“Edgardo Donato y sus muchachos” – and this was the proper name of Donato’s orquesta tipica – was, indeed, a very atypical one. Not so highly regarded in Buenos Aires it simply did not fit into any rule or schema. No female singers in tango orquestas? Lita Morales all the way. D’Arienzo revolution of 1936? Donato anticipated it in 1933 with “El acomodo”, “Tierrita”, “Qué hacés, qué hacés!” etc. Singers duos in the mid-forties? Donato had a trio in 1939, and a backing vocal since 1933. Bandoneon is a soul of tango? Indeed, but how about a solo piano accordion in a tango orquesta? “El tango es un pensamiento triste que se baila”? Enrique Discepolo definitely did not mean Donato – for the whole life of his orquesta he recorded two… maybe tree sad tangos in total… and the lyrics of his most recognized tango “A media luz” is nothing more than an illustrated guide to the city’s bawdy places. The peak of the Golden Age? In 1942 Donato orquesta vanished from the recording studio for well over a year… when he came back it was a very different Donato…
There are two major versions of the events of 1942. One version ascribes the utmost importance to Donato’s accordion player, Osvaldo Bertone. However, accordion solos started appearing in Donato’s recordings only around 1937, while his orquesta was successfully performing and recording since 1930. Also, if the accordion was so important, Donato would have certainly found a replacement, if not for Bertone himself, but at least for the instrument, when his orquesta re-surfaced. Another version alludes, without any details, to a love triangle between the three Donato’s singers. However, it is rather puzzling how Lita Morales, who completely disappeared from the orquesta after August 1941 could become a cause for the love triangle a whole year later.
Recently, in a series of conversations with Dmitry Pruss we came out with a reconstruction of events, based on the history of Donato recordings, which seems to consolidate all the known bits and pieces.
Edgardo Donato, an accomplished violin player, and one of the most eccentric tango figures formed “Edgardo Donato y sus muchachos” in 1930, together with his two brothers, Osvaldo and Ascanio. While all Donato musicians stayed with the orquesta until its demise, there were quite a few singers that passed through its ranks. Those included the former boxer Félix Gutiérrez, the future star Hugo de Carril, and one of the best tango voices Alberto Gomez, but his emblematic singer, Horacio Lagos joined Donato in 1935, and became the principal singer in 1936, with the memorable recording of “Se va la vida”.
In 1937 Donato, looking for even happier, and brighter sound, added to his bandoneons line-up a piano accordion, played by a 16-years old Osvaldo Bertone, or simply Bertolín (see “Edgardo Donato y Bertolín“). And in 1939 he committed an unimaginable crime of accepting into the orquesta female singer Lita Morales, a wife of Horacio Lagos. Their very first recording together was also one of their best… and quite foretelling as well. It was “Carnaval de mi barrio” by Luis Rubistein. Horacio and Lita only sung the happy lyrics of the first verse and the chorus, which is the best metaphor of what all Donato music was about:
My neighbourhood is celebrating with its best smile
and a strange tenderness invades my heart,
it seems that the hours pass more quickly
and from the mud itself, sprouts a song.
A band of street kids, singing a tango out of tune
assaults the ears with its cacophony,
these are sparrows of my neighbourhood, that spill on the mud,
handfuls of joy, given by God.
In his arrangement Donato omitted the second verse with rather ominous stanza. Did he want to keep the vocals shorter or the mood of the tango happier?
The woman who came back without honour, disguised as a thug,
and the neighbours in each door gossiped non stop,
about her shameless costume, her jet black eyes,
and her lack of modesty, that she doesn’t know how to hide.
In either case the significance of this foresight became obvious only when, half a year later, he invited to his orquesta another singer, Romeo Gavio (Gavioli). A handsome Romeo was not only a fellow Uruguayan, where Donato spent all of his youth, but also a skilled violinist, who could double in the orquesta when Donato wanted to try yet another of his tricks. In the very end of 1939 Romeo had his first recording with Lita, and with Horacio as well. The men duo premiered a delightful vals “Noches correntinas” with rather telling lyrics, even though this verse was left out of the final recording:
On a dull spring evening
I saw you for the first time, the correntina of my dreams
And there were two big eyes with her fiery look
That made me sigh under her magical influence.
A whole new set of solos, duos and trios was recorded in the course of the next year. One of those was a lovely children tune “Triqui-trá”, written specially for Lita by Maruja Pachero Huergo – a famous composer, lyricist and musician, an author of “El adios”, who collaborated with Donato on many tangos in his songbook:
I am the little girl
Who happily repeated
That life was a sea and a blue ship
They were all my dreams of childhood.
I only had
A book of stories
And an old song that my mother
Made me sing as a child.
However, the blissful childishness came to the end when in September of 1940 Lita recorded with Romeo tango “Yo te amo” (“I love you”), pretty much openly admitting the beginning of their romance:
[ Lita’s solo: ]
I love you, Darling
I adore you, my Love
In those hours of beauty,
We live out the dream of our great love
[ Lita and Romeo duo: ]
The kisses that you gave me
Are the kisses of my soul
Love of my life
I cannot love you, never, not ever!
