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Johnny Canales, Tejano legend who helped launch the career of Selena Quintanilla, dies at 77

Illustration of Johnny Canales in western gear, giving a thumbs up above a banner reading: "you got it take it away"
Johnny Canales, “the Mexican American Dick Clark,” helped launch the career of many Tejano and Mexican acts, including Selena y Los Dinos.
(Photo illustration by Diana Ramirez/De Los; Photos by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)
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Johnny Canales, the Tejano music legend and Latino television pioneer who helped launch the career of Selena Quintanilla, has died at 77. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Born in General Trevi?o, Mexico, Canales was instrumental in popularizing the Tejano and norte?o genres in the United States through his weekly syndicated variety show, which aired from 1983 to 2005. The program premiered locally in Corpus Christi, Texas, and was quickly picked up by other stations in the region. By the mid-1980s, “The Johnny Canales Show” was one of the most widely syndicated productions in the country, a feat made more impressive by the fact that it was mostly in Spanish.

In 1988, “The Johnny Canales Show” was picked up by Univision, giving it international distribution. Canales would take his program to rival Telemundo in 1996.

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At its peak, the show was broadcast in 23 countries.

“He was more than just a beloved husband, father, TV host, musician, and entertainer; he was a beacon of hope and joy for countless people,” his family wrote in a Facebook post Thursday confirming his death. “His infectious charisma and dedication to promoting Latino music and culture left a large mark on the world. Johnny’s spirit will continue to live on through the countless lives he touched and the legacy he built.”

For musicians on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, “The Johnny Canales Show” was an opportunity to reach bigger audiences. Among the acts that graced his stage were Los Tigres del Norte, Little Joe y La Familia, the Texas Tornados and Ramon Ayala y Los Relampagos del Norte.

“Johnny Canales is the Mexican American equivalent of Dick Clark because he broke everyone in,” Ramón Hernández, a Tejano historian and musicologist, told The Times in a 2020 story on the television host.

“You didn’t have to be famous, you didn’t have to have a top-selling record. He would just put you on.”

In 1985, Canales booked Selena y Los Dinos, then a little known family band that had released its debut album the previous year. Selena and her siblings would appear on “The Johnny Canales Show” multiple times over the next decade and she became a Tejano legend before she was killed in 1995.

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Part of Canales’ appeal was his gift of pocho gab. The energetic and ostentatiously dressed host would interview his guests in between musical performances, switching seamlessly between Spanish and English. Each segment ended with his popular catchphrase, “You got it! Take it away!”

“Well, Mexican people, first thing they want to do is learn a little English, and I help them a lot because I use the term ‘You got it,’” Canales jokingly said of his tag line in a 1988 Texas Monthly profile. “When they go down there to cross the border and the immigration says, ‘Are you an American citizen?’ they say, ‘You got it,’ and the immigration says, ‘OK, go ahead.’”

His use of Mexican American and borderland colloquialisms endeared Canales to his viewers.

“The language that he used was familiar. It was how we spoke,” Norma E. Cantú, a humanities professor at Trinity University, told the Times in 2020, noting that it was rare to see Mexican American culture on television at the time. “You didn’t see that anywhere else in the media, so one of the legacies of the show is that it was a place where we could finally see ourselves.”

In 2005, Telemundo canceled “The Johnny Canales Show.” Canales sued the network for $100 million, alleging fraudulent and deceptive business practices, but eventually dropped the lawsuit. He would try to revive the program online in 2013, but had to abandon it because of health issues.

Despite his decadelong absence from the limelight, Canales’ legacy has been kept alive thanks to unauthorized uploads of his program to YouTube, which have racked up millions of views on the video platform.

“He connected a lot of people separated by the diaspora and gave them a little piece of home,” said Charlie Vela, an independent multimedia artist and sound engineer from Edinburg, Texas, who releases music under the stage name Fronterawave, incoporating Tejano and borderland sounds — including Canales’ famous catchphrase — into his laid-back instrumental tracks.

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“The idea of the project in general was taking this music and presenting it to people through samples. I felt a kinship in the way he did it on the show. He introduced so many to new music, giving people a shared canon of Tejano and norte?o music. He made that possible.”

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Latinx Files
(Jackie Rivera / For The Times; Martina Ibá?ez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times)

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