Carlos Gardel was a French Argentine singer, songwriter, and composer regarded a major figure in the history of tango. Along with his long-time collaborator Alfredo Le Pera, Gardel wrote several tangos which went on to become classics. With his deep baritone voice and skillful phrasing of lyrics, he was undoubtedly one of the biggest musical stars of the early 20th century. Referred to as “The King of Tango” and “The Wizard”, Gardel was the creator of hundreds of three-minute tango recordings many of which are considered masterpieces by his fans. Born out of wedlock to a young mother, Carlos grew up in difficult circumstances. The exact details regarding his birth and early life are not known though it is known that he did not complete high school. Blessed with a good voice and creativity, he began singing as a teenager and found a mentor in José Betinotti, who was a folk song expert. He began performing in cafes and clubs and soon gained popularity. His career reached newer heights with his collaboration with Alfredo Le Pera and he came to be regarded as a pioneer in tango. He was also a popular actor. He was at the peak of his career when his life was tragically cut short in an airplane crash.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born as Charles Romuald Gardes on 11 December 1890 in Toulouse, France to an unmarried mother Berthe Gardes, and his birth certificate listed the father as “unknown”. His biological father is believed to have been Paul Laserre, a married man.
His mother moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, with Charles in 1893. The boy started using “Carlos”, the Spanish version of his French name.
The mother-son duo lived in poverty as Berthe struggled to eke out living by pressing clothes in the French style. Carlos attended Pio IX Industrial high school.
Always interested in music, he dropped out of school as a teenager to seek out his fortunes as a singer. Fortunately he found a mentor in José Betinotti, a folk song expert.
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Carlos Gardel began his singing career performing at cafes, clubs, and parties. He had begun to gain popularity as a folk singer by 1910 and was now offered gigs in many big restaurants and cafes including the popular O’Rondemann café.
He collaborated with José Razzano and singer Francisco Martino in 1911 and toured all over Argentina, performing in clubs and gatherings. Martino left the group after some time but Gardel and Razzano continued touring and performing.
He received a big breakthrough in 1917 when he teamed up with Pascual Contursi to write what would become his most famous tango song ever ‘Mi Noche Triste’ (My Sad Night). The song became a favorite in clubs and was soon released on record as well.
The recording proved to be a tremendous hit and sold 10,000 copies. The resounding success of his first tango motivated Gardel to focus more on this genre. Along with Razzano he went on extensive tours through Argentina which added to his growing fame.
His rising stature as a singer and composer prompted him to tour other countries as well and he travelled through Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Colombia. He also performed in Paris, New York, Barcelona and Madrid. His world tours are credited to have made tango internationally popular.
His long-time collaborator Razzano developed serious throat problems and the duo had to split in 1925 following which Gardel established himself as a solo artist.
Another important collaboration happened in 1932. He teamed up with Alfredo Le Pera with whom, over a brief but fruitful period, he created some great tango classics. Their professional partnership was a highly successful one which resulted in the making of popular compositions like ‘Por Una Cabeza’, ‘Mi Buenos Aires Querido’, ’Solidad’, ‘Melodia de Arrabal’, and ‘Los Panchos en Buenos Aires’.
During the 1930s he also embarked on an acting career, his first full length feature film being ‘Luces de Buenos Aires’, released in 1931. His movie career helped him to showcase his singing talents along with acting. Some of his other popular movies include ‘Espérame’ (1933), ‘La Casa es seria’ (1933), ‘Melodia de Arrabal’ (1933), and ‘El Día que me quieras’ (1935).
The first tango Carlos Gardel recorded, ‘Mi noche triste’ is undoubtedly his best known work. It revolutionized the genre as it was the first time a tango had lyrics to be sung with it, and is credited to have introduced the concept of sentimental tango.
Personal Life & Legacy
Carlos Gardel was aware that his tremendous popularity and success was due to his sex appeal. In order to maintain his attractiveness to his women fans, he tried to keep his personal life guarded.
He was once in a long-term relationship with Isabel del Valle. The couple eventually drifted apart and Isabel later married another man.
He died in an airplane crash in Columbia on 24 June 1935 along with his entourage. His collaborator Alfredo Le Pera, guitarists Guillermo Desiderio Barbieri and Ángel Domingo Riverol, and several others also died in the crash.
Millions of fans in Latin America went into mourning at the news of Gardel’s untimely death and thousands paid homage during the two days he lay in state in Montevideo. He was finally laid to rest in La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires.