Pérez Prado - Biography

By Robert Leaver


             Cuban bandleader, arranger, and pianist Damaso Pérez Prado is universally recognized as the King of Mambo. His artistic flair helped make the mustachioed diminutive figure a memorable character. Variously conducting and playing the piano the hyper-animated Prado led an orchestra with a blazing brass section of saxophones and trumpets anchored in a solid Afro-Cuban rhythm section. Influenced by the great American swing jazz bands Prado’s arrangements crossed over easily as he became an international celebrity. His trademark yelp, seemingly involuntary and spontaneous, made his mostly instrumental dance tunes instantly recognizable. A full fledged phenomenon in the fifties his career continued through the sixties providing inspiration for the musical strain that would become known as space age bachelor pad.


              Born in the Cuban city of Matanzas on December 11, 1916, his musical proclivity led him to study piano. He relocated to Havana, the musical center of Latin America, in the early 1940s and in 1945 at the behest of popular singer Cascarita he joined Orquesta Casino de La Playa as pianist and arranger. He earned a reputation for hard banging on the piano and an unfortunate nickname, “cara de foca” or seal face. A stint with the fabled group La Sonora Matancera gave him more visibility and he took off for Mexico City in 1948 just as the mambo rage was beginning.


            Based on the stately and sedate Cuban danzón, the mambo, first conceived by legendary Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez in 1938, developed into an energetic dance form punctuated by bold horn vamp. Inspired by the elegance of Duke Ellington and the sound of Stan Kenton mambo combined both Cuban and jazz sensibilities. Simultaneously developing in New York City and Havana in the 1940s it became a bona fide craze in the hands of Prado in Mexico City. Commanding his own orchestra and performing live on the radio Prado began recording for RCA Victor, was looking to Latin America as sales of Victrola record players soared. Many of his early sides are included on the CD Kuba Mambo 1947-1949 (1991 Tumbao Cuban Classics).


          He was joined in Mexico by a popular young singer, Beny Moré, who made some of his earliest records fronting Prado’s orchestra as gathered together on the CD “El Barbaro del Ritmo” Mambos by Beny Moré with Pérez Prado and his Orchestra (1991 Tumbao Cuban Classics). Moré would go on to lead his own orchestra and become the most loved singer in the history of Cuban music.


          Prado and his orchestra gained popularity when his tune “Maravillosa” appeared in the film Coqueta (1949) and he began a lucrative relationship with film. He was the musical director for two other popular films that year and in 1950 his music appeared in no less than 18 films. His cinema presence successfully presented himself as a fun-loving bandleader fronting the most swinging Latin dance band. “Qué rico el mambo” and “Mambo No. 5” became popularly known tunes via the predominance of Mexican cinema in Latin America. In 1951 he brought his core of Latin percussionists with him to Hollywood and formed a band there spreading the gospel of Mambo. In 1952 he did the same in New York City forming a band of mostly American musicians with the notable exception of young conga drummer Mongo Santamaria. Those 78 r.p.m. recordings are compiled on a CD called Al Compás del Mambo 1950-1952 (1995 Tumbao Cuban Classics).


            With the winds of success at his heels he returned to Mexico in 1953 to an air of jealousy. While working on a film set he was accused of bribing a government inspector and expelled from the country. He chose to return to Cuba where he continued his prodigious recording and performing schedule. Beleagured by jealousies in his homeland he fled to New York City in 1954 where he would maintain his base for the next ten years. RCA Victor released Mambomania in 1955, the first full length LP marketing him to the American masses. The album kicks off with his big hit “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” and its signature sustained drop trumpet solo played by Billy Regis. Featured as the theme song for the Jane Russell movie Underwater the song spent 10 weeks at number one on the U.S. charts only to be usurped by  Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” The album also contained novelty interpretations like  “St. Louis Blues Mambo” and “Mambo de Chattanooga” as well as topical tunes such as “Marilyn Monroe Mambo.”


            That same year Voodoo Suite Plus Six All Time Greats (1955 RCA Victor) was also released on LP. It featured the ambitious 23-minute title track, collaboration with arranger Shorty Rogers, recorded with 22 musicians- a tune that would set the mold for exotica. Havana 3 A.M. (1956 RCA Victor) followed with its iconic image of a scantily clad dancer and bongo player. With Latin dance bands enjoying mass popularity Prado delivered perhaps his most musically sophisticated recording with the assistance of Maynard Ferguson on trumpet. Brilliantly recorded it captures the percolating engine of Afro-Cuban percussion and the punchy horn bravado that commingles in an ecstatic release of energy. From “La Comparsa” to the standard “Peanut Vendor” Prado represents the essence of Cuban music.


            The mambo trend was giving way to new Afro-Cuban variant the cha cha cha and in a nod to the coming trend he embraced the rhythm in Latin Satin (1957 RCA Victor). His song “Patricia” peaked at number one on the pop charts in 1958 and would later be featured in a famous striptease scene from Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita. Featuring Prado on the Hammond organ it signaled a change in sound- more cheese for the lounge set. In Prez (1958 RCA Victor) Prado reprises a number of standards and fully embraces his dinner jazz following.


            Released in “living stereo” sound Pops and Prado (1959 RCA Victor) doubles up on the organ for a set of songs entirely titled in English with nary a classic mambo to be found. That same year Prado recorded an album with Rosemary Clooney in Hollywood, A Touch of Tabasco (1959 RCA Victor). Pérez Prado features the new dance La Chunga with the Arthur Murrays (1961 RCA Victor) attempted to introduce a new rhythm variant and Twist Goes Latin (1962 RCA Victor) never quite caught on. The cha cha cha and the pachanga which followed were simpler to dance to than the mambo or its variations. Despite his efforts Prado failed to regain the mass audience he enjoyed in the mid-fifties.


            Exotic Suite of the Americas (1962 RCA Victor) features the striking 16 minute title piece replete with bold string arrangements. Prado shows his arranging skill in the varied movements with this exotica classic. Our Man in Latin America (1963 RCA Victor) introduced the “bongoson,” a kind of twist-goes-Cuban. RCA stopped releasing Prado’s records in the U.S. in 1963, a sign of his waning popularity. In 1964 he was allowed to return to Mexico City where he remained until his death.


            Back in Mexico his first release for the United Artists label was Lights! Action! Prado! (1965). Concierto para bongo (1966 United Artists) was a formidable recording that sold better decades later than upon its initial release. He continued to record and travel throughout Latin America into the 1970s. He continued to experiment with new variations on his classic jazz mambo sound such as the dengue and the Latin bump. A live concert recording from his 1973 tour in Japan was among the earliest quadraphonic LP releases.


            In his latter years he slowed down his performing and recording schedule after years of maintaining a blistering pace. Among his last performances was a rousing gig in Hollywood in 1987. His health declined and at the age of 72 on September 14, 1989 he died of a stroke in Mexico City. His funeral drew thousands of mourners who understood his unique place in history. His compositions and arrangements remain timeless in the classic Cuban songbook. Lou Bega had a huge international hit with his updated version of Mambo No. 5, “A Little Bit of Mambo.”


            Prado was a truly distinct character who had a profound impact on the music of the Americas. Although Cuban, he transcended his nationality, inspiring dancers and music lovers throughout Latin America and the U.S. Not a singer and not a piano virtuoso he was more of an impresario yet he achieved the fame of pop icon. Flamboyant and enigmatic he was a mysterious man who captured the imagination of an audience eager to embrace his enthusiasm. Prado, a dancer himself, knew how to make people move and although worked hard as a bandleader and arranger he infused his music with great humor and whimsy.























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