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The Eternal Bolero, Part 3: Staying Alive

            The bolero may not be what it used to be, but as they say in show business, it had a great run. Plus, a great revival or two.

            Like most popular music styles, the bolero had its heyday before fading from the commercial mainstream. It enjoyed a sustained period of success that spanned a third of the 20th century, from the 1930s to the 1960s. But its popularity waned in the wake of new musical trends.

            The bolero suffered a significant slump in the 1980s, a decade of major shifts in Latin music. Rock en Español was surging throughout Spain and Latin America. Traditional Mexican music, which often featured boleros rancheros, was starting to lose ground to the controversial narco-corrido and the loud and brassy banda style from Mexico’s Pacific coast. Meanwhile, along the Atlantic coast of the United States, racy reggaeton sounds from Puerto Rico and Panama attracted a new generation with profane lyrics and dirty dancing that left little room for the poetic tenderness and old-fashioned romanticism of traditional, genteel love songs.

            As the end of the millennium drew near, the lyrical bolero seemed like a thing of the past.

            Yet, the bolero is not a passing fad, like disco or La Macarena, nor a style stuck in history, like ragtime or the French contredanse. It is very much a living, evolving song style, refreshed by new composers and young generations of fans.

            As a song style, the bolero is more comparable to the music of the classic American Songbook, with songs closely connected to truly iconic composers such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and stellar songwriting teams such as George and Ira Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. No matter how many celebrity crooners interpreted their tunes (Sinatra, Bennett, Fitzgerald), the songs were always branded by the songwriters.

            Similarly, boleros are tied less to their various interpreters than to their famed composers, ones who are considered cornerstones of Latin American culture, not just creators of a song style. To say the names Agustin Lara or Cesar Portillo de la Luz is to evoke an era, a worldview, a way of life. These beloved songwriters and their music will never fall from favor, or from the collective memory.

            The longevity of the genre was confirmed by the bolero renaissance that emerged unexpectedly during the 1990s. The revival was fueled by two separate nostalgia trends that opened and closed the decade like bookends. These twin revivals took root in the two countries that had served as twin fountainheads of the genre: Mexico and Cuba.

            In 1991, as I have mentioned, Luis Miguel sparked a bolero craze in Mexico with the first album in his Romances trilogy, a series of recordings offering his modern take on classic songs from the genre, dressed up with new orchestral arrangements. Taken as a whole, the crooner’s series served as a survey of the Spanish-speaking world’s most enduring love songs.  (Coincidentally, his recordings include many songs I highlighted as personal favorites in Part 1 and Part 2. Perhaps that is to be expected; bolero fans share affinity for the same beloved tunes of the repertoire.)

            Six years later, in 1997, American guitarist Ry Cooder visited Cuba and helped launch Buena Vista Social Club, the internationally renowned ensemble of old-guard artists, who incited a nostalgia craze of their own for traditional Cuban music around the world. The albums by Buena Vista and its offshoot solo stars – Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo – did not concentrate on boleros. But since they focused on music from the genre’s golden era in Cuba, the recordings featured several boleros sprinkled throughout, introducing non-Latin audiences to these classic old songs for the first time.

            In this final installment of my bolero blog series, I am featuring boleros that re-emerged during the ‘90s revival. These songs could have easily figured in the first two installments, since they are also tunes I learned during my childhood and young adulthood. But blogs have limits, while the list of good boleros seems endless.

            I would be remiss, however, to wind up an extended review of the genre without mentioning Armando Manzanero, one of Mexico’s top songwriters from the last half of the 20th century. With captivating compositions during the 1970s and 1980s, the native of Yucatan provided a bridge between the era of the historic bolero and the renaissance at the end of the century. It is not by accident that he wound up co-producing Luis Miguel’s smash revival LPs.

            At our wedding in 2002, my wife and I played one of Manzanero’s biggest hits, “Somos Novios,” which he had written and recorded in 1968. The songwriter himself plays piano on this concert performance by Luis Miguel.

            Most U.S. fans will recognize the tune from its English translation, “It’s Impossible,” with new lyrics written in 1970 by Sid Wayne. That same year, the translated tune was first recorded by Perry Como, who turned it into his first Top Ten hit in more than 12 years.

            “It’s Impossible” remains one of the most covered Spanish-language songs of all time, with versions by artists as varied as Johnny Mathis (1971), Elvis Presley (1973), Vic Damone (1997), Julio Iglesias (2006), Andrea Bocelli (2006) and Engelbert Humperdinck in duet with Manzanero (2014), not to mention nearly four dozen instrumental renditions by artists such as Mantovani (1971), Los Indios Tabajaras (1971), and The Ventures (1979).

            During his career, Manzanero wrote more than 400 songs, including the hits “Esta Tarde Vi Llover,” “Contigo Aprendí,” and “Adoro,” which are also among my favorites.

            The celebrated singer/songwriter died on Dec. 28, 2020 at age 83. Almost a year later, on Dec. 12, 2021, Mexico lost another towering musical figure, Vicente Fernandez, who indelibly defined música ranchera in the last half of the 20th century.  Nicknamed “El Rey” and “El Ídolo de Mexico,” Fernandez was a master of the bolero ranchero, with a voice that could fluctuate between operatic power and whispered vulnerability.

            English-language obituaries usually mentioned Fernandez’s signature hits, such as “El Rey” and “Volver, Volver.” But he recorded many memorable boleros that captured the agonizing depths of yearning and loss, as well as the tender passions, intrinsic to the genre. As a fan for the past 50 years, a few of my favorite Chente boleros include “Acá Entre Nos,” “A Pesar de Todo,” “Por Tu Maldito Amor,” “Que de Raro Tiene,” “Mujeres Divinas,” “De Qué Manera Te Olvido,” “Hermoso Cariño,”and many, many more.  

            At this stage of my life as an inveterate music fan, there aren’t many famous boleros I’m not familiar with. However, the Nostalgic Nineties reminded me of a few that I love and are worthy of note in this final installment. In keeping with the concept of a recap, I’ve also created a playlist on Spotify of my Top 40 boleros, including the ones I featured in this series and a few more gems from my library of cherished love songs.

“Bésame Mucho” by Consuelo Velasquez & Daniel Riolobos

            Reporter Morley Safer of 60 Minutes once said on the air that this was the worst song ever written. I guess no woman ever desired his kisses so much, which is mucho. Maybe Safer missed the meaning, and the feeling, in translation. “Kiss Me a Lot” doesn’t cut it, because it’s not the number of kisses that matters, but rather the sustained, intense passion of kisses that blend into one. The song is a classic, written by one of the few women in the pantheon of bolero composers, Consuelo Velázquez of Mexico. She manages to blend passionate desire and the dread of separation in her lyrics.

            After her death in 2005 at age 88, The New York Times hailed her most famous song. “‘Bésame Mucho’ is not so much an enduring standard as a global phenomenon,” the obituary stated. “Translated into dozens of languages and performed by hundreds of artists, the song has been an emblem of Latin identity, an anthem of lovers separated by World War II and perennial grist for lounge singers everywhere.”

            Velázquez also wrote the song’s alluring melody that effectively enhances the emotion, as evidenced by the many instrumental versions of the tune, including this jazzy take by Dave Brubeck. It is one of the most widely covered songs in Latin music, with versions by Josephine Baker, Charro, the Coasters, Nat King Cole, Xavier Cugat, Plácido Domingo, Bill Evans, Connie Francis, Harry James, Diana Krall, Trini Lopez, Dean Martin, Art Pepper, the Platters, Tito Puente, and (famously) The Beatles. In the unusual performance linked above, the songwriter plays piano to accompany Argentinean singer Daniel Riolobos, who walks on stage and, surprisingly, starts singing the song in the middle, with the bridge that foreshadows the couple’s separation.

Quiero tenerte muy cerca,
Mirarme en tus ojos,
Verte junto a mi.
Piensa que tal vez mañana
Yo ya estaré lejos,
Muy lejos de aquí

“Historia de Un Amor” by Luis Miguel

            The young crooner does a marvelous job with this oft-recorded bolero of heartbreak and loss. It’s one of those standards that is taken for granted, with lyrics that can apply to any relationship suffering a separation. However, most fans are not aware of the real-life heartbreak behind the song.

            It was written in 1955 by Carlos Eleta Almarán, perhaps the only Panamanian songwriters to reach that top echelon of boleristas with this tune. He wrote it as a sorrowful farewell following the untimely death of his sister-in-law, Mercedes, wife of his brother Fernando. She died of polio in 1954, after only four years of marriage and leaving behind three children.

