In the 1920s Havana was in thrall to the sexteto guitar groups that were refining the Cuban son style that had recently arrived from Santiago at the eastern tip of the Island. By 1925 Barroso was working as a driver for the most celebrated of these groups, the Sexteto Habanero. The story goes that on the way back from an engagement, the group were singing in the back of the car when their chauffeur joined in. He made such an impression that he was asked to join the band and by the end of the year he was featured as their lead vocalist on the first electronic recordings to be made in Cuba (for the RCA Victor label). As the Cuban music historian Cristóbal Díaz Ayala said "The son won over Havana and with the magic of records, it soon began to win over the rest of the Caribbean" and beyond.
Barroso's reputation grew rapidly and the following year he was travelling to New York to record as lead singer with Alfredo Bolona's mythical Sexteto Bolona. In a legendary two day recording blitz they waxed the sixteen tracks for the Brunswick label that made up their entire recorded output, an oeuvre that places them amongst the very finest son bands of the era. In 1928 Barroso completed the extraordinary feat of singing with all three of the era's leading son groups (and major record companies) when he guested with the newly formed Septeto Nacional De Ignacio Piñeiro on their Columbia Records session. Also in 1928 Barroso formed his own sextet, Agabama with the singer Frank Grillo, who later found fame as Machito.
In 1929, now known as the 'El Caruso De Cuba' (after the popular Italian opera star Enrico Caruso), Barroso left Cuba for Spain with the Salmeron variety troupe. They traveled throughout Spain and France in a tour that was amongst the first made by Cubans in Europe. On his return to Havana two years later, Barroso found that a new musical style, the Danzónette, was the new craze. A popularist modernization of the stately instrumental Danzón, the style was the revenge of the típica or charanga bands (which featured violins and flute) which had been displaced in popularity by the son guitar bands the previous decade. With the Danzónette the lead singer moved centre stage, liberated from the duo form popularized by the son bands and Barroso excelled both as a straight lead and as an improvising singer. His second career was about to begin. He joined the popular orchestra of his ex-schoolmate Ernesto Muñoz, which broadcast live several times a week, spreading the new sound.
As in the 1920s when he had 'jumped' from one band to another, so Barroso continued the trend in the 1930s with both charanga and son bands. In 1933 he left Muñoz to form the mouth-watering charanga López-Barroso with the legendary López brothers; pianist Orestes "Macho" (father of Orlando 'Cachaíto' López who would later find fame as the bass player with the Buena Vista Social Club) and legendary bassist Israel 'Cachao'. The flautist in the group was future Sensación soloist Juan Pablo Miranda. For two years Barroso performed both with the charanga and with his own Sexteto Universo until the problems of managing two groups simultaneously brought them both to an end in 1935. He then founded Sexteto Pinin (sponsored by Pinin Rum) and went on to sing with other popular groups of the time including Everardo Ordaz and Andrés Laferté. The latter orchestra included the star struck teen age guiro player Rolando Valdés, who would later form Orquesta Sensación but who at the time was taking his first steps as a professional musician.
In 1939 he was singing with Quarteto Allue and Orchestra Maravilla del Siglo with whom he made his only recordings of the 1930s, two sides of a single 78rpm disc. The depression era had caused the recording industry in Cuba to grind almost to a halt. The big Américan labels had stopped recording on the Island in 1931 and the decade saw radio became the principal format with a tremendous boom in power and popularity. Regular broadcasts by his many groups had made Barroso one of the great stars of the Cuban airwaves and he popularised many of the songs he would later immortalize on record with Sensación.
In the 1940s the Danzónette faded and wilted from popularity as a Moré powerful, rhythmically driving style was originated and perfected by the legendary Arsenio Rodríguez who added a trumpet section and conga drums to the son sexteto format and other bands followed his lead. To combat this move, Arsenio's great rival, Arcano expanded the charanga format to create his all-conquering Radiofonic Orchestra (in which the López brothers' created a musical laboratory to incubate and later unleash the new rhythm of the mambo). As these two heavy-weights slugged it out, Barroso's career fell into decline. By the end of the 1940s he had almost stopped singing and was reduced to playing congas in Rafael Ortega's orchestra at the Cabaret Sans-Souci (No Worries). But late at night he would sing old songs from the repertoire of the great Danzón singer Barbarito Díaz, but in his own style. One can only imagine the beauty. One of these performances was witnessed by soon to be record producer Jesús Goris who had long been a fan of Barroso's 1920s recordings.
