Born Charles Romuald Gardes, Carlos Gardel is known as “The King of Tango” and “The Creole Thrush.” His mother, Berthe Gardes, was poor and unmarried, and while his father is unknown, he is widely believed to be a businessman named Paul Lasserre. Gardel’s birthplace remains disputed to this day. There is a birth certificate stating he was born in Toulouse, France, but there is also a passport with Uruguay as his birthplace.
Historian Luis Feldman says on the subject, “Since he could not return to France with the name of Charles Romuald Gardes, because he was a war deserter, he made a passport in the name of Carlos Gardel, born in Tacuarembo, Uruguay, on December 11, 1887.”
What is for certain is that Gardel came to Argentina in 1893 when he was two years old. He grew up working at opera houses as a professional applauder who roused the audiences. In 1906, Gardel quit high school and composer Jose Betinotti started mentoring him. Betinotti gave him the nickname “El Zorzal Crioll” (“The Creole Thrush”) for having a voice as lovely as a songbird’s. Gardel began his career at bars, parties, and restaurants. In 1910, he officially changed his name to Gardel as well as acquired the nickname, “El morocho del Abasto” (“The dark-haired guy from Abasto”).
In 1911, Gardel and singer Jose Razzano began what would be a lasting duo, and would expand to include guitarist and singer Francisco Martino and later, Saul Salinas. The quartet toured without much success and the latter two members eventually left. The remaining two continued under the name “Dúo Nacional Gardel-Razzano.” They played in major theaters throughout Argentina and in 1915, to Uruguay and Brazil.
Gardel’s rising career almost met an untimely end when he was shot in the chest on December 11, 1915. After performing at the San Martin theater, he was wounded during a bar room argument. The bullet of Ernesto Guevara Lynch (father of Che Guevara) was lodged in his lung and would stay there for the remainder of his life.
It was in 1917 when Gardel decided to make the move to tango. He was approached by songwriter Pascual Contursi, who had written lyrics to a tango originally titled ‘Lita’ by Samuel Castriota. Gardel performed the newly titled ‘Mi Noche Triste’ and the audience went wild. The song became the first ever recorded vocal tango.
In 1923, Gardel, together with Razzano, toured Europe, consequently introducing the rest of the world to vocal tango. Razzano left in 1925 and Gardel officially became a solo artist. He arrived in Paris in 1928 and the French enthusiastically embraced his style of tango.
Gardel broadened his horizons further when he signed a deal with Hollywood studio Paramount Pictures. While in France in 1930, he starred in his first feature film, ‘Luces de Buenos Aires,’ which was a hit in Latin America. In 1932, Paramount teamed up Garden with lyricist Alfredo LePera and together, they would write some of Gardel’s greatest hits, both songs and films.
In 1935, while promoting their latest film, ‘El Día Que Me Quieras,’ Gardel’s career and life met a tragic end. On June 24, he, LePera and the rest of their entourage boarded a plane in Medellin, Colombia. As the plane was getting ready to take off, it crashed into another plane killing Gardel. When the news spread, millions across Latin America and around the world mourned the loss of an icon. To this day, he is still considered an ambassador of Argentine tango and culture. He is buried at Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires.