Spanish singer Massiel is best known for winning the 1968 Eurovision song contest with La, la, la. Her victory earned her national treasure status in Spain. That song aside, she wrote most of her material and offered a more serious alternative to the ye-yé sounds of her contemporaries. She had achieved notoriety as a protest singer in 1966 with her debut release and has enjoyed lasting popularity in her homeland and in South America.
She was born María de los Ángeles Felisa Santamaría Espinosa on 2 August 1947 in Madrid. As a child she wanted to become a ballerina, and it was her dance teacher who gave her the nickname Massiel. But she also wanted to sing, and at 13, she formed a – short-lived – girl group with two friends.
She spent much of her youth hanging around with the stars, as her father, Emilio Santamaría, was the agent for a host of Spain’s top singers, including Karina. Massiel went to work for her father after finishing secretarial school, but he refused to support her musical aspirations. It was only after she’d won her first talent contest and appeared on a Radio Madrid programme that he relented.
In 1966, Massiel was offered a recording contract with Novola, an offshoot of the Zafiro label, and cut her first EP. She had co-written all four songs on the release, including the lead track, Di que no, which was widely perceived to be a protest song. However, Massiel was quick to refute the suggestion. Hidden away on the release were two other gems, No comprendo and the Sandie Shaw-styled No sé por qué.
That summer she took part in the Mallorca song festival, performing ¿Y sabes que vi? and Rufo el pescador, both of which were issued on her follow-up 45.
Él era mi amigo followed that autumn.
But it was in 1967 that Massiel really made her name in her homeland when she scored a big hit with Rosas en el mar. The song had been written by Luis Eduardo Aute and featured in the film Codo con codo.
Aute also penned its follow up, Aleluya no 1, which proved another hit.
Her success prompted an offer to appear in another film, Vestida de novia.
Perhaps surprisingly, her next single, La moza de los ojos tristes, failed to sell, but Massiel brushed off any disappointment and headed off to perform a tour in South America. At home she issued the delightfully downbeat Las rocas y el mar.
During her tour of South America, she received a phone call that would change her career. General Franco’s government had decided to pull the appearance of Joan Manuel Serrat at the 1968 Eurovision song contest. Serrat had insisted on performing in Catalan, and the Spanish government was having none of it. They had actively discouraged the use of the language during the 1940s and 1950s, and although their stance began to soften in the 1960s, they did not want to be represented on the international stage by a song in Catalan.
However, bosses at the Zafiro label had already promoted the song and didn’t want to have wasted their time and money, so they opted to find a replacement singer who would perform it in Spanish.
Massiel returned from Chile a few days ahead of the contest in London. (Sandie Shaw had won the year before, so the UK was hosting the event.) The singer gave a lively and engaging performance of the highly catchy La, la, la, and at the end of the nail-biting voting, she beat pre-contest favourite Cliff Richard’s Congratulations by just one point.
Detractors of the contest sometimes say that the song’s repetitive chorus of la, la, las marked the beginning of the end of Eurovision. However, Massiel scored a massive hit and became a national hero in Spain, having given the country its first win. She also recorded the song in several other languages, and enjoyed a chart hit in Norway (reaching number five), Switzerland (number eight), Germany (number 12), the UK (number 35) and elsewhere. (The song’s success even prompted a US cover version by pop princess Lesley Gore.)
Massiel’s international fame also led to an English-language release for her follow up, Turn of wheel, with Only forever will do, an Italian tune with English lyrics by Don Black, on the B-side.
If Niños y hombres, issued in the early autumn of 1968, proved disappointing, Massiel bounced back with the stronger Deja la flor, which was taken from the soundtrack of the film Cantando a la vida. En busca de ti rounded off the year.
Disaster struck when the singer suffered a throat infection, and her recording sessions became less frequent for a while.
In 1969, she issued just one single, Amén, and married plastic surgeon Luis Recatero, though the marriage wouldn’t last. (She would go on to marry again.)
She left Novola for the Ariola label in 1972, and spent the early 1970s appearing in more stage productions, including A los hombres futuros, yo Bertolt Brecht (1972) and Corridos de la revolución: Mexico 1910 (1976).
In the early 1980s, she enjoyed a comeback with hits such as El amor and versions of Mexican songs including Eres and El noa noa. In 1983, the album Corazon de hierro, and in particular the single Brindaremos por el, proved massively successful in Spain and south America.
The 1990s and 2000s have seen the singer enjoy further popularity on the back of her Eurovision success, mainly through appearances on Eurovision-related television shows.