He was born in a Gypsy (Gitano) caravan in Sète in southern France. He became famous by playing each year at the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer Gypsy pilgrimage in Camargue, where he was recorded live by Deben Bhattacharya. Manitas de Plata only agreed to play in public ten years after the death of Django Reinhardt, unanimously considered the king of gypsy guitarists. One of his recordings earned him a letter by Jean Cocteau acclaiming him as a creator.
Upon hearing him play at Arles in 1964, Pablo Picasso is said to have exclaimed "that man is of greater worth than I am!" and proceeded to draw on the guitar.
Manitas de Plata became really famous only after a photography exhibition in New York, organized by his friend Lucien Clergue. He had recorded his first official album in the chapel of Arles in France, in 1963, for the Phillips label. It was also later re-released, in 1967, by the Connoisseur Society Label and sold through the Book of the Month Club. This was a popular LP that brought him to the attention of an American audience. An American manager obtained a booking for him to play a concert in Carnegie Hall in New York in December 1965.
In New York, Manitas de Plata, who was illiterate, represented Europe at the yearly gala of the United Nations.
Since 1967 Manitas de Plata has been touring the whole world and recording discs. He played with the dancer Nina Corti. In 1968 he played at the Royal Variety Performance in London.
Despite the fact that Manitas de Plata was famous, he was also known for disrespecting certain rhythmic rules (compás) that are essential in flamenco.
Manitas de Plata is the father of Jacques, Maurice, and Tonino Baliardo and also uncle to Nicolas and Andre Reyes (the sons of renowned flamenco artist Jose Reyes), all members of the world-famous Rumba Flamenca musicians, Gipsy Kings