RIP: Manitas de Plata, “A Great & Savage Artist” (1921–2014)

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“A great and savage artist” were the words John Steinbeck once used to describe gypsy guitarist, Ricardo Baliardo, better known as “Manitas de Plata” for his “little silver hands.” Born in 1921 to a traveling gypsy caravan in the Camargue region of southern France, de Plata never learned to read or write (he was tasked with begging as a child), but was a self-taught prodigy who mastered his instrument by age nine without ever having learned a note of music. Inspired by manouche (French for ‘gypsy’) jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, de Plata was celebrated for the florid, lightning quick speed of his own colorful style.

Plata y Picasso
Pablo Picasso and Manitas de Plata

There were some who criticized his flamenco-derived style, charging that he altogether ignored the rhythmic compás (time signatures), which characterize traditional flamenco. Despite this, de Plata won worldwide acclaim as France’s most popular artist at the height of his career in the 1970s. Recording over 80 albums and selling nearly 100 million records, he would at times perform over 150 concerts a year (including 14 appearances at Carnegie Hall), often accompanied by his cousin, flamenco singer José Reyes. Poet Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and surrealist Salvador Dalí were among the ardent admirers of his virtuosic dexterity, the latter having appeared onstage together once in 1965. So struck was Dalí by de Plata and Reyes’ soleáres (12-beat compás cycle), that he was moved to paint an image of Don Quixote during their performance. (See video below.)

A man of the moment, de Plata lived the high life and lavishly spent his millions on expensive habits and bedding down with nubile beauties like actresses and singers Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau. Married only once, he captured the hearts of countless women and fathered over twenty or so children—the exact number, he’d lost count.

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Tom and the Gipsy Kings, 1989

Among his children are Tonino, Jacques (Paco) and Maurice (Diego) Baliardo, who, along with Reyes’ sons went on to form the Grammy Award-winning, rumba-flamenca crossover, the Gipsy Kings, whom I featured live in studio back when I was hosting Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1989, during their first American tour. Following in the footsteps of their fathers, the Gipsy Kings have reached worldwide popularity with record sales in the millions.

Remembered as one who “knew how to make the most out of life,” Manitas de Plata passed on last week at the age of 93.

Manitas de Plata and Salvador Dali perform for Salvador Dali at New York’s Gallery of Modern Art in 1965.

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