Born on March 26, 1906 in Jiquilpan, Mexico, Rafael Méndez’s musical training began at five when his father needed a trumpet player for an orchestra comprised of family members. The Méndez orchestra, a popular performing group, appeared regularly at festivals and community gatherings. Rafael loved the trumpet and actually practiced more than his father allowed.
In 1916, the Méndez orchestra performed for guerrilla leader Pancho Villa. So taken with the family orchestra, he “drafted” them into his army. Rafael quickly became Villa’s favorite player, and after several months demanded that Méndez stay with the rebels, even after the rest of his family were allowed to return home. Months later, Méndez was released from the rebel army, and he began to perform in several traveling circus bands, in addition to the family orchestra. He joined the Mexican army in 1921, playing in the army orchestra. At age twenty, Méndez moved to the United States, working in steel mills in Gary, Indiana. Unhappy that he could not play his trumpet as much as he desired, Méndez moved to Flint, Michigan, where he began working at the Buick Company plant and playing in the company band. After winning a last minute audition for the Capitol Theatre orchestra, Méndez moved to Detroit and began working with other orchestras in the area, including the Ford orchestra and the Fox Theatre orchestra. It was also here that he met and married Amor Rodriguez.
In 1932, Méndez suffered the first of two, horrific embouchure accidents. While warming up at the Capitol Theatre, a door was carelessly thrown open, his trumpet crushed against his face. After studying unsuccessfully with several famous trumpet teachers, he returned to Mexico to study with his father. A year later, Méndez returned to the United States, moved to New York and joined the band of Rudy Vallee. After touring Southern California with the Vallee band, Méndez and his wife fell in love with California and moved there in 1937. Méndez’s twin sons, Rafael Jr. and Robert were born shortly before the move to California.
In 1939, Méndez joined the MGM orchestra, where he played on several movie soundtracks and performed regular live concerts. A Decca records representative offered him a twelve record contract after hearing him featured in an MGM concert. He was also contracted to arrange, compose, and author trumpet method books by the Carl Fischer company. Méndez began to appear more frequently as a soloist with orchestras away from the movie studio, appearing on such well-known shows as the Bing Crosby Show, the Red Skelton Show, the Art Linkletter Show, Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, and Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra featured Méndez as a regular soloist at the Hollywood Bowl. Méndez’s popularity as a trumpet soloist led to conflicts with his MGM schedule, and in 1949, he left the orchestra.
It was at this time that Méndez began his full-time career as a trumpet soloist. He appeared with symphony orchestras, college ensembles, concert bands and big bands across the US and Europe. Soon he was performing more than one hundred concerts per year. Having a strong sense of duty toward education, he began to work with public school bands as a soloist and clinician more frequently as his career progressed. His fame led to him signing an endorsement contract with the F.E. Olds & Sons trumpet manufacturing company. In the 1950s, Méndez began to appear in concert with his twin sons, who had also learned to play trumpet. He also began to appear regularly with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
By the late 1950s, Méndez was having serious asthma related problems and difficulty playing the trumpet to his own high standards. In 1967, he was hit in the face with an errant bat while attending a baseball game in Mexico. He eventually healed, but the accident, combined with his failing health led him to cut his concert schedule drastically. He retired from performing in 1975, but continued to compose and arrange. Rafael Méndez died, at home, on September 15, 1981.
Courtesy of the Méndez Library