IMAGERY

A corner bar somewhere in Brooklyn, New York: 1959. Everyone there is having fun; and dancing to the juke box. "Play the new Rosie Mambo," screams a young woman (who's ever so slightly intoxicated). The young woman is the girlfriend of the bartender. He presses the reset switch on the wall and walks over to the futuristic-looking machine, emitting the brightest light in the whole joint, and pushes the red plastic buttons with the white letters one-by-one 1-8-2. Soon the sudden silence is broken by the piercing of trumpets, in perfect harmony, emitting a high-register scream that's similar to the squeal of the tires on the cars outside, cruising the Avenue, their tail-fins ablaze with lights as red as the lipstick worn by the female passengers therein.

When the horns' screams subside, Rosemary Clooney's voice breaks the instrumental, singing "magic is the moon-light, on this lovers' June night, as I see the moon-light, shining in your eyes." She is accompanied by a sensual, rhythmic undulation from the saxophone section. All the time a Latin percussion section of no fewer than six pieces keeps time - adding to the tropical, sensual feel of the music. Each verse is pierced by the same screaming staccato of the horns, this may be Latin but it's also jazz. A solo on a Hammond A-100 organ interrupts Ms. Clooney for just a moment - and it becomes obvious that this is yet another creation of the "Mambo King" - Pérez Prado.

Some of the people in the place aren't even sure what this new musical phenomenon is, it's just infectiously, well, "danceable." They can't help but move their feet and swing their partners as no dance craze had ever permitted. This was soul dancing. A metaphor for pure, unadulterated sexuality. That's what makes it so new, so hip, so daring.


Ciro's night club, Hollywood, California. The same night the kids in Brooklyn are dancing around to the Clooney/Prado collaboration "Magic is the Moonlight," the real thing, Pérez "Prez" Prado is hopping up and down on the bandstand, jumping between piano, organ and center-stage, leading a frenetic version of "Perdido." The 20-piece orchestra, replete with amplified Latin percussion section, is at it's finest. After the final, screaming note finishes and the applause dies down, Prado jumps to the microphone, gesturing to a front-row table. "Bing, Bing, ca-mong Bing, won' jue puhleeze join me an' de boyz for jus' one a-song?!" Bing Crosby rises reluctantly and sings and swings a delightful version of "It Happened in Monterey" in front of Prado and the band. Conspicuously absent is the pipe normally affected by Crosby, this is time for swingin' — the dance floor is packed and a musically-induced hysteria reigns. This is no time for the "comfortable" Crosby; it's more like a time for lots of rum drinks garnished with orchids and fresh pineapple - and the echo of the congas long after Crosby's finished delivering his latest hit.

THE MAMBO KING

Despite his success both in South American and certainly in the United States, Prado was (off the bandstand) a self-effacing, humble man. By the time Prado made it onto the U.S. popular music scene, he was heard to say that he'd be delighted to one day enjoy the popularity of Xavier Cugat. Years later, Cugat made a minor hit by covering Prado's chart-topping hit "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." Emulation is the sincerest form of flattery, ain't it?

Pérez Prado may not have originated the Latin dance craze of the '40s-'60s, but he certainly popularized it and eclipsed the fame of all of his Latino peers and certainly many of the other Anglo dance bands that were making feeble attempts to ride the enormous wave that began with the Rhumba and continued through the Cha-Cha, Mambo, and the Beguine, not to mention many other short-lived Latin dance fads. Now, there were many Latin musicians experimenting with Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz, but nobody but Prado could put it all together with a touch of "big-band" style "swing" that appealed to both dancers and listeners from all classes and backgrounds. His trademark use of screaming trumpets, simple, rhythmic saxophone underlines, all held together with a tightly-scored percussion section was a style that was easy to "hear" and even easier to dance to. He borrowed heavily from American jazz technique — particularly the modern jazz stylizations of bandleader Stan Kenton.

BEGINNINGS

Born in 1916 in Matanzas, Cuba, Damaso Pérez Prado studied classical piano as a child. By the time he'd finished school, he was playing in movie theatres and clubs local to the family home. By 1942, he'd moved to Havana, where he got sporadic work as a pianist, organist and arranger. However, his arrangements, laden with modern jazz influences, upset the staid "apple cart" of conventional Cuban music. Finding himself out of work and dismissed by his Cuban peers as an "upstart," he left Cuba to tour Mexico and South America to accolades from every audience he encountered. The last laugh was his; by the time of the Revolution, many of the Cuban musicians were having trouble working in the U.S., and meanwhile Prado had re-defined Latin music and was always on its cutting edge. On recording, to say his earlier works were exciting would be an understatement. Prado's voice could be heard yelling and grunting to his orchestra in Spanish; not out of direction but out of sheer love for the music. To the listeners who craved something new and exciting, Prado's music was like a "Porsche" compared to the "Fords" and "Chevrolets" other American popular musicians were putting out in the '40s and '50s. By the 1960s, Prado could be seen not only in concert but on film and television bouncing around the bandstand like a maniac, jumping to the piano one moment; encouraging the audience to shout along with him the next.

His first recording was made after a smash tour through South America that ended up in Mexico City. RCA's Mexican division signed Prado in 1949. His first 78-rpm record "Que Rico el Mambo" b/w "Mambo No. 5." was a South American smash. The first cut was renamed "Mambo Jambo" and became a U.S. chart-topping hit for RCA's U.S. operation. He continued making singles in Mexico through the 1950s, with titles aimed at all classes and occupations, helping them become extremely popular. He even appeared in Mexican movies, usually playing himself, with the spotlight on his on-stage antics. The mambo popularity was on fire and nothing could put it out. Peruvian Catholic authorities threatened to deny absolution for anyone who participated in mambo dancing (without much effect).

