Saturday, March 1, 2008


I’m a bit late getting the post to you today. I normally put my Saturday posts up Friday night local time, because there’s a big enough contingent in Australia, where it’s already Saturday, that I don’t want to leave that crowd hanging.

But last night I was meditating on the afternoon death of a friend I respect more than anyone else who lives in St. Cloud. We were colleagues at the university where I taught, and now I have taught Spanish to a couple of his sons. His children have been my best and brightest students, and having his son absent all week, since the onset of my friend's final illness early Monday, was a second level of loss. This child performed successful CPR on his father Monday morning, only to lose him on Friday. I cannot imagine how we will all get back to normal before the end of the school year.

So, last night I couldn’t bring myself to make some sound files I needed for this essay, but I have them now, and I apologize that this material has taken so long to arrive. Thanks for your indulgence.

On Wednesday, I wrote about a song I acquired on a 78 rpm record, “Why Wait” by Pérez Prado and His Orchestra. Today I want to talk about the A side, “Patricia,” in the context of how I learned that Pérez Prado was more than a one-record obscurity.

“Patricia” in fact, was a #1 song, entering the Top 40 on June 23, 1958, peaking at #1 on July 28, 1958. It was the final #1 Billboard song on both the Jockey and the Top 100 charts; the Hot 100 debuted the following week. “Patricia” hit #1 in just its sixth week in the Top 40, and it stayed in the Top 40 for another 11 weeks, so it’s quite possible that it could have had a longer run at #1 were it not for the chart shakeup.

I played it about half as often as "Why Wait" when I was small. I took this 78, and all of my records that survived the Great Meltdown, to college, because I thought they might get tossed if I left them at home. The spiffy new component turntable I bought at college had no setting for 78s, but I figured out a way to spin the record fast enough to record the songs on the 78 to cassette. There was considerable flutter in the resulting recording, but it served its purpose until I went to the Mexican city of Colima as an exchange student in the summer of 1979.

There, I was visiting an American friend when one of the daughters of my friend’s host family began to hum a song as she swept the patio. The song was “Patricia.” I stood there, stunned, absorbing the coincidence and imagining the possibilities. Over the 14 years I had owned the 78, I had never tried to figure out who Pérez Prado was. He was still huge in Mexico, long after the mambo craze. We made a shopping expedition to a local record store, where I bought four of his LPs, including one that carried “Patricia” and “Why Wait.” I couldn’t play the records until I reached Indiana a month later, but nothing ever sounded sweeter than that record once I got home.

At that point, I began to dig up information about Pérez Prado. I realized that one of his songs, “Qué rico el mambo,” had appeared on an RCA compilation LP I lost in the Great Meltdown. The song was titled “Mambo Jambo” for the American market. I learned then that “Patricia” had been a huge hit. While Pérez Prado had specialized in the mambo, neither “Patricia” nor “Why Wait” was actually part of that genre, but I got a feel for the essence of mambo once I picked up those LPs in Colima.

One 45 I lost and will never find again was titled “Mam-boooo! (A Spooky Mambo).” The song (not by Pérez Prado) was indeed sort of spooky, and it had the growly underpinning of a mambo that was the Pérez Prado trademark. I wish I had it now to compare to other mambos I own.

Dámaso Pérez Prado (1916-1989) was a classically trained Cuban pianist who had an ear for what the public wanted. He singlehandedly created the mambo craze in the United States; other practitioners, including Tito Puente, never cracked the pop charts. Some of them griped that Pérez Prado was a sellout because he used pop and jazz tones in his music, but I think they would have accepted the record sales if they could have connected with their audiences the way the King of the Mambo did.

When I lived in Mexico, so did Pérez Prado, and as the time approached for me to marry the girl who had been humming “Patricia,” I joked that we should try to get him to play at our wedding. I didn’t look into the possibility seriously, but it could have happened, as he was still active in 1984. A cousin of my fiancée, a musician who wanted to give us her professional services as a wedding gift, brought an organ with her and played “Patricia” at the reception. Exactly twenty-six years to the day after that song entered the Billboard Top 40, everyone at the reception reacted to the first notes and filled the dance floor. It would be wonderful if all memories were so sweet.

There are a ton of Pérez Prado bios, including these:

Briefly, I’ll tell you that he left Cuba for Mexico City in 1947, he performed for the first time in the United States in 1951, and by 1955 he had set a Billboard chart record for the rock era when “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” ruled the Best Sellers chart for ten weeks, beginning April 30. No one did that again until Debby Boone logged ten weeks at #1 with “You Light Up My Life.”