The tension started mounting in the orquesta. Last time all three of them could be heard together in the vals “La shunca”, in January of 1941, and after that Lita appeared on the recordings only with Horacio Lagos. In July of the same year Lita and Horacio were warning each other “not to spill bad blood” in a humorous polca “No se haga mala sangre”:
To live with such anxieties
Will not save you from death.
And so, if you’re so annoyed,
How can you laugh?
Living right or wrong,
It’s the same, we all end up equally dead.
It’s the same whether you’re queer
Or having an affair.
But on August 6, 1941 Horacio and Lita seemed to reconcile with a vals “Mañana será la mía” (“Tomorrow belongs to me”), while making fun of a hopeless womanizer and his victims:
There he goes, there he goes
It’s him, it’s him
Arm in arm with another dream woman
And as they say goodbye with the sweetest of words
She feels a rather different emotion
After August 1941 Lita completely disappeared from the orquesta, and there were no duo recording of Romeo and Horacio either. However, as it is obvious from a solo recording of Romeo, “Tu confidencia”, made in May of 1942, Romeo did not stop chasing Lita, until she openly admitted that she does not love him anymore:
When many years have passed
If you then look back to now,
You will realise your kisses
Lied to me mercilessly.
Your callousness killed me
When one day, coldly,
You brought torment to my mind
With an “I don’t love you anymore”
On the August 6, 1942, in the last recording session, Romeo alone recorded vals “Mendocina”, and, after more than a year hiatus, together with Horacio – tango “Lonjazos” (“Scars”).
Soon after this session, which happened a year after Lita’s disappearance, Donato fired all three singers, Osvaldo Bertone left the orquesta, Romeo Gavioli left Buenos Aires altogether and returned to Montevideo, Maruja Pacheco Huergo, while keeping her musical and movie career afloat never returned to tango scene, and Donato himself appeared to be so heavily shaken by the events, that within a year his brother Osvaldo overtook the direction of his orquesta. Another strange fact is that while lots of information can be found on Romeo Gavioli and his own orquesta, including the account of his tragic death in 1957, there is not anything, not even the birth dates or real names of Lita Morales and Horacio Lagos. All we know is that Lita briefly reappeared on the scene in 1955-1956 with the following words:
Friend, don’t pay any attention to him
Men are fickle
Kicking off your old hurt,
Don’t bother crying for that old love again.
Try to close up that wound
Lest the betrayal you feel inside will open up again.
Friend, pay no attention to him,
A man is not worth the pain!
The described events are obviously somehow connected, but they lack a key. Just the triangle alone does not explain the gravity of the consequences. Neither it explains why the names of Lita and Horacio were erased from the history. And a possible key to understanding what actually happened is the fact that Lita had a son, Daniel Stigliano (Stigliano was the real name of Horacio Lagos, see TodoTango archives) who was born, presumably, amidst the described events.
Here is the reconstruction of the events, with the years and notable recordings of Donato orquesta. We will state the facts in the upright font, while keeping the hypothesis in italics. When listening to the music, please also check the lyrics in the liner notes of the tunes – it holds additional clues to the story.
- Horacio Lagos became the principal singer in October 1936, with tango “Se va la vida”
- Lita Morales joined the orquesta in March 1939, recording on the very first session with her husband Horacio Lagos “Carnaval de mi barrio“.
- Romeo Gavioli joined the orquesta around the end of 1939, recording together with Lagos “Noches correntinas“ where he for first time admitted the magic powers of Lita’s dark eyes.
- In January 1940 Lita was still happily singing girlish tunes, not paying too much attention to Romeo’s advances, “Triqui-Trá“.
- The romance between Lita and Romeo started around September 1940, with the recording of “Yo te amo“.
- The tension between the three singers kept mounting so that after the vals “La shunca”, recorded in January 1941, neither Lita nor Horacio sang together with Romeo anymore.
- The romance kept burning, while Horacio and Lita were exchanging reproaches, and asking each other to take things easier with polca “No se haga mala sangre“, until July of 1941. This tune was commissioned by Lita and Horacio to the same Luis Rubistein.
- Yet, with the news of her pregnancy, Lita and Horacio reconciled in August 1941, with vals “Mañana será la mía“ while laughing at Romeo and his next victim straight in the lyrics, not even in a single line reflecting the name of the vals, written by unknown author, and generously sprinkled by happy Bertolin’s solos.
- Some time after August 1941 Lita took “a maternity leave” from the orquesta, and gave birth to Daniel Stigliano, while Romeo and Horacio for the whole year have not recorded even a single number together.
- Nevertheless, Romeo did not stop chasing Lita, until she openly admitted that she does not love him anymore… and Romeo threatened to kill himself with the tango of his own composition and letters, written by his Uruguayan friend, José Rótulo, who followed Romeo to Buenos Aires – “Tu confidencia” (“Your confidence”).
