Manitas de Plata, the gypsy/flamenco guitar virtuoso who died last week, was the first celebrity musician I met face to face. I was reminded of this – ironically – about two weeks ago, when I was on holiday in Jordan and found myself standing in a place called Um Qais, looking down at Lake Tiberias (or the Sea of Galilee as it is called in the Bible) in Israel. It was there that “Little Hands of Silver” and I met.
It was in the early 1970s and Manitas was a household name in Europe, a stalwart of television shows and concerts in which his flying fingers and charismatic stage presence would enrapture audiences. It did not hurt that he was of Romany heritage and counted the likes of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Brigitte Bardot among his fans. I am not sure how big he was in North America. He would not go there for a number of years because he was scared of flying. But, according to the New York Times, when he did get there, he had an “adulating gallery” in Carnegie Hall.
I went to see him play at an ancient amphitheatre on the shores of the Galilee, accompanies by some friends, including two rather attractive young women (bear with me, this is relevant). I saw Manitas sitting in a car outside before the performance and went up to say hello. He was exercising his fingers with rubber bands.
Manitas took an immediate shine to the two young women with me and asked if they would like to go to his dressing room and listen to him practice. Fortunately for me – and possibly unfortunately for him – I was the only one who could communicate with him. So, as French translator and chaperon, I went backstage. But one of the women took fright and would not come.
He was a complete gentleman but was furious the other woman would not come. He grabbed a big scrapbook and, showing us a picture of himself with Elizabeth Taylor and the Queen of England, complained at being dissed by the fearful woman.
I calmed him and he began to play. There followed the most magnificent half-hour, in which the remaining woman and I had a private concert that I will never forget.