Carlos Gardel (1890-1935), though not well known in the US, is still a major cultural presence in Latin America. Born out of wedlock in Toulouse France he was named Charles Romuald Gardès. When he was two he and his mother moved to Buenos Aires where he became Carlos Gardel. His good looks and expressive baritone made him and idol in the Spanish speaking world. His death in a plane crash in Columbia sent millions into extravagant displays of mourning.

In addition to his public appearances he was a major recording and film star. He also wrote the music to some of his most popular songs. His lyricist Alfredo Le Pera was with him on the fatal plane. The other great figura of the tango, Astor Piazzolla came close to being with Gardel and associates on their last flight. The 14 year old Piazzola was a prodigy on the bandoneon, the archetypal tango instrument. Gardel offered him a place in his band on the final tour, but Piazzola’s father said he was too young and he stayed home. Thus, the tango as an artform was saved. Even so, the tango which had a shady beginning is still a little suspect in certain Argentine quarters.

I attended a nephrology conference in Buenos Aires in 2000. The opening ceremony was held in the Teatro Colón, South America’s premiere opera house. Several tangos were part of the program. Afterwards as she was leaving, a woman of a certain age said to her companion. “Imagine, tangos at the Colón.”

Gardel’s three minute tango recordings are little masterpieces that still give pleasure to all who hear them. His sound was similar to that of Al Jolson who was born four years earlier than Gardel. To let you decide whether Jolson’s vocal production is reminiscent of Gardel’s here is the former’s recording of Avalon. If the tune sounds familiar it’s because it’s taken from Puccini’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’ transposed to a major key. It’s such a blatant steal that Riccordi, Puccini’s publisher, sued and won both a cash judgement and all royalties from the song. Nevertheless it was one of Jolson’s biggest hits. Jolson’s style was more exuberant while Gardel was more subtle and intimate. Jolson was as big a star in the US as was Gardel in Spanish speaking America and at about the same time.

Caminito is named after an alley in the La Bocca neighborhood of Buenos Aires. It was composed in 1926 by Juan de Dios Filiberto. Adiós muchachos was written in 1927 by Julio César Sanders  and César Vedani. El día que me quieras was composed by Gardel and Le Pera in 1935 for the movie of the same name. It has become a tango standard and has been frequently recorded by other artists including a lot of opera singers. It’s one of Gardel’s best. Esta noche me emborracho (Tonight I Get Drunk) is by Enrique Santos and dates from 1928.

Mano a Mano is one of Gardel’s earliest compositions. He wrote it in 1920 with José Razzano. Melodía de Arrabal is from the 1932 film of the same name. Celedonio Flores wrote the lyrics which Gardel set to music. Also from this film is Silencio. Gardel along with Horacio Pettorossi wrote the music; Pettorossi and Le Pera provided the lyrics. This video clip is from the film.

Por una Cabeza was written in 1935 by Gardel and Le Pera. It means ‘by a head’ as in a close horse race. It’s another of Gardel’s best known songs.

Mi Buenos Aires querido is perhaps of Gardel’s best loved song (lyrics Le Pera). It’s a paean to Buenos Aires. Again from a movie (1934) of the same name. Tomo y obligo is by Gardel and Manuel Romero. It was the last tango he sang in public from the balcony of Radio La Voz de Medellín on June 23, 1935, one day before his death.

Finally, a video in which Gardel sings Sus Ojos Se Cerraron (His Eyes Are Closed) – obviously not a happy song. It’s also by Gardel and Le Pera.

Like Enrico Caruso, Gardel departed life at the height of his fame and power. His legacy of recordings and films preserves his great talent and ability to connect to his audience; it documents why he remains such a palpable presence among devotees of the tango specifically and singing in general. One of the 20th century’s greatest performers.