Xavier Cugat (1900-1990), a classically trained violinist who conducted with his bow, 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.
Best-known for having popularized the rumba in the United States during the 1930s, Xavier Cugat's Latin-influenced band lead the way in a new music craze among the dancing and radio-listening public. A dramatic showman who often wore huge South American hats on stage and who led his band with the wave of a violin bow, Cugat performed in the ritziest of clubs, on the radio, and in the movies. Having made his professional start as a child prodigy playing classical violin, Cugat was never apologetic about his switch to popular music. He was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "I play music … make an atmosphere that people enjoy. It makes them happy. They smile. They dance. Feel good—who be sorry for that?" Cugat's several marriages, extramarital affairs, and divorces made headlines, but these events did not cause him to repine. He credited his irrepressible interest in women to a Latin temperament and once said he'd marry each of his four wives over again.
Born on January 1, 1900, near Barcelona, Spain, and christened Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingall de Brue y Deulofeo, Cugat was two years old when his father moved the family to Havana, Cuba. Two years later, a neighbor and violinmaker gave the boy a quarter-sized violin as a Christmas present. Cugat's exceptional talents were soon evident, as he developed into a musical prodigy. He played professionally when he was just nine years old, and at age twelve he became first violinist for the Teatro Nacional Symphonic Orchestra.
Tenor Enrico Caruso met Cugat in Havana when he was performing there with the Metropolitan Opera Company, and he enlisted the boy as his accompanist for an American tour. The subsequent events of Cugat's teen years are somewhat obscure. He is known to have played the violin on a WDY broadcast in 1917, which made him one of the first violinists to perform on radio, and some sources list Cugat as having moved to the United States with his parents in 1915. But the bandleader once told the Los Angeles Times a far different story, one where he began by working 14 hours a day for a room, meals, and no pay. "[Caruso died] shortly after I got to New York … and there I was, no friends and not a word of English. And not much money," he said. In any case, Cugat was disappointed in his musical career. Although he played Carnegie Hall twice, toured the United States and Europe with a symphony orchestra, and became a soloist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the money—and critical response—was not satisfactory to Cugat.
He then gave up playing the violin for a job with the Los Angeles Times as a cartoonist. Caruso had taught Cugat how to draw caricatures and the young man hoped to use this skill to improve his prospects. Cugat had considerable talents as an artist but soon grew tired of the situation. Quoted in a Los Angeles Times obituary, Cugat explained, "When they tell you to be funny by 10:30 tomorrow morning … I can't do it—I finally quit, and get these six guys to play commercial music with me." Also joining Cugat on the bandstand was his wife-to-be Carmen Castillo as lead singer. The year was 1928 and Latin music was not yet popular. However, the band would land a gig playing during intermissions at the famed Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. At the time, a Gus Arnheim band with singer Bing Crosby was the main act. While in Los Angeles, Cugat also played the violin with two performers on a daily broadcast on KFWB radio.
Fame at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
The job that served as Cugat's springboard to fame was at the new Starlight Roof at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. The bandleader made a modest start there in 1933 but was soon ensconced in the hotel's "Cugat Room." His dance band played at the posh hotel for 16 years and Cugat became the Waldorf-Astoria's highest-paid bandleader, making $7,000 a week plus a cut of the cover charge take. In 1934 Cugat's band played a three-hour network radio program on Saturday nights.
During a time when dance band leaders Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller were immensely popular, Cugat benefited from a conflict between the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and the radio networks. ASCAP withheld its music from broadcasts, forcing dance bands to play mostly tired public-domain songs. Cugat, however, had some 500 non-ASCAP Latin tunes at his disposal and had soon attracted a national audience. He became known as the "Rumba King." Some of the performers that Cugat in turn helped to popularize were Desi Arnaz, Dinah Shore, Lina Romay, and Miguelito Valdes. He wrote and recorded hundreds of songs, including "Chiquita Banana," "Rumba Rhapsody," "Kasmiri Love Song," "Rain in Spain," "Babalu," "My Shawl," "Rendezvous in Rio," "Walter Winchell Rumba," "Is It Taboo," and "I'll Never Love Again."
Cugat made the leap to the silver screen in 1942, appearing in You Were Never Lovelier, which starred Rita Hayworth. Cugat had met the actress in California many years before, when she was a dancer known as Margarita Cansino. With his band, Cugat appeared in many more films—often as himself. He was repeatedly seen on screen with the swimming actress Esther Williams; among their motion pictures together were Neptune's Daughter, Bathing Beauty, This Time for Keeps, and On an Island With You. Cugat's caricatures were also featured in some of his films and on a "curtain of stars" in Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. These events followed an earlier interest in movie making on the part of Cugat, who had previously made films including an ill-fated production during the early sound era. In 1928 he had spent $35,000 to produce a Spanish-language film, only to discover that there were as yet no sound projectors in Latin America.
Cugat's personal life made news many times, as he wed and divorced four times. His marriage to Castillo ended unhappily in 1944. The bandleader was married to Lorraine Allen from 1947 to 1952, when—with the help of private detectives—she caught him in a compromising position in a hotel room with the band's lead singer, Abbe Lane. Cugat wed Lane that same year and stayed married some 14 years, until he found her with another man. In 1966 he married the much younger singer-guitarist Charro Baeza, who is better known by her first name alone. This marriage ended in 1978 and was said to be the only amicable divorce. Cugat's reflections on his love life were recalled in the Los Angeles Times: "I like women—all women… . Also, there is my temperament. I am Latin. I excite. For me, this is life."
Although the Latin music craze that had swelled in the 1930s and 1940s died down, Cugat remained extremely popular. His band was often booked in Las Vegas and he performed until 1969, when Cugat suffered a stroke and became partially paralyzed. The bandleader recovered from the stroke but his health was never the same. After his divorce from Charro, Cugat moved to Barcelona, where he lived for 18 years—until his death in 1990. He had been suffering from heart and lung problems and was in intensive care at the Quiron Clinic when he died.
Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1991.
Newsmakers, Gale, 1991.
Los Angeles Times, October 28, 1990.
New York Times, October 28, 1990.
All-Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (February 2003).