He worked 50 years at Emporium Western Store in downtown Bakersfield, where he sold, fitted, steamed, creased and shaped cowboy hats for the likes of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Jack Palance, Garth Brooks and countless local customers who often became lifelong friends.

"Big" Al Gonzales, who had a way with customers that won their loyalty — and a way with Stetsons that cemented his local fame — died Monday at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital. He was 82.

On Tuesday morning the sign outside the Emporium on 19th Street read "Happy trails, Big Al. We love U."

And when customers walked through the door, they knew it wasn't an empty promise. There was a sadness in the eyes of employees, but when they began telling stories and shared memories of Big Al, big smiles won out — just the way their old friend would have preferred it.

"He was a great storyteller, and I'm sure some of it was true," quipped Stephen Goldwater, whose family has owned the store since 1928.

That sort of gentle jab was Big Al's specialty, and when friends and family spoke about him Tuesday, they dispensed with the sentimental in favor of the joy Big Al loved to spread around.

Ken Brenneman, a bartender who has worked at Bill Lee's Bamboo Chopsticks even longer than Big Al worked at the Emporium, is a longtime friend. The two travelled together to the Olympic Games three times.

And the veteran barkeep couldn't resist tweaking his friend for planning a trip to the summer games in Barcelona, Spain without reserving hotel rooms.

"I told Al, 'You may be one of the world's best haberdashers, but you're the world's worst travel agent.'"

Gonzales walked over to Bill Lee's four times a week for lunch, and he had a dish named after him called the "Big Al Special."

"Al was so positive about everything, and he had good things to say about everyone," Brenneman recalled. "He was just fun to be around."

Greg Gonzales, one of Big Al's six grown children, said his father was kind of an internet and social media before they were created.

"If anyone in the downtown area had a new joke to tell they'd seek him out to try and be the first one to tell it to him," Gonzales recalled. "But chances were, he'd already heard it and would beat them to the punch line."

As the siblings gathered Tuesday to share memories of their dad, they agreed that the one story about him that stands out is how the song "La Bamba" became his personal theme song.

"He was a huge fan of Ritchie Valens when the song came out in 1958, and he started singing it at family gatherings, weddings and whenever the urge hit him," Greg Gonzales remembered. "Over the years he became known in the family for singing 'La Bamba' and everyone looked forward to it."

Later in life, when Big Al travelled around the world with various tour groups, he began singing the song in amateur shows at various European hotels and on cruise ships.

"He sang 'La Bamba' in Paris, Rome, on the Mediterranean Sea and on the Yangtze River in China," Gonzales recalled. "The last time I saw him sing it was in Columbia, Calif., with a street musician three years ago."

Born in 1935 at Kern General Hospital, now known as Kern Medical Center, the elder Gonzales attended Garces High School and graduated from Bakersfield College. He met his wife to be, Jeannie Carr, at BC and the couple were married in 1956.

They were married 50 years and raised six children before Big Al lost Jeannie to cancer in 2006.

"What a great father he was," Big Al's daughter Sandra Gonzales said Tuesday. "He taught us to ride horses and motorcycles, took us fishing and we learned musical instruments."

She always enjoyed her dad's local celebrity, Sandra said. He seemed to know everybody and everybody seemed to know him.

"To this day, whenever i see someone wearing a cowboy hat," she said, "I ask if they know Big Al."

For everyone at the Emporium, he was like family.

"He was a great asset for us," Goldwater said. "People used to love to come in to see him. We had some people in here yesterday from L.A. asking about Big Al."

In a letter to the editor Gonzales wrote following his retirement in 2015, gratitude seemed to be the central theme.

He thanked "Little" Al Goldwater, Stephen's father, who hired him in 1965. And he thanked everyone ever associated with the store — a place he clearly loved.

"I want to thank all the wonderful customers it has been my pleasure to serve over the years, many of whom have become great friends," he wrote.

"Because of declining health, I have had to retire, but my heart will always be with the Emporium, the staff and its many wonderful customers.

"Love and luck, 'Big Al' Gonzales."

The hat man is survived by his six children, Greg, Celia, Mark, Sandra, Keith and Karen.

A celebration of Big Al's life is planned for 10 a.m. Aug. 15 at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Baker Street. A reception will follow at the Eagles Club in downtown Bakersfield.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.