A South Texas legend can be found working Wednesday nights at Hermes Music Store in McAllen.
As customers browse the keyboards, guitars and drum sets, Johnny Canales prepares for his El Nuevo Show de Johnny y Nora Canales hosting gig.
He took a few years off when he ran into a few health issues — “I had five bypasses,” Johnny said — but he’s back to shining the spotlight on a variety of tejano, cumbia and grupero acts.
“But they don’t pay legends very well anymore,” he said, with a wink and a smile.
The weekly hour-long music program can be seen at 9 a.m. Sundays on Telemundo in the Rio Grande Valley, and is also broadcast in Reynosa, Laredo, Houston, Austin and Dallas.
While Johnny and Nora discussed the guests for the show, four girls in bright lipstick and oversized sunglasses posed for photos with fans while the camera crew and producers flitted around the stage setting up for the show.
“We’ve been around for 15 years already and this is our first time,” said Mony De La Garza, the accordionist for La Conquista, an all-girl cumbia pop band from Monterrey, Mexico and Corpus Christi.
The band already has a strong fan base, but appearing on Johnny’s show helps spread the word to their fans that they’re working on a new album, said Machy, guitarist and singer.
Also at the taping of the show was DJ Kane, former singer of Kumbia Kings, who was promoting his latest single.
“Johnny’s always been cool with us,” Kane said.
In the early ‘80s, El Show de Johnny Canales premiered on Corpus Christi television stations, but soon spread to other South Texas markets like Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley.
The show highlighted mostly tejano groups, and Canales was one of the first to give Selena, back then only 13 years old, a publicity boost when she appeared on the program.
Other regional and Tex-Mex musical acts such as La Mafia, Grupo Mazz and Intocable also appeared on Johnny’s show.
The show’s beginning started with Johnny’s short-lived career as a singer of a tejano group.
“I got out of the music business and started as a disc jockey in Corpus at a radio station,” he said.
Soon thereafter, he was offered a 30-minute television program. He said he needed at least an hour.
Other cities showed an interest in The Johnny Canales Show and the program quickly became syndicated.
“We were in Corpus, Laredo, the Valley, then San Antonio,” Johnny said. “In 1988, Univision called me. ‘Hey, Johnny, how would you like to be on our network?’ It’s nationwide, worldwide. It was the United States, Mexico and Central and South America. By that time, we were in about 27 markets.”
The TV show introduced barely known bands to static audiences who were hungry for new music.
“Once they were on The Johnny Canales Show, they were seen by 100 million Hispanics instead of going on one radio station in the Valley, one in Corpus and all that,” Johnny said. “… And some of them became real big, and some didn’t, but at least we gave them the chance. Pero we’re credited with … helping groups get big.”
After about a four-year hiatus, Johnny returned to the airwaves, mostly because nobody took over his job, he said.
“They tried, a program here and there, but they didn’t go,” he said. “And the groups would call me (and say), ‘Hey, we need you back!’ Tejano music was going down.”
Canales has thrown his signature white hat into many of the Hispanic-saturated markets, but he has his eye on one of the biggest ones: Los Angeles.
“That is the number one Hispanic market for us,” he said. “They have 50 million Mexican and Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles. You know, everybody says there’s 11 million illegal aliens, no — about 20.”
Aside from giving bands a boost, the Canales’ have been able to use the show and Johnny’s fame to raise a lot of money for charities and causes important to them, Johnny said.
“Well, Henry Cisneros, the (former) mayor of San Antonio said, ‘Well, Johnny has donated millions of dollars,’” Johnny said, laughing. “And, I don’t know, it may be a million pesos.”
His wife doesn’t shrug off what Johnny has done for communities so easily.
“One of the best quotes that Mr. Cisneros said was, ‘It would be awesome if we had a hundred, a thousand of Johnny Canales to help out.’ That was pretty amazing,” she said.
Throughout the years, Johnny has received recognition from peers, groups, states, fans and music acts. Johnny estimates he’s received more than 400 awards, certificates and other pieces of recognition, but none of it compares to the love he receives from his fans.
“It’s not the money, it’s the people who accept you and what you do,” he said.
About 10 years ago, the television show was filmed on location in various parts of the United States and Mexico, and fans of Johnny would get a chance to meet him. Two people in particular made a huge impact on him.
“There was a woman in … Colorado who was dying of cancer, so the nurses said, ‘OK, Helen, where do you want to go? What’s your last wish?’ And she said, ‘I want to meet Johnny Canales.’”
Her nurses contacted Johnny, but it was a very busy time for him. He suggested they call back in a month.
“(Her nurse) called back and said, ‘She ain’t got that much time,’” Johnny said.
So Johnny booked a flight to Colorado and he surprised her at her home. He brought her a teddy bear as a gift.
“When she saw Johnny she was so excited,” Nora said. “She took (her oxygen tubes) off and said, ‘Oh no! Johnny can’t see me like this! What do you think? Are you crazy? I have to look beautiful for Johnny.’”
For nearly six hours, Helen amazed her nurses by breathing on her own, Nora said.
A few weeks later, Helen succumbed to cancer, clutching the teddy bear Johnny gave her. She was buried with the gift.
“Those are the things that make me go, ‘Wow,’” Johnny said.
At a concert in Brawley, Calif., a man was brought to the show in an ambulance.
“Someone said, ‘Johnny! Johnny Canales! There’s my dad. He said he didn’t want to die without seeing you in person,’” Johnny said, holding back tears. “So I went and sat with him and talked to him for about an hour while the bands were playing.”
Johnny has no plans to retire as host of El Nuevo Show de Johnny y Nora Canales anytime soon.
“When God says, ‘That’s it!’ That’s it. I feel like I have a mission to help these guys,” he said.