by Terence Clarke, journalist, novelist and Alma del Tango board member
We learned last month about the beginnings of the Argentine recording and film industries, principally through the efforts of Max Glücksmann. Eventually he was to build those industries into a business powerhouse. But Glücksmann also had extraordinary taste when it came to popular music, and he knew he was onto something when he first heard the singing voice of Carlos Gardel.
A former street singer, Gardel had made an early reputation as half of the Razzani-Gardel duo that was popular on the Buenos Aires music scene before and during World War I. Eventually the two split up, and Gardel continued on as a single, signed to an early recording contract by Max Glücksmann. Gardel was still a criollo singer whose music had a country flavor heavily influenced by the music of the Argentine pampas and the gauchos.
But he was an urban kid.
As in many great cities, there were populations in Buenos Aires that had been forced to emigrate from other countries by war or economic difficulties. There was chaotic urban noise and emotional dissociation, the alienation that comes from the break-up of families, the loss of community and the anger and rage that can result.
Gardel was no stranger to this, and his first solo recording, in 1917, was a tango entitled “Mi noche triste,” about a man sitting alone in his Buenos Aires room, crushed because his lover has just left him.
The first such recording ever made
Tango had existed for years before this, but more as a folkloric music and country dance. What Gardel was singing was urban, new, and instantly popular. Gardel went on to become the biggest-selling music star in the Spanish-speaking world, an international phenomenon of enormous proportions.
On October 12, 1924, Gardel made one of the first live radio broadcasts to be produced from the studio of “Lo Grand Splendid,” Glücksmann’s new headquarters housed on the upper floor of his new “splendid” concert theater. (Now transformed into the most beautiful bookstore I’ve ever seen, the Ateneo Grand Splendid is located at Avenida Santa Fe 1860 in Buenos Aires.)
Gardel became a movie star so well thought of by Hollywood that by 1934 he was being prepared by Paramount Studios to become the next Maurice Chevalier. On March 5, 1934, Glücksmann arranged for a short wave radio hook-up, broadcast by Radio Splendid in Argentina –- from a studio in the Grand Splendid — and NBC in the United States.
The artists were Carlos Gardel and his long-time guitarists Guillermo Desiderio Barbieri and Angel Domingo Riverol. This occasion was memorable for a unique reason, since in fact Gardel was singing in New York while the guitarists were playing in Buenos Aires. It was one of the first such international broadcasts ever made.
Glücksmann had essentially gained control of the Argentine record industry. He did it while nonetheless becoming a hero to musicians through his practice of paying them royalties. He was the first in Argentina to suggest this, and in so doing made Carlos Gardel a world-class star and a multi-millionaire. Other Argentine musicians may not have climbed to Gardel’s heights of fame, but they all benefited from Glücksmann’s careful protection of their artistic rights.
Max Glücksmann died on October 20, 1946.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, with Pablo Neruda as the main character, will be published in January 2019. A translation to Spanish by the noted Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer will appear later in the year.