Gaspar Astarita

n old recordings of the thirties some of his sung refrains can be heard, and old tango lovers tell us about the memories they have of his voice, his phrasing and his intonation, besides the good taste Antonio Rodríguez Lesende had in his tango «way of saying».

And it is not an exaggeration, since his serious studies of singing (which made possible for him to sing in the Teatro Colón choir) and his quality and warmth of interpretation, would find in tango a genre where to fully express all that range of vocal capacities, and to pave the road with many vocal hits, where the generation of vocalists of the orchestras in the forties widely turned to, and had on that proposal one of the ways of expression that, at last and to a certain extent, would become a kind of style or model.

He was born in Vigo, Spain, in 1905, and being a child he arrived in Argentina with his parents.

At the age of eighteen he was already singing tangos on radio, and from then on, 1923, he would carry out an interrupted career on broadcasts, cinema theaters, tea rooms, luxurious cruisers and balls, being responsible for the vocal interpretation of the most varied and famous orchestras: Osvaldo Fresedo, Juan Carlos Cobián, Julio De Caro, Francisco Lomuto and many others.

With some of them he succeeded in recording on many occasions, always as estribillista, that is to say, in the twenties and the early thirties, as the singer who «said» only the refrain or second part of the composition.

He joined the orchestras of Carlos Di Sarli, Ciriaco Ortiz and José María Rizzuti, to found, in 1935, together with Joaquín Mauricio Mora and Héctor Morel, the Morel-Lesende-Mora trio, at the same time he was vocalist of another famous trio of that time: the Trio Nº 1, with Juan Carlos Cobián, Ciriaco Ortiz and Cayetano Puglisi.

In that same year, 1935, he was hired by the brand-new Radio El Mundo, on very advantageous conditions, to sing on all the typical outfits which were part of the staff of the broadcasting.

His elegant and touching way of expression, his clear diction and his sweet accent, plus his well deserved fame, made of him the singer most sought-after by the orchestras, until 1940. He no longer sang only the refrains, as he did in the twenties, because he was, at the time of withdrawing from the professional activity (around 1943), like others, a singer of «complete lyrics».

Out of that retirement the friendly persuasion of Argentino Galván came to take him only once to include him as vocalist, in 1953, in the new orchestra reunited by the excellent association of Atilio Stampone-Leopoldo Federico, in which Galván was the arranger. With that team he recorded his last disc: the Agustín Bardi's tango “Tierrita”.

Of all his long journey along the vocal road of tango, uncountable memories of his hits and creations during his professional activity remain which fortunately are kept in phonographic recordings as milestones for the best history of our popular music. However, there are two events in Rodríguez Lesende´s artistic career that, even though without apparent importance, had a major incidence on the historic course of tango, through other events and protagonists.

The first one was the premiere of “Nostalgias”. This tango written by Juan Carlos Cobián and Enrique Cadícamo, which had been rejected by the theater impresario Alberto Ballerini for the play El cantor de Buenos Aires, obscurely premiered in 1935, the following year was included by Ciriaco Ortiz in the repertoire of his orchestra, with which he was playing at a boite on Florida Street, between Paraguay and Charcas streets, when Rodríguez Lesende was his vocalist. Then, after that premiere, the tango would reach immediate, wide and deserved consecration.

The other important episode was Rodríguez Lesende's refusal to join the Aníbal Troilo's orchestra as singer.

When Pichuco put together his first outfit to debut at the Marabú cabaret, he thought of him as vocalist. The latter, trying to avoid the engagement, asked the former an enormous sum (two hundred pesos a month instead of the eighty-five offered by Troilo), anyhow el Gordo (Fats) agreed to satisfy the singer's demands. Furthermore Rodríguez Lesende alleged other engagements and did not accept.

It is a generally accepted idea that he «did not foresee» Troilo as a leader with future, and were it true or not, the question is that he did not want to accompany the composer of “Barrio de tango” when the latter was starting his venture, on July 1, 1937.
Several years ago, trying to know some details about the refusal of Rodríguez Lesende to join the Troilo orchestra, I asked doctor Luis A. Sierra, who had been very close to Troilo in those early years, some information.

On August 8, 1987 he wrote to me about that the following:

«You ask me about the Troilo orchestra's debut on July 1, 1937. By then el Gordo Troilo played in Ciriaco Ortiz's orchestra at the cabaret Casanova on Maipú Street. There were also playing, among others, Orlando Goñi, Toto Rodríguez and Pedro Sapochnik, whom Pichuco took to his brand-new orchestra. There was a misunderstanding between the entrepreneur Salas of the cabaret Marabú and Carlos Di Sarli, who was to reappear at the Marabú on July 1. On that performance of Pichuco with Ciriaco at the Casanova, he got to know Zita, who was in charge of the bar at the mentioned cabaret.

«After Ciriaco's suggestion, the impresario Salas suggested Pichuco to assemble an orchestra transitorily for two months, while in the meantime the misunderstanding with Di Sarli would be solved. El Gordo had only ten days to find the musicians, to rehearse and make the musicians'clothes be tailored.

«The following evening we had lunch, as it was usual, with Pichuco. Afterwards he asked me to accompany him to the Lucerna dancing on Suipacha Street, to persuade the singer Antonio Rodríguez Lesende (for many connoisseurs, such as De Caro, Pichuco, Mora, Contursi, Maffia, Laurenz, Cobián, Di Sarli, he was the best orchestra singer of all times of tango). The unforgettable Gallego Lesende was a close friend of mine. But he had a bad temper, was rebellious, non punctual and reluctant to sing what he did not like.

«With el Gordo we arrived at Lucerna, where Rodríguez Lesende was singing in the orchestra of the excellent pianist Miguel Nijensohn, we had a long talk, and Lesende did not accept, and he had reasons, because he had been a permanent artist for two years at the boite Lucerna with a monthly wage, singing in the different orchestras performing on that stage. He sincerely told Pichuco that he would like to sing in his orchestra, but he would not abandon a safe work for two months of playing on trial. Pichuco understood the reasons. And we left. We went out bewildered. We suggested various names, and decided going to see Fiorentino, who was at the time unemployed. With not much enthusiasm, Fiorentino accepted Troilo's offer. Pichuco invited him to go to Los 49 Auténticos the next day to be sized up for the uniform».

So, he was making possible for Pichuco, looking for a substitute, to launch one of the greatest orchestra vocalists, Francisco Fiorentino, towards fame.

Anyway, Antonio Rodríguez Lesende has reached a good place in the best history of our tango, due to his interpretative qualities and his long and qualified career. But he will surely be remembered as well as the interpreter who premiered “Nostalgias” and the only one who did not want to be Aníbal Troilo's singer.

From 1937 to 1947 he was permanent vocalist of the Dancing Lucerna (567 Suipacha Street), owned by the violinist José Niesso.

Antonio Rodríguez Lesende died in Buenos Aires, on October 2, 1979.

Originally published in the magazine Tango y Lunfardo, Nº 125, Chivilcoy, 16 February 1997.