You’ve taken your seat, the house lights have gone down, and the velvet curtain opens. The spotlight falls upon a young woman sitting alone at a piano. She seems lost in thought, her hands resting lightly on the piano keys.
After sitting motionless for a moment, she takes a deep breath and begins to play. We listen to the first few notes, but then she stops. She leans over the top of the piano, picks up a pencil, and notes something on paper. Then she begins again. We realize that she isn’t just playing; she is composing.
She hasn’t yet reached the age of 20. The year is 1940, and she is in a drawing room somewhere in Mexico City. She has no idea that the song she is writing is going to become one of the most popular love songs of all time, forming part of the soundtrack for lovers the world over and for generations to come.
She is Consuelo Velázquez, and the song is “Bésame Mucho.”
Consuelo Velázquez was born in the Mexican state of Jalisco in 1920 but grew up in Guadalajara. Apparently, she began playing the piano when she was just four years old, and performed her first public recital at the age of six. When she was in her teens, she moved to Mexico City to study at the National Conservatory. She pursued classical music and became a concert pianist, but she started writing popular songs shortly afterwards, while overseeing classical music programming for the radio station XEQ.1
Even though some sources say that Velázquez had to write and perform popular songs under male pseudonyms because it was uncommon, indeed unacceptable, for a woman to be doing that at that time,2 “Bésame Mucho” has always been under her name. And yet, interestingly, Velázquez herself wasn’t the first artist to record it. The first recording was by Los Cadetes del Swing in 1940, and the first live performance was by Emilio Tuero in 1941.3 (You can hear both through the link in the footnote.)
Since then, multiple artists all over the world have performed live and/or recorded “Bésame Mucho.” The extensive list includes such stars as Plácido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli, Diana Krall, Elvis, and even The Beatles. “A Spanish television network named ‘Bésame Mucho’ the song of the century and some historians say it is the most frequently recorded song in music history.”4
Among the many other songs that Velázquez wrote that were popular in their day are “Pensará en Mí” and “Amar y Vivir,” but none achieved the same level of fame as “Bésame Mucho.” The latter seems to have taken hold of the hearts and imaginations of listeners because of the urgency of its lyrics and the timing of its release. “To Velázquez, the lyrics represented her own romantic longings, which she acknowledged had not been addressed when she originally conceived the song, as a teenager in Mexico. But by writing about a kiss to be delivered as if ‘for the last time,’ she unintentionally may have reached listeners who indeed believed they were partaking in a final embrace — before being separated by World War II.”5
Regardless of the exact cultural factors involved in the song’s skyrocketing to fame when it did, the fact remains that “Bésame Mucho” is a beautiful composition, quintessentially romantic and elegant. Consuelo Velázquez was extraordinarily talented, as a pianist and as a songwriter. Many different sources refer to her as Mexico’s greatest female composer.
Until this year, I had never heard of Consuelo Velázquez, though I’d heard “Bésame Mucho.” I’m so grateful to have gotten to know about her and her other work, and I now listen to her regularly. She has a distinctive style of playing; her hands dance along the piano keys with confidence and strength, at times playful, at times romantic. When I hear her, I like to close my eyes and picture that young woman with that exceptional talent, remarkably still a teenager, channeling her gift into a timeless song that would forever express love’s universal longing. ¡Bravo!
Picture of Consuelo Velázquez from Alchetron.com Consuelo Velázquez