José Betinotti

Real name: Betinotti, José Luis
Guitarist, singer lyricist and composer
(25 July 1878 - 21 April 1915)
Place of birth:
Buenos Aires Argentina
Néstor Pinsón

Words by Homero Manzi: «You were slim and agile, with a pale face. You usually used to wear a dark suit, with a coat having small lapels. On your chest, under your beardless chin you displayed a black flying knot tie that darkened your romantic bohemian way. Your wide forehead was the starting point of a capricious, elegant light brown forelock. You came from the muddy roads. From the deep of your neighborhood, down there in Almagro.»

Surely, when in his milonga “Betinoti” he says with metaphors: «Butterfly with black wings/flying down the alley», he was imaging him with that customary knot tie when walking along a dark street and the street light pointing at his neck.

The researcher and writer Luis Soler Cañas firmly states that his family name is written twice with double t. He also says that he got his identity card in 1911 under the number 432 and on it his family name appears just like the way he signed on the labels of some of his records. A different opinion appears in the book about the payadores (itinerant singers) of the well-remembered Víctor Di Santo in which is shown a copy of the Book of Baptisms of the La Concepción parish (October 23, 1878) in which his father’s and his paternal aunt’s family name are written with double t, firstly, and later with only one. With Orlando del Greco is worse because he mentions it the other way around, firstly with only one t and later with two, just like his signature appears on other records. Finally, on the sheet music of the milonga by Sebastián Piana and Manzi, it appears with only one t both times.

A son of Italian imigrants, his father Juan died when he was a child and later his mother María Costa married again with a man named Enea Campodónico. Humble since his birth, it is possible that he had no grade schooling because he had to work. He was a sheet-metal worker and also, later with more experience he shaped heels for women shoes.

At age 18 he met María Cacciamatta and after a short engagement they got married. They had a child named José Juan who died seven months after his birth.

He began singing by the end of the nineteenth century and that sobriquet that regarded him as The Last Payador is no other thing but a licence, an idea of Manzi’s when a movie about his life was shot. Not only Gabino Ezeiza did outlive him, but also many payadores who lived up to these days. But they only appeared in certain milieus either in Argentina or in Uruguay and in other American countries, even in Spain, according to what the today improviser José Curbelo, guest at those meetings, told us.

The classic payador was the one of the rural areas, the one who traveled across the towns of the interior and the country taverns in order to contest with the well-known local peers. He used to do it for the sake of pleasure and his reward was: food and shelter. Instead we can call Betinotti –and some other of his time- an urban payador. The one who, preferably, does not get out of his town, but prowls around the outskirts of town and, from time to time agrees to travel to the interior, not in a wandering way but with an arranged route, after an agreement about the money, or being allowed to organize raffles to raise funds on his own benefit or to sell his photographs.

His profession was the one of an artist, so he used to say and so it is written in his death certificate. As long as he was improving in his career he devoted himself only to singing. His wife always worked as cigarette vendor, before and after his death.

His lyrics were not gaucho-style. He perfectly knew the outskirts and was able to translate the feeling of its inhabitants and, with the amalgam of the music of the outskirts he added to his song the peculiar flavor of the porteño thing.

He spread his creations through the publication of humble brochures –either in their appearance or their price-, so that they may be available for everybody. So he published Mis Primeras Hojas, Ideal de Mi Esperanza, Lo de Ayer y lo de Hoy in 1909 and De Mi Cosecha in 1912. He was contributor to the La Pampa Argentina magazine. In 1948, a compilation of his oeuvre was published: Pobre Mi Madre Querida and, the following year the stenographic transcription of the encounter he had with Francisco Bianco in San Vicente was released (1913).

When we speak of a payada our imagination envisions two opponents who, guitar in hand, try to make things difficult to each other choosing different subjects until one of the two is unable to find an answer or the audience determines who the winner is. This is the payada de contrapunto. But he preferred the other form, the one of facing an audience that suggested subjects to be developed, questions that needed answers that had to be improvised at once. He was not afraid of the payada de contrapunto, and he contested in many ones but he felt better without a rivalry. At those encounters it was customary for the payadores to sing some songs and, later, to display their craft.

His popularity was due to songs like: “Pobre mi madre querida”, (previously entitled “Cuánto siento”), “Tu diagnóstico” (id, “Qué me habrán hecho tus ojos”), “Como quiere la madre a sus hijos” (id, “Desde entonces”) and “A mi madre” (id, “Con mis amigos”).

