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Born into poverty in Puerto Rico, Daniel Santos became one of the most influential singers and songwriters in Latin and South America during the middle of the century. From the pen of Pedro Flores, his early love-lost lyrics — a series of aching, mostly one-word hits such as "Despedida," "Obsesión," "Irresistible," "Perdón," "Venganza" — influenced author Gabriel García Márquez as much as other singers, while his later, patriotic material riled American intelligence officers and inspired Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution.
Santos was born in 1916 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Though he was transplanted from school to the workforce to supplement his family's wages, he later returned to sing in the school choir and also learned English. Still, he was living on his own by the age of 14 and joined the local Trio Lírico for several years. Like many of his countrymen, Santos made the move to New York in the mid-'30s, and impressed Puerto Rican songwriter Pedro Flores with his reading of the maestro's "Amor Perdido."
By 1938, Daniel Santos was performing and recording with the Flores Quartet, with whom he recorded most of his early hits: "Tú Serás Mía," "Venganza," "Esperanza Inútil," "Perdón," "Irresistible," and the definitive version of Flores' best composition, "Despedida." After Miguelito Valdés left Xavier Cugat's Orchestra for a solo career in 1942, Santos hopped from Flores into Cugat's famous orchestra, but soon after, he was drafted to serve in the military.
Santos returned from war with a renewed sense of purpose for his singing career. He began recording and writing patriotic material, working in conjunction with Pedro Ortiz Dávila on "Los Patriotas." Beginning in 1946, he spent much time performing in Cuba and was inspired to write dozens of songs, one of which ("Sierra Maestra") was broadcast by Castro during the Movimiento 26 de Julio. By 1961, however, Santos grew wary of the movement, specifically the policy of training children to fight in the army. He continued performing in the United States as well as Latin America, performing his most famous songs and relating many anecdotes concerning his wild private life (during his early years, he'd reportedly spent time in jails all over the continent). He was living in quiet retirement in Florida at his death from a heart attack in 1992.