Xavier Cugat: 1900-1990: Musician, Bandleader Biography
Xavier Cugat, best known for his "percolating dance numbers [that] swept the country like tropical fever during the 1930s and '40s," according to Time magazine, played and conducted in some of America's most famous nightspots, including New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and Los Angeles's Coconut Grove. A classically trained violinist who conducted with his bow, he was known in his lifetime as the Rumba King. He is credited with pushing Latino music and dance into popularity in America during the first half of the 20th Century.
Born Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat de Bru Mingall Deulofeo in Gerona, Spain to Juan Cugat de Bru, an inventor and handyman, and Avila Mingall, a seam-stress, Cugat was one of four brothers. Not much is known about Cugat's early life in Spain, but Cugat's family moved to Cuba when he was very young. It was after the move to Cuba that Cugat started violin lessons. He soon discovered not only that he enjoyed these lessons, but showed a great aptitude for them. When he was a teenager he even traveled to Berlin, Germany where he studied with Carl Flesch, Willy Hess, and Franz Kneisel, according to The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. Returning home in the mid-1910s, Cugat had a stint playing with the Havana Symphony before Cugat and his family moved to New York City in 1912 and became American citizens in 1915. At that time he began touring America and eventually the world with musical troops, including Enrico Caruso's group which featured him as a solo violinist. Caruso, also taught CugT how to draw cartoons and caricatures, and the two drew to while away the hours of travel. Cugat was famous later in life for his caricatures.
In December of 1921 Cugat made his broadcast debut on WDY in Camden, New Jersey. According to The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives some historians considered this to be the first solo performance aired on the radio. Cugat continued to play music with various groups until the late 1920s when he received a rather mediocre review for his performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There was little business for classical musicians at the time and he was forced for a while to put aside his music and instead worked for the Los Angeles Times for over a year doing cartoons and caricatures.
After a short hiatus Cugat began to miss his music and started putting together a six-piece band to play Latin dance music, including rumbas and tangos. When asked if he was upset about having to give up his classical music, Cugat said that playing dance music made people happy and he couldn't be upset about that. The group was hired at Los Angeles's Coconut Grove in 1928 as the relief band and began making appearances in films. Cugat's first appearance on screen was in the movie Cugat and His Gigolos, in 1928. At this time the popularity of Latin dance music, particularly Cuban, was on the rise. Realizing the commercial potential for his small band, Cugat moved them to New York City. Cugat's band helped open the new Starlight Roof club at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1933. Cugat's band played there for 16 years and was the highest paid band to play at the time, even getting a cut of the cover charge. At this same time the band began playing on WEAF Radio. It is thought that it was these radio shows that led Cugat and his band to the national popularity it eventually attained, especially when he was signed to The Caramel Caravan, a national radio program.
Cugat and the Gigolos were featured in more films, beginning in 1942. The first was the Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire classic, You Were Never Lovelier. Cugat's appearance in the movies made him a household name, including such old favorites as Stage Door Canteen, (1943,) Bathing Beauty, (1944,) This Time for Keeps, (1947,) Neptune's Daughter, (1949). Eventually Cugat was given a few speaking parts, most times playing himself. The band brought a fun, sophisticated Latin feel to movies during Hollywood's most elegant and glamorous era. He also began recording and sold many albums. By the time he died, Cugat had made dozens of recordings of popular Latin dance music.
His personal life was equally famous. He was married five times to Latin beauties, including Carmen Castillo, Abbe Lane, and the famous singer Charo Baeza. His affairs and fights often hit the papers, which he chalked up to his fiery Latin temper. When asked about his marriages, according to the Washington Post Cugat said, "If I had it to do all over, I'd marry the same ones. We always divorced for our careers. You cannot play the violin in Philadelphia when your wife is in Rome making a movie with Marcello Mastroianni."
In 1970 Cugat was forced, for health reasons, to give up his band and go into retirement. In 1987, however, he rallied himself and put together another band. He told People, "I can't wait to get back in the swing." He was happiest while he was entertaining, and he did so from 1987 until he died of arteriosclerosis on October 27, 1990. Cugat brought Cuban music to America, along with a liveliness and vitality that brightened many lives. Quoted at the Vinyl Safari website, Perez Prado said of Cugat in 1951, "All Latin-American musicians owe a great debt to Xavier Cugat. Cugat deserves appreciation from all fans of Latin music." Having accomplished so much in his life, it is doubtful that he will ever be forgotten.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 23, Gale Group, 1999.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.
Newsmakers 1991, Gale Research, 1991.
The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 2: 1986-1990, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999.
People, Febraury 9, 1987, p. 57
Time, November 5, 1990, p. 99.
Washington Post, October 28, 1990.
All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com
Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com
Vinyl Safari www.wildssene.com/music/latin_xc.html
Justin Time Records www.justin-time.com/artists/xaviercugat/
—Catherine Victoria Donaldson
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