Manuel "Cowboy" Donley is a Mexican-American singer, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer, and arranger. He is known as both a bandleader in the orquesta style—which combines popular Latin musical styles, such as bolero and ranchera, with popular American musical forms, such as jazz and rock and roll—as well as the trío romántico style.
Donley was born in 1927 in Durango, Mexico, and his family resettled in Austin, Texas, when he was seven. His father was an accomplished violinist and bandleader, and Donley taught himself to play the guitar by watching other musicians. By the age of 18, he was performing in public, and in 1949 he formed his first band, Los Heartbreakers. After a memorable performance where the crowd requested that he sing "La Mucura," crowds kept pestering him to sing as well as play guitar. In addition to performing on the electric, Spanish, and requinto guitars, Donley also played the trumpet and the alto saxophone.
In 1955, Donley formed the group Las Estrellas and wrote all of the arrangements for the big band which toured extensively on the dance hall circuit in Texas and the Midwest for two decades. Las Estrellas ranged in size from six to 12 players with a horn section comprised of saxophones and trumpets. Las Estrellas initially stood out from other Texas-Mexican orquestas for more prominently featuring the electric guitar, bass, and drum kit, reflecting Donley’s love of rock and roll. After Donley taught himself to write music, his band was additionally distinguished by the complexity and sophistication of his arrangements, differentiating Las Estrellas from other groups which purchased stock Big Band arrangements or employed outside arrangers. A 2010 Austin American-Statesman article on Donley noted, "Donley poured all of it, all the genres and two languages, into one large bowl and shook it up hard, still keeping the Mexican classics but arranging them for orquestas ‘so it didn’t sound Mexican anymore.’"
Donley composed and performed for the movie soundtracks of Remember the Alamo, Los Inmigrantes, and Los Mineros and recorded more than a hundred singles, including the hit "Flor del Río," and three albums. Throughout his career he also performed in the trío romántico style, most recently releasing the album The Brown Recluse Sessions with his trio in 2012. He continues to perform regularly and actively pursues new collaborations.
In 1986 Donley was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame, and has also been recognized by inclusion in the Mexican-American Trailblazers exhibit at the Austin History Center in 2010, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in 2012, and a community park dedication by the Austin Latino Music Association.
Excerpt of “Adios Chiquita” written and performed by Manuel “Cowboy” Donley and featured on the cd, Exitos De Ayer Y Hoy, used courtesy of Manuel Donley and Las Estrellas. Adios Chiquita used by permission of Manuel Donley. ©℗1997. Flor del Rio used by permission of Peer Music, BMI.