Xavier Cugat Obituary

Bandleader Xavier Cugat, 'Rumba King,' Dies at 90 : Musician: He was credited with being a prime mover in Latin-American rhythm craze of the 1930s and '40s.

October 28, 1990|From a Times Staff Writer

Bandleader Xavier Cugat, who began playing in a symphony orchestra at the age of 10 and went on to become known as the "Rumba King" of the 1930s and '40s, died Saturday in Spain. He was 90.

Cugat died at the Quiron Clinic in Barcelona, where he had been in intensive care with heart and lung problems. Cugat, who was born in Barcelona, had lived in that city for the last 18 years.

A onetime musical child prodigy and classical violinist, Cugat's adult career was devoted to popular music and he was credited with being a prime mover in the Latin-American rhythm craze of the 1930s and '40s.

But he always considered himself more an entertainer and showman than a musician--and 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?"

He was also a discoverer of talent: Dinah Shore and the late Desi Arnaz both acknowledged their debt to "Cugie," the bandleader who helped them take their first steps toward success.

He was also an authentic child of the century, born Jan. 1, 1900, in Barcelona.

Because his life also ended there, it would be easy to think of the city as his "home town." But Cugat did not think of it in that light.

"The first city I remember," he said in a 1960 interview, "was Havana. My father was a political refugee from Spain--yes, they had them, even back then--and we moved to Cuba when I was 3. It was lucky, too, because we moved in across the street from a violin-maker and when I was 4 he gave me a Christmas present. . . ."

It was a quarter-size violin and the bandleader's brother, portraitist Francis Cugat, said the instrument was almost never out of young Xavier's hand.

Educated ("When I couldn't find a way to get out of it") by the Jesuits and also by Cuban music teachers ("I was willing to spend more time with them, you know") Cugat began playing with a symphony orchestra in Havana when he was 10; at 12 he was first violinist.

That's what he was doing a few years later when Enrico Caruso came to perform with the orchestra.

By the time Caruso's engagement was through, the great tenor had formed a close friendship with the boy violinist and arranged for him to accompany him on a tour of America.

"And that," Cugat laughed, "was how I started drawing. . . . "

Caruso, he explained, was an accomplished cartoonist-caricaturist as well as a great performer. Each would pass the time drawing barbed characterizations of friends and acquaintances. But the tour didn't last long.

"He died (in 1921) shortly after I got to New York," Cugat said, "and there I was, no friends and not a word of English. And not much money."

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, however, he said he managed to find work with a symphony orchestra--on tour--and picked up enough English to defend himself. Still, as a career, he admitted to doubts.

"When I came out West in the 1920s," he said, "I still wanted to be a concert violinist. But I was beginning to suspect I was not the best. It happens when you grow up, you know?"

Nonetheless, he became one of the first solo musicians to play on radio; he performed on WDY, Camden, N.J., in 1921, and in the 1920s was a featured soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"But it wasn't enough money to live on--not the way I wanted to live," he said. "And so I went to work for a newspaper. It was The Los Angeles Times."

The Times job lasted from 1924 to 1925, but Cugat the artist found it difficult to be humorous on demand for the rotogravure pages.

"When they tell you to be funny by 10:30 tomorrow morning," he said, "I can't do it--I finally quit, and get these six guys to play commercial music with me."

Well--almost commercial. They were a Latin music combo, and in the 1920s (Rudolph Valentino notwithstanding) such rhythms were considered "gigolo music" and demand was limited. Cugat eked out his living between engagements scoring and doing other odd jobs for Warner Bros.

He even filmed a test short in sound before "The Jazz Singer" helped usher in the sound age in motion pictures.

But it was all uphill work.

"What made it nice," he said later, "was the kids working there at the time. My niece, a dancer called Margo, (later the film star of that single name) was in one little short we did, and so was Rita (Margarita) Cansino, who used to dance with her father, Eduardo, in the border spots.

"That Rita, she was 12 years old then. I didn't see her for the next 15 years--and when I did she had a new name and a lot more besides. The new name was Rita Hayworth."

Their reunion was on the set of Cugat's first movie, "You Were Never Lovelier" in 1942 in which the late Miss Hayworth starred--and a lot had happened to the bandleader in the intervening years.

from The New York Times

Xavier Cugat, the popular Spanish-born bandleader who introduced many Latin American rhythms to North American audiences, died of heart failure yesterday at the Quiron Clinic in Barcelona, Spain, his doctors said in a statement issued there. He was 90 years old.

