Classic Latin covers: “Toda la Vida” by Emmanuel and also by Franco

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The prolific Italian singer/songwriter Lucio Dalla was enormously popular in his country until his death in 2012. Some 50,000 people attended his funeral in Rome.

But Dalla was equally beloved in Latin America, even if most fans never knew his name. Several popular singers recorded Spanish and Portuguese versions of his songs, including “Minha Historia” (“My History”) by the Brazilian duo of María Bethania and Chico Buarque, and a number of hits by the Mexican heartthrob, Emmanuel Martínez, known simply as Emmanuel.

By far the most successful Dalla song in Latin America remains his “Tutta la Vita,” or “Toda la Vida” in Spanish, which translates roughly as “All the Life” or “The Whole Life” (it had a moment in the United States too, in an English version performed by Olivia Newton-John).

A joyous, and impossibly catchy love letter to his musical career, Dalla released the song in 1984 and it was quickly reworked into a Spanish-language ballad by the influential Spanish musician Luis Gómez Escolar. Emmanuel was so enamored of it that he delayed the release of his debut album “Desnudo” (“Naked”) so he could include it.

Then something unprecedented happened. Emmanuel was beat to the punch by Cuban singer Franco Javier Iglesias (known as Franco), who released his own recording, with the same title and the same lyrics, as the one Emmanuel was working on. Emmanuel was no doubt peeved by the development. He has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t blame Franco (who had a legal right to use the song) for the debacle, which was in his view caused by “problems among the record companies.”

Amazingly, both versions of the song reached the top of Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs’ ranking in late 1986. Franco hit No.1  the week of Oct. 11, only to be replaced by Emmanuel the following week. For five weeks, in fact, the two versions of the same song took alternating turns at the top spot. Nothing like it has happened since.

The Spanish version of “Toda la Vida” is quite different from Dalla’s original. The focus has shifted away from the artist’s life and towards romantic entanglement. Its narrator confesses how, despite having the love of a “perfect woman,” he keeps looking for new and different kinds of love,” and “dialing secret numbers/ sending letters in hiding/ scheduling indiscrete meetings.” Why does he do this? “To find my own music,” he says, away from the “wounds” of love.

Unlike many Spanish ballads which glorify infidelity, for instance “La Más Bella Herejía” (“The Most Beautiful Heresy”) by Braulio, “Toda la Vida” treats the cheating man harshly. He calls himself “an idiot,” “a suicidal lover,” “a slave to myself.” There’s no indication that, in the end, his beloved will take him back. The last stanza speaks of “goodbyes,” so probably not. And good for her, too.

For better or worse, Emmanuel’s version has endured while Franco’s has, in the words of Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer” been “put in the back/ in the discount rack.”

Listening to both back to back it’s not difficult to see why. Emmanuel’s version is more energetic than Franco’s, more complex and charismatic. Let’s face it, it’s just better, a rare case of quality justly rising to the top. But credit for “Toda la Vida’s” long-lived popularity should not just go to its most famous performer(s), but to the supremely talented musicians on the other side of the ocean who brought it into the world in the first place.

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