       Almarán’s lyrics take on deeper significance in light of the tragic circumstances of its origins. The permanence of the loss is underscored by the swelling melody that comes to a crescendo, then denouement, as the words lament that the light of love has been extinguished forever by an eternal absence.  

Es la historia de un amor,
como no hay otro igual.
Que me hizo comprender
todo el bien, todo el mal.
Que le dio luz a mi vida,
apagándola después.
Ay, qué vida tan oscura
Sin tu amor no viviré.

            Almarán (whose songwriting credits use his maternal surname rather than Eleta, his father’s name) was also a successful entrepreneur. In 1960, he founded, along with his brother, Panama’s first, and now its oldest, television station, RPC TV. Fernando, who held degrees from Stanford and MIT, went on to remarry and served in top government posts.

            Meanwhile, the song that bound them in trauma went on to worldwide success. It was first recorded in 1955 by Libertatd Lamarque, featured in the Mexican film of the same name. The following year, it was refashioned as a tango by Lamarque’s fellow Argentinean Hector Varela and his orquesta típica.

            In the intervening 66 years, the song has been covered by a constellation of stars: Guadalupe Pineda, Marco Antonio Solís, David Bisbal, Lola Flores, Marco Antonio Muñiz, Pedro Infante, Ana Gabriel, Eydie Gormé & Trio Los Panchos, Julio Iglesias, Perez Prado, Pedro Infante, Cesaria Evora, Eartha Kitt, Il Divo, and Diego El Cigala.

            Additionally, it was translated into several languages, including Chinese, English, Hungarian, Romanian, Finnish, and French.

La Mentira (Se Te Olvida) by Luis Miguel

            This bolero, “The Lie,” was written by Álvaro Carrillo (1921 – 1969), one of Mexico’s most prolific songwriters. The composer has penned more than 300 songs, including what ranks perhaps as the most popular bolero of all time, “Sabor a Mí,” which I featured in my post “Romance and Revolution in ‘Sabor a Mí.’”

“Veinte Años” by Buena Vista Social Club

            This sad song entered the canon of Cuban boleros almost from the time of its 1935 debut, with its sorrowful lyrics by Guillermina Aramburu and melancholy melody by composer Maria Teresa Vera (1895-1965). The song, however, is almost always credited to Vera alone, for reasons most people, including myself, have been unaware of until recently. Apparently, Aramburu wrote the verses after the collapse of her marriage of 20 years, hence the title. According to the Madrid-based music website Radio Gladys Palmera, the lyricist gave the lyrics to Vera, her friend since childhood, on the condition she not reveal who wrote it.

            Technically classified as an habanera, the song was originally performed with simple guitar accompaniment, in the style of traditional Cuban trova. Vera made an early recording of the tune with her partner at the time, Lorenzo Hierrezuelo, a duet formed in the mid-1930s, around the same time the song was written. Their collaboration lasted a quarter of a century. During that time, Hierrezuelo also formed half of another famous duo, Los Compadres; in which he sang lead vocals and was nicknamed Compay Primo, while his partner, Francisco Repilado, handled harmonies, or second voice, and was thus known as Compay Segundo, who emerged decades later as prominent member of Buena Vista Social Club.

            “Veinte Años” appears on scores of recordings, especially from Cuba. I have almost three dozen versions in my private collection. Among my favorites is the exceptional rendition by Bebo & Cigala, the Spanish/Cuban duo composed of Bebo Valdes and flamenco singer Diego El Cigala. Another, more traditional version was recorded in 1964 by Cuban folk singer Celeste Mendoza. She’s backed by the popular Havana-based son revival group, Sierra Maestra, led by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, a key creative force in the creation of the Buena Vista band that extended and enhanced his mission of preserving the traditional son music of the Sierra Maestra mountain range.

            And the story comes full circle.

           The song was 60 years old when it was recorded for the inaugural Buena Vista album (1997), and later included on the solo, self-titled album (2000) by the ensemble’s beloved singer Omara Portuondo.

            But nothing quite matches the heart-melting charm of a recent version by a brother-sister duo known as Isaac et Nora, a couple of South Korean kids living in Brittany in northwest France. In their informal YouTube clip from 2019, the children shyly sing the Spanish lyrics, while Isaac plays a trumpet solo and their bespectacled father plays guitar in the background, flashing occasional approving smiles.

            In an amazing development that could never have been foreseen by the bolerista generation, this video of “Veinte Años” has accumulated more than 7 million views. The brother-sister act has soared in global popularity. They have a new album of Latin standards, Latin & Love Studies, a polished, professional Facebook page with 1.4 million followers, and a YouTube channel that has attracted almost 57 million views.

            And the bolero lives on.

                                                                                                                        – Agustín Gurza


Also in this series:

The Eternal Bolero, Part 1: Love Songs That Endure for Decades

The Eternal Bolero, Part 2: Songs I Learned in College








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The Eternal Bolero, Part 2: Songs I Learned in College

            In the first installment of my three-part series on the bolero, I offered an overview of the romantic genre and highlighted songs I had learned from my parents as a child. In Part 2, I’ve selected eight more classics that I discovered during my college years in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

            Those were years of cultural upheaval and explosive creativity, especially in pop music. For ethnic minorities fighting for civil rights and racial respect, it was an exciting time of cultural discovery. Many young Mexican Americans, swept up in the Chicano Movement, made it their mission to explore and affirm their cultural roots in food, literature, art, and music.

            That reawakening sparked a wave of community-based arts among Latinos/as, producing influential clusters of new music that put Latinos on the national pop music map.

            In Texas, Little Joe and other Tejanos pioneered the Tex-Mex sound. In San Francisco, Carlos Santana, the son of a mariachi musician from Tijuana, kicked off the Latin Rock craze by incorporating Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” into a brash new rock/tropical fusion. And in Los Angeles, Los Lobos spearheaded Chicano rock, and Tierra forged the East L.A. sound.

            Meanwhile on the East Coast, the children of Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants fueled an exciting new era of Caribbean dance music dubbed salsa, featuring a hip style, jazzy elements, and modern recording techniques.

            I was a huge fan of the salsa music coming out of New York at the time. It felt a little like the so-called British Invasion of the previous decade, with U.S. fans hungry for the latest releases from London. The salsa craze set us on a similar hunt for music from the top New York artists recording for a cluster of independent labels, primarily Fania, Coco, Tico, Alegre, and Salsoul.

            The new music was hard to find in California. Even at Berkeley, which boasted a couple of cutting-edge record stores, the Latin music sections were small and poorly stocked, if you could find them. So, when my girlfriend (and future wife) announced she was making a summer trip to Manhattan, I eagerly asked her to bring me back some salsa albums – any salsa albums. She returned with the Holy Grail of new Afro-Caribbean music – top albums by Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, Ismael Rivera, Santos Colon, and Johnny Pacheco with vocalist Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez. I listened to them alone in my cozy apartment, on the upper floor of a home in Oakland, overlooking the tree-tops, absorbed by the sounds of a different culture.

            In those days, salsa albums generally stuck to a loose formula, a mix of dance tracks (mambo, son, cha-cha-cha, guaracha, merengue), along with a couple of boleros, often one per side. Keeping the flame alive 50 years later, the podcast Radio Alimaña recently posted a one-hour compilation of boleros by various artists on Fania Records, including the much-admired Hector Lavoe and the under-appreciated Justo Betancourt.

            Eventually, my record collection had exposed me to the canon of Cuban and Puerto Rican boleros, expanding on my parents’ Mexican-influenced song selection featured in Part 1. Below are some of the boleros that I discovered during that ear-opening era. These songs touched me from the start and have stayed with me since then.

“Convergencia” by Johnny Pacheco & Pete “Conde” Rodriguez

            I was immediately captivated by the lyrical and melodic mystique of this old bolero, with lyrics by Bienvenido Julián Gutiérrez and music by Marcelino Guerra. It was composed in 1938 and first recorded the following year in New York by Cuarteto Caney, featuring famed Cuban bandleader Machito and Puerto Rican singer Johnny López.  I first heard it on a 1972 compilation album, Ten Great Years, by Johnny Pacheco, the Dominican bandleader who co-founded Fania Records, the label that spearheaded the salsa boom of the 1970s. The tune originally appeared on Pacheco’s 1967 album Sabor Típico, featuring the sublime vocals of Afro-Puerto Rican singer Pete “Conde” Rodriguez. As a team through the early 1970s, Pacheco and “El Conde” would produce a series of popular albums featuring a “típico” sound with a conjunto lineup, tighter and more compact than the salsa big bands of the 1950s. Those traditional albums were like primary textbooks in my early salsa education.

