Gelu was one of Spain’s first ye-yé girls. Scoring hit after hit from 1960, she became Spain’s best-selling female singer of the early 1960s. She went on to embrace the beat era, and her version of Petula Clark’s Downtown gave her one of her biggest successes. Unfortunately, her attempt to transform herself into Spain’s answer to the British star also proved her downfall.
She was born María de los Ángeles Rodríguez Fernández in the Spanish city of Granada on 12 February 1945. Gelu was a family nickname that she later adopted as her stage name.
She studied the piano and singing at a local music conservatory, but quit when she got bored of what she perceived to be outmoded teaching techniques.
A win at Radio Granada’s Música al azar contest opened many doors for the 13-year-old in her home city and in Madrid. However, she was turned down when she auditioned for Radio Madrid.
Undaunted, the singer used a contact of her father’s to gain an introduction to Jesus Alvarez at the Spanish television station, TVE. He liked what he saw and Gelu was soon appearing in a TV programme alongside Chilean star Monna Bell.
After seeing her on the show, bosses at the Barcelona-based La Voz de su Amo label were quick to snap up the young singer.
She scored big with her first release, 1960’s Después de seis tequilas (a take on The Champs’ Too many tequilas). The EP also featured Los gitanos, a version of Dalida’s Les gitans, which also became popular.
From that point, Gelu could do little wrong.
The hits kept coming over the following year or so, with ¿Porqué no soy un ángel?, Flamenco rock, Enamorada and La novia (a version of the Brazilian song later popularised in the English-speaking world by Julie Rogers).
Indeed, many of Gelu’s early recordings were takes on French or Brazilian songs.
Hits such as No me puedo quejar (a version of Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien), Et maintenant (originally by Gilbert Bécaud) and the huge Siempre es domingo kept the singer in the public eye – and the nation’s heart – throughout 1962.
From 1963 Gelu turned to Italy for much of her source material. The catchy El partido de fútbol (originally Rita Pavone’s La partita di pallone) kicked off the year and gave Gelu one of the biggest hits of her career. She would go on to record further songs originally cut by the Italian redhead, as the two had similar voices.
By this time, the ye-yé sound was becoming popular, and Gelu quickly became Spain’s top-selling female artist, with hits such as Dame felicidad (a version of Dickie Valentine’s Free me), Cuatro guitarras, Esta es mi noche (Connie Francis’ Tonight’s my night) and Renato, all in 1963.
In 1964 she was teamed with Tito Mora for a couple of releases – Gracias and No te creo – and the pair became romantically involved. However, Gelu’s father opposed the relationship and had no small hand in bringing it to an end.
She was also joined that year by beat combo Los Mustang for an EP. Gone was her usual orchestral backing, and in came a more contemporary guitar-driven sound. However, the chance to move with the times was largely squandered. This was thanks to poor song choices in the form of covers of Belgium’s Signing Nun’s Dominique and two Eurovision ballads, Gigliola Cinquetti’s sickly sweet winner Non ho l’età (No tengo edad) and Alain Barrière’s Elle était si jolie (Ella es muy bonita). Si yo tuviera un martillo, her take on If I had a hammer, saved the project from complete awfulness, but only just.
Poor sales prevented a repeat performance and Gelu found herself reunited with an orchestral backing for subsequent releases, 1964’s Oh, mi señor and Piedad, señor and 1965’s No soy digna de ti.
Highlights of these EPs include Yo soy la que soy (Italian star Mina’s Io sono quel che sono) and Tú no tienes corazón (Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Anyone who had a heart, which Petula Clark had also recorded for her sole release in Spanish).
When Petula Clark decided to cut no further records in Spanish, she unwittingly offered Gelu an opportunity to make a genuine – and some would say, overdue – move into the beat era. Downtown was duly translated and gave Gelu another huge hit. (The EP is also noteworthy for versions of the Conchita Velasco/Rosalía classic Chica ye-yé and Kathy Kirby’s I belong, retitled Yo te amé.)
Having established her new up-to-the-moment sound, there was no way her follow-up release, on which she was teamed with the Dúo Dinámico, would repeat the mistake of her collaboration with Los Mustang. The EP led with Me gusta el verano, and Cuanto más lejos estoy proved its other highlight.
In 1966, appearances at the Mallorca and Mediterranean song festivals – finishing in the top five on both occasions, with Reir, reir, reir and Yo quiero vivir respectively – kept the singer in the public eye.
She also issued a couple of EPs of versions of entries to Italy’s San Remo contest, the highlights of which were Ninguno me puede juzgar (Caterina Caselli’s Nessuno mi può giudicare) and Saber perder (Lucio Dalla’s Bisogna saper perdere).
By this time British pop had conquered the world and Gelu began a two-year run of recording almost exclusively versions of British hits. The move saw her cut some inspired covers, among them Viva el amor and No necessito tu amor (Sandie Shaw’s Long live love and I don’t need that kind of lovin’ respectively), Te veo a ti (Dusty Springfield’s All I see is you) and Todo cambió (Herman’s Hermits’ No milk today).
However, her success with Petula Clark’s Downtown convinced the singer that transforming herself into the Spanish answer to the British star was the way forward. So it was that she issued takes on My love (Mi amor), Call me (¡Llama!), Don’t sleep in the subway (No duermas en el metro), This is my song (Amor, es mi canción) and Colour my world (Pinta mi mundo).
While these are undeniably great pop songs, there was a problem. Gelu had reigned as the undisputed queen of ye-yé in the first half of the decade, but by 1965 she had many contenders for her crown. Karina and Rosalía in particular were proving more popular with the teen audiences. Gelu – who’d been on the scene since 1960 – struck them as distinctly old hat. As a result, sales of her records began to falter.
Like record buyers, the singer started losing interest in her recording career, and when she married fellow singer Santy in 1968, she withdrew from the studio.
After leaving the La Voz de su Amo label, she joined the smaller Marfer for a one-off 45, 1969’s Solo dos lágrimas (a version of Italian singer Iva Zanicchi’s Eurovision entry, Due grosse lacrime bianche), backed with En tu conjunto quiero cantar, a take on – who else? – Petula Clark’s I wanna sing with your band.
The single flopped badly and proved an unfitting end to the career of a terrific singer who had epitomised the ye-yé sound for many years.