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
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.
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!
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
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
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."
- Website of Juan Pedro Rivera (a rabid Prado fan):
- Spaceage Pop: http://www.spaceagepop.com/prado.htm
- Website of Joseph Levy:
- All Music Guide (in particular, biography by Steve Huey):