            This song still holds mystery for me. Clearly, it’s about heartache and lost love that makes you lose sleep (novelesco insomnio do’ vivió el amor), but the conclusion still escapes me. The one-word title (“convergence”) never appears in the song as a noun. The single use of the word is as a verb in the final line, where the singer says he is like “the straight line that converged” (la linea recta que convergió). But converged with what? It’s not clear, at least to me. To make matters worse, there are small inconsistencies in various versions of the lyrics, online and in liner notes, that make big differences. Is it “de playas y olas?” Or “de playas solas?” Is it “porque la tuya final vivió,” or “al final vivió?”

            In the end, precise words and ambiguous phrasing don’t matter. Just let the feeling carry you. In the middle section, the melody cascades down the musical scale in short phrases, creating a gently flowing sensation, as if pulling the listener downstream to an inevitable end. The sad, five-syllable phrases are like steps on the emotional waterfall:

Madero de nave que naufragó,
            piedra rodando,

                        sobre sí misma,

                                    alma doliente

                                                vagando a solas

                                                            de playas, olas,

                                                                        así soy yo:

La línea recta que convergió
porqué la tuya final vivió.

            The brilliant arrangement on the Pacheco/Conde recording uses overlapping horns to echo the cascading melody. Sadly, no arranger is credited on the album (Fania LP 339). Ironically, Fania would eventually become known as the label that meticulously credited musicians, composers, and arrangers on its releases, reversing the anonymity that prevailed in the Latin music industry during earlier decades.

            The Frontera Collection has a 78-rpm version of that early recording by Cuarteto Caney (Decca 21047B). Identified as a bolero-son, it opens with a solo trumpet playing the entire melody before the singing starts, an unusual approach. A full version is available on YouTube.    

            This is the only copy of the song in the database, but it has been recorded many times over the decades. In Cuba, fans treasure the 1980s duet by revered sonero Miguelito Cuní with singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, the New Song icon who also recorded a solo vocal in 1978 with Cuban jazz pianist Emiliano Salvador. Another notable recording, despite the strangely unsynchronized harmonies, is the duet between Cuban singer Omara Portuondo (of Buena Vista fame) and the song’s co-composer, Marcelino Guerra, nicknamed Rapindey.  Omara’s fellow Buena Vista vocalist recorded a tender, touching rendition on his 2007 album, Mi Sueño, with the sensitive piano accompaniment of Roberto Fonseca.

            Half a century after that Pacheco recording, contemporary musicians keep finding new ways to interpret the bolero. In 2014, a genre-busting, mind-bending version was recorded by none other than the son of El Conde, trumpeter Pete Rodriguez Jr., who holds a doctorate of musical arts from the University of Texas at Austin. The new version released the following year by Destiny Records on the album El Conde Negro, shows that the song has no stylistic boundaries. This is not your father’s bolero anymore.

“Usted” by Santos Colon

            In its one-word title, this sad song gives a cryptic clue to its meaning, though at the end, it’s still a bit of a mystery.

            The title is the formal variant of the pronoun “you” in Spanish. “Usted” is used, rather than the informal “tu,” when addressing a figure of respect: an elder, a parent, a teacher, or simply a stranger. It connotes both distance and unequal status in a relationship. In this case, the use is completely incongruous, since the speaker is supposedly addressing a person of great intimacy, perhaps a former lover who presumably has left, and left behind a broken heart.

            “Usted” is included on Colon’s 1972 album, Fiel (Fania Records SLP 430), a 10-track set of love songs tastefully arranged by Argentina’s Jorge Calandrelli. The song was composed by two prominent Mexican songwriters, music by Gabriel Ruiz and words by José Antonio Zorrilla. They blend so well together, the song feels like it blossomed from a single creative mind.

            I found 30 recordings of the song in the Frontera Collection, with two of special interest, both recorded in Mexico. First, the popular trio Los Tres Diamantes bring their high-pitched harmonies and hyper-romantic approach to the song, released by RCA at all three playback speeds – 78, 33, and 45. On another RCA Victor recording, composer and pianist Ruiz accompanies emotive Mexican vocalist Amalia Mendoza, primarily known for her rancheras. In this rendition, prominent arranger and bandleader Chucho Ferrer provides restrained orchestration that spotlights the singer while adding lovely musical embellishments throughout.

            I first heard the song in the smooth, honeyed voice of Santos Colon, a Puerto Rican artist who had fronted the high-powered dance band of Tito Puente, and who, at the time of this release, was still performing with the explosive Fania All Stars. As a soloist, affectionately nicknamed Santitos, he was known for his understated but compelling bolero interpretations.

            In the case of “Usted,” the typical bolero theme seems obvious at first. It’s about a man who has had his heart broken by a woman who is “the blame of all my anguish and all my losses,” who filled his heart with “sweet restlessness and bitter disappointments.”

Usted es la culpable
De todas mis angustias y todos mis quebrantos
Usted llenó mi vida
De dulces inquietudes y amargos desencantos

            It is only at the end that we realize this guy’s been suffering from afar. He uses “usted” because they are, in fact, strangers and he’s been hoping to get up the nerve to kiss her.

Usted me desespera
Me mata, me enloquece
Y hasta la vida diera por vencer el miedo
De besarla a usted

            With that revelation from what turns out to be an obsessed but timid admirer (stalker?), the use of the formal “usted” packs a powerful surprise punch, perhaps more disturbing than romantic. But make no mistake, bolero fans read it as a love story, as illustrated by the following comment from a fan on a YouTube clip of the song from Los Panchos.

            Cecilia Posadas writes: “I owe my very existence to this song. My grandfather was a whisker away from losing my grandmother, but one night he took her this song in a serenata. They got back together that same day, they married, and they had my dad. ❤” (Le debo mi existencia a esta canción, mi abuelo estaba a nada de perder a mi abuelita pero una noche le llevó serenata con esta canción, regresaron ese día, se casaron y tuvieron a mi papá ❤.)

“Dos Gardenias” by Angel Canales

            This is perhaps the weirdest version of the oft-recorded bolero, and I can’t get enough of it. The unusual interpretation is not unexpected from an upstart performer known for his offbeat vocal style as “El Diferente.”

             Fans loved Canales for his pirate persona, with his bald head, long necklaces, and gold lamé outfits. His band’s arrangements are jazzy and hip, although his lyrical themes are fairy traditional – paens to Puerto Rico, Nuyorican culture, social musings, and, of course, torch-songs-to-kill-yourself-by (corta-venas), such as “La Hiedra” and “Nostalgia,” a bolero tango.

            Canales’s voice is decidedly, and deliberately, non-traditional. His nasal tones and strangely modulated phrasing make him sound like a Latino Bob Dylan. In an aching, desperate song like “Dos Gardenias,” written in 1945 by Cuban pianist and songwriter Isolina Carrillo, the singer’s edgy style adds an additional dose of anguish to the seething jealousy, as if he were losing his mind as well as his heart.

            The two gardenias of the title are a symbolic gift from one lover to another, explicitly representing their two hearts. It’s a good choice of imagery, since the white flower is said to represent purity, trust, and hope. However, a sense of suspicion and potential betrayal arises in the final line:

“Pero si un atardecer
Las gardenias de mi amor se mueren
Es porque han adivinado
Que tu amor me ha traicionado
Porque existe otro querer

            Where did that poisonous possibility come from? He suddenly refers to the specter of a potential infidelity, to be revealed by the death of the gardenias. It makes you wonder if, despite all the prior romantic lyrics, the flower-giver already suspects he’s losing her love.

            If so, that suspicion would align with another trait that gardenias symbolize – clarity. But that’s not necessarily a good thing, explains, a website devoted to flowers:

            “In fact, you could use a gardenia flower to show that you know more than you need to know.”

“Sin Fe” by Jose Feliciano

            Most people know this Puerto Rican singer and guitarist by his two biggest hits: “Light My Fire” and “Feliz Navidad.” The Doors cover was released in June 1968 on the the singer’s first big hit album for RCA Victor, titled Feliciano!. But by then, Feliciano had recorded a series of Spanish-language albums featuring nothing but boleros: Sombra, Una Guitarra y Boleros (1966, live at Mar de Plata, Argentina), Más Éxitos de José Feliciano (1967), and El Sentimiento, La Voz y la Guitarra de José Feliciano (1968).

