Vocalist Carlos Gardel was one of the best-loved stars Latin America has ever produced. At the peak of his fame in the 1920s and early 1930s, he was famous far beyond the country of Argentina, where he spent most of his life, and he played an important role in popularizing the music of the Argentine tango all over the world. Moving from music into films, Gardel seemed poised to reach even higher levels of renown, but was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1935. Seventy years after his death he was still remembered well in museums, in street names, and in the hearts of countless Latin American music listeners.
The man who came to epitomize Argentine music was actually born on December 11, 1890, in Toulouse, France. His unwed mother took him to Argentina when he was two, changing his original last name from Gardes to Gardel. He later Latinized his first name from Charles to Carlos, and after he became a star he tried to conceal his French origins, claiming to have been born in Uruguay. His mother worked at a cleaners' establishment in Buenos Aires, operating an iron, and he grew up on the rough-and-tumble streets of a rapidly growing city. His mother realized that he was unusually musical, but he attended the Colegio Pio X, a trade school, and worked as a typesetter and at a series of other jobs during his teenage years.
Did Odd Jobs at Opera Houses
Gardel's attraction to music showed itself when he began to spend time around theaters, from opera houses to clubs that offered gaucho-style music, the music of Argentina's cowboys. He was willing to do any job that might get him in the doors, from setting up a stage to being part of a planted cheering section for an operatic performer. In 1911 Gardel met another aspiring singer, José Razzano, and the two formed a partnership that would last through much of Gardel's adult life: for many years they performed as the Gardel-Razzano Duo, with Razzano taking over as Gardel's business manager once his own voice faded and Gardel eclipsed him.
Making their first recordings in 1917, Gardel and Razzano during this period performed what was known as creole music: romantic songs rooted in native Argentine folk traditions. But a new style was brewing in the shady nightclubs Gardel frequented. The new music, forged partly by the country's small Afro-Latin minority, was tango. Its intense rhythms and elegant, erotic dance moves caught on and quickly became popular in Argentina, as well as in the United States and Europe. Gardel introduced a tango called "Mi noche triste" (My Sad Night) in 1917. It was later regarded, in the words of Gardel's biographer Simon Collier, "as a decisive moment in the history of South American popular music, the moment when the tango song as such was born."
Gardel and Razzano continued to sing other kinds of music, but by the early 1920s Gardel was closely associated with the tango in the Argentine public mind. The tango fit his personality perfectly; he was a suave, elegant idol for legions of female fans, but he could also put across the hint of a rougher milieu that lay behind the tango's appeal, and he sounded natural delivering the "lunfardo" Buenos Aires slang that appeared in tango lyrics. Like Frank Sinatra, to whom he has sometimes been compared, Gardel excelled at the depiction of sophisticated romantic despair. Gardel took his image seriously and, well in advance of the trend toward physical fitness in Argentina or any other country, worked out frequently at a local YMCA in order to stay in shape. Looking for new horizons to conquer, Gardel and Razzano made a brief tour of Spain and France in late 1923 and 1924.
Wowed Parisian Audiences
That trip prepared the ground for Gardel to become the face of the tango as well as an international star. In 1928 he was booked into the Florida Club in Paris, France. To a program of tangos he added an old Argentine song called "El carretero" (The Cart Driver), which featured a catchy refrain of humming and whistling that helped him surmount the language barrier. Journalists hailed the new star, and for several months Gardel was a Parisian celebrity who enjoyed the Paris nightlife with visiting American movie stars and French nobles. Romantic rumors swirled around Gardel, who attracted throngs of female fans, but he never married. He is thought to have had long-term liaisons with several women. For much of his life he lived with his mother, installing the one-time iron operator in progressively more luxurious lodgings.
Back in Argentina in 1929, Gardel resumed his recording career. His 78 rpm records numbered in the thousands, and by this time he was an Argentine national icon with the affectionate nickname "El zorzal criollo" (The Creole Thrush). He spent the winter of 1930–31 on the French Riviera, the playground of Europe's rich and famous, resting up for the launch of the next stage of his career: placing the face and music of the highly photogenic Gardel before the world via the new medium of sound film.
