by Terence Clark, author, journalist, and Alma del Tango board member
To understand at least part of Edmundo Rivero’s unusual appeal, one must know that he suffered from acromegaly, which results from excess growth hormone after the growth plates themselves have closed. (The growth plate is the area of growing tissue near the end of the long bones in children and adolescents.) Among the symptoms of acromegaly are the enlargement of the hands and feet, and sometimes of the forehead, jaw and nose.
It is for this reason that Rivero was known by his fellow musicians, affectionately, as “El Feo” (“The Ugly Man”). His fans more accurately referred to him as “El Feo Que Canta Tan Lindo” (“The Ugly Man Who Sings So Pretty”).
From itinerant singer to tango star
Born in 1911, young Edmundo Rivero worked as an itinerant singer in the Buenos Aires dance hall circuit. He came to the notice of Julio de Caro, whose orchestra was getting significant attention for its live gigs as well as for its rising fame on records. From then on, Rivero’s career flourished until his death in 1986.
Rivero’s singing and playing were in every way extraordinary. He had a very fine, resonant bass-baritone voice, and was noted as well for the high-level accompaniment of his principal guitarist, who happened to be Rivero himself. Trained classically on guitar, as a youth he also mastered the rhythms of pampas gaucho music and was present for the rise of Buenos Aires urban tango, begun by the great Carlos Gardel and nurtured by countless other fine musicians.
Rivero was one of them.
In 1947, after many years with different bands and with frequent appearances in tango-based movies, Rivero was hired by orchestra leader Aníbal Troilo. Troilo was a superb bandoneonista who had a clear-eyed vision of the kind of musicianship he expected from his players and singers. A few years later, after all, he would feature the legendary Roberto Goyeneche as his lead singer (see my previous article titled “El Colectivero Polaco Goyeneche”) and had already hired another bandoneonista with an unusual interpretive style named Astor Piazzolla. With Troilo, Rivero recorded just twenty-two songs; one of them was titled Sur. A huge hit, it is a nostalgic remembrance of an old working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood for whose residents tango had deep emotional sway. Sur became a kind of anthem to tango itself. It is one of the most famous tangos ever recorded.
Successful solo career
Having found fame and fortune, Rivero left Troilo in 1950 and started a solo career. During this decade, a full orchestra, including a bank of violins, was seen as necessary to any successful musical career in Buenos Aires. Rivero made a bold gesture. Tired of all the heavy orchestrations, he took up his guitar and started doing tango with just his voice and his instrument (with, occasionally, a fellow guitarist or two.) These are some of my favorite recordings by Edmundo Rivero. Significant soul flows from them, especially because they are so contemplative and lonely.
Click here for a rich selection of Rivero’s music.
Terence Clarke’s new non-fiction book An Arena of Truth, on the topic of race relations, is now in bookstores and on Amazon.