I was thumbing the TV remote control the other day and happened to land on an old I Love Lucy rerun, and although I’m not a huge fan of those shows I noticed that Ricky (Desi Arnaz) was talking about someone threatening to replace him and his band with Xavier Cugat’s outfit. I would guess that it was kind of an inside joke for them, because Cugat was actually Desi’s mentor in the early days of his musical career.
I’ve written before about Desi and his music and how Cugat helped him get started, but Cugat is a pretty good story too. Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingall de Cru y Deulofeo was actually Spanish, but his family moved to Cuba when he was very small. He ended up as one of the most influential figures in Latin music, with a career that started before 1920 and didn’t really end until his death in 1990.
During his biggest years he had a number of hits, including “Perfidia,” the original (pre-Desi) “Babalu,” and “Brazil,” and he also created a showcase for many other Latin musicians. In addition to Desi, members of his orchestra included Tito Puente and other budding stars. He also provided a spotlight for some gorgeous ladies — even marrying a few of them. Rita Hayworth (who was not one of his wives) got her start with him, and his third and fourth wives, Abbe Lane and Charo, starred in his shows.
Charo is probably more familiar to most of us these days, from her many appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and her famous “coochie, coochie” and other comedic routines. She always made it part of her act to mangle the English language too, but was – and still is – fluent in several languages, in addition to being a fine guitarist. Abbe Lane was a talented entertainer who also made some appearances with Johnny Carson, but probably with a little less flamboyance.
Cugat was a master at finding ways to gain exposure, whether it was having beautiful ladies appear in his act or making movie appearances, and he even had his own short-lived TV show (although he didn’t appear on Lucy and Desi’s show). He was often dismissed by critics for his pop music approach but he had the final word on the subject when he said, “I would rather play ‘Chiquita Banana’ and have my swimming pool than play Bach and starve.”