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1930: Carlos Gardel

 

This week I'm thinking about Carlos Gardel's 1930 recording of the classic tango "Viejo Smoking."

By 1930, when he recorded this song, issued as the A-side of Odeon 18816, Gardel had been the unrivaled superstar singer of tango song in Buenos Aires for thirteen years; he would remain in that position for another four before his death by plane crash in Colombia. This means that when an Argentinean composer wrote a tango, their most urgent order of business was to make sure that Gardel sang it.

Fortunately, Guillermo Barbieri, who composed the music for "Viejo Smoking," had an in with Gardel — he had been one of his accompanists on guitar since 1921. Gardel, like many tango singers, typically recorded (and performed) with two guitarists creating an intricate web of rhythm and texture around his mellow voice: Barbieri and José Razzano had been his team through most of the 1920s. But here, Barbieri is joined by José María Aguilar and Ángel Domino Riverol on an unusual three-guitar setup; and despite the extra beef in the sound, the accompaniment is more skeletal than usual, limited to a rhythmic pulse and a few spidery runs.

Gardel is more than up for it, of course: his quivering, sighing tenor easily leaps across the silences left by the guitars, as he sings the words of poet Celedonio Flores, one of Gardel's favorite lyricists, dense with lunfardo slang. The "Viejo Smoking" of the title is a smoking jacket, a shawl-collared piece of evening wear that was meant to protect a gentleman's tuxedo from the ash and cinders attendant on the rites of tobacco — now worn and stained with tears and lipstick after years of a gigolo's hard and emotionally unfulfilling life. Tango's seedy underworld associations were still very much alive in 1930 despite Gardel's cosmopolitan smile and international fame; in fact they were partly the reason for that fame, just like the New Orleans bordello roots of jazz and blues gave them a similar kick in the same period.

A curious fact about Gardel's "Viejo Smoking" is that the version found on many streaming compilations (say this one, for instance) is not the one recorded by Gardel. It's an early remix by tango bandleader Alfredo de Angelis, active in the 1960s and 70s, who issued a couple of LPs in 1974 and 1975 providing old Gardel records with "period orchestrations." In the decades since Gardel's death, tango had stopped being a vocals-with-guitar music, and was now only fashionable as a big-band music, so it only made sense to re-record (and incidentally re-market) the immortal Gardel the way he "should" have sounded all along.

For an equivalent in North American vernacular music, imagine a swing revivalist recording big-band orchestrations of Robert Johnson records; although given Gardel's actual cultural positioning, it might be more like adding stereo orchestration to old Fred Astaire records because they sounded a little skeletal next to Liza Minnelli. But Gardel wasn't Johnson or Astaire: he was Gardel, and that was glory enough.