Doug Pullen / El Paso Times
Article Launched: 09/23/2008
EL PASO -- I didn't know Martin Fierro. But I wish I had. And not
just because he was a musician with a storied career.
His friends called him "The Meester." One of his favorite expressions
was "Chut up."
Clearly, the Mexican-born, El Paso-bred saxophonist had a sense of humor.
Fierro's laughter stopped on March 13, when he died of lung cancer at age 66.
We may not know much about him around here -- Fierro left El Paso for
San Francisco in 1968 -- but the Bay Area music community certainly
knew and loved him. He was a good friend and longtime sideman to
Jerry Garcia, the late, legendary leader of the Grateful Dead. He
played with fellow Texan Doug Sahm's Sir Doug Quintet -- that's "The
Meester" playing sax on "Mendocino."
He worked with Michael Bloomfield's Mother Earth and Quicksilver
Messenger Service, two bands that played big roles in the evolution
of the SF music scene that produced the Dead, the Jefferson Airplane
San Francisco's historic Fillmore Auditorium was the setting Aug. 8
for a packed memorial concert, where some of Fierro's closest friends
in music came out to play and pay tribute, including his longtime
band, Zero; Quicksilver keyboardist Pete Sears; and former Grateful
Dead singer Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay. Legendary '60s hipster and
Ken Kesey associate Wavy Gravy did the introduction.
So who was Rafael Martin Fierro? He was a natural musician says his
sister, Maria Orozco, a caseworker with Project Bravo in El Paso.
That talent manifested itself at a very early age. "Since he was 5,"
she said. "He learned the harmonica, then he said he wanted to play the piano."
When he studied the keyboard as a child at an all-adult school, his
teacher told his mother, "That little boy has talent. Don't waste it."
He played flute, his sister said, "like a dream."
Fierro was born in Mexico and moved to El Paso in 1952. He taught
himself to play saxophone to join the high-school band -- he went to
Cathedral and El Paso Tech. Known as Jerry to friends here, Fierro
found club work more to his liking, especially as a teenager, and he
played in local bands and backed the likes of Chuck Berry.
He later moved to Mexico City, playing in jazz bands that numbered
Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk among their audiences.
Fierro was considering a move to New York when, according to his bio,
"destiny guided him to the San Francisco Bay Area."
Probably his most-high-profile association was with the Grateful
Dead. His work with Garcia led to a guest appearance on the Dead's
1972 classic "Wake of the Flood" and some East Coast dates in 1973
(the year they played here at the County Coliseum, minus Fierro).
In a career that spanned 41 years, "The Meester" worked his magic on
classic albums like James Cotton's "Cut You Loose!," as well as
offerings from Merl Saunders, Roky Erickson, Loudon Wainwright III
and, more recently, String Cheese Incident, the Yonder Mountain
String Band and Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra.
His work with the band Shades of Joy resulted in a couple of albums,
one of which, the "El Topo" soundtrack in 1970, is considered a cult classic.
Fortunately, you can learn more about Fierro on his Web site,
martinfierromusic.com, which includes a lengthy discography and links
to some of his music, including "El Topo" and last August's tribute
concert. His sister attended the concert and the funeral. "I didn't
know he knew so many people," she said.
Doug Pullen may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6397.