Gardel: Tango, Por una cabeza
Though he was apparently born in the south of France, Carlos Gardel (1890-1935) insisted that he was a child of Uruguay. In any case, his unmarried mother moved to Argentina when he was an infant, and he grew up to become the most enduring voice of the Argentine tango. He started out as a bar singer and party entertainer, but in 1917 he catapulted to fame in South America and beyond with his song “Mi noche triste,” which sold more than 100,000 copies. Soon he became a recording star as well, and in the course of his brief life he recorded 770 pieces, of which 514 were tangos. His suave demeanor was captured in eleven films; the first of them was silent, but the rest show that his dramatic, seductive musical stylings were fully supported by his personal bearing, which had something in common with that of Humphrey Bogart.
His career ended in a plane crash in Medellín, Colombia in 1935. Seated next to him was his friend Alfredo Le Pera, who had written the lyrics for “Por una cabeza.” He was mourned throughout the world. Indeed, his funeral cortège traveled from Colombia to New York, and from there to Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and finally Buenos Aires, where he was buried to the sounds of his tango “Silencioso.” In Buenos Aires, everyone still seems to be on a first-name basis with Carlitos more than three-quarters of a century after his death. “Por una cabeza” may well be Gardel’s most acclaimed composition, along with “Mi Buenos Aires querido.” Its title would be translated as “By a Head,” and the lyrics are the sentiment of a horse-race gambler who compares his compulsion for the track to his addiction to women.
Gardel himself sang it stunningly in his final film, Tango Bar, but it has also been heard in many other films, including Martin Brest’s 1992 film drama Scent of a Woman. There it accompanies Al Pacino (as a blind, alcoholic retired Army officer) as he leads Gabrielle Anwar in a sultry tango in a New York restaurant.
—James M. Keller