His thin frame, pale skin and light colored hair made him worthy of the nickname Camarón (shrimp). José Monge Cruz, born in San Fernando, in the province of Cádiz, was born to become a living flamenco legend thanks to a powerful voice that made up for his apparently fragile physique.
As a child his singing was heard in the streets of Cádiz, especially in the Venta de Vargas, where the best known flamencos, Lola Flores, Juanito Valderrama and Manolo Caracol, performed. There, amongst shrimp omelets and fish from the Bay, the singer from San Fernando grew as an artist, working side by side with important musicians and dancers of the day and earning his room and board at the same time.
Orphaned by age seven, the need to work was compensated with a talent for singing, and at the age of 12, he is awarded First Prize at the Flamenco Contest at the Montilla Festival (Córdoba). From that moment on, his fame begins to spread, and in 1966, his professional career begins in the companies of flamencos such as Dolores Vargas, Miguel de los Reyes and Juanito Valderrama, with whom he tours America and Europe. The young Camarón tours the world and decides to settle in Madrid, but not before to receiving awards such as the first prize at the Festival del Cante Jondo de Mairena del Alcor in 1966.
It is in Madrid, at the Torres Bermejas tablao, where he spends 12 years of his life accompanying the guitarist Paco Cepero and where he begins to experience amazing success. His very personal manner of singing flamenco, and his subtle changes in rhythm moved all types of audiences.
It is there that he meets the guitarist Paco de Lucía, yet another prodigy of the genre, and it was with him that Camarón recorded nine albums. This coupling was destined for success as both José Monge, Camarón de la Isla, and Paco de Lucía are renowned names in flamenco history.
Camarón has contributed with his prolific discography (17 albums in 23 years) several renowned songs, such as Canastera, Rosa María, Castillo de Arena, Viviré and Como el Agua, among others. However, there are two works particularly worthy of mention. On the one hand, Soy Gitano from 1989, recorded with Vicente Amigo, which became the best selling record in flamenco history. On the other hand there’s La Leyenda del Tiempo (1979), which created a genuine revolution as it included sounds typical of rock and jazz. Those who worked with him during the recording of La Leyenda del Tiempo say that these innovations caused the singer a lot of headaches, as this album was not well received by purists who had previously accepted his unique way of feeling and performing flamenco. New sounds for which the poems of Federico García Lorca were adapted with music by Alameda and with the collaboration of the guitarist Tomatito, which ended up becoming a true classics for flamenco enthusiasts.
As is generally the case in the lives of geniuses, a terminal illness cut short his success and his life. In 1992, Camarón was diagnosed with lung cancer and died that same year at the age of 41, leaving behind a widow, four children and a legion of fans and friends.
A film of Camarón’s life was directed by Jaime Chavarri and Álvaro del Amo with the actor Oscar Jaenada playing the legendary singer.
His death automatically elevated him to mythic status, and Camarón became synonymous with flamenco.