Biography of Carlos Gardel—King of Tango

Known as El Zorzal Criollo, Gardel Was the King of Tango

Colourful tiled mural at Carlos Gardel subway station.
Mural at Carlos Gardel subway station, Buenos Aires. Viviane Ponti / Getty Images

Charles Romuald Gardes (Dec. 11, 1890, to June 24, 1935), better known as Carlos Gardel, was born at just the right time. The recording and motion picture industries were just starting to make their impact on the world. Gardel had movie star good looks and a sonorous baritone voice. His death occurred at the peak of his career and popularity, at the age of 44 in a tragic accident. 

Gardel was the first great singer of tango and to this day remains an icon in Argentina, Uruguay and much of the world. As a result of his immense stature in the world of tango, there are three countries that claim him as their own: France, Uruguay and Argentina.

Gardel was probably born in France, as there is a French birth certificate in his name and the French birth has the most evidence supporting the claim. When he died, he had a Uruguayan passport that stated his birthplace as Tacuarembo, Uruguay; his Uruguayan papers may have been falsified in order to avoid the French military draft. And finally, Argentina. It was in Argentina that he was raised and rose to stardom; it is with Argentina and its long tradition of tango music and dance that his name is most often associated.

When asked, Gardel would only say that he was born at age 2½ in Buenos Aires.

Early Days

Gardel’s mother, Berthe, was unmarried and his father did not recognize him. Berthe and Carlos immigrated to Buenos Aires in 1893. They lived in a poor part of town and Gardel spent his time in the streets; he dropped out of school in 1906 at the age of 15 and started singing in bars, festivals, and private parties. ‘Carlos’ is the Spanish version of ‘Charles’ and around this time he changed his name from Gardes to Gardel.

Gardel Shot During Tango Tour

For the next few years, Gardel toured the clubs and theaters of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. His most constant singing partner was Jose Razzano, a Uruguayan folk singer Gardel had met earlier during a singing match. He also recorded his first few albums for Columbia, using the acoustic recording process.

In 1915, after playing a club in Brazil, an argument broke out and Gardel was shot in the left lung, where the bullet stayed for the rest of his life. He took part of 1916 off to recover, but then actively resumed his career.

"Mi Noche Triste"

"Mi Noche Triste" was the hit song that sent Gardel skyrocketing in popularity. Based on music and lyrics by two other composers, the tango was about a pimp longing for his favorite whore. How was a song like this going to go over with the 'genteel' public?

Friends advised Gardel against performing the piece; Rozzanno refused to participate, leaving Gardel to sing the tango alone on stage.

The public loved it; Gardel recorded it. "Mi Noche Triste" became the first recorded vocal tango, since tango was considered an instrumental genre, and the public eagerly grabbed the recording.

On The Road

Gardel and Rozzano spent the next years touring through Latin America. In 1923, they left the continent and struck out for Europe, playing to a packed audience in Madrid, Spain. In 1925, Rozzano came down with throat problems and Gardel became a solo act.

A few years later, he made his debut in Paris and soon the tango was all the rage throughout Europe.

Motion Pictures

Gardel composed many tangos and had made hundreds of records for several recording labels when he decided to broaden his audience via motion pictures. He was signed by Paramount; his first full-length, talking feature was "Luces de Buenos Aires" and was the beginning of a film career that propelled him to global stardom.

The Last Tour

In 1935, Gardel decided to go on tour through the Caribbean and northern South America. On June 24, having stopped in Medellin, Colombia on his way to Cali, his plane was taking off when it veered and hit another plane on the runway. Everyone on board was killed.

It's been more than 70 years since the world lost Carlos Gardel, but to this day his name is still synonymous with the word 'tango'. The Carlos Gardel award is given to the artists that have achieved the pinnacle of excellence in tango every year.

Gardel may be gone, but he is far from forgotten.

Carlos Gardel Films

  • Flor de Durazno-silent (1917)
  • Luces de Buenos Aires (1931)
  • La Casa es Seria (1933)
  • Melodia de Arrabal (1933)
  • Custa Abajo (1934)
  • El Tango en Broadway (1934)
  • El Dia Que Me Quieras (1935)
  • Cozadores de Estrellas (1935)

Listen to Carlos Gardel