Tito Rodriguez: Mambo Madness


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Tito Rodriguez
From 1974 to the early 1980s, disco ruled the clubs. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, the dance that was significantly more pervasive and influential was the mambo. From the start, the mambo's popularity was based on the imagery the music stirred up. The mambo was the music of elite Havana vacations and exotic drinks while the dance gave women a certain freedom from being led by male partners, since the mambo was a sensual blend of freestyle and touch dancing. But how did the music and dance arrive here and why did they become popular when they did?

Cuba in the mid-1940s was a tough place to earn a living. A third of the country struggled in poverty while the Cuban governments during this period were largely corrupt, catering to U.S. and mobster investment while skimming cigar and sugar profits driven by record worldwide demand. The result was a spike in Cuban emigration to the U.S., particularly to New York.

According to the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History (Vol. 1) by Eric Arnesen, Cuba's first wave of post-war refugees tended to be light-skinned elites and professionals, followed in the late 1940s by entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and workers, including Afro-Cubans.

In New York in the 1940s, arriving Cuban families brought with them records from home, while the musicians who followed came schooled in the intricate arranging style and playing of the music. Meanwhile, musicians such as Machito had a head start, emigrating to New York in 1937 and starting his band, the Afro-Cubans, in 1940.

The mambo caught on in the late 1940s, crossing over initially to jazz and then to pop. For example, here's Charlie Parker and Machito and His Afro-Cuban Orchestra playing Mambo in December 1950...

Bandleader Perez Prado, who created the mambo dance in the mid-1940s in Havana, brought it to Mexico City, where he appeared in films playing the music before being discovered by arranger Sonny Burke, who was vacationing in Mexico. When a Prado recording became a hit in 1950, he toured the States in 1951 and recorded for RCA. Here's Prado' first U.S. RCA recording of Wild with singer Johnny Hartman...


Perhaps the height of the mambo frenzy came in 1955, when the “Big Three" Latin bands led by Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez began recording 12-inch LPs. These records became popular not only with young Cuban and Puerto Rican dancers but also among diverse ethnic groups. These included young Jewish couples who vacationed in the Catskill Mountains where Latin mambo bands played in the summer. Also by '55, the mambo extended to the blues of John Lee Hooker (Mambo Chillen) and the R&B of Bill Haley and His Comets' (Mambo Rock).

Which brings us to Tito Rodriguez, a bandleader who was considered the Frank Sinatra of Latin singers in the 1950s. Rodriguez actually was born in Puerto Rico and came to the States in 1940, neatly capitalizing on the Cuban dance craze in the 1950s. Who can forget new neighbor Carlos and Tito Rodriguez's recording of Claves for Mambo in this episode of the Honeymooners, “Mama Loves Mambo"...


Earlier this week, I was searching YouTube for Rodriguez clips when I found this spectacular gem from 1955 (for the record, the first song is actually a cha-cha-cha, not a mambo)...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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