Or, Mambo Sociology.

In reference to the “On This Day in History” feature a couple of days ago, “von Hindenburg” writes:

In a certain 1990’s Disney movie, the title character exclaims that there’s no way that a pop star who his son wants to go see could ever be as big as Xavier Cugat, the “Mambo King”. That name has been stuck in my head for nearly 30 years and never once did it occur to me that he might be a real person.

This is an interesting sociological phenomenon. Those of us who were of dancing age in the 1930s and 1940s remember that Latin bands were mainstays of the pop-music scene. That scene was divided into roughly four kinds of bands:

1. Swing bands, like the ones headed by Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman. They played all kinds of music, but were best known for their four-beat jazz.

2. Sweet bands, like Guy Lombardo’s, which leaned toward the saccharine and could swing only if a noose was involved.

3. Mickey-Mouse bands, like Kay Kyser’s and Shep Fields’, which relied on silly musical gimmicks. Shep Fields, for example, created his “rippling rhythm” by blowing bubbles through a straw. You young people probably think Dr. Boli is making that up, but look it up on YouTube. [UPDATE: At the earnest request of one reader, we are adding an earworm warning to that link.]

4. Latin bands. There were many—Enric Madriguera and Desi Arnaz (Cugat’s protégé) come to mind—but the king of all Latin bandleaders was Xavier Cugat. He was still a musical force in the middle 1960s, and still discovering new talent; at the age of 65 he married his latest discovery, Charo, who was somewhere between 15 and 25 when they were married (she changes her age with her clothes).

All these categories have disappeared from the popular consciousness except the swing bands. Swing music stands for the 1940s in every movie and television drama.

Arguably the sweet bands and the Mickey-Mouse bands were worth forgetting. But Cugie? How is it possible to forget Xavier Cugat?

This is one of the phenomena sociologists ought to be studying. In the middle of the twentieth century, ordinary middle-class Americans went wild for Latin music. Hollywood studios knew that the surest way to liven up a musical was to bring in the Cugat band. And most of the numbers were sung in Spanish. Cugat’s singers could sing in English, too, but middle-class Americans were perfectly happy to accept his music in his native language.

Even into the 1950s, Latin music was a big thing in American culture. The most famous television comedy of all time was about a zany redhead married to a Cuban bandleader—played by the actual Cuban bandleader (and actual husband) Desi Arnaz, who learned everything from Cugat. Even the show’s theme had a Cuban beat.

The strange sociological phenomenon is that we have almost completely forgotten what a force Latin music was in popular culture—yet we have a much larger Latin American population now. In nightclubs in any of our big cities, there are bands playing music that Cugat would have understood. He would have thought they were amateurs, but he would have understood that they were trying to be Cugats and failing, and he might have given them a few pointers. But all the people in those nightclubs speak Spanish, and the average middle-class American stays away from them.

How did we forget Xavier Cugat so completely?

Well, he does not have to be forgotten. There is a simple cure for this oblivion. Here is a Cugat appearance in Neptune’s Daughter, and once you have watched it you will not forget Cugat.










  1. Occasional Correspondent says:

    Were you one of the “of us” who was of “dancing age”?  At age 160?  You’re a spry one, Doctor.  (Might Dodgson have had you in mind when he wrote “You Are Old, Father William”?)

  2. tom says:

    Makes me want to watch Buena Vista Social Club again.

  3. von Hindenburg says:

    Wow! Thank you for sharing both that history and video. Not only was the music incredible, but the technical aspects of the choreography and camera work (particularly with equipment from the period) were stellar.

    Survey size of one older Millenial who generally listens to older music, but I’m familiar with the musicians in categories 1 and 2 above, as well as Desi Arnaz (though he’s in a category by himself due to his TV fame, of course). I had never heard of those mentioned in 3 and 4.

  4. Lars Walker says:

    I remember Cugat from a TV show he had when I was a kid. His lead singer was his then-wife, Abbe Lane, whose physical attributes I can recall noticing even at that tender age. Xavier was an inspiration to me, in a counterproductive way — giving me the false idea that even fat little guys can find hot wives. Turns out you need to be rich and famous.

  5. von Hindenburg says:

    (In case I didn’t put sufficient Postage on my previous attempt to comment, rather than it being eaten by the spam filter.)

    Thank you for posting this history and sharing that great video. Not only was the music impressive, but so were the technical aspects of the choreography and cinematography.

    Surveying one older Millenial, I’m familiar with Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, and Desi Arnaz (though for different reasons), but none of the others.

  6. John Salmon says:

    Sorry to be one those “actually” people, but Glenn Miller’s band really wasn’t a swing band. It wasn’t exactly a cornball band, either, but it wasn’t remotely close to Basie, Ellington, Lunceford. The best bands were black bands like the ones I mentioned, though Tommy Dorsey, Goodman and Woody Herman were also quite good.

  7. Mike says:

    We would all be better off with Charo as president.

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