For famed Spanish-born musician and entertainer Charo, music is much more akin to oxygen and water than it is to some petty piece of entertainment. Music is her lifeblood. The energetic performer says she meets new friends through it, she rejuvenates her energy by practicing and playing it, and she experiences beauty through it.
For Charo, the guitar, especially, is what thrills her. The instrument is of the people and she can make it truly sing. Charo, who boasts a shapely silhouette and who entertains with as much verve and enthusiasm as any, is also a truly world-class six-string master. She cares about technique as much as she does about her looks. It’s all part of the package, she’ll say. And all part of what she loves most to do: engage an audience and shine when doing so.
“I don’t know why they pay me,” Charo tells American Songwriter. “I would work for free because I am entertaining myself, I am rejuvenating. I feel so happy when the curtain goes up and when the show is over and the curtain falls down, I feel very lonely again. I never was afraid of the stage, never had nerves. Because I prepare myself like the Olympic athlete.”
Before she turned 10 years old, Charo (born María Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza) had begun to play the guitar and train under the legendary player Andrés Segovia. It was he who first ingrained in her the need to practice and to do so regularly. But it was Charo’s own “DNA,” as she puts it, that allowed her to follow through on his instructions. Many hear what to do, few follow up on it. But Charo was always at the front of the proverbial line.
“You never graduate,” Charo says. “It’s a career. And in my case, you try to look cute at the same time on stage. Because when a man plays, you don’t look at him, you just listen. But when a woman plays, you look at how she looks, how she moves, her dress.”
Charo says she gets her work ethic from her mother, who got it from her mother. For the artist, working is a necessity. In this way, it’s both something she gives the world and something she gives herself. She has to perform, even if it’s alone in a rehearsal room.
“If I don’t practice at least two hours a day,” Charo says, “I feel like one of those little dogs that makes a poo-poo. I have to practice the guitar every day. If not, to me the day was not worth it.”
For Charo, to play and perform means to engage with the thrill of the resource that is music. It’s like a glass of water after choking down a handful of salt. On stage, she feels the energy of some higher ambition, it courses through her. But afterward, like many other performers, Charo goes back to feeling small, even depressed.
“When the curtain comes down,” she says, “you feel like, what’s next? It’s a feeling of loneliness, sadness. And then you breathe and you say, if you’re lucky, okay, tomorrow I’ll find another job, another curtain will open up, another audience will applause. But it’s sad, it’s a sad feeling because that moment [from the night before] will never come back again.”
In this way, Charo experiences a mini death with each completed show, just as she feels a new regeneration with each one ahead. What heightens these experiences, Charo says, is the simple idea of mortality itself. If we knew there would always be another show, it might not be so bad when one ends. But we don’t know that. And Charo clings to that knowledge.
“Because sometimes,” she says, “tomorrow never comes.”
Fans of Charo will notice she’s always dressed to the nines. She’s glamorous, yet still somehow able to traverse a whole stage in pinpoint heels. For as wondrous as she is strumming a nylon string acoustic guitar, it’s equally as amazing how she balances in stilettos. To look good motivates her.
“You have to do your best and look your best,” says Charo. “Because somebody sits down on a chair and pays money and you have to show them the respect. In my case, it’s fifty-fifty. Practicing is the most important thing, then the costume. The entertainer, the fantasy.”
But knowing this does not mean following through is always easy. To look her best, Charo diets—she’s a vegetarian—works out and rehearses as much as anyone. It’s her sacrifice for the sake of entertainment. She also knows that often, especially in places like Las Vegas, where she hopes to set up some new shows soon next year, her audience is often comprised of repeat ticket buyers. So, she acknowledges that she has to have new songs, new outfits, and new routines to impress those who see her night in and night out.
“The same act or the same dress or moving with a stick in the butt,” Charo says. “I don’t allow that. I’m always a step ahead.”
When you’re someone like Charo, you’re known around the world. And despite the vast amount of work it takes to grow and then maintain that reputation, there are perks. For Charo, one of those perks came when she worked with Pee-wee Herman on his Christmas special in 1988. Charo remembers the occasion like yesterday. For the special, Charo played guitar and sang “Feliz Navidad” as Conky the robot gyrated around the Playhouse.
“I love him,” she says of Pee-wee, aka Paul Reubens. “He is my brother. He is a genius. I had the time of my life. I was always watching his show in the morning on CBS and when he invited me and told me, ‘I want this Christmas special to last forever and forever.’ I flew from Hawaii and spent four to five days here in Los Angeles to get ready for his show.”
Sadly, two years ago, Charo’s husband died (by suicide) after lengthy health troubles. Charo says that with him went a piece of her, too. At his funeral, when they buried him, she says, a piece of her was buried along with him. In the time since, she’s worked to fill his loss with friends, family, and music. And when she “kicks the bucket,” herself, she says, she will see him again. For now, though, the 70-year-old Charo takes each day one at a time, ready for that next curtain to rise.
“Music keeps me alive,” Charo says.