October 2011

Desi Arnaz: Personality, musicality and grand sense of style

The Musical Desi

Years before I Love Lucy made him a household name, Desi Arnaz was doing his part to bring Latin music to mainstream America

By David McGee

Long before I Love Lucy was even a distant dream in Desi Arnaz's mind's eye, he was enjoying a promising career as a bandleader and budding movie actor. To Xavier Cugat goes the distinction of igniting an American craze for Latin-flavored, big band dance music in the 1940s, but it was his protégé Arnaz who brought that particular strain of exotica to commercial flower in the immediate post-War years. Whereas Cugat incorporated Latin stylings into a pop approach, Arnaz did the reverse, favoring a harder-edged, percussive Latin sound with echoes of romantic, orchestral American pop. Both Cugat and Arnaz were beholden to the fiery Cuban bandleader Machito, whose raw, blistering sound was too ethnic to be commercially palatable for American tastes of the time, but was made so when recast in the big band format by his acolytes. In turn, Arnaz's success in the late '40s opened the door for another tough-minded Cuban bandleader, Perez Prado, in the '50s, from whose band sprang the towering Mongo Santamaria, who brought Afro-Cuban music to its aesthetic, spiritual and philosophical apex in succeeding decades.

Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo, ‘Babalu’

Born into a wealthy family in Santiago, Cuba, on March 2, 1917, Desidero Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III fled his homeland during a 1933 revolution and settled in Miami, where he cleaned bird cages and worked a variety of odd jobs to help support his family. A talented musician, he made his professional debut as a guitarist for the Siboney Septet in 1936. When later offered the chance to work for Xavier Cugat in New York he accepted, in spite of the resulting pay cut. "The thing I remember about New York was how little I felt," he recalled of his first impressions of Gotham. "I arrived with one small bag and $15."

Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo, ‘Cuban Pete’

New York was Arnaz's music business boot camp. Six months after arriving in the city, he was ready to leave Cugat and venture out on his own. With backing from Cugat, he returned to Miami to set up shop. The early going was slow and discouraging, but when he introduced the conga line to his audience one night, he burst like the proverbial supernova into local stardom, with lines forming around the block of any club he played in Miami and the national press starting to take notice of him. Breaking away from Cugat, he returned to New York, formed another band and began lighting up Manhattan's nightlife. Broadway summoned him in 1939 to appear in the musical Too Many Girls, which led to a role in the RKO film version, which in turn required him to relocate to Hollywood. On the set he met and fell in love with the film's female star, Lucille Ball.

Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo, ‘The Lady in Red’

Arnaz went on to make three more films with RKO and one drama with MGM, the classic war movie Bataan, before being inducted into the Army during WWII. For two years he entertained stateside troops, then was discharged and returned to music. Forming a new orchestra he crafted a sound that brought Latin music to the American mainstream culture in a way it had never been presented before and subsequently opened doors for other Latin musicians.

Arnaz's landmark recordings, now available on several collections--with the recommended ones being RCA's The Best of Desi Arnaz The Mambo King (1992) and a 1996 RCA release, Babalu by Desi Arnaz and His Orchestra--were made between 1946 and 1949 when his orchestra was lighting mambo fires on both coasts in their frequent appearances at Ciro's in Los Angeles and at the Copacabana in New York. Recorded at a time in American history when rhythm and blues was moving into high gear, country had produced a raw-boned offshoot called honky-tonk, and several of the century's greatest popular singers were coming of age, Arnaz's music embraced the spirit of adventure redolent in those other styles. Engaging wordplay; string arrangements that are lush and romantic without being gooey; vibrant, pulsating Latin percussion; pronounced brass and reed sections; and strong, involved vocal performances (most by Arnaz, some by his personable female vocalist, Jane Harvey) mark these distinctive performances. In any role, Arnaz is a dominant personality, whether directing the band through a challenging instrumental ("Tico Tico," with its breathtaking brass-woodwind-keyboard-strings sparring matches) or stepping out to put across lyrics in English and Spanish. And though his voice wasn't an awe-inspiring instrument, that dark baritone could be warm and friendly on the mambos, seductive and dreamy on the love songs--personality and an impeccable style carry the day. Purists like to point out that Desi watered down his native music for American consumption, and it's hard to argue that point when you listen to the fiery work of Machito, for example. But Desi also had that extra something, a blend of charm and vision, that allowed him entrée into a part of American society from which Latino musicians were mostly excluded, much as his Ricky Ricardo character on I Love Lucy brought Latin culture into millions of American homes where it might otherwise never have taken up residence. Too much credit cannot be given to Desi Arnaz as a musical and cultural pioneer.

Ricky Ricardo sings ‘I Get Ideas’ in ‘The Publicity Agent,’ Episode 31, Season 1, aired May 12, 1952. Lucy is posing as the Maharincess of Franistan in an effort to stir up some publicity for Ricky.

Elsewhere, novelties such as 1947's "You Can in Yucatan" allow Arnaz a vocal display of the comedic genius he would bring to his role as Ricky Ricardo in the next decade. Songs familiar from the TV show--"The Straw Hat Song," "Guadalajara," "Cuban Pete," "Babalu"--are contained on both discs in their original recordings, unexpurgated and more overtly Latin in feel than the versions Ricky Ricardo's orchestra performed. His signature song, "Babalu," for example, is heard in all its dramatic glory, with three conga drummers beating out a forceful polyrhythm before Arnaz and orchestra come in, alternately boisterous and tender. Singing in Spanish, Arnaz shows off his belting style to admirable effect, then settles into a soft, crooning passage, before exploding into a shouting call-and-response with his chorus as the congas raise the ante again with their intense polyrhythmic urgency. From first cut to last, Arnaz's personality, musicality and grand sense of style carry the day.

Desi Arnaz, his 1946 recording of ‘El Cumbanchero’

Although Arnaz wasn't a prolific recording artist, he made his mark with a body of work that inspired like-minded artists who surfaced after he had moved on to new challenges. Musicologists will find much to admire in the sturdy intellect in evidence on his recordings; fans merely seeking supremely entertaining fare will find they love it when they do the chick-chicky-boom.

Babalu by Desi Arnaz & His Orchestra is available at www.amazon.com

The Best of Desi Arnaz, The Mambo King is available at www.amazon.com

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