I can’t imagine anyone who’s been around for a while who doesn’t remember – or at least know about – the hugely successful 1950’s TV show, I Love Lucy. It was a true phenomenon, one of the biggest hits in the history of TV and a show that helped popularize the medium at a time when it was still pretty new. But how many remember that Desi Arnaz, before he was the partner of a certain ditzy redhead, was a talented and well-regarded musician?
By the late 1930’s, Latin music had been a part of jazz for years, with bandleaders such as Xavier Cugat and others enjoying a lot of success based on America’s fascination with the intoxicating music. And it was Cugat himself – who was Spanish but always had an eye for any Latin talent – who discovered a young Cuban musician named Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III.
Desi Arnaz could play the conga and the guitar, and he could sing with a lot of enthusiasm. It didn’t take long for the teenager to become a popular soloist in Cugat’s band, but in less than a year he split from his mentor and formed his own group. It must have seemed like a gutsy move for someone so young, but the gamble paid off as his star began to rise in the New York club scene. Audiences loved his lively, energetic musical style, and his popularity soon led to a part in a Broadway musical.
It was about then that his life took a significant turn, because that musical, Too Many Girls, was turned into a movie in 1940, and his co-star was an actress named Lucille Ball. They became a couple, and over twenty years of marriage became not only TV superstars, but also the founders of a production company that was one of the most influential – and profitable – ever.
But Desi the musician is our subject today, and even after his marriage to Lucy he continued to pursue that facet of his career. Although his musical progress was interrupted by his service in World War II, he continued in the post-war years to perform and record a number of Latin tunes, and was an important contributor to the continuing success of Latin music.
His best-known is probably “Babalu,” which was also the theme song of the fictional bandleader Ricky Ricardo, and Desi’s energetic drum-work and singing are certainly on display with that tune. But Latin jazz lovers might prefer “El Cumbanchero,” because it was on this song that Desi felt he’d achieved his goal — to merge the energetic rhythm style of Latin percussionist Machito with the softer, melodic approach of bandleaders such as Andre Kostelanetz.
Of course, Desi eventually focused on TV, movies, and the couple’s production company, Desilu, but he always loved his music. As the years passed, he and Lucy grew apart and split in 1960, but until his death in 1986 they remained close, and it’s said that they talked on the phone every day. Their names will always be attached to each other and to their historic TV show, but Desi should also be remembered as an influential Latin musician.