With cowboy hat and kerchief, Pedro Infante rode his dreams and a homemade guitar to the top of Mexico's film and music worlds in the 1940s and '50s.
Often referred to as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one, Infante was best known as "the king of rancheras." He revolutionized the way mariachi tunes were sung, substituting softer, more natural vocals for the traditional strident style. His repertoire included waltzes, cha-chas, tangos and romantic ballads. In all, he recorded about 350 Spanish-language songs, including his favorite, "Amorcito Corazon" (Little Love of My Heart).
The legendary crooner and heartthrob electrified audiences on both sides of the border, filling the stage and silver screen with his handsome looks and dashing personality.
"He was one famous dude," Claremont attorney Paul Gray said in 2007. "I saw him in the flesh at the Million-Dollar Theater in 1955, when I was 17.... The ballad 'Cien Anos' (100 Years) was my all-time favorite.... 'If I ever live 100 years, I will never forget you.' "
Another fan described an Infante concert as "the first great happiness of my life."
During Mexican cinema's golden age, Infante acted in nearly 60 films with such legends as Jorge Negrete, Maria Felix and Dolores Del Rio. His films still play on Los Angeles' Spanish-language television stations and in select theaters.
Infante performed in person at other local venues, including the California, Roosevelt, Mason and Mayan theaters.
Infante was born in Mazatlan, Mexico, in 1917, growing up with 10 siblings in Guamuchil, Sinaloa.
His father, Delfino, led a small dance band and fostered his son's interest in music. Infante survived a bout of polio and, at age 11, was apprenticed to a carpenter. He never attended school.
"I liked to sing and wanted to learn the guitar, but couldn't afford one," he told a Los Angeles audience in 1945, The Times reported. "I made one in the carpenter shop and played it in our little town orchestra, which we called La Rabia" — the Fury.
He formed his own band at 16, performing at nightclubs and in the streets for crowds that couldn't afford to pay.
Two years later, in 1935, he met and married Maria Luisa de Leon, a teacher, who persuaded him to try his luck on radio in Mexico City.
"Then she wanted me to learn to read and write," he told the L.A. audience, "but I was ashamed to go to night school. We got a teacher, and now I can read and write pretty well."
He cut his first record, "El Soldado Razo" (The Private), in 1943, when he was 26. It quickly sold 18,000 copies.
As Infante's career exploded, his personal life imploded. He reportedly fathered a dozen children in and out of wedlock. He divorced his first wife and married actress Irma Dorantes, his leading lady in several films.
The first Mrs. Infante challenged the legality of the second marriage, and the Mexican Supreme Court sided with her. "It was a case closely followed by millions of fans, most of whom took Dorantes' side," The Times reported.
In 1956, Infante won an Ariel award, Mexico's equivalent of the Oscar, for his performance in the film "La Vida No Vale Nada" (Life Is Worthless).
On April 15, 1957, Infante was on his way to Mexico City when his four-engine plane went down soon after takeoff. It crashed into a house near Merida, Mexico, killing him, the pilot, the mechanic and a woman and child on the ground. Infante was 39.
"How nice it would be to die like a bird," he had often told his wife, The Times reported in his obituary. Which wife was unclear. Both were on the "verge of hysterics" when they heard of his death, and both reportedly said, "I am to blame."
He was honored posthumously with the Silver Bear award at the 1957 Berlin Film Festival for his role in "Tizoc," one of his last films. In 2001, he was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame.