The epitome of genial, Hispanic elegance, Rumba King Xavier Cugat was a showman par excellence, who almost as an afterthought introduced Latin-American to the United States, making it at once a commercial proposition and a popular art-form. Adventurous, larger-than-life and multi-talented, he donned the role of dance-bandleader after having worked as a violinist, composer, caricaturist and film producer. Having made more cameo film appearances, usually as himself, than any other bandleader (beginning in 1930 with Ramón Novarros In Gay Madrid and extending through 1940s MGM musical to Patti Andrews 1969 film The Sphinx) he attracted as much publicity by the bevies of beautiful girls who surrounded him as by his music.
Xavier was born Francisco de Asís Javier Cugat Mingali de Bru y Deluefeo at Gerona, near Barcelona, on 1st January, 1900, but his family moved to Havana, Cuba, when he was four. Precociously talented and an undisputed master technician of the violin (he later claimed to have played the instrument in the Havana National Theatre Symphony Orchestra at the early age of 12!), he also embarked on a career as a soloist in the United States, but in the face of competitors with better connections met with only limited success. He gave two Carnegie Hall recitals and worked variously as a supporting artist in concerts given by famous singers, notably Caruso.
Inspired by the prospect of more lucrative opportunities in New York in dance music, in 1922 Cugat joined the band of pianist-composer and pioneering WJX radio broadcaster Vincent Lopez (1894-1975) and, by mid-decade, had branched in another direction to exploit his talent for mimicry and caricature as a cartoonist with the Los
Angeles Times. By 1926 he had formed a tango orchestra (he made a few film shorts with this in 1927) and, with the advent of the talkies, he also worked in Hollywood as a producer and also as a sound-mixer (for Chaplin) before forming his own first Latin- American band at the Cocoanut Grove Hotel, in 1928. During the early 1930s his prominent first-violin lead was also heard in other orchestras, most notably that of Anson Weeks but by 1933, when he secured his first recording contract with Victor (his first session included Ombo (My Shawl), his signature-tune) his own orchestra was already well established in its niche at New Yorks prestigious Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Cugats following was steady until his first real breakthrough came, late in 1934, when his band was chosen, along with those of Benny Goodman and Ken Murray, for Lets Dance, the coast-to-coast networked radio programme sponsored by NABISCO (National Biscuit Company of America) which heralded in the Swing Era. Thereafter, the name Cugat meant Latin-American music in nightclubs, on radio and on recordings. In 1935 he had three hits in the US Popular Charts: The Lady In Red (a No.5 cover version of the Mort Dixon-Allie Wrubel standard introduced by Wini Shaw in the 1935 Warner Brothers musical In Caliente), "The Cocoanut Pudding Vendor" and a No.13 contemporary version of Begin The Beguine (a song from the 1935 Broadway musical Jubilee which, reputedly, Cugat inspired Cole Porter to write).
Among Cugats many subsequent hits, worthy of note are Green Eyes (a No.16 in 1940), Babalú (a No.27 in 1941), "Perfidia" (a No.3 in 1941), "Brazil" (a No.2 in 1943) and "South America, Take It Away" (a No.6 in 1946), but the Cugat discography also offers many specially-arranged folk- and film- tunes which, if they did not enjoy actual hit status in their day, nonetheless proved best-sellers which have retained their popularity. Into this broader category fall Jalousie (originally a dance-number by the Danish violinist, conductor and composer Jacob Gade (1879-1963) entitled "Jalousie, Tango Tzigane", in a recording by Arthur Fiedlers Boston Promenade Orchestra this became the first light orchestral piece to sell a million copies), Siboney (by the Cuban pianistcomposer and bandleader Ernesto Lecuona (1896-1963) this tune, of which Cugat was later to record another version (with Bing Crosby, in 1945), began life in 1929 in Havana, as "Canto Siboney"), Yours and the world-renowned tango La cumparsita (these last two revivals of late 1920s dance-hits).
While on air and on discs Cugat popularised the rhythms of Latin American, in the flesh he championed the "software" - its costumes, its dancers, its glamour and its highsociety entourage. In films his outfit, invariably colourful and exotically apparelled, proved an positive adjunct to the numerous wartime escapist musical extravaganzas in which it was frequently cast. These included such Academy Award-nominated films as You Were Never Lovelier (for Columbia, 1942), Stage Door Canteen (for Sol Lesser, 1943), Two Girls And A Sailor (a band credit shared with Harry James, for MGM, 1944), Weekend At The Waldorf (for MGM, 1945), Holiday In Mexico (for MGM, 1946) and This Time For Keeps (for MGM, 1947).
Cugat continued to lead bands into the late 1960s. He officially retired in 1970 and returned to his native Barcelona in 1980, where he carried on conducting despite a succession of heart-attacks and a stroke. He entered hospital owing to a respiratory complaint in 1986, but recovered in time to form a 16-piece band which opened at the resort of Salou on his 87th birthday. He continued to work until in his 89th year, when ill-health enforced his total retirement. Xavier Cugat died in Barcelona on October 27, 1990.
Peter Dempsey, 2001
1. THE LADY IN RED Rhumba (DixonWrubel)
Don Reid and Chorus, vocal
(Victor 25012, mx BS 89508-1) Recorded 1st April, 1935, New York 3:17
2. JALOUSIE Tango (GadeBloom)
(Victor 25184, mx BS 94186-1) Recorded 5th September, 1935, New York 3:18
3. BEGIN THE BEGUINE Rhumba (Porter)
Don Reid, vocal
(Victor 25133, mx BS 94187-1) Recorded 5th September, 1935, New York 3:12
4. CIELITO LINDO Conga (Ponce, arr. Cugat)
Chacha Aguilar and Carmen Castillo, vocal (in Spanish)
(Victor 25285, mx BS 021762-1) Recorded 8th April, 1938, New York 3:18
5. MY SHAWL (OMBO) (THEME SONG) Rhumba (Cugat)
(Victor 24508, mx BS 77486-1) Recorded 15th August, 1933, New York 3:13
6. ADIOS MUCHACHOS Tango (RavenVedaniSanders)
Joseph de Soiza and Chorus, vocal (in Spanish)
(Victor 25012, mx BS 89505-1) Recorded 1st April, 1935, New York 2:56
7. ISLE OF CAPRI Tango-Rhumba (KennedyGrosz)
Luis Alvarez, vocal
(Victor 24813, mx BS 84991-1) Recorded 14th November, 1934, New York 3:02