"EL REY DEL MAMBO" COMES TO AMERICA

By 1951, after a number of international sell-out tours, he began touring in the United States. Musicians' union rules forced him to hire local musicians in place of his Mexican personnel. He'd need to train these poor souls very quickly in rehearsal (and did so well — despite his limited fluency in English). His tours in the early '50s were so successful, RCA ceased putting his output on their Mexican label, opting for the more prestigious main RCA Victor imprint.

By 1954, his successes at touring and playing upscale name venues underscored to Prado the fact that mambo was the rage all over. American popular music artists of the time were utilizing Latin rhythms in some of their novelty tunes, which turned out to become hits. Prado decided to "dumb-down" his very authentic style of Latin music so as to cross over to the lucrative white market. It was ironic that his first major breakout pop hit, "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White," wasn't a mambo at all (it was a cha-cha) and was an adaptation of a French song ("Cerisier Rose et Pommier Blanc"). Nonetheless, it spent an astounding ten weeks at number one on the pop charts - becoming one of the biggest instrumental hits in history.

Mambo Mania was his first full-length 12" LP. It featured more "authentic" material than "Cherry Pink," things Prado had recorded in Mexico before coming to the states, but it flew off the shelves. Everyone wanted to get into the mambo craze!

CONTEMPORARIES

Cugat was arguably the most famous of Prado's contemporaries. However, everyone was getting on the Latin band-wagon. Noro Morales, a Cuban-born piano player, held court at New York's tony Copacabana club leading the house band. There was a fellow with a Latin orchestra named Desi Arnaz who hooked up with a comedienne named Lucille Ball and produced the "I Love Lucy" show (even the infectiously memorable theme-song had a fast Latin beat; but wasn't written by Arnaz; it was written by Wilbur Hatch). Machito and his orchestra made the rounds of ballrooms from the Borscht Belt to Miami and other, larger cities. Pianist George Shearing strayed from his famous block-style of playing and made hits out of Latin-flavored tunes like "Mambo Inn," and a frenetic take on "Caravan."

Prado's success allowed him to experiment musically during this period. 1954's The Voodoo Suite, an impressionistic tone poem for Afro-Cuban big band incorporated Stan Kenton's mood music influences yet with a definitively Latin sound. Havana 3 A.M. was probably the purest Latin-influenced recording of Prado's commercial period. On the wild side, it was not an enormous mainstream success. Prado kept churning out records, always looking for something new to keep the sound from getting "stale." 1958 brought his biggest LP success Prez, which nearly made the top 20 on the pop LP charts. Two important singles were released that year "Patricia," (which hit number one) and "Guaglione," (which just missed the Top 50).

The music was not only enjoyable and modern, it was timeless. "Patricia" has been used in film (in a shockingly explicit scene in Fellini's La Dolce Vita) and on television for HBO's documentary Real Sex, as well as in a late '90s episode of the syndicated cartoon "The Simpsons." A remake of "Mambo No. 5 - (A little bit of this)" became a hit for Lou Bega in 1999. "Guaglione" was repopularized in the U.K. in 1999 after its use in a beer commercial.

Pérez Prado had the forethought to keep experimenting with new rhythms and styles. After all, how long could the mambo fad last? Sadly, these experiments left behind a litany of dances that didn't catch the public's attention the way the mambo did: "La Culeta," "the suby," "the pau-pau," "La Chunga" and "El Dengue" were commercial failures. By 1960, Prado decided to go head-to-head with the rock and roll craze with albums like Rockambo (1961) and The Twist Goes Latin (1962).

In April, 1961, singer and actress Judy Garland included a power-packed double-time Mambo version of the Harold Arlen hit "Come Rain or Come Shine" in her legendary Carnegie Hall comeback concert, which was recorded and has since been re-mastered and re-released. From the staccato bongos in the beginning, the screaming strings and soaring horns (and not the least Ms. Garland's adrenaline-filled delivery) the entire cut reeked of Prado. He had nothing to do with it but contribute inspiration. Again, emulation is the sincerest form of flattery.

In 1962 he flexed his serious compositional muscles with another tone poem, The Exotic Suite of the Americas, with lush strings and a moody feel. By 1965, rock and roll had well overshadowed the Latin craze of the two previous decades. Prado's last album for RCA Victor, Dance Latino, was a commercial disappointment.

RETURN TO MEXICO CITY

Pérez Prado's popularity never waned in Latin America. He returned to his beloved Mexico City in 1970, to tour and release records in Mexico, South America and even Japan. He was a frequent guest on Mexican television, and in 1981 appeared in "Sun," a long-running musical revue. Prado's last performance in America, at the Hollywood Palladium in 1987, was a sold-out success despite his age and failing health affecting his usually frenetic stage presence.

Prado died in Mexico City on September 14, 1989. His son, Pérez Prado, Jr., still conducts the Pérez Prado Orchestra in Mexico.

Critics have noted that for all the revived interest in Prado's toned-down, commercial work among fans of the "lounge" genre, his very real impact on authentic Latin dance music has been nearly forgotten. Perhaps the man's name has been all but forgotten, but there's a new word for what Prado called "Mambo:" a little thing called "Salsa."

SOURCES:

  • Website of Juan Pedro Rivera (a rabid Prado fan): http://members.aol.com/PérezPrado/index.htm
  • Spaceage Pop: http://www.spaceagepop.com/prado.htm
  • Website of Joseph Levy: http://www.laventure.net/tourist/prez_bio.htm
  • All Music Guide (in particular, biography by Steve Huey): http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&token=&sql=11:84rc28oc055a

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