My thanks to whomever it was (sorry I have such a bad memory) that tipped me to Xavier Cugat for my ‘X’ post. Though I had heard his name and probably some of his music, it would never have occurred to me to use a musician in my theme. When you/I think of Hollywood, the inclination is to think of actors and actresses or movies, not the music that comes with them. And it turns out that Xavier Cugat was not only a talented musician, but a caricature artist as well.
“I like women-all women…. Also, there is my temperament. I am Latin. I excite. For me, this is life.” ~ Xavier Cugat
Xavier Cugat, in full Francisco De Asis Javier Cugat Mingall De Brue Y Deulofeo, was born on January 1, 1900, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain.
Cugat was two years old when his father moved the family to Havana, Cuba. Two years later, a neighbor and violin maker gave the boy a 1/4-sized violin as a Christmas present. Cugat’s exceptional talents were soon evident, as he developed into a musical prodigy. He played professionally when he was just nine years old, and at age twelve he became first violinist for the Teatro Nacional Symphonic Orchestra. While performing with the Metropolitan Opera Company in Havana, Cugat met Tenor Enrico Caruso and accompanied him on a world tour at the age of fifteen.
Cugat was taught how to draw caricatures and the young man hoped to use this skill to improve his prospects and went to work for the Los Angeles Times. While he had considerable talent as an artist he soon grew tired of the situation and quit the next year to form a seven-piece dance band, The Gigolos. Also joining Cugat on the bandstand was his wife-to-be Carmen Castillo as lead singer. The year was 1928 and Latin music was not yet popular. However, the band landed a gig playing during intermissions at the famed Coconut Grove in Los Angeles.
In the late 1920s, as sound began to be used in films, Cugat put together a tango band that had some success in early short musical films. By the early 1930s, he began appearing with his group in feature films. His first notable appearance occurred in 1942, in the Columbia production You Were Never Lovelier with Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, and Adolphe Menjou. Most of his subsequent movies were made at MGM studios, including Week-End at the Waldorf (1945),Holiday in Mexico (1948), A Date with Judy (1948), Luxury Liner (1948), and the Esther Williams musicals Bathing Beauty (1944), This Time for Keeps (1947), On an Island with You (1948), and Neptune’s Daughter(1949). Cugat’s caricatures were often featured in his films.
The job that served as Cugat’s springboard to fame was at the new Starlight Roof at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. The bandleader made a modest start there in 1933, but was soon ensconced in the hotel’s “Cugat Room.” He the Waldorf-Astoria’s highest-paid bandleader, making $7,000 a week plus a cut of the cover charge take. For 16 years, Cugat helmed the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel’s orchestra, shuttling between New York and Los Angeles for most of the next 30 years. One of his trademark gestures was to hold a chihuahua while he waved his baton with the other arm. In 1934, Cugat’s band played a three-hour network radio program on Saturday nights.
In this clip, he appears as himself in Carmen Miranda’s 1948 film A Date With Judy.
A dramatic showman who often wore huge South American hats on stage and who led his band with the wave of a violin bow, Cugat performed in the ritziest of clubs, on the radio, and in the movies. His bands included violins, maracas, and bongo and conga drums and featured dancers who demonstrated the rumba, the tango, and other Latin-American dances; one of his series of wives was usually his vocalist. He became known as the “Rumba King.” Some of the performers that Cugat in turn helped to popularize were Desi Arnaz, Dinah Shore, Lina Romay, and Miguelito Valdes. He wrote and recorded hundreds of songs, including “Chiquita Banana,” “Rumba Rhapsody,” “Rain in Spain,” “Babalu,” “Rendezvous in Rio,” “Walter Winchell Rumba,” “Is It Taboo,”and “I’ll Never Love Again.”
Between 1954 and 1967, Cugat frequently appeared on television, guesting on “The Ed Sullivan Show” 16 times, among a long list of other programs.
Cugat’s personal life made news many times, as he wed and divorced four times. His marriage to Carmen Castillo (1929 – 1944) ended unhappily. The bandleader was married to Lorraine Allen from 1947 to 1952, when—with the help of private detectives—she caught him in a compromising position in a hotel room with the band’s lead singer, Abbe Lane. Cugat wed Lane that same year, and stayed married some 14 years, until he found her with another man. In 1966 he married the much younger singer-guitarist Charo Baeza, who is better known by her first name alone, but it ended amicably in 1978.
Although the Latin music craze of the ’30s and ’40s had died down, Cugat remained extremely popular. His band was often booked in Las Vegas and he performed until 1969, when he suffered a stroke and became partially paralyzed. The bandleader recovered from the stroke but his health was never the same. After his divorce from Charo, Cugat moved to Barcelona, where he lived until his death from heart failure in 1990. Having been born on the first day of the 21st century, he was known to have said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could die on the last day of the century, December 31, 1999?” He didn’t quite make that benchmark, but he seemed to have lived life to its fullest.
He was posthumously inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 2001.