Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Super Bowl XLIX vs 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'... Cha Cha Cha

Most of this weekend's Super Bowl XLIX parties will look like taffy-pulls compared to the free-for-all thrown by 'Holly Golightly'. It may have been 54 years ago, but the shindig hosted by Audrey Hepburn's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's  (Paramount, 1961) remains one of cinema's all-time great parties. Wall-to-wall 'characters' from statesmen to stevedores. Bad situations fostered by too much good liquor. Hostess Hepburn working the room in a cigarette holder and a toga by Givenchy. Hats aflame... sloshed Hollywood starlets falling face-down... Mayhem throbbed just underneath the veneer of glamour, just like the music that was fueling the party: The Cha Cha Cha (watch the clip below)! As danced in the heyday of its 'mainstream' popularity, the Cha Cha Cha was just fast enough to be lively, but temperate enough that you could dance it for hours on-end - savoring it like a fine, complex Cuban cigar. This in sharp contrast to the angular, jittery, Red Bull-driven 'dance-sport' version one sees today on 'Dancing With the Stars'.

An outgrowth of the Cuban danzón, the genre's invention is credited to violinist/musical director Enrique Jorrín in 1952, during his tenure with Ninón Mondéjar's Orquesta América. The Cha Cha Cha took its name from the sound of dancer's sandals on the tile dance floors of Havana, a sound mirrored by the insistent 'scratching' sound of the guiro. Originally performed by the violin and flute-led Cuban charanga orchestras such as those of Orquestas Aragon, America and Sensacion, it quickly adapted to the brass big band sound when it hit U.S. shores a couple of years later.

In his amazing collection of live and unreleased recordings, historian Joe Conzo (author of Mambo Diablo: My Journey With Tito Puente, and Puente's best friend of 40+ years) has crystal-clear live recordings of Tito Puente's band performing at the Palladium Ballroom from 1954. He shares these and other rarities as my regular guest every third Sunday on "Latin Flavor Classic Edition" (live-streaming on ). It's fascinating to hear the din of the crowd as they respond to this beguiling 'new' rhythm mere months, maybe even weeks after it would have arrived in the U.S.

The Cha Cha Cha enjoyed wide U.S. popularity during 'round one' (1952-56). Even Hollywood took notice as Columbia Pictures hedged its bets by using the same sets and script from "Rock Around the Clock" to make the Latin-dance themed "Cha Cha Cha Boom!," substituting Perez Prado for Bill Haley and the Comets. But in 1958/59, Cha Cha Cha had an enviable resurgence becoming a full-scale international phenomenon. It's infectious rhythm being liberally incorporated into genres from r&b and rock (Sam Cooke's 'Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha') to Motown (Marvin Gaye's 'Stubborn Kind of Fellow', Liz Lands 'Midnight Johnny', and "Little" Stevie Wonder's 'Contract on Love' are but a few classic examples).

As evidenced by this classic movie party scene, the Cha Cha Cha on film became the perfect subtle insinuation that the characters were getting their sexy-on. When Rock first checked out Doris's 'assets' in 'Pillow Talk', she was dancing the Cha Cha Cha. College kids Fabian, Tuesday Weld, Richard Beymer and friends <ahem> "dancing" from dorm room-to-dorm room <wink> in Blake Edward's 'High Time'...? Cha Cha Cha. Like 'Holly Golightly's' party, the Cha Cha Cha has staying power and a rhythm that just won't quit ( a tempo that won't make you want to)!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Langston Hughes, "Killer Joe" Piro, and the Mambo

How did legendary African-American poet Langston Hughes come to be serving coffee to "Killer Joe" Piro, the renowned emcee and dance instructor at the Palladium Ballroom? Blame it on the Harvest Moon Ball! While the images might seem in-congruent on first glance, they speak to the vibrant multi-cultural cauldron of New York City in the 1940's and 1950's. They also reference other important intersections with the Latin-music scene.

A decade before he became the emcee and dance instructor at the iconic Palladium Ballroom, New York's 'Home of the Mambo' during the height of the craze, Frank "Killer Joe" Piro (Mar. 2, 1921 - Feb. 5, 1988) had his first taste of fame when he won the Jitterbug contest at New York's 'Harvest Moon Ball' as a 21 year old in the US Coast Guard in 1942. His nickname 'Killer Joe' stemmed from his ability to 'wear-out' a string of dance partners due to his sheer stamina. Among the 'prizes' was being re-assigned to duty as a dance instructor and exhibition dancer at the Stage Door Canteen, at which celebrities donated their time to rub-elbows with off-duty soldiers to boost morale during WWII.

