When Spanish radio turned an EP track by ye-yé girl Betina into a hit, a star was born.
But the Barcelona-born singer was a risk taker. In Franco’s Spain, Catalan was actively discouraged. So when she began releasing records in both Spanish and her native tongue, she was putting her career on the line.
She was born María de las Mercedes Massager Tarragó in Barcelona, Spain, on 6 January 1950.
She spent three years studying at Barcelona’s conservatory and also took part in various radio contests. It was at the National Radio studios in the city that she was persuaded to take the stage name Betina, which was felt to be more memorable than her real name.
In 1964, she was offered a contract with the Zafiro label and cut her first single, Fiesta en mi corazón.
Two further singles, Un verano and El curso va a empezar, followed that year before things really took off for Betina with the release of the EP La gente. The lead track had also been recorded by Gelu, so DJs tended to ignore it in favour of Hay tantos chicos en el mundo, Betina’s version of a French number by Petula Clark, Il y a tellement de filles. The song quickly became a national hit.
While Karina and many other ye-yé girls performed versions of Anglophone songs for the domestic market, Betina carved out something of a niche for herself – at least in the early years – by opting to cover predominantly French and Italian hits alongside Spanish originals.
Indeed, her version of Charles Aznavour’s Et pourtant was picked for her follow up EP, Y por tanto. The release also included takes on Bobby Solo’s Italian chart topper Una lacrima sul viso, Una lágrima en tus ojos, and Ti guarderó nel cuore (better known internationally as More, from the film Mondo cane), Más.
Betina and Zafiro parted company shortly afterwards, but in 1966 the singer landed a new contract with the smaller Ekipo label. She issued two versions of the same EP for the new label – one in Spanish and one in Catalan.
The Spanish EP led with A la buena de dios (a cover of a San Remo contest hit by Italian group I Ribelli), and also included Tú me dijiste adios, a song that had been written and made famous by Spain’s answer to the Beatles, Los Brincos. General Franco’s regime discouraged use of the Catalan language (to put it mildly), particularly during the 1940s and 1950s but also into the 1960s, so releasing a record in Catalan was potentially a career-limiting move for the young singer.
Betina’s stay at Ekipo proved short lived and in 1967 she switched record company again, to Regal, where she began what is perhaps best described as ‘the festival years’.
Label bosses at Regal had big plans for their new signing.
Two years earlier, Karina had jumped from obscurity to the top of the charts with a Spanish cover of the winning song from the Eurovision song contest, France Gall’s Poupée de cire, poupée de son.
Regal wanted to try the same tactic with Betina – so she was rushed into the studio to re-record Sandie Shaw’s Puppet on a string as Marionetas en la cuerda. The disc was issued with Mi amor es azul, a version of Vicky’s L’amour est bleu, which had finished fourth at the contest (and went on to become a worldwide hit for Paul Mauriat), on the flip.
The success of the release was eclipsed by that of Betina’s follow up, Entre los dos, a song she performed at the 1967 Benidorm song festival. State broadcaster TVE screened the final, and millions of television viewers watched Betina take the song to victory. Unsurprisingly, then, the 45 became the biggest seller of her career
From that point on, there was no looking back – Regal made sure she stayed in a song contest rut. That year, she was entered into the Split song festival in Croatia, and released a single on the back of her participation, La lancha, which had been performed as Šjor ilija redikul by Duo Jeka.
Then she took part in the 1967 Mediterranean song festival singing in Catalan (the first time the language had been allowed at the contest), and she released her rather mournful entry in both Catalan (T’estim i t’estimaré) and Spanish (Te quiero y te querré).
And when Eurovision fever hit Spain in 1968 after Massiel secured the country’s first ever win, Betina was quick off the mark to re-record the runner up, Cliff Richard’s pre-contest favourite Congratulations. The result, though commercially successful, wasn’t Betina’s finest moment, and the B-side – a version of French star Sheila’s cheesy Le kilt, La falda escocesa – did nothing to redeem it.
1969 kicked off with another switch of labels, this time to Marfer. If Betina had imagined this would help her shake off the song contest tag, she was mistaken. Una hora ya, a version of Fausto Leali and Tony Del Monaco’s San Remo festival entry, Un’ora fa, became her first release, backed by La lluvia, which Gigliola Cinquetti and France Gall had also both performed as La pioggia at the Italian contest.
Betina appeared at the Atlantic song contest in Tenerife later that year singing El despertar de tu amor, but she couldn’t repeat her earlier festival success.
After one brief outing as part of group Betina Group Show with Primavera in 1970, she went on to cut a version of Lynn Anderson’s country ‘n’ western hit Rose garden, Jardin de rosas, a year later.
When Betina married pianist Raúl Calderón in 1972, he took on the role of her manager. Although she had planned to retire, she ended up appearing and recording as part of a group of three men and three women with orchestra leader Janio Martí. Though her time with the group didn’t match the success of her ye-yé years, she has since said that she found the work satisfying all the same.
She has continued to earn a living as a singer in clubs, bars and casinos in Barcelona in subsequent decades.