The scene is Mexico City, circa 1950. You’ve spent the day touring the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacán, and now you’ve swapped chic shorts and sun hats for elegant evening attire. You and your companions sit in a romantically lit cabaret. At the appointed hour, the curtain swings open and the stage lights go on. All eyes in the room turn, and conversations slowly cease. Three handsome young men, smiling, dressed in dark suits, take centre stage. One carries maracas; two carry guitars. You notice with interest that one guitar is smaller than the other.
You are about to witness the most influential trio in the history of Latin music. You are about to fall in love with Los Panchos.
Los Panchos, also known as Trío Los Panchos, began in New York in the mid-1940s. The group consisted of Alfredo Gil and Chucho Navarro, both from Mexico, and Hernando Avilés from Puerto Rico. Avilés sang the lead, and Gil and Navarro sang harmony and played guitars, including requinto guitars, which were smaller and higher-tuned instruments designed by Gil.1 Between 1946 and 1948, Los Panchos performed around the United States, including at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Los Panchos first began touring internationally in 1946.2 Later that year, Los Panchos moved to Mexico, where they were warmly welcomed, and XEW, the most popular radio station in Mexico City at the time, reserved a time slot for their music. The trio signed with Columbia Records in 1949 and released their first album, Ritmos Tropicales.3 In 1951, Los Panchos launched a tour across Latin America.4
While Los Panchos were with Columbia, their musical director was the renowned Terig Tucci, of Argentina, who had also worked with tango great Carlos Gardel. Tucci realized the potential of this young trio and worked closely with them to expand their vocal harmonies and had songs written specifically for them.5 Los Panchos was popular among danzón lovers, but it was around that time that boleros began to surpass danzón in popularity because it “was more sensual and swinging [and] it brought dancers even closer together.”6
Los Panchos went on to sell hundreds of millions of records all over the world. Some of their best known hits were covers of classic songs such as “Bésame Mucho,” “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” “Sin Ti,” “Solamente Una Vez,” and “Contigo.”7 However, many were their own original songs such as “Nuestro Amor,” “Rayito de Luna,” “Una Copa Más,” and “Perdida,” to name only a very few. Like many of the popular musical artists at the time, Los Panchos also appeared in several films. And they not only inspired the proliferation of musical trios in Latin America, their “delicate guitars and heartbreakingly beautiful vocal harmonies established the standard for the trio’s romantic form across the Spanish-speaking world.”8
Although Los Panchos experienced enormous success with their recordings, touring, and movie appearances throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the “1960s brought a waning of interest in tropical love songs.”9 As a result, Columbia proposed having Los Panchos work with popular U.S. singer Eydie Gormé. They collaborated on the 1964 album “Amor — Great Love Songs in Spanish,” which became one of the biggest selling Latin albums of all time. In fact, some aficionados consider Gormé’s rendering of “Sabor a Mi” to be the definitive version.10 “Amor” would be followed up with “More Amor,” and Gormé and Los Panchos would collaborate on four more albums. “But ‘Amor’ stands as one of the pinnacles of the legacy of Trio Los Panchos.”11
Considering that Los Panchos started in the 1940s, you might be surprised to find them still recording and performing worldwide today! There are, indeed, three different groups that claim the rightful heritage to the name and legacy of Los Panchos. One is led by Rafael Basurto Lara, who became the lead singer in 1976 (the group’s membership changed more than a few times over the years). Another is led by Gabriel Vargas Aguilar, the son of original member Alfredo Gil. Finally, there is the Trío Los Panchos de Chucho Navarro Fundador, under the direction of Chucho Navarro, Jr.12
I know of a Mexican woman who loved Los Panchos. She would have been a teenager when Gil, Navarro, and Avilés formed their trio, and Los Panchos became a part of her soundtrack, playing in the background as her life unfolded. She was glamorous. She was passionate and creative, a connoisseur of languages and the arts. She was a dancer. I like to picture her listening to Los Panchos’ romantic guitars and harmonies. Her expression becomes soft and dreamy, and she wears a wistful smile. She hums and quietly sings a few lines. And she remembers special things from long ago, the way we all do when we hear certain music. I wonder if she knows that now and for always, whenever I hear Los Panchos, I will remember her.
Picture of Los Panchos from El repositorio digital de acceso abierto del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia de México