- The last session happened in August 1942 when Romeo recorded vals “Mendocina”. For the whole year of Lita’s absence the atmosphere in the orquesta seemed to stabilize to the point that Romeo and Horacio recorded a duo after more than a year hiatus, with rather telling name – “Lonjazos” (“Scars”).
- Soon after that, Lita came back to the orquesta rehearsal with her baby Daniel. Seeing the child, Romeo felt, saw, or otherwise realized that Daniel Stigliano is in fact his son. Given the affection of a man to a first born son in any culture, and even more so in the culture of South America, we can imagine that previously not so unusual for bohemian tango community situation, which seemed to be already forgotten, now turned rather sour, as Romeo openly claimed his rights to Daniel.
- One might have expected that Horacio, hearing the claim of Romeo, supported with some details that Horacio would rather not know, would have turned his back on Lita and the child. However, Horacio did exactly the opposite – he either dismissed Romeo’s claim or, even knowing for a fact that the child was not his, confronted Romeo by embracing both Daniel and Lita… and what he did was not exactly what was expected of a “guapo y varon” of the 40s.
- A brawl ensued… To fire all three vocalists, Donato must have had a reason to blame them for disrupting the rest of the orchestra, for Bertolin’s resignation that happened around the same time, for a loss of the recording contract when the story got out, or all of the above. And even then such an action was too harsh for Edgardo, unless we assume that it was suggested, or even insisted upon, by his brother, Osvaldo, who played a role of the orquesta administrator for an absentminded Edgardo since the beginning.
- Devastated Romeo left Buenos Aires and went back to Uruguay.
- Maruja Pachero, a friend of Lita, and collaborator of Donato, with disgust turned away from tango for the rest of her life.
- Osvaldo Bertone, who, just by the virtue of his young age, might have had a secretive crash on Lita as well, since the day she appeared in the orquesta, during all his long and successful career as a jazz musician, never looked back at tango.
- Lita Morales essentially withdrew herself not just from tango but also from the public view as well.
- In May 1943 the rest of the Donato orquesta moved under direction of his brother Osvaldo Donato. We do not know whether it was an amicable decision made between the two brothers, a hostile takeover, or a coup within the orquesta itself. The following additional information was discovered by Michael Krugman (see Tango Time Machine):
- In the end of May, 1943 Edgardo Donato premiered his new orquesta with new vocalists – Daniel Adamo and Jorge Denis.
- Also, exactly one year after the split, Edgardo Donato premiered “Los Caballeros del Recuerdo” – a guardia vieja cuarteto, consisting of Edgardo Donato (violin), Francisco Pracánico (piano), Anselmo Aieta and José Donnaruma (bandoneons).
- Osvaldo Donato, who took over the old orquesta, rehired Horacio Lagos and became quite active in the city’s milongas in 1943-1945, but did not leave for us any recordings.
- Lita briefly returned to the stage in 1955-1956. In her last recording, “Comadre“, made in March 1956, she settled the score with the story that was haunting her for over twenty years.
- Romeo Gavioli, upon his return to Montevideo, formed his own orquesta. But, despite all the success of his orquesta among the public, and of Romeo himself among local admirers, he never got married, still haunted by Lita’s and Daniel’s memories. When Romeo overheard the last Lita’s recording, he went into a long depression and committed suicide in April 1957, racing his car off the pier in the sea port of Montevideo, like he promised to Lita many years ago in the last stanza of “Tu confidencia”…
… But the fond memories of “Edgardo Donato y sus muchachos”, along with around seventy delightful recordings made by his orquesta with Horacio Lagos, Lita Morales and Romeo Gavioli will always stay with us:
Music by Maruja Pachero Huergo
Lyrics by Vicente San Clemente
In the afternoon as it died in shadows
We said our fond farewell,
You could not see my deep sadness
And as we left, we both smiled.
And the desolation, watching you leave
Broke my poor voice with emotion.
The happiest of dreams died in the goodbye
And heaven, for me, darkened.
Over the time that has elapsed
You have always lived within me
And those fields that saw us
Asked me if forgetting
Had cured me of you.
And on the winds
My laments were carried away,
Dying in echoes, searching for you,
While, far away,
Other arms and other kisses
Are imprisoning you and they say
That already you’ll never need to return.
With great appreciation to Dmitry Pruss for three nights of merciless brainstorming to Paul Bottomer for preparing on rather short notice all the music and all new English translations in Today Tango Is… channel, and to Michael Krugman for his meticulous research on Donato’s after-split period. Also big thanks to Paco Da Capo for early critique and corrections.
P.S.: Michael Krugman kept researching Buenos Aires newspaper archives for any curious facts in the history of the Golden Age, until he passed away in the end of 2016. His friend, Lucas Antonisse, continued Michael’s work. Their findings of previously unknown photos with Lita, Horacio and Edgardo are in the gallery below: