Xavier Cugat (Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat) was one of the first people born in the 20th century — January 1, 1900 (making it very easy to calculate what was going on in his life in relation to the calendar year!). We tend to think of him as a “Cuban-American bandleader”, although technically, he was born in Spain, and became accomplished in many different fields.
Born in Catalonia, his family moved to Havana when Cugat was three; his father was a political refugee. The family lived across the street from a violin maker, who gave him the present of a quarter-size violin when only a young child. Cugat was given formal training on the instrument. By the time he was ten he was playing with a symphony orchestra; within two years he was promoted to first violin.
When Enrico Caruso came to town to sing with the orchestra, he struck up a friendship with the young prodigy and hired him to accompany him on his American tour. Cugat was still touring with Caruso when the great tenor died in 1921. Stranded, Cugat eked out a living playing his violin in a restaurant, and then later managed to secure work with various orchestras again, including work as a featured soloist with the L.A. Philharmonic.
From 1924 to 1925, he had a stint as a newspaper cartoonist, a skill he learned from Caruso, who also was a visual artist. (Cugat’s brother Francis was also a well-known visual artist. His most famous work was the cover art for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). In later years sometimes Cugat designed his own album covers:
In the late ’20s Cugat formed his commercial Latin band The Gigolos. By the early 30s, they had a regular gig at the Coconut Grove nightclub in L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel, which led to lots of radio exposure and movie work. Mae West was clearly a fan; Cugat’s in her movies Go West Young Man (1936) and The Heat’s On (1943). He also made appearances in the Red Skelton–Esther Williams vehicles Bathing Beauty (1944) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949), and on Skelton’s tv show. Cugat contributed music (and often his own visage as bandleader) to dozens of films through the 1950s.
Cugat’s biggest fame came when his was the house band at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, with a constant presence in radio and numerous popular record albums. He was a pivotal figure in the Latin music craze of the ’30s and ’40s, helping to popularize the conga, the mambo and the cha-cha. His biggest hits werev “Perfidia” (1940) and “Brazil” (1943). Desi Arnaz and Dinah Shore are just two of the major entertainers who got their start with his band.
No word of a lie: conducting while holding a chihuahua was one of Cugat’s trademarks:
Cugat was also famous for his love life: five marriages and numerous extramarital affairs. The most famous of his wives were his last two: singer Abbe Lane (who also sang with his band), and classical guitarist and comedienne Charo, who was 41 years his junior and does not speak highly of the experience.
Cugat was also a restaurateur, opening his Mexican eatery Casa Cugat in Hollywood in the ’40s. A favorite with celebrities, the place remained in business until 1986. Cugat passed away four years after his restaurant, in 1990, back home in Barcelona in his native Catalonia. He was (easy math) 90 years old.