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Remembering the game-changing ‘El Rey de la Cumbia’ Fito Olivares


The world of cumbia lost one of its legends on Friday when news broke that saxophonist Fito Olivares had died at the age of 75 in Houston after a battle with cancer.

Born Rodolfo Olivares in Tamaulipas, Mexico, the young musician first began playing the saxophone professionally in his teens, a member of various groups before forming Fito Olivares y su Grupo La Pura Sabrosura in the 80s with his brothers and moving to Houston.

He wrote several memorable songs that became staples on dance floors at weddings, quinceañeras and other events including “Juana La Cubana,” “El Colesterol,” and “La Gallina.”

Singer and Tejano music archivist Veronique Medrano joined the Standard to talk more about the life and legacy of “El Rey de la Cumbia.” Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: For those who might not be familiar with him, could you tell us a bit more about who Fito Olivares was and why he was considered by so many to be a legend?

Veronique Medrano: Fito Olivares was a definite genre game-changer. His music, especially using saxophone and how he used that instrument to kind of influence the cumbia, really is what made him a household name. It was the just uniqueness of his music. You listen to cumbias prior to him, and yes, there was an influx of, you know, big band sound, but it was how he used those horns and by knowing that instrument that really changed the game for the music industry.

When did Olivares appear on the scene – in recordings and when his name became sort of a thing in Texas? Are we talking about the 80s or thereabouts? 

Yeah, it was around the 80s, and it was music truly that for that time – you know, we’re transitioning from a 60-70s big band influence into just things that were more inspired by Mexico. So because of these inspirations from his home of Tamaulipas and the sounds of Mexico, we start to see this blending of sounds that we will later see expanded upon after him. Like his style of music would be later expanded upon in such a way that would create like the very iconic cumbia of the 90s. So you don’t have cumbia the way it is now without Fito.

So he very much was a modernizing force, too?

Yes, very much a modernizing force. He came into the scene in such a way that for many would be seen as, you know, very grassroots. That’s the reason why it’s in the bodas, the weddings, the qinceañeras, you know, those big moments – because that’s the music that we use to celebrate. I mean, he is the influence for many because he was definitely a sound that people really just gravitated to.

I think one thing we’ve heard from fans in recent days has been an outpouring of remembrances. There have been folks sharing stories of growing up listening to his music, even photos from when they met him at one of the many events he would play across Texas. How do you think his fans will be reflecting on his legacy in the coming generations?

I think it will definitely be a celebration of life because he was so much a part of our lives, whether many of us knew it or not. I think that’s kind of the real shocker that will continue on for many people, you know, realizing that he was still very active even into current times and up until, you know, he started getting sicker, he was still outperforming. So this was his life. This was his blood. And people will celebrate his life because his music was a celebration.

Well, I love how you’re hitting on that note of joy, you know. In that spirit, when you think of Olivares’ music or the man himself, which of his songs first come to mind when you think of his legacy? 

Immediately “Juana La Cubana.” It’s just, that’s the one. That’s the one for me. “El Colesterol,” you know, some of the other ones you mentioned earlier in the broadcast – immediately the song comes and plays in my head, but the one that just sticks with me is “Juana La Cubana.” 

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Leah Scarpelli joined Texas Standard in September 2015 from NPR’s Morning Edition, where she spent seven years as a producer, director and occasional reporter of music and arts pieces. As Texas Standard director, Leah is responsible for the overall practical and creative interpretation of each day’s program: choosing segue music, managing the prep of show content, and providing explicit directions for the host and technical director during the live broadcast. She graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio. She enjoys riding her Triumph motorcycle and getting out for hikes in the Texas countryside. Her late grandfather was from Yoakum.