His repertory also included songs by Andrés Cepeda: “El ciego” and “El mendigo”; by his great friend Ambrosio Río (with whom he even sang in a duo): “Irma” (dedicated to the Uruguayan Irma Avegno whose suicide shocked both banks), “Las tumbas” and the song “El preso”; by Arturo Mathón: “El final de una garufa” and by the Chilean Osmán Pérez Freire: the famous “Ay ay ay”.

It is not daring to say that he was a link between those singers and the tango vocalists that were about to appear. Had he lived a little bit longer he would have been one of them. When we hear him we find the litany of Gabino and other payadores. But when we make comparisons he see that he had a better voice and diction.

Politically, he admired the socialist party and Alfredo Palacios, but like Gardel, he used to go wherever he was requested and so he sang in front of Leandro Alem and Manuel J. Aparicio. About the latter he sang: «La elección se terminó/ y es igual que antes sincero/ ya sea al rico o al obrero/ sus puertas nunca cerró/ ni la voluntad negó/ si se le pidió un servicio/ está de más este juicio/ porque a nadie le es extraño/ que es padre de todo el año/ Don Manuél J. Aparicio» (The elections are over/ and he is sincere as before/ he neither closed his door to the rich or the worker/ nor he denied his help when he was asked/ but this opinion in vain/ because everybody knows that Don Manuel J. Aparicio is father all year long).

Even though he was singing and playing guitar when he was a kid, it was in 1896 when at the neighborhood of Flores he came to know the famous Pablo Vázquez to whom he confessed his devotion. The latter encouraged him. He never forgot that attitude, he even dedicated a waltz to him and, before each of his performances he always recalled his name.

Another important character in his career was Luis García, a well-known dark-skinned payador that took him to the circus located on Maza and Venezuela. There he sang before an audience for the first time. At that circus he met Gabino Ezeiza who invited Betinoti to sing with him (1898). Another friend was Higinio Cazón.

For his brothers, Juan, Ernesto and Enrique and, for his beloved Ambrosio Río he was an honest man, who much loved and cared for his mother. He also had many other virtues but one big defect: his liking for alcohol that caused him a brain congestion. He died in his home on 291 Quintino Bocayuva 291. Then a poet said: «He was the singer for mothers and pain».

According to the collector Héctor Lucci he recorded around a hundred numbers and he mentions some titles and circumstances. For the Atlanta label: “Filosofía gaucha”, “El preso” (estilo), “Memorias al payador oriental César Hidalgo” (Ofrenda), “Contraste” (vidalita), “Del arrabal”. Also “El cabrero”, written in a primitive lunfardo which shows his knowledge of the man from the outskirts. The piece occupies the two sides of the record because of its long duration. The same happens with “Pobre mi madre querida”, with around 6 minutes. Also “Cívica radical”, “Recuerdos”, “El hogar”, “Como quiere la madre a sus hijos”, “A mi madre”.

For Columbia: “El final de una garufa” (milonga), “El huérfano sin hogar” (estilo), “Irritación”, “Decepción”, “Ay ay ay”, the waltz “Triste”, “No te he faltao”, “Criollo falsificao”, again “Contraste”, a rendition completely different to the previous one, “Te perdono”.

For the América label: Tu diagnóstico” (waltz), “Batalla de Tucumán”, “Memorias a Pablo Vázquez”, “En familia”, “Desengaño”. For the Tocasolo label: “Saludo al pueblo oriental”.

For Atlanta: He recorded several numbers in a duo with Ambrosio Río. And there is a curiosity entitled “Obsequio” (Gift). It was sung by Río on one of its sides and by Betinotti on the other. It was given that title because it was a record for advertising by the Atlanta label which was given to the regular clients. All these records were pressed in Germany.

In 1950 his name appeared in the movies with El Ultimo Payador whose script belongs to Manzi who also co-directed the film with Ralph Pappier. The payador and his wife were impersonated by Hugo Del Carril and Aída Luz. Gabino Ezeiza’s role was played by the actor Marino Seré and, Ambrosio Río’s role, by the poet and reciter Lito Bayardo. As a curiosity, an old recording proceeding is seen: the one when there were no microphones and the singer had to stand in front of a circular membrane which vibrates with the sound emitted and on the opposite side a cutting element is marking the grooves on the disc.

Compilation: notes by José Barcia and Elías Cárpena (section culture-rotogravure of the La Prensa and La Nación newspapers); Luis Soler Cañas, (culture supplement La Opinión daily paper).