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 wpfwfm.org ). 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 (...at a tempo that won't make you want to)!