            As a die-hard Doors fan, I cringed at Feliciano’s lightweight “Light My Fire.” But I loved his bolero albums, which predated Luis Miguel’s “Romance” series by 20 years. For some weird reason, these are the only LPs I brought with me on a Christmas trip to Juarez in 1973, the whole family packed in a rented mobile home to share the holidays with the south-of-the-border Gurzas. I was playing the records on my Tía Laura’s console when an incredulous cousin asked, “Is he really that popular over there?”

            By that time, yes, he was. Not for these bolero recordings but for the song that was to become a ubiquitous Christmas standard, “Feliz Navidad,” released November 24, 1970, on the album of the same name. Both hit albums – the Christmas collection and the album of rock covers – were helmed by Rick Jarrard, an RCA staff producer who also worked with Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson, and others.

            While Feliciano’s mainstream pop career took off, I was still stuck on his bolero collections. His Mas Exitos contains a bushel of classics, including “Noche de Ronda,” “Piel Canela,” and “El Reloj.” It also contains my featured song, “Sin Fe,” written by Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Bobby Capó, who also wrote “Piel Canela.”

            “Sin Fe” is sometimes called “Poquita Fe,” a variant used for all 24 of the recordings in the Frontera Collection. That includes the first recording of the song credited to Jorge Valente, a bolero ranchero released in 1960 by Discos Columbia on a 45-rpm extended play (Columbia EPC-244-A-1), with the backing of Mariachi Mexico de Pepe Villa. The track comes from Valente’s debut LP on Colombia, Love in Mexico, although the prominent mariachi bands are not credited on the U.S. release (Columbia EX 5132). Other notable versions in the database include the recording by Trio Los Panchos with three-part harmonies, and an instrumental rendition by Flaco Jimenez on accordion and Ry Cooder on slide guitar. (The 13 recordings titled “Sin Fe” in our database are entirely different songs.)

            By any title, I feel entranced by this song’s aching melody, with almost hopeless tones reflecting the title, “Without Faith.” It’s really one broken heart singing to another, across the gap of pain, disappointment, and betrayal. The singer acknowledges his own destructive failings in the relationship, doesn’t blame his disillusioned partner for doubting him, and finally pleads for her help in restoring his ability to love, and to forgive. His approach is low-key and soft-spoken. But at the end, there’s a musical flourish that embellishes the singer’s emotional appeal for restored trust and love.

            Feliciano’s natural, earthy vocals help convey the flesh-and-blood yearning and despair of the bolero style, which is deeper and more mature than the common pop love song. The feelings are enhanced on these albums by the traditional arrangements, mostly guitars and light percussion. In 1998, perhaps in an attempt to ride the coattails of Luis Miguel’s bolero success, Feliciano put out a new album called Señor Bolero, with a bigger orchestral sound that smothered the songs.  

            That album didn’t touch me like his early work did. You can feel the difference, and the feeling is missing.

“Lo Mismo Que Usted” by Fania All Stars

            Tito Rodriguez is another Puerto Rican crooner known for his cool style and velvety voice. He was big in the 1950s during the mambo craze in New York, part of a troika of bandleaders who dominated the dance floor at New York’s Palladium ballroom, along with Tito Puente and Machito. During that era, I was a kid buying singles at my local record store by Elvis Presley, Fabian, and The Four Seasons. Twenty years later, I discovered a whole new blend of salsa music through a popular album by the Fania All Stars titled Tribute to Tito Rodriguez. It was released by Fania Records in 1976, when I was starting to carve out a career in music journalism, freelancing for the Los Angeles Times and Billboard Magazine. In October of that year, I wrote a review for the Times of the local debut of the Fania All Stars at the Hollywood Palladium.

            The All Stars had been conceived as a showcase for the label, representing the roster’s premiere singers and bandleaders in one supergroup. From the start in 1968, the ensemble conveyed the excitement and spontaneity of the music through live recordings of shows staged especially for that purpose. That led to a series of live albums that propelled the scrappy startup to stardom – Live at the Red Garter (1968), Live at The Cheetah (1972), Latin-Soul-Rock (1974), and Live at Yankee Stadium (1975).

            The tribute to Tito Rodriguez was their first studio LP, featuring songs popularized by the Nuyorican singer who, like Santos Colon, jumped from the big-band dance format to the softer stylings of the bolero, which perfectly suited his romantic style. The album opens with an intricately constructed, ten-minute medley of three boleros sung by three different singers – “Inolvidable” by Cheo Feliciano, “Lo Mismo Que a Usted” by Chivirico Davila, and “Tiemblas” by Bobby Cruz. Composed of three separate tunes written by three different composers with charts by three different arrangers, the medley manages to sound like a single composition in three movements. It’s a theatrical, romantic opening for an album that goes on to feature up-tempo dance numbers.   

             “Lo Mismo Que a Usted” was written in 1965 by a pair of Argentinean songwriters, Palito Ortega and Dino Ramos, each famous in his own right. Ortega, a popular pop singer, made the first recording of his composition on April 12, 1965, more as a ballad than a bolero. Though not as widely known as other standards of the genre, it has been recorded by a host of artists, a sampling of which you can hear on this Amazon Music playlist.

            The Frontera Collection contains six versions, including a live recording by Tito Rodriguez during what was to be his final concert in 1972 at El Tumi, a nightclub in Lima, Peru. The beloved singer would die of leukemia early the following year, at the young age of 50. The live album of his final show, backed by La Sonora de Lucho Macedo, was released posthumously in 1973 by his own label, TR Records, titled 25th Anniversary Performance, a milestone that had marked the occasion for the show in Peru.

            Frontera also contains recordings of the song by Nuyorican bandleader Ray Barretto, Argentine vocalist Roberto Yanes, and Mexican tropical band La Sonora Santanera.

            Once again, the song lyrics use the formal, respectful “usted” in addressing the other party in the dialog. Once again, the grammatical usage raises questions about the relationship between the two. The lyrics are expository, laying out details of the singer’s lonely and heart-broken condition. The litany of woes is interspersed with the line, “lo mismo que usted” (the same as you), repeated seven times. So, we have a lonely-hearts club of two people, maybe strangers, mired in misery, and perhaps reaching for some connection in their shared isolation.

A mí me pasa lo mismo que a usted.

Me siento solo, lo mismo que usted.

Paso la noche llorando,

La noche esperando, lo mismo que usted.


A mí me pasa lo mismo que a usted.

Nadie me espera, lo mismo que usted.

Porque se sigue negando el amor

Que voy buscando, lo mismo que usted.


Cuando llego a mi casa y abro la puerta,

Me espera el silencio.

Silencio de besos, silencio de todo,

Me siento tan solo, lo mismo que usted.


            To this day, Tito Rodriguez is the song’s best interpreter. His mellow, mournful vocals suit the song’s interior gloom and sad resignation.

“Plazos Traicioneros” by Celia Cruz & Willie Colon

            In English, this song could be called “Why Do You String Me Along?” That’s the nut of the theme, longing for love dangled just beyond reach, always tempting, never fulfilled. “Plazos Traicioneros” was written in 1953 by Cuban songwriter, Luis Marquetti (1901-1991), who was also a teacher, poet, and unpublished novelist. Nicknamed El Gigante del Bolero, Marquetti wrote more than five dozen songs, including “Deuda,” the one that launched his career in 1945.

            I first heard the song on one of those bolero albums by Jose Feliciano, and the haunting melody became one of my favorites. My featured version above is by salsa stars Celia Cruz and Willie Colon from their first studio collaboration, Only They Could Have Made This Album. The song title is tricky to translate. Some lyric websites have it as “Treasonous Times,” but that smacks of political intrigue. In Spanish, “plazos” can mean deadline, or simply a specified time period, or a pause. And “traicioneros” can mean treasonous, as well as duplicitous and disloyal. So, a more accurate translation, without the lyricism, could be “periods of betrayal.”

            In three verses and a bridge, the singer questions the motives behind the constant foot-dragging by the target of his affections. Every time he declares his love to her, she responds, “Let’s see if tomorrow might be the day you get what you want.” In the lovely bridge section, before the final verse, he reveals the insecurity that is filling him with desperation. He asks if she is putting him off because “another has stolen your heart from me.”


