My first introduction to the eternal Mr. Xavier Cugat was through an early 60's LP, the really quite exquisite Viva Cugat!, but I didn't really fall in love with the man's work or comprehend the magnitude of his talent and influence until I began digging into earlier decades. Cugat's brand of sexy rhumba-centric exoticism lent itself, quite obviously, very well to the greater Exotica trend of the 50's and early 60's-- but for him, this fascinatingly prolific and unique period in music may have felt more like a revival, or at least a continuation. Cugat had been working with what we now think of as "exotica" since the 30's, and indeed played a huge role in determining which songs would ultimately cement themselves as standards within the Exotica canon: he helped popularize Cuban music, recording numerous Ernesto Lecuona compositions (including, of course, the exquisite "Jungle Drums"), performed the original version of "Babalu", had not one but two hits with Alberto Dominguez' "Perfidia", and generally played a major role in Latin music from Cuban to Brazilian enjoying a heyday as a major international musical trend.
In the Latin craze which penetrated American popular music of the 30's and 40's, Carmen Miranda was queen and Xavier Cugat was king-- Perez Prado and Desi Arnaz, the successful princes who followed along in their footsteps. Among his many collaborators and bandmates we may count Lalo Schifrin, Dinah Shore, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Tito Rodriguez, Yma Sumac, Rita Hayworth, and many more. He's also a hilarious draftsman and caricaturist.
Cugat popularized tango, mambo, rhumba, conga, and cha-cha-cha, all genres that tend to be discussed often in terms of their intensity, which gives the impression of their practitioners as being more passionate and brash than anything else, even unsubtle. But while Papa Cugat's swingers are of the finest magnitude, even his brawniest numbers don't aspire to anything like the sheer crazed muscle of Perez Prado's best work (whose own power is never to be underestimated, and ought not be unduly accused of un-subtlety itself). Particularly in the early days, he's actually rather tender, or torridly elegant, when and where the piece calls for it.
Indeed, the rhumba and its like used to be a more flexible and rich form, capable of absorbing almost anything from folk, pop, and jazz and producing from it's jazz-orchestral womb an exquisite synthesis (this is illustrated in revelatory fashion by Rhythm & Blues' Rumba Jazz 1919-1945, The History Of Latin Jazz & Dance Music From The Swing Era, one of my very favorite compilations of the decade). Mr. Cugat may be one of the most enormously commercial and popular practitioners within this cottage industry, but this changes not a whit that fact that his best (early) work remains utterly top-notch and brilliant-- particularly when dealing in specifically exotica, exotica, and proto-exotica compositions.
One of my favorite collections of early Cugat numbers is South America, Take it Away! Covering a the fruitful period from 1935-46 with New York's Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra, this has some of the best and most essential Cugat selections, quite a few of which are early exotica numbers-- with amazing vocals, several of them by Bing Crosby (and wonderful lyrics not often heard in later Exotica versions, a treat perhaps exemplified by the lyric to "Jungle Drums"). I can never find a very good copy of it, but from a few defective rips and such I have been able to cobble together a pretty decent full version. Check here for the track listing and some additional info.
TAKE IT AWAY!
I would encourage you not to stop there, however. I have something else I'd love for you to hear. While digging around in the internet archive site, in the 78's and Cylinders collection, I came across a series of wonderful old Cugat rips (all furnished selflessly by the "Grimriper," to whom I tip my hat with deep and abiding respect and gratitude-- here's to you sir). They are wonderful and wide-ranging-- and considering that they likely all came from 40's-era 78 vinyl, they sound phenomenal. I can't recommend this stuff highly enough. You can check it out here (as well as preview tracks and thank the uploader), and please do, but for your highest convenience, I've compiled all the tracks and tidied up all the labeling, then upped it here.
This stuff is largely just mind-bogglingly great, so beautiful and romantic and exhilarating. Of particular note: "Greek Bolero", "Baia" and "You Belong To My Heart" (both with the incomparable Bing Crosby), "Misirlou" (with Dinah Shore), "Poinciana", "Perfidia", "Jalousie", and many more to be sure. Now bring these elegant Latin ghosts of Exotica's early history into your night and into your life.
XAVIER CUGAT 78 VINYL COLLECTION
Coming soon: some highlights from Cugat later career in the LP era.