Xavier Cugat was the first bandleader to front a successful Latin orchestra in the United States. He was largely responsible for popularizing Latin music among North American audiences, paving the way for such future stars as Perez Prado, and Tito Puente.
Sources differ widely on Cugat's early life and career. It seems, though, that he was born on January 1, 1900, in the Catalonian region of Spain and moved to Cuba with his family when he was only a few years of age. A child prodigy on the violin, at age 12 he earned a seat as first violin with the orchestra of the Teatro Nacional in Havana. The young Cugat also apparently struck up a friendship with famed opera singer Enrico Caruso, who brought him to America near the end of the First World War. In New York Cugat met pianist and fellow Catalonian Agusto Borgunyó. Together they formed a classical duo.
In the early 1920s Cugat decided to abandon classical for popular music. His main interest lay in Latin rhythms, and picking up on the tango craze he formed a short-lived band called the Gigolos. He spent the next few years playing odd engagements and working with such popular orchestras as those of Vincent Lopez and Phil Harris. In the late 1920s he jumped on the sound movie bandwagon and formed a new version of the Gigolos. With this group he finally achieved a modicum of success, opening at the Los Angeles Coconut Grove in 1928 and appearing in the 1929 film Mexicana.