Cada vez que te digo lo que siento,

tu siempre me respondes de este modo,

“Deja ver, deja ver,

si mañana puede ser lo que tu quieres.”


Pero asi van pasando las semanas,

pasando sin lograr lo que yo quiero.

Yo no se, para que,

para que son esos plazos traicioneros.


Traicioneros porque me condenan

y me llenan de desesperación.

Yo no se si me dices que mañana

porque otro me robó tu corazón.


Cada vez que te digo lo que siento,

no sabes como yo me desespero.

Si tu Dios es mi Dios,

para que son esos plazos traicioneros.


            The song shines in this version produced by Willie Colon and arranged by veteran producer, arranger, and bandleader Louie Ramirez. The Spanish-style guitar of Yomo Toro adds beautiful accents, while the band provides a subtle, understated backup. Celia’s rich, modulated lead vocal is complemented by brief, perfectly placed harmonies, presumably between her and Colon, who also does lead vocals on his own solo albums.

            Their rendition is one more gem in one of Celia’s biggest selling albums. It also includes the Brazilian-based hit, “Usted Abusó,” which roughly means “you took advantage of me.” With its sturdy resolve in the face of rejection, the song is a counterpoint to “Plazos Traicioneros,” because in this case, the suitor is not willing to wait around and take more abuse.

“Sombras” and “Amanecí en Tus Brazos” by Javier Solis

            I can’t write about my college years without mentioning these two songs. They are the stalwart bookends, the opening and closing tracks, on an album by Mexico’s cosmopolitan crooner Javier Solis, released in 1966 by CBS in Mexico as “Sombras” and in the U.S. as “Romance in the Night.” The following year, after graduating from high school, I moved to Mexico City to attend the National University, and these songs were in the air, everywhere. They were hits that transcended class, race, and neighborhood boundaries. It seemed like the whole country was transfixed by the voice of Javier Solis.

            For me, this music triggers a warm nostalgia that transports me to that specific time and place, as music often does. As a teenager raised from infancy in the United States, I remember the songs as part of the soundtrack of my induction into Mexican society, part of my own cultural immersion program. And just like this life-changing experience left an indelible mark on my mind, these tunes will always echo in my head.

            Thematically, the two songs could not be more different.

            “Sombras” was originally written as a tango in 1943 by Francisco Lomuto and José María Contursi. It was adapted for mariachi for Solis, known as El Rey del Bolero Ranchero. In either format, the song is a dark, desperate cry from a man on the verge of killing himself over lost love that left him in the “shadows” of his life. In the shocking opening lines, he says he wants to slice his veins and let his blood flow at her feet, proving his boundless love with his death. Talk about corta-venas!

            “Amanecí en Tus Brazos,” on the other hand, is brimming with the joy of true love. Written by Mexico’s prolific composer, José Alfredo Jimenez, the song expresses how lovers can get lost in each other, lose track of time, revel in intimacy from morning to night, with the moon and the dawn as their only witnesses. The opening line sets the mood: “Amanecí otra vez entre tus brazos / Y desperté llorando de alegría” (I arose once again within your arms, and I awoke weeping of joy).

            These songs express the polar extremes of relationships, from blissful love to suicidal loss. And within that range of romantic experience, lives the bolero.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      – Agustín Gurza

Also in this series:

The Eternal Bolero, Part 1: Love Songs That Endure for Decades

The Eternal Bolero, Part 3: Staying Alive

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Artist Biography: Lucho Gatica, Rey del Bolero, Part 2

Mid-century Mexico was the hub of the Latin American entertainment industry, a leader in music and film production for the continent. But breaking into that establishment was not easy, especially for an outsider.

             “Listen, México at that time was an extreme bunker of nationalism,” said Odeon Chile’s artistic director Rubén Nouzeilles, in an interview on a Chilean music website. “Nobody could go there to sing boleros because that was the patrimony of the Mexicans, just as nobody would think of donning a charro hat and go compete with (a mariachi star). Lucho Gatica, apart from being a great artist, was also a conquistador.”

            And the conquest was swift. The singer quickly became part of bolero royalty in Mexico. He was soon turning out hit after hit, hosting his own TV show, and making a series of films with Mexico’s biggest stars.

            Gatica had his pick of songs by the country’s top composers: “Solamente Una Vez” and “María Bonita” by Agustín Lara; “Un Poco Mas” by Alvaro Carrillo; “La Puerta” by Luis Demetrio; “Nunca” by Guty Cardenas; and the crossover classic “Perfidia” by Alberto Domínguez. But it was with “No Me Platiques Más” by Mexican composer Vicente Garrido that he scored an early hit that would become his signature song. In 1956, he performed the number in the film of the same name, almost whispering the tune into the ear of his lovely co-star, a former Miss Mexico.

            Gatica had an ear for hits.

            He proved this when he first heard a song that would become one of the most beloved boleros of all time, especially among Mexican-Americans. The singer was in Barcelona when, as he recalled in recent interview, he got a call from an associate in Mexico pitching a new song. The caller sang a snippet over the phone, and that was enough for Gatica. He dropped everything on the spot and flew back to Mexico to record Alvaro Carrillo’s unforgettable “Sabor a Mí.”

            He could also spot talented new songwriters.

            In 1959, Gatica collaborated with an up-and-coming composer from Veracruz named Armando Manzanero. He recorded “Voy a Apagar la Luz” by the 24-year-old, who would become one of Mexico’s most celebrated pop songwriters during the 1960s and ’70s. The two artists also launched a tour of the United States, with Manzanero accompanying Gatica on piano.

            Near the end of the decade, Gatica recorded two immortal tunes by Mexico’s Roberto Cantoral, “El Reloj” and “La Barca.” Both songs have since been recorded hundreds of times by such varied artists as Plácido Domingo, Joan Báez, and Linda Ronstadt.  Forty years later, however, it was Gatica’s version of those two classics that was inducted into the inaugural Latin Grammy Hall of Fame (2001), along with Santana's "Oye Como Va" (1970) and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s "The Girl From Ipanema" (1963).

            Through these peak years, Gatica sustained a touring itinerary that was both hectic and glamorous.

            In 1957, he returned to Cuba in an emotional show before 30,000 people at Havana’s Gran Estadio. He wept when he was surprised on stage by his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in years and who had been secretly flown in from Santiago for the occasion. Gatica also played a more intimate venue at the Hotel Nacional’s Cabaret Parisién, accompanied on piano by famed fílin composer Frank Domínguez, who wrote the immortal bolero “Tú Me Acostumbraste.”

            As the decade came to a close, Gatica made his first trip to Spain, where he was received like a head of state. Thousands of fans lined the streets of Madrid, carrying flags and homemade welcome signs as the star waved back from his passing convertible. His performances in the Spanish capital during 1959 were, as   Omar Martinez wrote in a 2007 essay, “social events which attracted royalty, politicians, movie stars and jet setters from all over Europe.”

            Luchomania had gone global. Gatica shared the stage in Paris with Edith Piaff. He performed in Monte Carlo at the invitation of Princess Grace. And he appeared before a massive crowd in the Philippines at the same arena where, years later, boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier would hold the "Thrilla in Manila."

            Back in the U.S., Gatica was also making waves in the entertainment industry.

            The handsome Chilean hobnobbed with Hollywood celebrities, attending gatherings hosted by the film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He famously met Elvis Presley at MGM, during a break in the filming of Jailhouse Rock. A photograph from that encounter rocketed around the world, and was frequently mentioned in Gatica’s obituaries six decades later. As the Mexican newspaper Vanguardia recalled: “Here was the King of Rock and the King of the Bolero, one on one, absolute monarchs in their respective genres.”

            Gatica also became a sought-after celebrity guest on American television during the 1950s, appearing on the variety shows of Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Patti Page, and the era’s ultimate entertainment showcase, “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He also recorded for the first time in English with the orchestra of Nelson Riddle, the music director for Frank Sinatra, who had a lifelong friendship with his Chilean counterpart. Though they weren’t hits, recordings from those sessions on Capitol Records, including “Blue Moon” and “Mexicali Rose,” are now prized by record collectors.

            Capitol did much better with reissues of Gatica’s Latin American repertoire, introducing Americans to a golden archive of romantic boleros. Under the label’s “Capitol of the World” series, the company released several Gatica albums in rapid succession, starting in 1956 with South American Songs, a folk collection recorded in Chile. In 1960, Capitol issued Lara by Lucho, with songs by Agustín Lara, recorded in Mexico with the orchestra of frequent collaborator José Sabre Marroquín.

