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Lucha Reyes: the Janis Joplin of Mexico

5 November 2009

Lucha Reyes, born Maria de la Luz Flores 23 or 28 May (different sources use different birth dates) 1906 in Guadalajara, was one of the earliest of Mexican recording artists, and though recordings in the 1920s, introduced European audiences to Mexican music.   Due to her European success, her difficult personal life and her apparent vulnerability, she has been called “the Mexican Piaf” — and her voice does have some similarities to the French singer — although her throaty renditions of  lower class and generally masculine popular music form, as well as her self-destructiveness, might make her better styled “the Mexican Janis Joplin“.

Having moved with her mother and sister to Mexico City, by her early teens she was singing Revolutionary songs in the Capital and singing between acts in visiting circuses.   At the age of 15, she toured California, becoming a hit on the Mexican-American entertainment circuit.  Returning to Mexico,  and taking her step-fathers family name (Reyes) her then-pure soprano voice was known throughout Mexico where she was one of the first radio-era stars.

In 1925 she was invited by impresario Juan N. Torreblanca to join his Orquesta Típica Mexicana on its European tour. The soprano whose artistic renditions of Mexican classics would not be the Lucha Reyes who returned home in 1927.

LuchaThe story is that Reyes was just unprepared for a winter in Berlin, and a bad cold or throat infection forced to leave the tour.  The story goes on that a gentlemanly piano player moonlighted in a whorehouse to raise the cash for Lucha’s return to Mexico where she could spend the next two years recovering.   Of course, her non-stop drinking and partying may have had something to do with leaving the tour, and with the dramatic change in her voice:  huskier, edgier and, suited not for delicate songs about La Paloma but perfect for the music of cowboys and cantinas:  mariachi and ranchera.

It’s not just the riotous living and heavy drinking that makes leads to the comparison of Reyes and Joplin.  Remember that when Janis Joplin first came on the scene, woman singers like Joan Baez and even Grace Slick were a sort of earth-mother or girl-friend in their stage persona.  Reyes and Joplin both opted to join a male sub-culture (mariachi for Reyes, the southern blues for Joplin) and burned out trying too hard to out macho the machos.

Reyes, like Jopin, often performed with a liquor bottle in hand, and made on stage references to her  rowdy lifestyle.  That Reyes was the first female mariachi lead singer of note made her antics fodder for the gossip columnists and — like Janis Joplin — an improper example to be pointed out by proper parents to their misbehaving daughters.

And, in the end, it got them both.  Janis Jopin was only 27 when she died of a combination of heroin and alcohol in 1970.   Reyes managed to survive a bit longer, but ended her own troubled life (25 June, 1944) at the age of 38, washing down about 20 barbiturates with a bottle of tequila.

Lucha Reyes was in very few films, in part because her erratic personal life made he a director’s nightmare. But sing she could:

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