Bandleader Xavier Cugat, who began playing in a symphony orchestra at the age of 10 and went on to become known as the “Rumba King” of the 1930s and ‘40s, died Saturday in Spain. He was 90.
Cugat died at the Quiron Clinic in Barcelona, where he had been in intensive care with heart and lung problems. Cugat, who was born in Barcelona, had lived in that city for the last 18 years.
A onetime musical child prodigy and classical violinist, Cugat’s adult career was devoted to popular music and he was credited with being a prime mover in the Latin-American rhythm craze of the 1930s and ‘40s.
But he always considered himself more an entertainer and showman than a musician—and made no apology for it.
“I play music,” he said, “make an atmosphere that people enjoy. It makes them happy. They smile. They dance. Feel good—who be sorry for that?”
He was also a discoverer of talent: Dinah Shore and the late Desi Arnaz both acknowledged their debt to “Cugie,” the bandleader who helped them take their first steps toward success.
He was also an authentic child of the century, born Jan. 1, 1900, in Barcelona.
Because his life also ended there, it would be easy to think of the city as his “home town.” But Cugat did not think of it in that light.
“The first city I remember,” he said in a 1960 interview, “was Havana. My father was a political refugee from Spain--yes, they had them, even back then—and we moved to Cuba when I was 3. It was lucky, too, because we moved in across the street from a violin-maker and when I was 4 he gave me a Christmas present. . . .”
It was a quarter-size violin and the bandleader’s brother, portraitist Francis Cugat, said the instrument was almost never out of young Xavier’s hand.
Educated (“When I couldn’t find a way to get out of it”) by the Jesuits and also by Cuban music teachers (“I was willing to spend more time with them, you know”) Cugat began playing with a symphony orchestra in Havana when he was 10; at 12 he was first violinist.
That’s what he was doing a few years later when Enrico Caruso came to perform with the orchestra.
By the time Caruso’s engagement was through, the great tenor had formed a close friendship with the boy violinist and arranged for him to accompany him on a tour of America.
“And that,” Cugat laughed, “was how I started drawing. . . . “
Caruso, he explained, was an accomplished cartoonist-caricaturist as well as a great performer. Each would pass the time drawing barbed characterizations of friends and acquaintances. But the tour didn’t last long.
“He died (in 1921) shortly after I got to New York,” Cugat said, “and there I was, no friends and not a word of English. And not much money.”
Carrying his violin case, the young man wandered around the city until he found a restaurant with a Spanish name and someone inside who spoke the language. He got a job there playing 14 hours a day for meals and a place to sleep. “But no money,” he said. “And it went on for quite a while.”
Finally, however, he said he managed to find work with a symphony orchestra—on tour—and picked up enough English to defend himself. Still, as a career, he admitted to doubts.
“When I came out West in the 1920s,” he said, “I still wanted to be a concert violinist. But I was beginning to suspect I was not the best. It happens when you grow up, you know?”
Nonetheless, he became one of the first solo musicians to play on radio; he performed on WDY, Camden, N.J., in 1921, and in the 1920s was a featured soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“But it wasn’t enough money to live on—not the way I wanted to live,” he said. “And so I went to work for a newspaper. It was The Los Angeles Times.”
The Times job lasted from 1924 to 1925, but Cugat the artist found it difficult to be humorous on demand for the rotogravure pages.
“When they tell you to be funny by 10:30 tomorrow morning,” he said, “I can’t do it—I finally quit, and get these six guys to play commercial music with me.”
Well—almost commercial. They were a Latin music combo, and in the 1920s (Rudolph Valentino notwithstanding) such rhythms were considered “gigolo music” and demand was limited. Cugat eked out his living between engagements scoring and doing other odd jobs for Warner Bros.
He even filmed a test short in sound before “The Jazz Singer” helped usher in the sound age in motion pictures.
But it was all uphill work.
“What made it nice,” he said later, “was the kids working there at the time. My niece, a dancer called Margo, (later the film star of that single name) was in one little short we did, and so was Rita (Margarita) Cansino, who used to dance with her father, Eduardo, in the border spots.
“That Rita, she was 12 years old then. I didn’t see her for the next 15 years—and when I did she had a new name and a lot more besides. The new name was Rita Hayworth.”
Their reunion was on the set of Cugat’s first movie, “You Were Never Lovelier” in 1942 in which the late Miss Hayworth starred—and a lot had happened to the bandleader in the intervening years.
When Gus Arnheim’s was “the” dance band at the Cocoanut Grove (Arnheim had a talented young vocalist named Bing Crosby) Cugat’s little Latin band filled in with rumbas and tangos during the intermissions.
There was a daily broadcast over KFWB, too; three violinists named Cugat, Leon Belasco and Russ Columbo.
But his big break came when he was booked into the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. His music was a hit there, and became a fixture in what became known as the “Cugat Room” of the Waldorf for nearly a decade.
The first movie was followed by "Bathing Beauty,” “Two Girls and a Sailor,” “Holiday In Mexico,” “This Time For Keeps,” “A Date With Judy,” “Week-End at the Waldorf,” “No Leave, No Love,” “Luxury Liner,” “Neptune’s Daughter” and others.
Usually he played himself, frequently his caricatures were also featured (he also designed the “curtain of the stars” for Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood) and always he made music.
There were frequent appearances, too, on radio.
And he was frequently in the headlines—but not as a musician.
Cugat’s first marriage, to band singer Carmen Elena Castillo in 1929, ended in divorce in 1944; his second, to Lorraine Allen in 1947 ended the same way in 1952—the year he married singer Abbe Lane, from whom he was divorced shortly before his 1966 marriage to Charro Baeza, from whom he was divorced in 1978.
Only the last divorce was quiet.
The others featured charges and counter-charges of infidelity. Dress designer Oleg Cassini and Cugat once exchanged punches outside the Mocambo nightclub over Cassini’s alleged attentions to Cugat’s wife. The second Mrs. Cugat and several detectives once broke into a hotel room to confront Cugat and Abbe Lane. And then Cugat broke into the apartment he shared with Abbe Lane during the final year of their marriage.
“I like women—all women,” he said in the brief interregnum between his third and fourth marriages. “Also, there is my temperament. I am Latin. I excite. For me, this is life.”
Less expensive, but as full of publicity, was Cugat’s testimony before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Commerce Committee investigating television quiz show rigging in the late 1950s.
Cugat admitted that he had been coached by an assistant producer of the "$64,000 Challenge” quiz game, in which he won $16,000 for his apparent knowledge of popular music.
“I did it strictly—strictly—for the publicity,” Cugat said, adding that he had donated his winnings to an orphanage in Cuba.
Years passed and the public fascination with South American dance rhythms gradually faded. But Cugat’s personal and musical popularity continued only slightly abated.
His film appearances ceased. But he continued to make an occasional television appearance—and his band remained a popular draw on the road and especially in Las Vegas—until a stroke left him partially paralyzed in 1969.
Although he recovered almost entirely, his health remained delicate and after his fourth divorce he moved back to the “home town” he had never really known, in Spain.
“Beautiful,” he said. “A beautiful city. And peaceful—a good place to be.
“But I’m still glad my father moved us to Havana. And that the man who lived across the street was a violin-maker. Lucky! Sure. Think of it: What if that man across the street had been a maker of shoes?"