Mr. Cugat popularized the rumba in North America and paved the way for other bandleaders who played in Latin styles ranging from traditional dance music to jazz adaptations.

Mr. Cugat was known for his showmanship, dressing his musicians in bright red jackets and leading them while wearing huge South American hats and serapes or cradling a chihuahua in his arms. He also surrounded himself with beautiful women, several of whom he married.

A concert violinist and a professional caricaturist before he started his dance band, Mr. Cugat also dabbled in film making. When sound motion pictures were first made, he spent $35,000 in 1928 to produce one in Spanish. He did not find out until he had completed the film that there were not yet any sound projectors in Latin America.

Mr. Cugat's first appearance on the screen was in a short film, "Cugat and His Gigolos," a title that referred not to his band but to eight Latin-American male dancers who, with starlets as partners, demonstrated the tango to audiences at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, where Mr. Cugat's band was playing. Success at Waldorf-Astoria

Mr. Cugat's band moved to New York in 1933 to open the new Starlight Roof of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. In 16 years he rose from relief band at $500 a week to be the hotel's highest-paid band at $7,000 a week plus a percentage of the cover charges.

The United States was discovering the rumba in the early 1930's, and Mr. Cugat rose on the tide of this interest. In 1934, his band appeared on a weekly three-hour Saturday night network radio program, "Let's Dance," which also featured a band formed earlier that year by Benny Goodman.

Although he led an unusually successful rumba band, Mr. Cugat did not break through to a popularity comparable to that of American dance bands like Glenn Miller's and Benny Goodman's until 1941, when the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers banned its music from the air after a dispute with the networks over fees.

While other orchestras were reduced to broadcasting "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" and other songs in the public domain, Mr. Cugat drew on a library of more than 500 non-Ascap Latin tunes. As a result, he was signed to one of the most popular radio programs featuring dance bands, "The Camel Caravan," which brought him a national following. Films With Esther Williams

This led to a long series of motion pictures in which he appeared frequently with Esther Williams and her outsized swimming pools in, among others, "Neptune's Daughter," "Bathing Beauty," "This Time for Keeps" and "On an Island With You."

A slight man with a thin mustache and a bald head that he covered with a toupee after he began to gain notice as a band leader, Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingall de Brue y Deulofeo was born in the town of Tirona, in Catalonia, on Jan. 1, 1900.

When he was 2, the family moved from Spain to Cuba. His career as a musician started in Havana when a neighbor, a violin maker, gave him a miniature violin. Early Radio Violinist

In 1917 Mr. Cugat became one of the first violinists to be heard on radio when he broadcast a recital on WDY from the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, N.J.

He undertook a concert career, both in Europe and in the United States, including two Carnegie Hall recitals, but he met with so little critical encouragement that in the mid-1920's he joined Vincent Lopez's dance orchestra at the Casa Lopez in New York. After a year with Mr. Lopez, he moved to Los Angeles, where he tried his luck once more in a recital, again with a discouraging response.

Since childhood, Mr. Cugat had been interested in drawing caricatures, and this interest led to his meeting his first wife.

After his musical failure in Los Angeles, Mr. Cugat turned to caricature for a living and got a job with The Los Angeles Times. Assigned to do a caricature of Dolores Del Rio, the film star, Mr. Cugat was overwhelmed by his model's beauty and found out, only after he had completed his picture, that he had drawn Miss Del Rio's stand-in, Carmen Castillo.

He and Miss Castillo were married in 1929. At her urging, he formed a seven-piece dance band in which he played violin and she sang.

During the 1930's and 40's, the Cugat band included several singers who became well-known through their work with Mr. Cugat, notably Lina Romay, Desi Arnaz and Miguelito Valdes. In the 50's, his featured singer was Abbe Lane, his third wife. She had been preceded as Mrs. Cugat by Lorraine Allen and was followed by Charo, a singer and guitarist with whom Mr. Cugat frequently appeared on television talk shows in the 60's and 70's.

In addition to his wife, Charo, Mr. Cugat is survived by a brother, Enric, who lives in California.