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Pedro Vargas; Legendary Mexican Singer

November 01, 1989|BURT A. FOLKART | BURT A. FOLKART, TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pedro Vargas, the legendary Mexican balladeer whose partnership with composer Agustin Lara produced some of the most luxuriant melodies in the history of Latin American music, has died.

"He died in his sleep" (Monday of heart failure in Mexico City), his oldest son, Pedro Jr., told reporters. Known for decades as El Tenor Continental, Vargas, 85, had been suffering for several years from diabetes and heart problems.

Vargas emerged at the dawn of Mexico's golden age of popular music. His sweet and languid voice crossed all national borders, particularly the one to the immediate north.

He was one of the first Latino headliners to successfully cross the bridge that then separated American and Mexican pop music.

He became a featured attraction at downtown Los Angeles' Million Dollar Theater after it converted to Latin entertainment in 1950, and his name on the marquee filled that aging former grand dame of American cinema to capacity.

"Very grateful. Very grateful," he would say to his enthusiastic and mixed audiences, many of whom were hearing live Latin music for the first time.

Vargas, warbling Lara's pristine music, popularized the bolero and the pasodoble, the fast-paced Spanish double-footstep dance.

Theirs was considered one of the great musical partnerships in the Spanish-speaking world.

His rendition of "Flor de Lis" (Iris Flower) had been his musical tessera throughout Latin America in the 1930s. He brought it and "Solamente Una Vez" (Just Once), "Mi Vida" (My Life), "Rosa," "Maria Bonita" (Pretty Maria), "Granada" and more to American audiences.

Some of his other most-requested songs were "Mujer" (Woman), "Portenita Mia" (My Little Port Girl), "Me Fui" (I Left), "Tu Me Haces Falta" (I Miss You), and "Piel Canela" (Cinnamon Complexion).

He performed for Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, shared the stage with Sammy Davis Jr., and came to count Frank Sinatra and Julio Iglesias among his friends and admirers.

One of his last recordings was an album of duets with Iglesias.

The United Nations honored Vargas in the 1970s, calling him the leading exponent of Latin American music.

Vargas was born in San Miguel Allende, in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, the second of 13 children. He was a quiet and introverted child whose family wanted him to become a priest.

Instead, he developed an early talent for music and began singing in a chorus in high school in Mexico City in 1917. After school, he tried to become a bullfighter but failed and turned to studying medicine for a time.

But singing remained his vocation and his rich, strong tenor voice gained him quick admission to the National Conservatory of Music.

Vargas got his first break in 1928 when he was selected to sing the role of Turidu in the Italian opera "Cavalleria Rusticana," by Pietro Mascagni. The performance was so successful that it led to an operatic tour of the United States, where he earned $10 a day.

Vargas then turned to popular ballads, eventually reaching an audience of millions in Latin America, the United States, Europe and Asia.

He started recording in Chicago and for more than half a century sang for the RCA label.

Vargas' signing career eventually spanned more than 60 years and included performances at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden and concert halls and stadiums throughout the Western Hemisphere.

In addition to appearing in 20 Mexican films, Vargas conducted the popular television program "The Studio of Don Pedro Vargas" for about 10 years.

One of his last appearances was on a video recording of Latin artists who had banded together for "Cantare Cantaras" (I Shall Sing, You Shall Sing) in 1985, part of the entertainment industry's efforts to ease world hunger.

In addition to his son, Vargas is survived by his wife, Teresa Campos, three other children and seven grandchildren.

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