Photographer Carl Van Vechten staged a series of photos designed to capture the 'vibe' of the Stage Door Canteen, featuring a range of celebrities chatting with and or 'serving' soldiers. Now in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, several of the vignettes feature "Killer Joe" Piro, including these showing him clowning around, dancing jitterbug with U.S. Sailor Andy Mann, as 'Junior Hostess' Ruth Last looks on. But sharp eyes will notice that serving coffee on the far left is none other than legendary poet Langston Hughes. The photo references Hughes' having been discovered as a young man in the 1920's Washington DC while working as a hotel busboy (from which the noted DC cafe 'Busboys and Poets' takes its name).

While best known for his focus on capturing images of African-American entertainers, intellectuals and noteables of the Harlem Rennaissance, Van Vechten was apparently taken with young Piro's dancing skills as well as his bold, decidedly Italian features. Over the next couple of years, Van Vechten would photograph "Killer Joe" both in a solo/portrait setting, as well as in a few other 'Canteen' montages, with the likes of Broadway star Shirley Booth, and poet Owen Dodson.

In the late 1940's, "Killer Joe" Piro would become immersed in New York's burgeoning mambo movement. Initially hired by the Palladium Ballroom as an instructor (partly to stem his string of mambo dance contest wins), Piro would soon become the Ballroom's emcee. With his wild, head-bobbing antics and dynamic personality, Piro was the 'ring-master' for New York City's hottest dance-scene of the mid-1950's - the epicenter of the Mambo craze. The Palladium's fabled Wednesday night dance contests drew celebrities ranging from Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak, to the crowned heads of Europe.

But there are other Mambo intersections hidden in this photo... In a further example of 'six degrees of separation' (or fewer), Langston Hughes frequently collaborated with noted African-American pianist/ composer Margaret Bonds (March 2, 1913 - April 26, 1972), who would set many of his works to music. At the very time this photo was taken, among her prized students would have been a young Charlie Palmieri (Nov. 21, 1927 - Sept. 12, 1988), a child prodigy who would become one of the great pianists and bandleaders of the Mambo-era and beyond. In an interview on my radio program with his younger-brother, Grammy-winner Eddie Palmieri (b. Dec. 13, 1936) revealed that he too would later study with Ms. Bonds (at left in a 1956 photo by Van Vechten), and credits her with providing the training which under girds both his and his late brother Charlie's acclaimed piano skills.

Piro would parlay his association with what would soon come to be called the 'Jet Set' into even greater personal fame. To many, he became the face of the 'Discotheque' movement (drawing its name from small European dance clubs rooted in the then-novel practice of dancing to DJ's in-lieu of more expensive live-bands). By the mid-1960's, Piro was frequently featured on the top TV variety shows and in countless magazines demonstrating dances such as The Frug and The Watusi to the likes of First Daughter Linda Bird Johnson. Coming up with the dance 'The Mule' to promote the Smirnoff cocktail of the same name, Piro was prominently featured in a series of ads for Smirnoff vodka, photographed by Richard Avedon alongside top arteurs, scene-makers and beauties of the day, ranging from Woody Allen to Julie Newmar. "Killer Joe" Piro passed away in 1988.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Brigitte Bardot, Patato and the Mambo: The Soundtrack for Sensuality

Percussionist Carlos 'Patato' Valdes (far right) with Brigitte Bardot
in the iconic mambo scene in 'And God Created Woman.' (1956)
Performing a torrid, barefoot mambo atop a cafe table, Brigitte Bardot, who turns 80 today, became an international cinema icon in that unforgettable scene from her breakthrough 1956 film 'And God Created Woman.' Every bit as much as Bardot pushed the boundaries of sexuality in late-1950's/early-1960's films, most cinema buffs are un-aware that another performer in said scene changed how the world experiences rhythm: Carlos "Patato" Valdes (video below)!

