Lucho Gatica, ‘the King of Bolero,’ Is Dead at 90

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An obituary by Giovanni Russonello for The New York Times.

Lucho Gatica, the Chilean singer whose lush, brooding croon earned him renown throughout the Spanish-speaking world as “the king of bolero,” died on Nov. 13. He was 90.

His wife, Leslie (Deeb) Gatica, confirmed the death, in Mexico City, where Mr. Gatica had lived for more than half a century.

President Sebastián Piñera of Chile ordered flags lowered to half-staff and declared Nov. 15 a national day of mourning.

Mr. Gatica helped enshrine bolero, a style of flowing romantic balladry that had originated in Cuba in the late 19th century, as a midcentury pop craze. In the process he became a heartthrob who dominated pop radio stations throughout the 1950s and ’60s and a leading man in the thriving Mexican film industry.

All told, Mr. Gatica, whose style was marked by a semi-operatic flair and languorous phrasing, recorded more than 800 songs, including the international hits “El Reloj,” “Contigo en la Distancia” and an authoritative rendition of “Bésame Mucho.” He counted Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Nat King Cole as friends and fans.Mr. Gatica at the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008. A year earlier, he had been honored by the Chilean government and the Latin Recording Academy.CreditDanny Moloshok/Reuters

When popular interest in bolero surged again in the ’90s on the strength of singers like Luis Miguel, Mr. Gatica was seen as an eminent elder statesman.

“People always remember those romantic moments that they’ve spent with a lover,” he said in an interview on the AARP website in 2013 when asked to explain bolero’s popularity. “Bolero is a form of declaring one’s love to a girlfriend, through singing. I’m a happy man for having believed in this music, which is known around the world.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Gatica is survived by five daughters, Lily, Luchana, Mapita, Aida and Juanita Gatica; two sons, Luis and Alfie; and a number of grandchildren. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.

Luis Enrique Gatica Silva was born on Aug. 11, 1928, in Rancagua, Chile, roughly 50 miles south of Santiago. His father, José Agustín Gatica Silva, a rancher, died when Lucho was 3, and his seven siblings banded together to support their mother, Juana, who moved into the town center and became a seamstress.

Juana played the harp at home and encouraged all her children to sing. Lucho was at first shy of the stage, but his older brother, Arturo, achieved some renown in Chile as a baritone singer, and he recognized Lucho’s talent. His first public performance was in a duo with Arturo on a Rancagua radio program when he was 13. They became a team and recorded four folkloric songs for Odeon Records in 1949.

Lucho moved to Santiago at 18 to attend college, studying to become a dental technician while continuing to work in music. He soon began recording as a solo artist for Odeon, where he insisted that the producers allow him to sing romantic songs rather than folk music. His gifts as a pathos-laden balladeer showed themselves immediately.Sign up for Breaking News

“Me Importas Tú,” which he recorded in 1951, became a smash hit throughout Latin America, jump-starting his career.

He embarked on an international tour in 1954, supported by the Roberto Ingles Orchestra, and received a hero’s welcome in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. He then traveled to London, where he performed on BBC Radio.

Soon after, he began performing regularly in Mexico and Cuba, centers of Latin American show business. Mexico was home to a thriving movie industry, and in 1956 he appeared in his first film, “No Me Platiques Más” (“Don’t Tell Me Anymore”).

Two years later, he settled permanently in Mexico. In 1959, he traveled to Spain for the first time and received a hero’s welcome. By the mid-1960s, he had sold more than 22 million records worldwide.

In 1962 he gave a bravura performance at Carnegie Hall, accompanied by Lalo Schifrin’s orchestra, and later sang at the Hollywood Bowl, where he was presented by Nat King Cole. But it was a trip that year to the Philippines, where tens of thousands of fans greeted him, that made Mr. Gatica aware of how broadly his fame had spread.

Until almost the end of his life he continued to perform in a classic bolero style throughout the world, sometimes singing in Portuguese and English as well as Spanish. He released his final album, “Historia de un Amor,” at 85, joined by guests including Michael Bublé and Nelly Furtado.

In 2007, Mr. Gatica was recognized by the Chilean government as a “fundamental figure in Chilean music,” and received a lifetime achievement award from the Latin Recording Academy. The next year he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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