler Has Died.” GoSanAngelo, October 14, 2016. https://archive.gosanangelo.com/entertainment/music/tejano-legend-bobby-butler-has-died-3ed635a3-0a21-7089-e053-0100007f3f9e-397102601.html/ (accessed February 16, 2023).
———. “Tejano Legend Bobby Butler Ready to Retire after 60 Years.” GoSanAngelo, June 16, 2016. https://archive.gosanangelo.com/entertainment/music/tejano-legend-bobby-butler-ready-to-retire-after-60-years-349f7ba0-15dc-0a6c-e053-0100007f2cbd-382472981.html/ (accessed February 16, 2023).
“Robert ‘El Charro Negro’ Butler.” Dignity Memorial. https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/san-angelo-tx/robert-butler-7140069 (accessed February 16, 2023).
Ninfa O. Barnard
Pine Bluff, Arkansas
A version of this entry was previously published on the website ExplorePineBluff.com and is reprinted here, in a slightly altered form, with permission.
No comments on this entry yet.
"*" indicates required fields