            During this same period, Capitol was also hitting it big with a series of Spanish-language albums by popular crooner Nat “King” Cole, who had a friendship with Gatica. The two singers had met earlier in Havana, where Gatica introduced Cole at the fabled Tropicana nightclub. Cole would get the chance to return the gesture on his L.A. home turf, introducing Gatica at the Hollywood Bowl on the night of Wednesday, July 22, 1959.

            The Bowl concert would be followed four years later by another milestone, Gatica’s appearance at Carnegie Hall on April 5, 1963. In what The New York Times called “a bravura performance,” Gatica was backed by a symphony orchestra conducted by Argentina’s Lalo Schifrin. Gatica’s opening night show was broadcast live by radio to his native country.

            No matter where he travelled or lived, Gatica always gave credit to Mexico as the launching pad of his career, and the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

         “I came to the country that was the temple of the bolero,” he told reporter Marisol García in a 2007 interview for La Nación Domingo. “All the singers who I admired were all in Mexico, during their glory days. The competition was tremendous! Who could ever imagine that, having heard their music in Chile through long-wave radio on “La Voz de América Latina” (broadcast by Mexico’s XEW), I would wind up working with all of these artists.”

            Gatica found more than career success in Mexico. He also found love.

            In 1960, he married his first wife, María del Pilar Mercado Cordero, a former Miss Puerto Rico (1957) and popular film actress known as Mapita Cortés. The couple had five children, including first-born Luis, who became a successful actor, and the youngest, Alfredo, a music producer.

            After 18 years of marriage, the glamorous celebrity couple divorced.

            It was 1978 and Gatica was turning 50. The bolero craze had cooled. The splendor of his seductive tenor had faded. And his recording prospects had dwindled.

            It was time to make another change.

            The middle-aged singer moved to Los Angeles. Luchomania was a thing of the past, but the aging star would not be forgotten. The last half of his life would bring belated tributes, as well as recognition from a new generation of romantic singers.


The Comeback

          By the mid-1980s, an entirely new set of superstars dominated the lucrative Latin field of romantic pop music: Spain’s Julio Iglesias, Venezuela’s Jose Luis Rodriguez, Mexico’s José José, and the United States’s Vikki Carr and Gloria Estefan.

            These and a host of other top artists gathered at A&M Studios in Los Angeles in the spring of 1985 to record the Latin version of “We Are the World,” the famous charity song for famine relief written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. The Spanish version, "Cantaré, Cantarás," also became a pop music phenomenon, covered prominently in the Los Angeles Times. Gatica was also part of the all-star ensemble, but during the recording, he was positioned in the top row, at the rear, just another member of the chorus.

            From his remote perch, Gatica watched as younger balladeers took the spotlight. The Chilean singer, who once caused near-riots by his very presence, was hardly noticed at the event that day. The pecking order in the studio was a symbol of how far his star had fallen. And it begged the question: Would he have even been invited if the record had not been co-produced by his nephew, Humberto Gatica, who by then was a top engineer with clients of the caliber of Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, and Barbra Streisand?

            Not everybody relegated Gatica to the back burner in his later years. In May 1990, he made a triumphant return to Madrid, after a 10-year absence. His legacy had received a boost from celebrated Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who had used Gatica’s song “Encadenados” in the soundtrack to his 1983 film Entre Tinieblas.

            The Chilean singer, at age 62, returned to Florida Park, the venue where he had debuted three decades earlier. The place was buzzing with the capital’s glitterati, who came to see him, and to be seen.

            “From the moment Lucho began to sing, everybody became lovers,” wrote critic Maruja Torres in El País. “They applauded the man who proved that with time, wisdom flawlessly replaces power. He doesn’t sing like he did before, nor does he try. Instead, it was like he revisited each song from the perspective that irony and maturity provide.”

            It was a fitting start for a decade that would see the resurgence of the old boleros Gatica had popularized. The genre’s ’90s revival was propelled by a series of fabulously successful albums by young Mexican singing idol Luis Miguel, introducing a new generation of fans to the classic pop music of their parents and grandparents.

            The trend also brought new audiences to Gatica. In 1995, at the apex of his bolero phase, Luis Miguel invited Gatica on stage at the former Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, greeting his aging predecessor with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. The following year, Luis Miguel joined a constellation of top stars in a televised tribute to Gatica, produced by HBO, at Miami’s James L. Knight Center. The two-hour special featured Gatica in duets with Juan Gabriel, José José, Julio Iglesias, and his old friend from Cuba, Olga Guillot.

            By the end of the century, the King of the Bolero had been enthroned anew, this time as “elder statesman” of the romantic musical tradition of Latin America.   

The Swan Song

            Gatica went on to receive more major honors in the new millennium. In 2008, the year he turned 70, he became one of only two Chileans (the other being TV host Don Francisco) to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Later that year, the Latin Recording Academy honored him with a trophy for lifetime achievement.

            For Gatica, however, one important thing was still missing: the full appreciation of his fellow countrymen. Many Chileans felt ambivalent about his international success, which had required him to live most of his life away from home. “Gatica will be remembered in the country as the lost son, who died a faraway hero,” declared Chile Today in its English-language obituary.

            Nevertheless, Gatica received multiple national honors from the Chilean government and arts community: Gaviota de Oro at Chile’s famed the song festival at Viña del Mar (1992); Medalla de Oro from Chile’s author’s rights society, Sociedad Chilena de Derechos de Autor, bestowed personally by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (2007); Orden al Mérito Artístico y Cultural Pablo Neruda, named for the famed Nobel laureate (2012).

            Gatica received his country’ highest cultural award in 2002, on the 50th anniversary of his professional career. He was awarded the Orden al Mérito Gabriela Mistral, joining previous recipients that included Paul McCartney.

            In acknowledging the honor, Gatica paid tribute to his brother, who had died in 1996. “I would have wanted my brother Arturo to be here too,” he said, “because he was to blame for me being an artist who has given a measure of renown to my country.”

            The following year, at age 75, Gatica collaborated with Chilean hip-hop stars Ana Tijoux and Víctor Flores on “Me Importas Tú,” a contemporary reimagining of his old bolero, “Piel Canela,” on which Gatica sticks to reciting rather than singing the original lyric.

            Gatica made his final recording in 2013, at age 85. Titled “Historia de Un Amor,” the work was once again co-produced by his nephew, Humberto Gatica. It featured duets with a host of contemporary singers, including Luis Fonsi, Laura Pausini, Michael Bublé, Nelly Furtado, and Beto Cuevas of the Chilean rock band La Ley.

          The singer’s attempt to find renewed relevance fell flat. Even so, he was content in his later years, as he would tell reporters, because he had led a full life.    

            Ever the romantic, Gatica married twice after his initial divorce, and had two more daughters, one by each wife. In 1986, the year he turned 58, he wed his third and final wife, Leslie Deeb, who gave birth to his seventh and final child. Both of his youngest daughters, Luchana (goddaughter of Julio Iglesias) and Lily Teresa, are in show business in the Unites States.

            The singer celebrated his 90th birthday this year in Mexico City, three months before he died. One news report described a sad picture of the artist in his final days, suffering from diabetes and diminishing mental capabilities, playing records and spending hours singing at home by himself.

            Yet, photos from his birthday celebration show him smiling broadly, surrounded by his eleven grandchildren. The youngsters had prepared a surprise gift: a recording of his famous boleros, in their own voices.

            That same day, civic leaders in his hometown unveiled a 6-foot bronze statue depicting the Gatica brothers as they had started, Lucho singing into a mic and Arturo playing guitar. Gatica himself was well aware of his artistic legacy, which he once succinctly summarized for a magazine reporter.

            "As long as people fall in love,” he said, “my songs will be popular."


– Agustín Gurza

Read Artist Biography: Lucho Gatica, Rey del Bolero, Part 1.


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Artist Biography: Lucho Gatica, Rey del Bolero, Part 1

During most of the 20th century, the world of Latin pop music was dominated by a handful of countries – Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, and of course, Spain. But in the 1950s, an exception to that rule became a sensation. His name was Lucho Gatica, and he came from Chile.

            Gatica emerged from a small town in central Chile to become one of the most popular Latin American vocalists of all time. In a career that spanned 70 years, he sold millions of records around the world, packed theaters and stadiums from Madrid to Manila, starred in movies, and became a celebrity in Hollywood where his friends included Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.

