Juan Carlos Cobián was an Argentine pianist born in Pigüé in 1896, and raised in Bahía Blanca. He moved to Buenos Aires in 1913. In 1916 he formed a trio with Tito Roccatagliata on violin and Eduardo Arolas on bandoneon. By 1920 Cobián was already a very successful composer, with his tangos recorded by the greatest names in the genre, Roberto Firpo and Carlos Gardel among others. Cobián and Enrique P. Delfino are credited with pioneering the Tango Romanza, a new composition style for Tango that was more melody-driven and stood in contrast to the more rhythmic Tango favored by Francisco Canaro. Canaro, the most recorded Tango artist of all times, recorded only a handful of Cobián's works.
In 1922 Cobián's star rose as he joined the Osvaldo Fresedo’s sextet at the opening of the Abdullah Club in the iconic Gallería Güemes. That year he recorded with Fresedo for Victor, including 7 new works of his own. Among these recordings with Fresedo Los dopados stands out, it was written for an homonymous play, and years later Cobián's friend and biographer Enrique D. Cadícamo wrote the lyrics. The Tango speaks volumes about a dark side of Cobián's character, he probably drank too much, as did Tito Roccatagliata, now Fresedo's lead violin. In early 1923 Cobián formed his own Sextet with an all star cast that included Pedro Mario Maffia and Luis Petrucelli on bandoneons; Julio De Caro and Agesilao Ferrazzano on violins; and Humberto Costanzo on the double-bass. They recorded 35 tracks for Victor that same year, including the Tango Shusheta (El aristócrata) which was inspired by Martín de Álzaga Unzué (aka Macoco), the famous Argentine race car driver and playboy that was a personal friend of both Cobián and Fresedo.
Suddenly, just seven months later, in August 1923 Cobián dissolved his group and decided to move to New York. Cobián had an affair with a "not-so-talented couplet singer 15 years his senior", according to Cadícamo. The singer, "Concepción A." (Cadícamo conceals the names of some of his characters), had left Buenos Aires for New York in early 1923, and wrote to Cobián often of the possibilities that New York offered for someone of Cobián's stature. Cobián recorded his final tracks with his sextet in Buenos Aires on August 13 and 14.
Concepción A. did not go to the pier in Hoboken, New Jersey (across the Hudson river from Manhattan), to welcome him on September 3. Cadícamo says that Cobián stayed at the Hotel Victoria in Manhattan, but the original Hotel Victoria was demolished in 1914. We conjecture that Cobián stayed briefly in the Hotel Victor in Hoboken itself, it's the only lodging named similarly in the area at the time. Coincidentally, Pilar Arcos and María Montero returned from Puerto Rico the same day of Cobián's arrival. And four days later Ennio Bolognini, the Argentine cellist and friends with Cobián and Fresedo, also arrived in town to see the great fight.
Luis Ángel Firpo was staying in his apartment in the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Dancer Roberto Medrano visited frequently. Cobián stopped by and soon was surrounded by Argentine friends. All of New York was abuzz in the expectation of the great fight, and Paris and the rest of the world too. Two days before the fight, Firpo, accompanied by his friends, attended an event at the headquarters of the newspaper La Prensa where he was celebrated by all the Hispanic consuls in New York. Afterwards, around the block and in front of the Unión Benéfica on 14th Street, an impromptu crowd of 3 thousand acclaimed him as the next champ.
On September 13 Firpo and friends headed to the restaurant of John Perona on West 46th street. Perona was Italian, and some sources claim that he lived in Buenos Aires before arriving in New York, and that he used to be Firpo's sparring partner. Firpo liked Perona's cooking a lot, and was a regular at the restaurant, where he would join in the occasional Tango dancing.
On September 14 Firpo, his friends and 80 thousand fans went to the Polo Grounds on 155th street on the Harlem River, to witness a fight that would go down in History as the stuff of legend. Cobián was there with words of encouragement for Firpo. Francisco G. Ortega of Cine Mundial wrote a piece that week in which he claimed that Firpo would have been the champ if the rules had been followed, forever turning Firpo into a cause célèbre for Hispanics. Alas, Dempsey retained the title after two brutal rounds. After the bout and a nap, Firpo and friends went to Perona's to dance Tango. And the next day, Firpo was at Emilia Delirio's birthday bash dancing with the birthday girl. The celebration took place at Joaquín Ortega's place, and Roberto Medrano, Pilar and Guillermo Arcos, and María Montero were there too. A few days later Firpo left for South America.
The Vaudeville circuits were very active in 1924, though Vaudeville itself was a dying form. Tango and Apache acts were popping everywhere it seems, and likely as a direct consequence of the Mineralava Tour. The revue Land of Tango, with Alberto de Lima and a Spanish dancer known as Petit Marita, had successfully toured the West Coast and was now heading East. And in February, Mlle. Delirio and Fidel Irazábal launched a new revue in Hartford, claiming to include yet another Argentine Orchestra. It's plausible that Alberto Infantas was part of Delirio's revue.
The transition from the acoustic horn recording technology to the new "electric" process, took place gradually between 1924 and 1926, the turmoil was palpable. Maybe the little labels were nimble and had the know-how, and the larger labels did not, and were scrambling to adapt. Or maybe it was the other way around, and the smaller labels were struggling to invest in new equipment. These conditions may have given leverage to artists to record for multiple labels at the same time. In September 1924 Moriche and Pulido started recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company, with Nathaniel Shilkret and Eduardo Vigil y Robles as conductors. The enterprising Moriche also recorded for the niche players Vocalion and Okeh. For the next 5 years artists were able to pull this hat trick, sometimes the same song would be recorded by the same artist for different labels only a few days apart. Both Pulido and Moriche sang for Victor steadily through 1929, recording an average of 50 tracks a year. Pulido recorded significantly more Tangos than Moriche, though to be sure Tangos were not their main source of income for these two. They also recorded many duos together.
