Esquivel - Biography



By Scott Feemster

Juan Garcia Esquivel, often just called Esquivel, was a 20th century bandleader, orchestrator and arranger who always seemed to have one foot in the 20th century, and one foot in an almost Jetsons-inspired 21st century. His recordings in the late 1950's and 1960's were exercises in the latest stereo recording techniques that contained so much energy and pizazz that it sent most listener's heads in a spin. His records became prize possessions when the so-called Space Age Pop, or Space Age Bachelor Music craze became popular in the 1990's, and Esquivel lived long enough to enjoy admiration and respect from a new generation of listeners and hipsters.

 

            Juan Garcia Esquivel was born in Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico on January 20th, 1918. Young Esquivel was already a prodigy on piano and was teaching himself how to compose and arrange, when his family decided to move to Mexico City in 1928, mainly so Esquivel could attend classes at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico to further his musical education. By the early 1930's, Esquivel was appearing on radio station XEW in the capitol city, and soon ended up leading the station orchestra. By 1940, Esquivel had formed his own orchestra, which included 5 vocalists and 22 musicians. Other than playing some live dates in Mexico City, the group mainly was used to provide background music for a daily radio show starring the comedian Panseco. Esquivel learned the discipline of being able to write and orchestrate musical pieces quickly and under threat of a deadline. Esquivel, interviewed later in life, reflected back on the time and commented that Panseco would ask him things like “'Can you play something that sounds like a Russian guy walking through China?' and somehow, I would do it.” During the 1940's and into the early 1950's, Esquivel became more and more popular in his native country, appearing in stage shows as well as his work in radio and the new medium of television. He starred in and scored two films in Mexico, Cabaret Tragico (1957) and La Locura de Rock 'n' Roll (1957) before being contacted by RCA Records in the United States, to whom he signed in late 1957. RCA first put out one of his Mexican albums, Amar de Nuevo (1957), (renamed by its English translation To Love Again), before bringing Esquivel to Hollywood in early 1958 to record with an American orchestra. Esquivel was used to working quickly with detailed scores and various orchestration and instruments, and was given a block of five hours to complete what would be his debut American recording, Other Worlds, Other Sounds (RCA Victor)(1958). He completed the sessions with 90 minutes to spare, so took advantage of the extra recording time and recorded a whole other album with a smaller combo, later released as the album Four Corners of the World (RCA)(1958). Both albums introduced Esquivel's highly energetic, tight arrangements that emphasized a wide pallet of instruments across the new, broad spectrum of stereo-separated sound. Other Worlds.. also introduced Esquivel's use of vocal choruses, in this case the Randy Van Horne Singers, singing sometimes nonsense phrases and syllables as more of an instrumental flavoring than as a vocal focal point. The albums were favorably received by the public, (though not so much by the critics), and Esquivel quickly moved on to record his next album, Exploring New Sounds In Stereo (RCA Victor)(1958), utilizing RCA's new “Living Stereo” technology. (The album was also released in a mono version as Exploring New Sounds In Hi-Fi). True to the title, Esquivel expanded on the sound started on his first two albums, and included the sounds of the early electronic instruments the ondioline and the theremin to make for a more “space age” sound. These early albums also took advantage of other unusual instruments including early Fender Rhodes electric pianos, bass accordion, Chinese bells and the Boom-Bam, a 24-piece bongo kit tuned to “F”.

 