While working at the Sans Souci Barroso was persuaded, in 1948 to join the Police Band as singer and tambourine player. He had fallen on desperate times.
By the early 1950s his old friend and admirer, the great singer Beny More was back in Havana fresh from his success in Mexico with Perez Prado's mambo orchestra. He came to Barroso's rescue, paying off his rent arrears, finding him a new apartment, subsidising his family and getting him work at La Campana. He also recommended Barroso to the already smitten Jesus Goris who had recently signed Orquesta Sensación to his fledgling record company, Puchito.
So it was that one night in 1955, at La Campana that Barroso eagerly approached the flashy dressed young man he had known as a teenage percussionist in the late thirties over a decade before, Rolando Valdes, leader of Orquesta Sensación. His third coming was imminent.
In early July 1955 Abelardo Barroso made his first recordings in over fifteen years, (and apart from his solitary single in 1939, his first in over a quarter century). Valdés chose the songs for the session, two of Barroso's great radio hits of the thirties, 'La hija de Juan Simón' and 'En Guantánamo' and they resulted in one of the great double A sided singles in the history of popular music. Puchito single No. 224 was released on both 78 rpm and the new 45 rpm formats and it became a Gold Record in 1956. Barroso already had a huge audience of older fans who had been starved of his recordings since the 1920s and now he captured the youth as well.
Although Sensación already had two singers when Barroso joined (and they would recruit Moré along the way), he quickly established himself as the most popular and as the final piece of the Sensación jigsaw. The easy swinging, easy danceable cha cha cha craze boasted a number of outstanding groups in Havana including Orquestra Aragón and Orquesta América and most of them featured vocals sung as duets and often by members of the band (rather than specialist singers). But with Barroso, Sensación uniquely had a genuine sonero of outstanding quality and charisma. In 1956 Puchito released five singles featuring Barroso as well as the LP Abelardo Barroso con la Orquesta Sensación. The band was wowing them on radio and television and in 1957, they caused a sensation at the major Venezuela carnivals, later playing in New York and Miami. It was a perfect fit and Barroso was to remain with Sensación for the rest of his career.
It wasn't just Barroso that made Sensación special. They were a wonderful group; the outstanding rock-steady rhythm section had an easy, infectious swing, the two-man violin section could ramp up the excitement, the wonderful coro (backing vocal) was full of personality and groove and in their flautist Juan Pablo Miranda, they had a soloist to rank with the very best. And although they were advertised as a cha cha cha band and benefitted from the craze they were equally adept with the gamut of Cuban rhythms.
The period 1955 - 1957 was the peak for Barroso's recording with Sensación and from the end of the fifties into the sixties, the band were still regulars on radio and television, but the 1959 Sensación LP Tiene sabor featured Barroso on only two tracks. The great era of the cha cha cha was coming to an end, signalled by the creation of a new rhythm, the pachanga that same year. In 1960 the LP Danzón cha featured Barroso in a gimmicky vocal 'duel' with the younger singer Tabenito and later that year the great Juan Pablo Miranda left the orchestra. Although 1961's LP Bruca maniguá included the wonderful title track it was one of Barroso and Sensación's last great triumphs.
The turbulent years immediately following the Revolution saw Jesús Goris leave Cuba for the U.S. and recording on the Island came under the auspices of the state-owned Egrem, who in 1965 produced the last LP by Barroso with Sensación which included 'No te agites', performed in the mozambique rhythm that was fashionable at the time but it shows the decline of both the orchestra and the voice of the great sonero.
In 1967 the musicians ousted Rolando Valdés as director of the band he had created. Barroso continued for a few months until his final performance on January 1, 1968 after which he had an operation on his vocal chords and was forced to abandon singing. He returned to the stage for the last time in 1970 when he joined old friends in Havana as part of the 50th anniversary tribute to the Sexteto Habanero. In retirement Barroso spent his time raising pigeons, walking with his grandsons and visiting friends to reminisce over old times.
In March 1972 the great Orquesta Aragón returned from their first trip to Guinea in West Africa with the news that Cuban music was a huge hit there and that Abelardo Barroso was the most popular Cuban singer of them all. The "magic of records" had worked again and happily Barroso was made aware of his new fans shortly before he died on September 27th, 1972, in Havana of emphysema.
In an interview with the Cuban journalist Castellanos that year, Barroso expressed: ¨It is painful for me not being able to sing. It is possible that my fall or my death is near, but I wouldn´t want to be forgotten¨. As if anyone who heard Abelardo Barroso ever could...