Xavier Cugat

The Rhumba King

Xavier Cugat is a name that is not as familiar today as it once was, but his role in popularizing Latin-American music in the United States was enormous and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that he was the Ricky Martin of his day: the glamorous era of Hollywood and Gotham in the 1930's and 40's. Born in Gerona, Spain, his family moved to Havana when Cugat was a young boy. As Fate would have it, one of his neighbors was a violin maker who crafted a miniature version of the instrument that would become Cugat's ticket to Fame. He showed so much talent as a violinist that by the time he was seventeen, he was one of the first instrumental soloists to be broadcast on the radio. After a second career as a cartoonist and caricaturist, he found himself in Los Angeles in the mid-1920's and fell in with the Latino crowd of the film industry and took up the violin once more.

Legend has it that Cugat was Rudolph Valentino's favorite player; Valentino insisted that Cugat be on all of his film sets to play romantic music to set the mood for his passionate love scenes. In short time, Cugat formed a combo to play Latin-American music at the fashionable Coconut Grove nightclub and found immediate success- audiences were captivated by the exotic rhythms and sounds of this music that made them shake their hips in an entirely new way. Cugat gained a reputation for being a very shrewd businessman and that talent took him very far: his Hollywood connections helped his orchestra climb to the top of the entertainment industry, appearing in thirteen MGM musicals, weekly radio broadcasts and a sixteen year engagement at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in what became known as "Cugat's Room." . Along the way, the orchestra introduced songs that became Latin-American standards, often sung by Cugat's series of bombshell wives: Carmen Castillo, Lorraine Allen and Abbe Lane. He also launched the careers of such iconic performers as Desi Arnaz, Tito Puente, Miguelito Valdes and Charo. His recipe for success was a splashy floor show that included the orchestra in colorful costumes, to excite the audience and demonstrate the latest Latin-American dances. He may not have single-handedly introduced Latin-American music to this country, but he was one of the greatest promoters of the style and helped pave the way for the artists who followed him.