Born: December 11, 1916 | Died: 1989 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor/leader
“The Mambo King”
The word mambo comes from the nañigo dialect spoken in Cuba. It probably has no real meaning, but occurs in the phrase abrecuto y guiri mambo (open your eyes and listen) used to open Cuban song contests. In the Bantu language of West Africa, mambo means conversation with the gods and in nearby Haiti, a Mambo is a voodoo priestess.
The mambo as we know it today is actually a rhythm whose tempo may be slow or fast, and almost any standard tune can be set to its tempo. The saxophone usually sets the rhythm pattern and the brass carries the melody.
Perez Prado was a giant in the world of post-war popular music. Dubbed The Mambo King, he reigned supreme as one of the most influential pop orchestra leaders of the early 1950s. As the mambo rhythm spread across the continents, a society emerged from the dark years of World War II to shed its inhibitions and embrace the frenzy of this Afro-Cuban beat.
The son of a schoolteacher and a newspaper worker, Dámaso Pérez Prado was set upon a musical path early in his life, training in classical piano techniques at the Principal School of Matanzas while still a young child. His earliest professional work was found playing organ and piano in local cinemas and nightclubs, but by the age of 26 Prado had relocated to Havana to seek out better opportunities. After a period spent performing with various small bands, he took a position as pianist and arranger with the Orquesta Casino de la Playa (the leading Cuban orchestra at the time) in 1943; this marked the beginning of both his explorations into the emerging style of mambo and his subsequent rise to fame.
In 1947 Pérez Prado left Cuba behind, having provoked the ill-will of members of the Cuban music industry due to his integration of non-traditional (jazz) elements into his arrangements. An attempt to find work in Puerto Rico proved fruitless, prompting him to join a group of musicians on a tour of major South American centers for the remainder of the year; the tour reached its conclusion in Mexico City in 1948 at which time Prado made the decision to settle there, assembling his own orchestra and finally launching his career as a bandleader. Popularity in his new home grew quickly, his band appearing as a frequent attraction at the upscale Club 1- 2-3, and he himself becoming a highly sought-after Mexican film arranger and actor in addition to his work in the studio. A series of well-received 78s recorded with singer (and fellow Cuban expatriate) Beny Moré ultimately led to a contract with the Mexican office of RCA Victor, and the release of Prado's first internationally-distributed tracks, “Qué Rico El Mambo,” and “Mambo No. 5,” in 1949.
By the start of the 1950s the mambo craze (with Prado at its head) had entirely consumed Mexico and most of South America, and was beginning to sweep across the States via broadcasts on Spanish-language radio. The growing presence of his music in the mainstream charts convinced Prado to launch his first tour of the U.S. in 1951, but the undertaking was given a rough start: strict union rules forced the non-English speaking bandleader to make use of local musicians for his orchestra rather than his tightly-rehearsed Mexican band. Despite this complication, the shows were well-attended and only served increase his reputation.
As his success in the mainstream grew, however, his standing in the Latin community diminished somewhat, the idea being that his take on the mambo was catering too much to white audiences. With the release of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” in 1955, Prado earned his first #1. A second #1 was not achieved until Prado's best-known offering “Patricia,” in 1958. The 1956 album “Havana 3 A.M.” was probably the purest, most authentically Latin record of Prado's commercial period. Of course, there were many successes also; the biggest was 1958's “Prez,” which fell just short of the Top 20 on the pop LP charts.
The enthusiasm for the Prado's music continued throughout the 1950s, and the records sold very well, but by the early 1960s mainstream interest began to wane and in 1963 RCA dropped him from their roster. Several attempts to initiate a new dance craze had already been made by this time - amongst which were the Suby, the Pau-Pau (both variations on the mambo), La Culeta (Prado's take on the cha-cha-cha), the Chunga and the Dengue - but none managed to catch on. His popularity in Mexico never diminished, however, and he remained active in his adopted homeland throughout the remainder of his life.
A well-attended final appearance in the States was made at the Palladium in New York in 1987, two years prior to his death.
Source: James Nadal