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Méndez was born in Jiquilpan, Michoacán, Mexico to a musical family. As a child, he performed as a cornetist for guerilla leader Pancho Villa, becoming a favorite musician of his and required to remain with Villa's camp.
Méndez emigrated to the US, first settling in Gary, Indiana, at age 20 and worked in steel mills. He moved to Flint, Michigan and worked at a Buick automotive plant as he established his musical career.
From 1950 to 1975, Méndez was a full-time soloist. At his peak he performed about 125 concerts per year. He was also very active as a recording artist. By 1940, he was in Hollywood, leading the brass section of M-G-M's studio orchestra. He contributed to the films Flying Down to Rio and Hondo, among others.
Méndez was legendary for his tone, range, technique and unparalleled double tonguing. His playing was characterized by a brilliant tone, wide vibrato and clean, rapid articulation. His repertoire was a mixture of classical, popular, jazz, and Mexican folk music. He contributed many arrangements and original compositions to the trumpet repertoire. His Scherzo in D minor is often heard in recitals, and has been recorded by David Hickman.
He is regarded as popularizing "La Virgen de la Macarena", commonly known as "the bullfighter's song", to US audiences. Perhaps his most significant if not famous single recording, "Moto Perpetuo", was written in the eighteenth century by Niccolò Paganini for violin and features Mendez double-tonguing continuously for over 4 minutes while circular breathing to give the illusion that he is not taking a natural breath while playing.
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Rafael Méndez suffered from serious asthma-related problems by the late 1950s which caused increasing difficulty performing at his level of performance. After an injury at a baseball game in Mexico in 1967 caused additional deterioration, he retired from performing in 1975, but continued to compose and arrange.
Honors, awards and legacy
Arizona State University's music building houses the 1,400 sq ft (130 m2) Rafael Méndez Library which was dedicated and opened on June 11, 1993. The library holds 300 manuscripts and almost 700 compositions and arrangements by Méndez, as well as hundreds of images, articles and recordings. It also has an online counterpart.
In 2006, the Los Angeles Opera paid tribute to Rafael Mendez by performing a work based on his life. A reviewer in The Los Angeles Times believed that Mendez "has been called the greatest trumpet player of all time."
- Concerto for Méndez
- Love and Inspiration
- Magnificent Méndez
- Méndez in Madrid
- Méndez Plays Arban'
- Rafael Méndez & Laurindo Almeida Together
- Rafael Méndez (unplayed 4 disc set)
- Rafael Méndez and His Orchestra'
- The Magic Trumpet of Rafael Méndez
- The Majestic Sound of Rafael Méndez
- The Singing Trumpet
- The Trumpet Virtuosity of Rafael Méndez
- Trumpet Extraordinary (1957)
- Trumpet Showcase
- Trumpet Solos Extraordinary
- Trumpet Spectacular
- "Biography". mendezlibrary.asu.edu. School of Music, Arizona State University. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
- "Rafael Méndez - Music Biography, Credits and Discography". AllMusic.com.
- "Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Legendary Trumpet Player Rafael Méndez". e-Notes. School of Music, Arizona State University. Archived from the original on 2006-09-04. Retrieved 2006-04-23.
- "Rafael Mendez, 75; Musician Performed for Heads of State". The New York Times. Los Angeles. Associated Press. September 19, 1981. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
- "About the Library". mendezlibrary.asu.edu. School of Music, Arizona State University. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
- "Rafael Méndez Online Library". mendezlibrary.asu.edu. School of Music, Arizona State University. Retrieved November 4, 2016.
- Swed, Mark (October 16, 2006). "The top of the brass, Los Angeles Opera offers a work based on the life of Rafael Mendez, a trumpeter of effortless virtuosity and big musical personality". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 28 April 2014.
- "Biography:Albums". mendezlibrary.asu.edu. School of Music, Arizona State University. Retrieved 31 Dec 2014.