In 1934, superstar tango singer Carlos Gardel was one of the most popular singers and matinee idols in the world. His fame was sealed in his native Buenos Aires, and he was also a huge star in France, where he’d been living. Paramount Pictures brought him to New York City to make a series of films for the Spanish-speaking audience. While doing 1934′s Tango on Broadway, he needed a bandonéon player and somebody brought him a young kid named Astor Piazzolla.
Between filming and shooting, Gardel sang on the radio on WEAF, the local affiliate of NBC, and a radio station not unlike his old Radio Belgrano in Buenos Aires. One night another young kid shows up at one of these concerts, coming from neighboring Hoboken, New Jersey. This kid, son of a Sicilian Genovese parents, young Frank was a rebellious student, couldn’t hold down a job, and was getting in trouble with the law. His girlfriend, foreseeing a troubled future, takes him to an NBC live radio show with Gardel singing with the studio orchestra, and afterwards persuades him to go backstage and meet Gardel. She tells the great tango singer that her boyfriend is on a collision course, will wind up in prison, but that he has a good voice and can sing. Gardel then tells them that he too once was a bad egg, a petty criminal, but that singing saved his life, bringing him fame and fortune. In halting Spanish and some Italian, Sinatra timidly asked Gardel what he should do. Gardel told him about a radio show called “Major Bowes Amateur Hour” that held regular contests. Sinatra entered the contest with his band, the Hoboken Four, and won. And so in 1935, Francis Albert Sinatra’s ascent started with this radio show. By 1940, he’d hit the big time with the big bands of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey.
Gardel died tragically in a plane crash in MedellÍn, Colombia at the peak of his fame, in 1935. But Sinatra never forgot what Gardel had taught him.
Many years later, in 1981 Frank Sinatra went to Buenos Aires for the very first time, singing in Luna Park for 20,000 people. He said later he got goosebumps getting up on stage for the show. It wasn’t like other concerts.
Afterwards he asked the cultural attaché to take him to the grave of his benefactor. Emotion seized him and he wept openly. His debt of gratitude: He might have never become the great popular singer without the inspiration and hope the great tango singer had given him almost fifty years before.
(p.s. I hate to shamelessly self-promote, but I will anyway: my next music salon has one evening exploring the incendiary, duende-laden music of tango and flamenco. It starts in just three weeks).