The opening of New York's local Ciro’s took place on December 29, while Cobián was still at the Hippodrome. The nightclub was located next to Carnegie Hall, though the address was advertised as 141 West 56th Street (the current location of the Metropolitan Tower), a more discreet entrance since this was a place for movers and shakers. Cobián, Cortez and Peggy shared the stage with the very popular Jazz band Ben Bernie and his Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra. Cobián named his new band Ciro's Argentinos. The press noted the excellent Tango orchestra, and remarked that Tango was up and coming in Europe. On January 31 the periodical The Billboard reviewed the place, contrasting the Bernie's Jazz sound and pace (the 9-piece orchestra included two violins, two saxophones, cornet, banjo, viol, drums and piano) with Cobián, who played the piano, accompanied by one violin, two cellos, an accordion and drums (only the drummer "was not South American"). The show did not last long though, Cortez became embroiled in an ugly divorce fight (he was not married to Peggy), and this may have precipitated the end of the engagement. Clifton Webb and Mary Hay replaced them.
On March 22 Cobián and the Spanish dancing couple The Marinos played in the Riviera Theater in Brooklyn, José Moriche joined. Cobián had a lasting relationship with Moriche since, they appeared together several times in the coming years, which is surprising considering the limited Tango repertoire of Moriche. On April 20 Cobián, Moriche and The Marinos were at Keith-Albee's in Baltimore, Maryland, and on the 25th they were at the Lyric Theater in Richmond, VA. And then, in early May they were back in Brooklyn at the Flatbush Theater. From June 7 through June 11 they were at the New Brighton Theater in Coney Island, and on June 8 they did one show in Newark, New Jersey.
In the slow Summer of 1925 season Anton Scibilia's Land of Joy ended its run in Pennsylvania. And on July 15 María Montero was at a showing of Douglas Fairbanks' new movie Don Q (Son of The Zorro). The event at the Globe Theater was broadcast on radio by Newark's WOR Station, and it had speeches including one by Montero lauding her homeland of Spain. A small musical part followed with Juan Pulido accompanied by Cobián's orchestra. Pulido didn't stay far from New York too long or too often those years, probably due to his recording schedule for Victor.
In July 1925 Carlos Cruz commissioned the recording of two tracks to aid his Tango classes. Cruz sailed from Liverpool to New York in December 1923 and worked invited by Evelyn Hubbell, who taught "the simple French Tango" since 1922. Apparently Cruz's clientele in New York was mostly the kind that payed for individualized instruction. Cobián sat at the piano and recorded two new works, also inserting himself into the discussion about what "authentic" Tango was like. These recordings "show the exact tempo and rhythm” of Argentine Tango.
1. Here's one of Canaro's few recordings of Cobián, the gorgeous Tango Pico de oro from 1920. Also, the Tango Nobleza de arrabal, composed and played by Canaro in 1920. Canaro also recorded Cobián's Letanía in 1927.
2. John Perona is the stuff of legend too. In 1929 he, along with Sherman Billingsley, opened the Stork Club on 132 W 58th Street. Then in 1931 Perona split to open the nightclub El Morocco. Both spots were the places to be seen in New York for the next 3 decades, known for their exclusive clientele of Hollywood stars, and the rich and famous. And in their beginnings both places walked the very thin line of Prohibition. There are suggestions that Martín de Álzaga Unzué was an investor in one or both ventures.
3. In researching the History of Tango in the United States, the records digitized by the Heritage Foundation are a great aid, they document the entries to the New York area via Ellis Island (next to the Statue of Liberty). But there are many holes that Tampa helps explain, many of the performers that came to New York in that era made it through the Havana-Tampa connection. Sadly we have no records of this very busy port of entry.
4. It's very hard to tell the difference in the recording process in issues from 1923 through 1926 by listening to Columbia 78s, and maybe this was intentional. The labels did not want to come out saying "this new process sounds so much better than the old one" for fear of disrupting the market for old issues. And maybe the difference was not that much in the beginning, though the electric recordings eventually sounded much better than the acoustic ones.
5. The Yale Glee and Banjo Club was formed at least 58 years before Sleepy Hall came to El Patio. In the 1920s they toured the East Coast every December, touching as many as 20 cities in a series of Christmas concerts that was very popular. Sleepy was part of a new generation of players that made people not just listen but dance. His jazz orchestra recorded with many uncredited crooners for Brunswick's budget label Melotone in 1930 and 1931. It is said that Rudy Vallée recorded with him, though we found no such recording yet. In Christmas 1923 The Baltimore Sun wrote about Sleepy:
The performance reached a climax when Sleepy Hall brought out his "enchanted" banjo. He is long and lanky, and so is his banjo. He sat down, wrapped himself around his banjo, grinned and went to sleep. The enchanted banjo played itself. It sounded like a jazz band.
6. Here's two additional steps in Fowler and Tamara's Tango. Ahhhh, the hammock!
1. Enrique Binda
2. The Library of Dance by Nick Enge & Melissa Enge
3. Aníbal Kravchik
4. Dick Spottswood
5. Leonardo Palludi
6. Michael Lavocah
7. Camilo Gatica
8. Mark John
1. Enrique Cadícamo's "El desconocido Juan Carlos Cobian"
SADAIC / Colección Testimonios
2. The blog Daytonian in Manhattan
3. Néstor Pinzón biography of Tito Roccatagliata for TodoTango
To my beautiful Lola