Brigitte Bardot and Kim Novak at Cannes Film Fest, 1956
Ava Gardner, Kim Novak, Grace Kelly... After decades under the strict Production Codes which constrained American filmmakers, the typical 'love goddess' of 1950's U.S. cinema had become just that: an 'untouchable' figure of unattainable loveliness. Mind you, I'm great fans of each of the above actresses, but their 1950's films barely hinted at any actual display of true human sexuality, to say nothing of anything remotely carnal in nature. Only in a 1950's American film could the leading lady awaken from the 'implied' night of passion with narry a smudge to her maquillage and her coiffure 'salon-perfect.' But leave it to the French...! Along came Bardot and the Mambo, and the game began to change dramatically over the next decade (for better or worse, depending on your outlook). And as discussed previously in various 'Mambo-phoniC' blog posts, Mambo was virtually 'the soundtrack for sensuality' in films of the 1950's and 1960's.

So it isn't a huge surprise that the provocative rhythms to which Bardot was dancing were provided by none other than the legendary percussionist Carlos 'Patato' Valdes (Nov. 4, 1926 - Dec. 4, 2007). Having left Cuba in the early 1950's after establishing himself as a star with bands such as Conjunto Casino and Sonora Matancera, 'Patato' was quickly in-demand due to his innate musicality and sense of tone - performing and recording regularly with both Latin and jazz legends such as Machito, Billy Taylor, Perez Prado, Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente.

But as sterling as was his performing pedigree, it is perhaps his role as an inventor that has had the most sweeping impact. 'Patato' invented (and patented) the tuneable conga drum. Traditional nail-head conga drums used nails to secure the skin to the wooden drum, which could be 'tuned' somewhat by using a candle or sterno under the head of the drum. The visionary conguero had long been experimenting with securing the skin to the drum-head with a metal ring which could be adjusted with a square box wrench, allowing a conga player to tune his instrument as would a violinist or pianist. Perfected with mechanical engineer Martin Cohen (whom he'd met in the late-1950's while performing at Birdland with Herbie Mann), the 'Patato' model conga was introduced commercially in 1978 and remains a 'signature' conga for Cohen's highly-respected LP (Latin Percussion) brand of instruments.

Carlos 'Patato' Valdes was so much more than a great percussionist, opening up infinite harmonic possibilities for the instrument, which in addition to Latin-jazz and salsa, is now utilized in every genre from punk rock to Country music. Likewise, Brigitte Bardot was of course much more than pouting lips and wriggling hips, as evidenced by her decades of dedication to animal rights. We salute this pioneering actress on her 80th birthday! How she'll top the party with 'Patato' captured on-film in 1956 I can't imagine!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Augie & Margo: Hindsight, the Media and the Mambo

I've been waiting for just the right topic with which to break my long hiatus from my 'Mamb-O-phoniC' blog. That topic presented itself during a spirited discussion on my radio program's Facebook page. Regrettably, that discussion surrounded the reputed Friday, June 18, 2014 passing of legendary Palladium-era dancer Agustine 'Augie' Rodriguez - the male half of the legendary dance team of 'Augie and Margo' (note: I have since confirmed Mr. Rodriguez' passing with his nephew Jose Madera, co-leader of the Mambo Legends Orchestra and a 30+ year veteran with the Tito Puente Orchestra. Mr. Rodriguez' widow, Margo, is Mr. Madera's aunt on his father's side. My deepest condolences to Margo Rodriguez and the entire family).

After reading the varied Facebook tributes and posts, it is true that none of them appeared to 'absolutely' confirm Mr. Rodriguez' death with first-hand knowledge. Thus, an interested and well-meaning listener posted the following comment:  "I can't find any reference to his death on any web search I've done. If he [Augie Rodriguez] is that significant, it would have been mentioned by now."

Or would it...? I certainly understand the assumption. In the internet age, when the slightest jiggle of Kim Kardashian's left cheek sets Twitter ablaze, it would stand to reason that - if an individual were truly 'significant' - their story would instantly be all over the web. In this case, the Rodriguez family appears to be taking the time they need to make a formal announcement about a deeply personal loss. But it is the latter portion of the listener's comment above which raised the intriguing question: Does media coverage truly equate with cultural impact, professional accomplishment or artistic skill? And how does the short memory of the celebrity-machine impact the measure of an artist's 'significance' when it comes to marking their passing - particularly as it pertains to performing artists of color?

