Five hours before he was due to go on stage, Camarón de la Isla - as the flamenco singer José Monge Cruz was known - sat inside a room in Madrid's Hotel Príncipe Pío and announced that he did not want to sing. He had just returned from another performance in Nîmes, in southern France, and he said he was feeling tired, both physically and mentally.
Five minutes before the concert finally began, the venue - the student residence San Juan Evangelista, or "el Johnny" - was about to erupt into rioting due to the delay. But the great voice of flamenco still refused to come out. Some organizers were getting chills down their spines, while others seemed ready to knock their heads against the walls.
Six months after the gig, the singer died of lung cancer, at the age of just 41
Suddenly, the maestro's curly head emerged from the dressing room. Pablo Nacarino, then 29 years old and in charge of the dressing-room area, swiftly approached him, took him by the arm and began pulling gently in the general direction of the stage. "Come on, José, liven up, there are a lot of people waiting for you out there," he told him. But it was useless.
"He didn't want to go out," recalls Nacarino. "He was very weak, destroyed really. In order to reach the stage of Johnny you have to go up a small flight of metal stairs. I went up with him, almost pushing him up. He kept telling me, 'I'm really unwell, I can't perform.' I kept saying, 'Liven up, José,' and guided him up the stairs." When they reached the top step, not without some difficulty, there was only the curtain separating them from the audience.
The audience that packed the concert hall was howling impatiently. Tomatito - the faithful guitarist José Fernández Torres, who had collaborated with De la Isla since 1979 - would be the only musician accompanying him on that famous night. He walked up to the curtain, pulled it aside and personally led Camarón by the arm to his wicker chair.
The moment the maestro appeared on stage, the 525 people in the room fell into a hushed silence. Camarón sat down without a word (he never uttered a syllable either then or throughout the concert) and broke into a soleá called Salud es lo que yo quiero (or, Health is what I want). "It was unbelievable, how deep the song coming out of that man's throat was," says Nacarino. "He was completely dejected, but he was transformed. Tears were running down my face." Many in the audience were crying, too.
Such was the epic beginning of the historic last concert of Camarón de la Isla. Flamenco fans know the date by heart: a freezing cold January 25, 1992. Six months later, on July 2, the singer died of lung cancer at the age of 41. December 7 will see the release of an album that captures that moving performance, simply called El último concierto (or, The Last Concert).
But let us return to that stage. Tomatito, then 32, was at his friend's side from the beginning. "The truth is, we did not know he had cancer. He had been feeling very tired at the hotel. He told me to cancel the concert, that he just couldn't do it. I told him it was an important gig, the Festival por Tarantos, which has deep roots in my home city of Almería. And that the director of the San Juan residence, Alejandro Reyes, who was making a great effort to disseminate flamenco, was also from Almería. Camarón then looked at me and said, 'Well, OK then...'"
Camarón's performance was indeed part of the third edition of the Flamenco por Tarantos festival. Getting Camarón to perform had cost organizers 3.5 million pesetas (21,000 euros). Tickets cost 4,000 pesetas, around 24 euros. To this day it remains the most expensive entrance fee for a concert at San Juan Evangelista, which is well known for its jazz concerts. Some people paid scalpers up to 25,000 pesetas (150 euros) "or a very large lump of hash," notes San Juan director Alejandro Reyes, who held the same post in 1992. "He sang for about 55 minutes and it was one of the best recitals of his latter period. Then he spent half an hour seeing people in the dressing room, put on a long coat of his and left. He was really kind and affectionate," Reyes recalls.
Camarón arrived at the venue with his doctor, who assisted him personally during this last stage of his life. Just before going out on the stage, the doctor and the singer had a meeting inside the dressing room. "Nobody goes in!" somebody said, and a bodyguard was found to stand in front of the door. After a while, both men came out.
Critics gave the concert rave reviews. "How he sang! As soon as he sat down on the stage his fatigue evaporated. He gave it everything he had, taking risks with each note, and he emerged triumphant," wrote the critic José Manuel Gamboa. The audience was in rapture and kept interrupting each song with resounding "olés" until a Gypsy patriarch chastised them, yelling out: "People! You don't talk during mass!"
Tomatito has been listening to that monumental recording in recent days. But his guitar cannot be heard, or at least that is what he thinks. "Next to Camarón, I can't even hear myself play. I say that completely seriously. When he was there, all the rest of us were unnecessary." Olé.