            Esquivel fully enjoyed his new found celebrity in the United States, and when not recording or playing engagements in Los Angeles, Las Vegas or New York, was seen out on the town often with female companions or hobnobbing with new celebrity friends like Liberace, Ernie Kovacs and Frank Sinatra. The work kept coming for Esquivel as the 50's turned into the 60's, as he was asked to contribute incidental music for television as well as produce albums for The Living Strings and The Ames Brothers. Esquivel continued issuing his own albums, including the 1959 album Strings Aflame (RCA), which featured his interpretation of popular string pieces, Infinity In Sound (RCA)(1960), a return to his “wilder”, more frenetic stereo-separation demonstration style, and the follow-up, 1961's Infinity In Sound, Vol. 2 (RCA). By 1962's Latin-esque (RCA Victor), Esquivel had taken the craze for stereo separation and his own penchant for panning instruments wildly from channel to channel to it's almost obvious extreme. He set up two identical orchestras in two different studios, and placed the same scores before each of them. (These were the days before multi-tracking and digital editing.) Esquivel conducted one group in one studio, while Stanley Wilson conducted the second group in a studio near by. The two were connected and able to sync up via the use of a close circuit television set-up. The effect would be, not only would it sound like a full orchestra in each speaker, it would actually be a full orchestra in each speaker. During the early 60's, Esquivel also continued doing television work and, with the help of Stanley Wilson, built up an impressive catalog of incidental music written mostly for Universal Studios. Esquivel's incidental music has been heard in everything from “McHale's Navy” to “Kojak” to “Beavis and Butthead”, but possibly his most famous piece of incidental music is the three-second booming fanfare that accompanies the Universal Studios logo at the end of one of its productions.

 

            Beginning in 1963, Esquivel switched his main focus from recording to stage work, and became known for his stage show that included a before-its-time light show, four beautiful female back-up singers and choreographed banter and stage routines. He worked the Lake Tahoe/Las Vegas circuit and became a popular draw throughout the 60's. He recorded three more albums during the 60's, More of Other Worlds, Other Sounds (Reprise)(1962), continuing on the space-age sound of his previous album of the same name, 1967's The Genius of Esquivel (RCA), which was basically a recorded version of his 11-year long run stage show at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, and Esquivel 1968!! (RCA), a collection of Esquivel Latin-tinged originals mixed with his interpretation of several standards of the day. Esquivel led his live band for over 12 years, but towards the end, both dwindling attendance at his shows and his increasing personal dependence on and abuse of alcohol and drugs led to the termination of his contract at the Stardust and the reputation on the show circuit that, though obviously a genius and a gifted showman, he was unreliable. By the late 70's, Esquivel had fallen low enough that he fell in arrears on his rent, and had many of his possessions, including many of the originals of his compositions, taken away. In 1979, Esquivel returned to his native Mexico and began to piece his career and life back together. He found success again by composing the theme for the popular children's television show “Odisea Burbujas”, and an accompanying album of songs and instrumentals from the series went on sell more than a million copies in Latin America.

 

            By the time the 90's rolled around, Esquivel had mostly retreated from work, and was bedridden for a while and then confined to a wheelchair due to a broken hip and an aggravated spinal cord injury. He lived at the home of his older brother, Sergio, in the town of Jiutepec, until Sergio's death in 1999. In the early 90's, a strange thing happened in the United States. Some Generation X hipsters who had grown tired of grunge and punk and metal had begun to rediscover albums in bargain bins by artists who were lumped together in the lounge or easy listening categories. Chief among these artists was Esquivel. Record companies soon picked up on the trend, and in 1994 Bar/None released a compilation of his late 50's and 60's work for RCA called Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. The album was an underground success and gained Esquivel a whole new audience and entry again into popular culture. Space Age Bachelor Pad Music was followed by other compilations, including Music From A Sparkling Planet (Bar/None)(1995), Cabaret Manana (BMG)(1996), and an album of material that was rejected by RCA in 1960 as being too “out there”, See It In Sound! (7N Music/Buddha)(1999). Esquivel enjoyed his new-found celebrity and, though confined to a wheelchair, gave many interviews and made himself open to his new fans. One group that were fans was the retro-lounge band Combustible Edison, and the band collaborated with Esquivel on reissuing some Christmas-themed tracks he had completed in the early 60's combined with some new recordings by Combustible Edison of his work and a new spoken intro and farewell by the maestro himself under the title Merry Christmas from the Space-Age Bachelor Pad (Bar/None)(1996). After his brother's death in 1999, Esquivel bought a house in Jiutepec, and later, in 2001, married his 25-year-old care giver Carina Osorio, claiming she was his sixth wife. The two lived a seemingly happy life together until Esquivel suffered a stroke in late 2001, which left him paralyzed on one side and unable to speak, followed by a more severe stroke on December 30th of that year. Four days later on January 3, 2002, Esquivel passed away. Rumors have floated around since the early 2000's of a film biopic of Esquivel's life being produced with actor John Leguizamo due to star in it, but nothing as of yet has seen the light of day.

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