            The singer’s success was built on his unique ability to convey the romantic, lyrical, and passionate essence of the song style known as the bolero. His repertoire includes many distinctive interpretations of compositions still considered classics of the genre. Add to that his matinee-idol good looks and his on-stage charisma, and Gatica was destined for superstar status.

            Last month, the voice of the artist known as El Rey del Bolero was silenced forever. Gatica passed away at his home in Mexico City. He was 90.

            “Lucho Gatica has his name inscribed on the hearts, not only of Chileans of all ages, but also of romantics everywhere,” said Education Minister Mariana Aylwin in 2002 on the artist’s 50th anniversary when he was given his nation’s top award in the arts. “For entire generations, his name has been almost synonymous with love. He is a man who has turned many strangers into lovers.”    

            Gatica was one of the few pop artists who managed to survive the ups and downs of the fickle music market. As the years went by, he was often asked for his thoughts about the latest trends.

            "There is certainly less romanticism nowadays,” he once said. “But we must accept that young people have their own rhythms, their own style of singing. I respect that because I believe every artist has their own time. And mine was wonderful.”

A Native Son of Rancagua

            Luis Enrique Gatica Silva was born on August 11, 1928, in Rancagua, a regional capital known for its wines and its copper mines. His father, José Agustín Gatica, was a merchant and small farmer. His mother, Juana Silva, was a homemaker who had a passion for music. As the youngest of seven siblings, his childhood nickname was “Pitico.”

            Lucho was only four when his father died, and his widowed mother went to work a seamstress to raise her children. The family banded together to face the hardships, and music always managed to lighten the burden. While Mrs. Gatica played harp and guitar, Lucho’s older brothers sang tangos and tonadas, from the regional folklore that would inform Lucho’s early work as a professional singer.

            It was his brother Arturo, seven years his senior, who led the way in the music business. Arturo started singing professionally in Rancagua when Lucho was only ten, a shy boy who would hide behind the door when the family gathered for sing-alongs at home. But Arturo recognized his little brother’s talent early, and encouraged him to sing.

            “So it was my brother who had an enormous influence on my career,” Gatica told journalist Marisol García in a 2007 interview published in La Nación Domingo. “He was already singing on the radio and he would always say, ‘When are you going to join me?’ I never wanted to, until one day we formed a duo. That’s when I started to take singing seriously. Arturo later told me that he had realized I sang better than he did, which was not the case, obviously.”

            Lucho attended the Instituto O’Higgins, an all-boys Catholic school run by the Marist Brothers in his hometown. He started performing in Chile’s so-called “revistas de gimnasio,” an annual student showcase of athletic and artistic skills.

          In 1941, the two brothers appeared as a vocal duo on local radio. Lucho was just 13, but already his emotive voice was drawing attention. Two years later, the aspiring singer made his first recordings in the same broadcast studio, performing three folkloric songs, including “Negra del Alma.”

          By 1945, the two singing siblings had relocated to Santiago, the nation’s capital about 50 miles to the north. Lucho, then 18, continued his studies at another Marist school, the Instituto Alonso de Ercilla. He then enrolled to become a dental technician but never practiced dentistry because his singing career took off so quickly.

            Arturo introduced Lucho to Raúl Matas, an influential deejay at Santiago’s Radio Minería, which reached a nationwide audience. The young Lucho soon made his national debut on the host’s popular show, “La Feria de los Deseos,” with the song “Tú, Dónde Estás,” a prototypical bolero of yearning for lost love. The connection with the deejay also led to Lucho’s first recording contract, with the international Odeon label, which later became part of EMI.

            Lucho’s professional recording debut came in 1949, again in a duet with his brother. Backed by the Dúo Rey-Silva, the brothers recorded four tonadas, a folkloric style of song and dance. The 78-rpm disc included the titles: “El Martirio,” “Tú Que Vas Vendiendo Flores,” “La Partida,” and “Tilín Tolón.”

          Early on, the Gatica brothers focused on the rich folklore of their native country. The duo appeared on the cover of the magazine Ecran, dressed in the traditional style of the rural huaso, the Chilean charro.

            Lucho was also fond of the native music of neighboring Argentina, including the tango, which was enormously popular in Chile during the 1940s. In a 1990 interview in Barcelona, Lucho called himself a pioneer of South American folk music, claiming to be the first to record the songs of Argentina’s Atahualpa Yupanqui, including “Los Ejes de Mi Carreta,” the revered songwriter’s most famous composition.

            "I started out doing folk music, but it went very bad for me,” said Lucho, who told the interviewer he still carried a letter from Yupanqui in his suitcase as a keepsake. “At that time, there was no interest in South American folklore, so I turned my attention to boleros instead.”

            The timing of Gatica’s stylistic switch could not have been better. It came at the dawn of the 1950s, the beginning of what would become known as the genre’s golden era. Gatica was a natural star—confident, handsome, and ambitious. His one desire was to stand out as a singer.

            He did so with a style that was sensual, intimate, and instinctive. Moreover, he brought a fresh approach to the romantic song, breaking with the formal, old-school method, which was more concerned with technique than feeling.

            “This was a new bolero,” writes David Ponce, an author specializing in the music of Chile. “In Gatica’s voice, formal recital turned into soft phrasing, and the rhythm became less marked, and more modulated. In the history of the bolero, Gatica did the equivalent of what Sinatra did for the popular American songbook, and to the same effect: gaining intimacy and closeness with the audience.”

            That one-on-one intimacy would only be possible as a solo act, and circumstances conspired to let Lucho go it alone.

            In 1952, his older brother got married and formed a new act with his wife, Hilda Sour, calling themselves Los Chilenos. (Arturo, Lucho, and Hilda had starred together in the 1950 Chilean film Uno Que Ha Sido Marino.) The following year, the newlyweds left on a world tour of three continents that would keep them away from home for six years. Arturo would later say that there had been a falling out between him and Lucho, and that the brothers didn’t speak for years, although they later reconciled.

            Back home, Lucho’s career was taking off. His success would spark a phenomenon that had not been seen before in Latin America, one that would become the stuff of both cheap tabloids and lofty literature.

            They called it Luchomania.

The Decade of the Bolero

            The bolero in popular music, as opposed to the much older Spanish dance of the same name, has its roots in Santiago de Cuba in the late 1800s, specifically in the style known as trova. In the first decades of the 20th century, the bolero’s popularity expanded worldwide with the growth of the commercial recording industry.

            The best boleros have become part of the Latin American songbook, and the top composers have achieved hallowed status in the pantheon of Spanish-language songwriters. Within the Frontera Collection, the bolero ranks No. 2 in the list of the top 20 genres, as reported in the book, The Arhoolie Foundation’s Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings.

            During the 1940s, when Lucho Gatica was still a schoolboy in Rancagua, the bolero gained a foothold in English-language markets, partly through popular films of the day. One of the treasured gems of the genre, “Bésame Mucho,” written by Mexico’s Consuelo Velazquez, became a global hit after it was featured in the 1944 Hollywood musical Follow the Boys, performed by Charlie Spivak and His Orchestra. Gatica would later have a huge hit himself with his interpretation of the song, smoldering with desperate desire. And in the early 1960s, The Beatles recorded their own rendition, with English lyrics.

            In tributes to Gatica after his death, several writers mentioned the Beatles cover version, suggesting the fabled band had discovered the tune via the Chilean singer’s recording. But Paul McCartney has said that he first heard “Bésame Mucho” in an upbeat R&B version by the Coasters.

            This oft-mentioned anecdote reflects a tendency in posthumous tributes to overstate Gatica’s influence on the genre. The bolero already had several popular interpreters during the 1930s and 40s, including Pedro Vargas, Trio Lo Panchos, Alfonso Ortiz Tirado, María Teresa Vera, Agustín Lara and OIga Guillot. Cuba and Mexico were the reigning powerhouses of the genre, brimming with top singers and composers, long before Gatica entered the arena.

            Gatica himself acknowledges his predecessors.

           “I always listened to Leo Marini, Pedro Vargas, Hugo Romani,” he told Chile’s “El Mercurio” newspaper in 1997. “I remember (Colombia’s) Trío Martino came to Chile, and they brought with them the most marvelous boleros, among them, ‘Contigo en la Distancia’ and ‘Nosotros.’ Also visiting were (Mexico’s) Los Tres Diamantes, who sang like gods.”