In the context of the 1950's and 1960's, Augie and Margo were about as highly-acclaimed as a nightclub dance act could get. They first gained fame at New York's Roseland and in particular, the fabled Wendesday night Mambo Shows at the Palladium Ballroom. Studying both at Carnegie Hall and with the iconic Katherine Dunham, Augie and Margo left audiences slack-jawed with their distinct fusion of mambo with the precision training of ballet and modern dance - somehow also retaining the mambo's core frenzied abandon. As the Palladium's Wednesday shows in particular drew the Hollywood and Broadway celebrity set, it is accepted in dance circles that their work influenced Broadway legends-to-be like choreographer Bob Fosse (a fellow dance-school classmate). They helped take the mambo national with their appearances on The Tonight Show, Steve Allen, Perry Como and other top variety shows. In one particularly eye-popping vignette, Augie and Margo performed a torrid, dervish-like mambo on the rooftop of the newly-opened Havana Riviera Hotel, in a 1958 telecast of the Steve Lawrence Show. By this point, they were regularly opening for and performing in major revues with the greatest headliners of the day: Harry Belafonte, Liberace, Judy Garland, Johnny Mathis, Jerry Lewis, Lena Horne, Patti Page and Jack Benny. They were fixtures of the early 'Rat Pack' performances of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. In fact, Davis engaged Augie and Margo for twelve consecutive years as his 'Supporting Stars,' opening his performances around the globe. They danced by request at the White House for both JFK and Richard Nixon, and did a Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth of England.

So, while not 'superstars' per se, Augie and Margo were very successful, highly-respected, nationally-known, and - as they literally introduced spins and slides that are part of the salsa repertoire to this day - they were definitely 'significant.' But in contrast to other disciplines, such as sports and the sciences, time has a habit of obscuring the accomplishments of performing artists - changing the narrative the more chronological distance there is from the era in which they made their mark.

When a sports icon like Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio passes away, their long-ago accomplishments are allowed to stand on the merit earned in the context of their time. Appropriately, their achievements are celebrated as 'front-page news,' even when their 'statistics' may have long ago been eclipsed by subsequent players. Not so in the popular arts. For example: in the late-1930's and early 1940's, there were few box-office stars bigger than singer/actress Deanna Durbin. An Oscar-awardee with the largest fan club network in the world, in 1946 Durbin was America's second highest-salaried female (beating out Bette Davis for the top spot in 1947). If measuring her status within the context of her time (as we do for sports figures), her passing should have been front-page news. But tastes have changed so dramatically since the mid-1940's, and Durbin's light-operatic vocals don't feel 'relevant' to today's audiences and cultural arbiters. Thus, Durbin's passing in 2013 received only the obligatory 'tag-line' mention at the end of the evening news.

The situation becomes even more complex when it comes to yesteryear's performers of color, whose 'valuation' occurred during an era of overt and institutionalized racism and limited access to media. So rare were appearances by artists of color, whole communities stopped what they were doing as word spread that Chita Rivera, Barbara McNair, or Ricardo Montalban were merely making a guest appearance on a variety show. And when it concerned a person of color hosting a program, even a recording superstar such as Nat 'King' Cole experienced difficulty. With no national sponsor willing to stand up to the potential repercussions from Southern markets, Cole's show was cancelled just months into it's second season. As Cole famously quipped: "Madison Avenue was afraid of the dark." It's not that Cole wasn't a big enough star to warrant a TV show (he was); it wasn't that 'audiences weren't interested in the Nat Cole show' (the ratings were solid); but rather - in 1957 - the social construct of the era dictated the level of popular celebrity that even a superstar such as Nat King Cole could attain. As such, it also impacts our 'valuation' of these artists today (ie: if they were popular, wouldn't they have: made more movies; sold more records; headlined at 'X' club..., etc).

They say 'Hindsight is 20/20.' but I would contend our estimation of the past can be altered by which mirror you use, and the angle at which it's held. Today, it's too easy to forget the other factors which play into how we take stock of the artists who brought us to where we are. The commercialization of the popular arts can obscure the achievements of true pioneers, as they are being judged and quantified by a popular culture that has 'moved on'. Ironically, the advances that they helped to bring about can unjustly obscure their relevance to the very public that is the beneficiary of their artistry. That's why it is critical to continue to celebrate our icons and to keep telling their stories.