september 2009

We Love Desi

'They Call Me Cuban Pete, I'm The King Of The Rhumba Beat...'

By David McGee

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Desi Arnaz, 'Babalu'

The minority members of the Senate Judiciary Committee disgraced themselves on a daily basis during the July confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice-designate Sonia Sotomayor. Hard to imagine anyone topping the condescension and outright ignorance oozing forth from ranking minority member Jeff Sessions (R-AL)—he who once said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was alright "until I found out they smoked pot"—but Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn outdid him by invoking the Latin caricature of Ricky Ricardo in addressing now-Justice Sotomayor.

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Coburn to Sotomayor: 'You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do'

That's done and over with, and the Republicans didn't have the votes to deny this redoubtable candidate her rightful place on the Supreme Court bench. Congratulations to Justice Sotomayor. Now to correct the record on Ricky Ricardo, or rather the man who created him, Cuban-born DESI ARNAZ, a television visionary and pioneer and a musical giant who helped introduce mainstream American to Latin popular music well before audiences watched him belt out "Babalu" on I Love Lucy.

thumbnailFleeing Cuba during the revolution of 1933, Arnaz and his family settled in Miami. With the family fortune gone, Desi worked a variety of odd jobs (including cleaning canary cages) to support himself and his loved ones. In 1936 he landed his first professional gig as a musician, playing guitar for the Siboney Septet, which led to an offer to do the same for Xavier Cugat's orchestra in New York. Following six months with Cugat, Arnaz returned to Miami fronting his own (Cugat-backed) band, and still struggling to make ends meet until he introduced the Conga Line to American audiences and ignited a national mania across the land.

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'Cuban Pete,' Desi Arnaz

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 has brought Afro-Cuban music to its aesthetic, spiritual and philosophical apex in succeeding decades.

thumbnailTwo RCA retrospectives, The Best of Desi Arnaz: Mambo King (1992) and Babalu (1996), spotlight Arnaz's landmark recordings from the years 1946-49, 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 small combo rhythm and blues was moving into high gear, country music 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 these 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, who also cut several engaging duets with 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.

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'The Bayamo,' Desi Arnaz on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, 1958-1959, episode titled 'Lucy Wins a Race Horse,' with guest stars Betty Grable and her bandleader husband Harry James wailing on trumpet.

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"—in their original recorded versions are more overtly Latin in feel than the versions Ricky Ricardo's orchestra performed. His signature song, "Babalu," for example, features 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 infectious polyrhythmic urgency. Always on his recordings, Arnaz's impeccable musicianship, grand sense of style and genial personality cut a distinctive, winning figure.

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'That Means I Love You,' Ricky Ricardo woos a vacationing Lucille McGillicuddy in a flashback episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Check out the 'battle of the congas' midway through. 'If you're having trouble, follow my advice/brother, let a conga break the ice...' Exceptional work by both stars.



Arnaz shelved his recording career in 1949 to work full time on developing his TV series with his wife Lucille Ball. I Love Lucy, which went on the air in 1951 and topped the ratings for the entirety of its six-year run, featured regular performances by Arnaz and his orchestra. Although his character, the always struggling bandleader Ricky Ricardo, famously mangled the English language, Arnaz himself was fluent in both Spanish and English, and was as savvy a businessman as he was gifted musically. Among the many innovations with which Arnaz is credited was the use of multiple cameras in filming the show before a live audience. He and Ms. Ball also built one of the most powerful production companies in TV history, Desilu, which not only produced a number of top television programs but also owned RKO Pictures.

After he and Ms. Ball divorced in 1960, Desi effectively retired from show business. He remarried, and with his second wife Edith relocated to Baja, CA, where he lived the rest of his life, making only an occasional film or TV cameo, granting a rare interview now and then, but mostly staying out of the spotlight. He died in 1986 after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

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Desi Arnaz, 'I Get Ideas,' from I Love Lucy (Season 1, Episode 31)

This month's Video File honors the inspired artistry of Desi Arnaz in these clips assembled from various performances from I Love Lucy. The "Babalu" performance here is by far the most intense of many fine versions of the song he performed on the tube, and it offers a glimpse into what American audiences responded to so fervently in the late '40s. In his beautiful rendition of "I Get Ideas," we hear a romantic balladeer of the first order, at his peak, irresistibly dreamy, suave and vulnerable all at once. Remember too that along with Cugat and Prado, Desi Arnaz was also blazing a trail for the assimilation of Latins and Latin music and culture into the American melting pot. Here's to a great man who made a difference.

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Entertainment Tonight reports on the death of Desi Arnaz, 1986

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Desi Arnaz explains why he loves Lucy

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