            Gatica does deserve credit for spreading the genre’s popularity, and in some cases making definitive versions of beloved classics. He also had a golden touch for repertoire. He knew instinctively which songs would fit his style. And many of them became hits.

            In Santiago, Gatica was exposed to prominent artists from other countries, who shared their music and opened doors for him internationally. In 1951, he met the Cuban singer Olga Guillot, thanks again to an introduction by his brother. And she shared the latest boleros written by her compatriots, pioneer of the style Cubans called “feeling,” or fílin.

            “Lucho was thrilled with this new style of bolero,” Guillot told Ena Curnow of Miami’s El Nuevo Herald in 2012, “and he learned ‘La gloria eres tú,’ ‘Contigo en la distancia,’ ‘Delirio,’ and other numbers.”

            Also in 1951, Gatica recorded “Piel Canela,” the tropical favorite written by Puerto Rico’s Bobby Capo. He was backed on the Odeon disc by the orchestra of Don Roy, but some critics complained that the accompaniment overshadowed the vocalist.

            The following year, he switched to a softer sound with backing by the guitar trio Los Peregrinos, whom he met through deejay Mátas. The trio had been newly formed in Santiago by Bolivia’s Raul Shaw Moreno, known for his stint with Trio Los Panchos. The label convinced the visiting musician to let his group record with Gatica.

            Those Odeon sessions in 1952-53 marked the inauguration of his reign as “The Bolero King,” with songs such as the aforementioned “Contigo en la Distancia” by César Portillo de la Luz and “Sinceridad,” by Rafael Gastón Pérez, which became his first big hit in Brazil. Other tracks with Los Peregrinos included "En Nosotros," "Amor, Qué Malo Eres," "Amor Secreto,” and “Vaya con Dios.”

On the Move

            Gatica’s meteoric rise launched him on a series of international tours that would keep him constantly on the road for a decade. He appeared in Cuba for the first time in 1952, as a guest of Guillot. His performances at Havana’s Teatro Blanquita and the fabled Tropicana nightclub are still considered legendary in Cuba, the cradle of the bolero. The singer also made his first television appearance on the island which, according the Cuban website EcuRed,brought daily life to a stop because everybody wanted to see and hear the King of the Bolero.”

            Gatica’s first international tour came the following year, taking him to Colombia, the U.S., Spain and finally England, where he recorded at the EMI studios that would later become known as Abbey Road.

            The British label matched Gatica with another of their artists, Scottish pianist and bandleader Roberto Inglez (born Robert Inglis), who worked with a young producer named George Martin, later of Beatles fame. The transcontinental collaboration yielded four songs: two in Portuguese, “Samba Chamou” and “No Tem Soluçao,” and two in Spanish, “Las Muchachas de la Plaza España” and the evergreen “Bésame Mucho”.

            Inglez and his orchestra joined Gatica in Chile in 1954, and the two artists set out on an international tour that caused pandemonium at almost every stop. In Lima, the sensation caught the attention of Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. In his book, La Tía Julia y el Escribidor, the writer describes frenzied female fans pursuing the sexy singer until he was left in just his shoes and shorts.

            Gatica sparked the same furor in Buenos Aires, Uruguay, and Brasil. “Females went after a piece of anything that belonged to their idol: a lock of hair, a handkerchief, a sleeve of his shirt … anything,” writes Omar Martinez, on the blog Luchoweb.

            By 1955, Gatica was at the top of his game. He was ready for his next big move: establishing his home in Mexico City, bolero capital of the world.

– Agustín Gurza

Read Artist Biography: Lucho Gatica, Rey del Bolero, Part 2.

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Artist Biography: Valerio Longoria

Valerio Longoria is considered one of the most innovative conjunto musicians who shaped the music’s classic period in the post-World War II era, a group considered “la nueva generación,” the new generation. The son of migrant farmworkers, he is credited with a number of firsts in the Tejano genre during a career that spanned more than 60 years. He was the first to introduce lyrics to what once was a strictly instrumental style. He was the first accordionist to also sing while he played, the first to introduce trap drums to the traditional instrumentation, and the first to experiment with octave tuning. He was also the first to incorporate other styles into his repertoire, especially the musically sophisticated bolero that gave the genre an air of being more jaitón, slang for “high-tone.”

          Through such innovations and modifications, the musician from lowly migrant roots elevated the blue-collar ensemble from its status as cantina music to a style seen as more respectable. The 2001 PBS series American Roots Music proclaimed Longoria “a pivotal figure in the evolution of the conjunto style by introducing innovations that catapulted the music to a new stylistic level while raising its social value.”

          While sources differ on biographical details, the Texas State Historical Association states that Longoria was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on December 27, 1924. (Others say it was March or February of that same year and in Kenedy, Texas). In any case, there is no dispute that his beginnings were humble. Longoria worked the fields at a young age and had little formal schooling. Yet, he developed a talent for music – and a curiosity about instruments – at an early age.

          Longoria got his first guitar when he was six and he also learned to play harmonica. His father, Valerio Longoria, Sr., later bought him an accordion for $10, which he learned to play by watching conjunto master Narciso Martínez. He started tinkering with instruments as a young boy, taking them apart and rebuilding them to see how they worked. It was a knack that would later serve him in his quest for creating new sounds with traditional instruments. In one accordion, for example, he added an extra row of buttons to the standard three rows; in another, he tuned the reeds an octave apart “to produce a rich, organ-like sound,” according to the National Endowment for the Arts, which named him a National Heritage Fellow in 1986. Longoria’s self-taught skill with his instruments made him “something like the Les Paul of the accordion,” writes Eugene Chadbourne on the All Music website.

          Longoria hit the migrant trails in the early 1930s, working the fields by day and performing by night at dances for fellow workers. It was around this time he developed another innovation – a system of straps allowing him to play standing up. “One of his biggest influences on the music,” writes Chadbourne, “was just a question of posture: it was largely Longoria that got accordion players used to the idea of standing up onstage.”

          In 1942, at age 18, Longoria joined the Army and was stationed in Germany, the mother country for accordion and polka music, which had been introduced to Northern Mexico by German immigrants. While there, he played accordion in local nightclubs. After the war, he settled in San Antonio, an emerging mecca for conjunto music. There, he formed his own band and made his first recordings for the Corona label: the instrumental polka “El Polkerito” and “La Guera Chavela ,” a corrido also known as “Jesús Cadena.” He also recorded for Ideal Records, making $20 per recording, $5 more than with Corona. Though he went on to wax more than 200 tracks for almost every major label in the genre, the Ideal sides are still considered his best work. The Frontera Collection currently features 374 recordings by Longoria, including 62 with his conjunto and 312 as a soloist or with collaborators, such as the 18 with his father. Many of his recordings are available on various compilation CDs released by Arhoolie Records, the label owned by Frontera Collection founder Chris Strachwitz. Arhoolie also released two CDs by the accordionist’s conjunto; one of them, entitled “Caballo Viejo” (Old Horse), features three generations of Longoria musicians: Valerio Longoria on accordion, his son Valerio (the 3rd) on bajo sexto (12-string guitar), another son, Flavio, on alto sax and Valerio (the 4th) on drums.

          In 1959, Longoria went on the musical migrant trail, moving to Illinois, then Florida, Colorado, Idaho, and eventually California. He continued to record along the way, for Firma in Chicago and Volcán in Los Angeles. But those labels failed to promote his music effectively back in Texas, where his fan base began to slip away. In the 1980s, he moved back to the Lone Star State after getting wind of rumors that he had died and his friends were planning a memorial album. He again settled in San Antonio and began to rebuild his career and his reputation.

          In 1981, Longoria established a new base at the Guadalupe Cultural Center in San Antonio, where he taught accordion to children and aspiring musicians for almost 20 years. In 1988, he scored another hit with “Amor Chiquito,” teaming with Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender. In 1997, at the age of 72, he appeared in the hit film Selena, about the life and tragic early death of young Tejana singing star Selena Quintanilla, played by Jennifer Lopez.

          Among his many honors, Longoria was among the first inductees into the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in 1982. And in March 2000, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Antonio Current Music Awards. Three months later, the revered musician was diagnosed with lung cancer and spent his final days in a San Antonio nursing home. His death in December of that year, at age 75, was reported in a news obituary in The New York Times.

          “He had a real spark to him,” Strachwitz told the newspaper at the time. “I believe he had one of the best voices of any of the singers from San Antonio.”       

                   --Agustín Gurza


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