Diomedes Diaz, one of Colombia’s most popular vallenato stars and a man whose lifestyle was as discussed as his music, died suddenly of a heart attack in a clinic in the northern city of Valledupar on Dec. 22, just days after the release of his 30th album. He was 56 years old.
A colorful character whose goodluck charm was a diamond tooth, Díaz was born to poor farmers and rose from singing in the fields to becoming one of Colombia’s most recognizable—and lucrative—voices. Long signed to Sony Music Colombia, the singer is reportedly Colombia’s top-selling musical act, selling over 19 million albums in his native country during his nearly 40-year recording career. At the time of his death, he had released his latest album on Dec. 19, in time for Colombia’s holiday party season.
If vallenato—Colombia’s traditional accordion-based music from the Atlantic Coast—is the music of the people—few singers better symbolized it than Díaz, who survived drugs, alcohol, open heart surgery, a bad automobile accident and, most famously, three years in prison after a young female fan was found dead after spending the night in his apartment.
Known as El Cacique de La Junta (The Chief of La Junta, referring to his birth town of La Junta), Díaz longed to be known as a composer more than a singer. His first job was as a bike messenger for radio station Guatapurí in the state of Guajira, the hotbed of vallenato. The job enabled him to meet the genre’s biggest stars and top accordionists and in 1976, Rafael Santos and Emilio Oviedo recorded his song “Cariñito de mi Vida.”
Díaz would go on to win third place in the Best new song category of the fabled Vallenato Legend Festival, the annual gathering of the top musicians in the genre, leading to his debut solo album in 1977, Herencia Vallenata.
Working with a series of top accordion players (all vallenato singers work in tandem with an accordionist), Díaz steadily rose to become one of the leading names in the genre, and by the 1980s, had become the top-selling artist in the country, releasing an album every May 26, his birthday.
The bigger Díaz became, the bigger the controversy surrounding him. Fond of drugs and alcohol, he frequently canceled concerts and was sued multiple times by angry promoters. Tragedy also surrounded him, and in 1994, his longtime accordionist, Juancho Rois, died after the small plane where Díaz was also scheduled to be flying, crashed.
Unabated, Díaz kept churning out albums and hits. By 1996, when he celebrated his 20th anniversary, he had recorded over 400 songs.
But just days before the 1997 release of his anniversary album—“Muchas Gracias”—tragedy struck. A 22-year-old fan, Doris Adriana Niño, was invited to Díaz’s apartment. Days later her body was found abandoned in the countryside. After a lengthy process and investigation, Diaz was subsequently tried for murder and sentenced to 12 years in prison of which he spent nearly four years behind bars.
Upon his release, Diaz resumed his career, once again releasing yearly albums and winning a Latin Grammy for Best Vallenato album in 2010
At the time of his death, he had just released his newest album, and had come home to rest after a show in Barranquilla December 20. His wife found him dead the following morning.
Díaz had 28 children born from different women.