With the sound film industry in Latin America still in its infancy, Gardel made his first film, Luces de Buenos Aires, in the Paramount corporation's French studios in 1931. The highly sentimental film starred Gardel as the boyfriend of a farm girl who is taken to the big city by a theatrical promoter who promises to make her a star. Luces de Buenos Aires and other Gardel efforts such as Mano a mano became hits all over the Western hemisphere, with the exception of the English-speaking United States. A world-class crooner and movie star, almost comparable in stature to America's Bing Crosby or France's Maurice Chevalier, Gardel now took aim at this last flower in his garland of international renown.
Chaperoned by Piazzolla
Arriving in New York in freezing cold weather on December 28, 1933, Gardel checked into the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. At first he experienced problems in the United States. His English was poor, and his broadcasts on the NBC radio network aroused excitement mainly among Latin American immigrants. Often serving as Gardel's interpreter when he went shopping in New York was a young Astor Piazzolla, then living in America with his family and later to become internationally known for his progressive brand of tango-classical fusion. Gardel sang a few songs in English but never became really well known in the English-speaking world.
His film career flourished during his stay in the United States, however. Well situated in New York, which at the time was still the center of the American movie industry, Gardel made four hit Spanish-language films in 1934 and 1935, including the romantic dramas El día que me quieras (The Day You Loved Me) and Cuesta abajo (Going Downhill). He made 35 films in all. Gardel's American-made films reached a wide public all over Latin America, and he laid plans to go on tour to exploit his new renown. It was at the beginning of this tour, on June 24, 1935, that Gardel's plane collided with another aircraft on a Medellín, Colombia, runway and exploded.
For the Record …
Born Charles Gardes on December 11, 1890, in Toulouse, France; taken to Argentina by his unwed mother at age two; died on June 24, 1935, in a plane crash in Medellín, Colombia.
Joined with singer José Razzano to form Gardel-Razzano Duo, 1911–early 1920s; recorded tango song "Mi noche triste," 1917; worked more often as solo performer as popularity of tango music grew; toured Spain and France, 1927–28; made film debut in "Luces de Buenos Aires," 1931; made films and performed in United States, 1934.
Not surprisingly, an outpouring of grief followed Gardel's shocking death at the height of his fame. More surprising were the widespread observances that greeted the 50th anniversary of his death in 1985. After that, Gardel became the subject of a Venezuelan play and of a Mexican dance presentation. A museum devoted to his life opened in Buenos Aires, and a street was named after him in Miami. His name and song lyrics still peppered colloquial Spanish, and a news photograph in 2005 showed a group of Uruguayan children dressed as Gardel, playing in a street. His memory among Latin Americans was in no danger of fading.
12 Clásicos, BMG, 1991.
Best of Carlos Gardel, Hemisphere, 1998.
El Rey del Tango: Gold Collection, Fine Tune, 1998.
The King of Tango: Vol. 1, 1927–1930, Nimbus, 1999.
Magic of Carlos Gardel, Harlequin, 1999.
For Export, BMG, 2003.
Tangos Argentinos, EMI, 2004.
Very Best of Carlos Gardel, Disconforme, 2004.
Gold Collection, Retro Music, 2004.
100 por Carlos Gardel, EMI, 2004.
Passion of Argentina, Milan, 2005.
Collier, Simon, The Life, Music & Times of Carlos Gardel, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.
Independent Sunday (London, England), September 8, 2002, p. 19.
Music Educators Journal, May 2001, p. 59.
New York Times, June 30, 1985, p. I5.
Seattle Times, June 25, 2005, p. A9.
"Carlos Gardel," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 16, 2005).
"Carlos Gardel," To Do Tango: Carlos Gardel Chronicles, http://www.todotango.com (September 16, 2005).