He appeared in the 1955 film Underwater!, performing “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.” Nino Rota used “Patricia” and “Why Wait” for his score to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), but not the original recordings. A number of Pérez Prado tunes appeared in The Motorcycle Diaries. And he was ignored in the film The Mambo Kings.

Just as I wanted to write Fats Domino a note to thank him for the great music, I wanted to do the same for Dámaso Pérez Prado. Late in 1989, I was reading Billboard in the Indiana University library when I came across his obituary. I sat there, unable to think, for several minutes. At that time I was about two months from splitting up with the girl who had hummed “Patricia,” and everything seemed pretty awful. I left the library and cried for the whole twenty-minute walk home. When I got there, I told the girl that Pérez Prado had died, and she said that was what happened to old people.

So, that was an end of an era for me. Since then, I have scoured the earth for the best versions of his recordings. In addition to being scattered over perhaps 50 compilations, his original RCA recordings appear in the most drastically differing stages of mastering and remastering possible. Check out these two transfers of “Mambo No. 5,” first a bad transfer with a remastered version tacked on, and then the remaster followed by the bad version. I’m glad someone has taken the time to remaster some of his recordings, but many still display terrible sonic quality, so that is frustrating to his fans. New compilations even go back to some of the bad transfers. Amazing.

And then there are the re-recordings. In his later years at RCA, he reworked some of his melodies as twists, dengues, and other dance versions. He re-recorded some songs, including “Qué rico el mambo” (“Mambo Jambo”) and “Mambo No. 5” as stylistic clones of “Patricia.” The “Mambo No. 5” re-recording was the base for Lou Bega’s 1999 hit “Mambo No. 5.” (If you see a video with Lou Bega lip-synching to Pérez Prado’s trademark grunt, that is not Lou Bega making that noise.)

After he left RCA, Pérez Prado recorded for Orfeon, and many of those recordings are sparse, somewhat cheesy retakes on his big hits. I have learned not to buy a CD of his work unless I can hear some of the tracks beforehand.

And speaking of the guttural grunt he used to lead his orchestra, “Patricia” is the only song I own, out of more than 200 tracks, that does not include this feature. Even Perry Como did it when he bought into the Mambo Craze with “Papa Loves Mambo.” It’s just a mambo thing, and everyone owes it to the fact that Pérez Prado was playing piano while he led his orchestra and didn’t have his hands free to direct.

The version of “Patricia” you are hearing here is still somewhat rare. After many reissues, someone finally took the original tapes and produced a stereo version. If you don’t own it, you should get it. It’s available on CD, Instrumentals Complete: 90 Original Instrumental Hits. EMI Music Australasia (2001). Maybe RCA has released it somewhere as well, but I don’t have it on RCA yet. Bit of irony there.

And that’s it for Mambo Week. Pérez Prado turned me into a World Music fan maybe twenty years before the term existed, and long before I started doing TV work for the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, Indiana. There’s plenty of good Latin music out there, but nothing touches my heart the way Pérez Prado and His Orchestra did.

Next week we go to California to revisit the genesis of the Bakersfield Sound via a B side that held special significance for my music collection. See you Wednesday!

Pérez Prado, “Patricia”

Mambo No. 5 bad to good

Mambo No. 5 good to bad


Julie Hibbard said...

So sorry to hear about your friend. Thinking of you...take care.

stackja1945 said...

First things first. Friend then music.

stackja1945 said...

“Patricia” shorter playing time than I expected. Interesting sound. The limits of "old" technology in this digital age when we expect hours of music and not just two or three minutes.

caithiseach said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
caithiseach said...

Yes, only so much music fit on a disc that spun so fast. I have Beethoven's 5th Symphony on 78, and it takes up eight sides. In order to make it fit, orchestras had to increase the tempo (ignoring Beethoven's markings). Carlos Kleiber was the first conductor to slow it back down, I believe. As for our Cuban bandleader, once he was recording LPs, he came up with "Voodoo Suite" and "Exotic Suite of the Americas," which clock in at 23:13 and 16: 23, respectively. They appear together on one Bear Family CD. And thanks, folks, for the kind comments.

RayIndy said...

Hi Sean, I just stumbled onto your blog and have been reading for a while this evening. It is fascinating. I remember when you spun the turntable at 78rpm in order to record that 45 back in college. I thought that was pretty cool!!
Talk to you soon.

whiteray said...

Late getting here, my friend . . . hope all is well!