Carlos Gardel

1890 1935

Carlos Gardel

Composer • Singer


Carlos Gardel’s name is synonymous with tango. He masterfully brought the genre into prominence internationally, writing and recording many classic well-loved tangos. Although his life was cut short at the height of his career due to a fatal plane crash in Medellín, Colombia, his legacy as the “King of Tango” remains pervasive.

Carlos Gardel was born Charles Romuald Gardes. The exact place and date have been disputed. Some sources cite Tacuarembó, Uruguay (1887) as his birthplace, though he is more commonly thought to have been born in Toulouse, France in 1890. The popular belief is that Gardel’s mother decided to immigrate with her son to Buenos Aires in 1893 to escape the stigma of being a young single mother. Evidently, they boarded the SS Don Pedro in Bordeaux and sailed to Buenos Aires, arriving on 11 March 1893. Buenos Aires was the city in which Gardel grew up and enjoyed a fertile place for creativity.

Gardel began his musical career primarily as a singer in bars and at private parties. In 1917, Gardel made a recording of his interpretation of Pascual Contursi and Samuel Castriota’s songMi Noche Triste. The recording sold 10,000 copies and proved to be a popular hit throughout Latin America. This success led to Gardel touring Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Venezuela as well as Paris, New York, Madrid and Barcelona. As he grew more and more popular, he made films for Paramount in Paris, in which he displaying his dazzling singing talent and smouldering movie-star looks.

He is perhaps best known for his tango Por Una Cabeza, written along with the lyricist Alfredo la Pera in 1935. Its title makes reference to horse racing:Por una Cabeza (by a head) refers to a horse who is close to winning a race, in the lead by the length of one head. The lyrics describe a compulsive horse-track gambler who compares his addiction to gambling on horses to his attraction to women. The most notable classical recording of this song is thought to be the recording of Itzhak Perlman playing its violin adaptation in the soundtrack to the 1992 filmScent of a Woman.

In 1934, Gardel met the budding young musician and composer, Astor Piazzolla , who was thirteen years old at the time and living in New York. Gardel offered Piazzolla what must have seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime: touring South America with the tango superstar and his orchestra. However Piazzolla’s father intervened, unwilling to let his son travel at such a young age. This decision proved more of a blessing in disguise than the elder Piazzolla could have imagined, as a plane crash during that tour ended up killing Gardel and everyone in the band.

The others who died were the lyricist Alfredo la Pera, guitarists Guillermo Desiderio Barbieri and Ángel Domingo Riverol as well as many friends and business associates of the musicians.  After his death, millions of Gardel’s followers went into mourning and crowds came to pay their respects as Gardel’s body was taken from Colombia through New York City and Rio de Janeiro. For two days, his body also lay in Montevideo, Uruguay, the city in which his mother lived at the time. Gardel’s body was laid to rest in La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires.