Rafael Méndez was born on March 26, 1906 in Jiquilpan, Mexico. His musical training began when he was five, when his father needed a trumpet player for the orchestra comprised of family members. The Méndez orchestra was a popular performing group and appeared regularly at festivals and community gatherings. Rafael loved the trumpet and actually practiced more that his father allowed.
In 1916, the Méndez orchestra performed for guerrilla leader Pancho Villa. He was so taken with the family orchestra, that he “drafted” the family into his army. Rafael quickly became Villa’s favorite player, and after several months demanded that Méndez stay with the rebels, even after the rest of his family were allowed to return home. Months later, Méndez was released from the rebel army, and he began to perform in several travelling circus bands, in addition to the family orchestra. He joined the Mexican army in 1921, where he played in the army orchestra.
At age twenty, Méndez moved to the United States, working in steel mills in Gary, Indiana. Unhappy that he could not play his trumpet as much as he desired, Méndez moved to Flint, Michigan, where he began working at the Buick Company plant and playing in the company band. After winning a last minute audition for the Capitol Theatre orchestra, Méndez moved to Detroit. He began working with other orchestras in the area, including the Ford orchestra and the Fox Theatre orchestra. It was also in Detroit that Méndez met and married his wife, Amor Rodriguez.
In 1932, Méndez suffered the first of two, horrific embouchure accidents. While warming up at the Capitol Theatre, a door was carelessly thrown open, his trumpet crushed against his face. After studying with several famous trumpet teachers without success, he returned to Mexico to study with his father. A year later, Méndez returned to the United States, moved to New York and joined the band of Rudy Vallee. After touring Southern California with the Vallee’s band, Méndez and his wife fell in love with California and moved there in 1937. Méndez’s twin son, Rafael Jr. and Robert were born shortly before the move to California.
In 1939, Méndez joined the MGM orchestra, where he played on several movie soundtracks and performed regular live concerts. After hearing an MGM concert featuring Méndez, a Decca records representative offered him a twelve record contract. He was also contracted to arrange, compose, and author trumpet method books by the Carl Fischer company. Méndez began to appear more frequently as a soloist with orchestras away for the movie studio. He appeared on such well-known shows as The Bing Crosby Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Art Linkletter Show, and Milton Berle’s The Texaco Star Theater, and Xavier Cugat and his orchestra featured Méndez as a regular soloist at the Hollywood Bowl. Méndez’s popularity as a trumpet soloist led to conflicts with his MGM schedule, and in 1949, he left the orchestra.
It was at this time that Méndez began his full-time career as a trumpet soloist. He appeared with symphony orchestras, college ensembles, concert bands and big bands across the United States and Europe. Soon he was performing more than one hundred concerts per year. Méndez had a strong sense of duty toward education and began to work with public school bands as a soloist and clinician more frequently as his career progressed. His fame led to him signing an endorsement contract with the F.E. Olds & Sons trumpet manufacturing company. In the 1950s, Méndez began to appear in concert with his twin sons, who had also learned to play trumpet. He also began to appear regularly with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
By the late 1950s, Méndez was having serious asthma related problems. He increasingly was having difficulty playing the trumpet to his own high standards. In 1967, he was hit in the face with an errant bat while attending a baseball game in Mexico. He eventually healed, but the accident, combined with his failing health led him to cut his concert schedule drastically. He finally retired from performing in 1975, but continued to compose and arrange. Méndez died, at home, on September 15, 1981.