Xavier Cugat i Mingall

He was a Catalan-American musician and native of Catalonia who spent his formative years in Havana, Cuba. A trained violinist and arranger, he was a leading figure in the spread of Latin music in United States popular music. In New York, he was the leader of the resident orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria before and after World War II. He was also a cartoonist and a restaurateur.

Xavier Cugat Biography
Xavier Cugat the caricaturist with barretina

Xavier Cugat was born in Girona and when he was very young his family emigrated to the Americas in 1904 or 1905. 

In 1915 the Cugat family moved to the United States of America. The Catalan mezzo-soprano Maria Gay introduced him to  prestigious musicians such as Pau Casals or Enric Granados. Enrico Caruso got the young man to study with the artistic director of the prestigious Carnegie Hall and, even, to act there. During those years, Cugat also performed violin concerts in Catalonia, Paris, Italy and Germany. When discovering the Cuban and Antillean music shows with his first wife, vocalist Rita Montaner, whom he helped prepare, decided to abandon the violin to dedicate himself to make the general public dance to the sound of tropical rhythms

Xavier Cugat and family when child

Xavier Cugat with his mother and brothers. Xavier is on the far right of the picture.

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.

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Xavier Cugat walk of fame

Stars on the Walk of Fame

Music: West side of the 1600 block of Vine Street

TV: East side of the 1500 block of Vine Street

Xavier Cugat the actor

He was a classically trained violinist who conducted with his bow, and can be seen in quite a few films waving his violin bow. 

Died Oct. 27, 1990 of heart failure, lung problems in Barcelona, Spain

Bandleader Xavier Cugat was the "Rumba King," a prime mover of the Latin American rhythm craze of the 1930s and '40s. Known for his musical genius and glitzy persona as the king of the posh nightclub scene with his signature tuxedo, ear-to-ear smile, pencil thin mustache, large South American hat and violin bow and chihuahua in hand, Cugat reigned over the party in film, radio and in live nightclub performances.

The zesty Cugat was a natural life of the party who considered himself more an entertainer and showman than a musician — and he made no apology for it. "I play music," he said, "make an atmosphere that people enjoy. It makes them happy. They smile. They dance. Feel good — who be sorry for that?"

That happy atmosphere set the scene for numerous films and Cugat's acting career, where he usually played himself, beginning with "Go West Young Man" (1936), starring Mae West, followed by "You Were Never Lovelier" (1942), starring Rita Hayworth.

A string of feel-good hits followed including "Stage Door Canteen" (1943), starring Tallulah Bankhead; "Two Girls and a Sailor" (1944), starring June Allyson; "Week-End at the Waldorf" (1945), starring Ginger Rogers and Lana Turner; "No Leave, No Love" (1946), starring Van Johnson; "Luxury Liner" (1948) and a "A Date With Judy" (1948), starring Jane Powell, among others. Cugat's frequent pairing with Esther Williams was an audience favorite and included "Bathing Beauty" (1944), "This Time for Keeps" (1947), "On an Island With You" (1948) and "Neptune's Daughter" (1949).

Even after death, Cugat's musical gems twinkled into the hearts of audiences, transcending generations. His song "Cui Cui" was featured in the animated feature film "Happy Feet" (2006), about a tap-dancing penguin who can't sing a love song. "My Shawl," featured in the film "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" (2008), starring Abigail Breslin, acquainted tweens to Cugat's music.

Music and childhood were a natural pairing for Cugat, who began playing the violin at age 4 when a neighbor, who was a violin-maker, gave him a violin as a Christmas present. The instrument was almost never out of young Xavier's hand. He became a musical prodigy and classical violinist playing in a symphony orchestra at the age of 10.

A few years later, tenor Enrico Caruso performed with the orchestra and developed a close friendship with the child. Caruso arranged for Cugat to accompany him on a tour of America. Shortly after arriving in New York Caruso died, leaving Cugat on his own without money or knowledge of the English language. Carrying his violin case, the young man wandered around the city until he found a restaurant with a Spanish name and someone inside who spoke the language. He got a job there playing 14 hours a day for meals and a place to sleep. "But no money," he said. "And it went on for quite a while."

Finally, Cugat toured with a symphony orchestra, becoming one of the first solo musicians to play on radio and was a featured soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 1920s. Later, he formed a Latin music combo whose rhythms were considered "gigolo music." Demand was limited but he stuck with it.

Cugat's big break came when he was booked into the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. His music was a hit there, and became a fixture in what became known as the "Cugat Room" of the Waldorf for nearly a decade.

Never forgetting the hard times, Cugat would help new talent get their careers started, including Dinah Shore and Desi Arnaz, who both acknowledged their debt to "Cugie."

Thinking back years later, Cugat reminisced, "I'm still glad ... that the man across the street was a violin-maker. Lucky! Sure. Think of it: What if that man across the street had been a maker of shoes?"

—Los Angeles Times Oct. 28, 1990, with additional material