Manolo Fernández

Real name: Fernández, Manuel
Nicknames: El Caballero del Tango
Singer and guitarist
(4 October 1922 - 2 June 1988)
Place of birth:
La Habana Cuba
Ricardo García Blaya

was completely certain, as collector and researcher, that I had heard everything —about tango— concerning the 40s. However, in the early 2012, this certainty came to pieces because of a striking revelation.

It was enough for me hearing a couple of numbers —from a compilation that my friend Jorge Camacho had sent me— to discover an amazing singer, born in Cuba ninety years ago. An artist that, I think, knew how to grasp the true spirit of our Argentine tango from his Cuban land.

I didn’t know Manolo Fernández, not even had a single reference and, when I heard him, I was astonished by his quality and the beautiful color of his voice.

He is the classic singer of that golden decade in which the best vocalists sprang up. To such an extent he is archetypical that an unaware listener, due to his voice color and his phrasing, might think he is a porteño. His interpretation of “Motivo sentimental” —of 1945 with the orchestra led by Rey Díaz Calvet—, brilliant and touching, is a true testimony of the way of singing in those unforgettable years.

One of his main features is his mezza voce, besides his delicate phrasing and his excellent intonation. He has sound resources, groove and a brilliant tenor range. His nuances and the way of connecting phrases make him an excepcional singer.

A real representative of the Gardelian school, his rendering of “Sueño de juventud” is an example of that. He is owner of a strong voice that he knows how to hide —like the greatest ones did— and we can guess, in the difficult sections of a piece, that he has more than enough voice for the challenging situation.

The recordings that Jorge sent correspond to two quite different periods of his career. In the first place, there are four recordings of 1945 with the orchestra headed by the Cuban Rey Díaz Calvet and eight, between 1946 and ‘47, with an orchestra lined up by musicians of the island led by our compatriot Joaquín Mora. In the second place, twelve numbers with the Américo Caggiano orchestra, with no recording date, but I think they belong to the mid- sixties. Two different periods, and even though in the latter his range went down a whole tone, he kept his hyerarchy and his great professionalism, but he was not the same singer anymore.

Furthermore, our friend Camacho with what he sent he attached a text which I’ll transcribe below. It was quoted from the Enciclopedia Discográfica de la Música Cubana 1925-1960, by Cristóbal Díaz-Ayala. It is useful to know, though briefly, his career.

«He made his debut in 1936 at an amateur contest in a radio program, La Corte Suprema del Arte, by winning the first prize. He began with a songbook of Spanish music but tango was his true air and by singing it he made his professional debut in 1941 on the CMQ radio station. The whole Caribbean area loves tango —especially if sung with tropical accent— and it did not turn out difficult to Manolo to bring his artistry to Mexico, in 1944, and to Caracas on several occasions.

«For many years he was exclusive artist of one of the most important radio stations of Cuba, Radio Cadena Suaritos, on which he combined tangos and the sentimental Hispano-American repertoire.

«In the fifties, besides radio, cabarets and theaters, he conducted a daily television program. He was also president of the Asociación Cubana de Artistas and an ardent advocate of the profession.

«In 1960 he settled in Puerto Rico and made frequent tours of the United States and Latin America, including Argentina, where his peculiar way of expressing tango was well regarded.

«In the eighties he moved to Miami. Soon after his golden jubilee with music in 1986 he died while he was waiting to appear onstage for a singing performance.

«Due to his way of being, always correct, he was known as El Caballero del Tango».

Because of this transcription, a doubt comes out: the above mentioned visit of Manolo to Argentina. This doubt arises due to the fact that the researchers I talked to do not know anything of the sort. Neither I found magazines or journals that documented his visit. An interpreter with such capabilities could not have been unnoticed.

After joyously listening to him for the nth time I want to highlight some gems: “La abandoné y no sabía” and “Tal vez será su voz”, accompanied by the Rey Díaz Calvet orchestra (Panart label, 1945); “Puro cuento”, music by Alberto Alonso and lyrics by Francisco Ruiz Paris, and “Discos de Gardel”, accompanied by the orchestra fronted by Joaquín Mora (Panart label, 1946/47).

As well we have the arrangement in tango style of the José Alfredo Jiménez’s bolero “La media vuelta”, accompanied by the orchestra led by Américo Caggiano (Star label) and, three tangos I didn’t know: “Bandoneones en la noche” —by Alfredo Navarrine with words by Ángel Vigo Díaz—, “Con tu voz querida” —by Francisco De Caro and lyrics by José María Suñé— and “Noches de tangos” —by Nicolás Vaccaro and Horacio Sanguinetti— with the Joaquín Mora orchestra.

As conclusion, it is worthwhile mentioning that his daughter Dolores Fernández, from Miami, sent us very interesting information to add to this portrayal.

Manolo Fernández was born in the neighborhood of Párraga, in La Habana, to a humble family. His father was a tailor, son of Asturian immigrants, and his mother was a seamstress. The boy did not have a formal education because, due to his evident gifts for singing, his parents were convinced of sending him to the Cuban Institute of Music.

Since then he started a successful career in Cuba that later spread to the countries of the Caribbean area, Mexico and the United States thanks to the radio and his tours of the region.

Dolores told us that a Cuban lady, based in Tampa and that later turned out to be her grandmother, traveled to the island accompanied by her daughters after the invitation of a friend that was also Manolo’s friend. She was eagerly expecting to see him in a live show on the radio. She was a fan of him and used to listen to him at home, in the United States. It was because of that voyage that the singer met Loly, his wife-to-be.

As from 1950 the political environment in the island underwent an important change and several revolutionary events took place that resulted in the dismissal of the dictator Fulgencio Batista and the taking over of the comandante Fidel Castro.

Manolo was at that time the president of the Asociación Cubana de Artistas y Músicos, a union that was ideologically divided into those that backed the revolution and those that had doubts because of the communism the new regime proclaimed. The singer, on some occasion, said that he hoped that things would change for the better. He was not a man of the cause.

Furthermore, due to his fame and prestige, besides being a popular singer, he was linked to the Cuban bourgeoisie. Due to this circumstance and, maybe, to the envy of some colleague, he was denounced and scarcely escaped from being detained and executed. He was saved by the United States ambassador, Earl T. Smith, who on January 13, 1959 rescued him with a Pan American airplane because his wife Loly was of American origin. He also avoided the arrest at the airport when a military armed group of revolutionaries was waiting for him.

This is, broadly, the story of a great artist that, due to the virtual magic of our forum, La Mesa del Café and the generous contribution of Jorge Camacho, we have the pleasure to enjoy.