The King of the Rhumba
Born Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingall de Bru y
Deulofeo on January 1, 1900 in Gerona, Spain.
outspoken critic of the Spanish aristocracy, Javier's father Juan was given 24 hours to
leave Spain under penalty of death when Javier was 4. The family quickly packed and boarded a ship
bound for Mexico. While en-route to Mexico, the ship docked in the port of Havana
disembarked to look around. He entered a tavern for conversation only--he did not
indulge in alcohol. While there he made the acquaintance of an executive of La Estrella
Biscuit Company of Cuba. With his knowledge of lighting
installation, the executive offered him a job on the spot. He was offered a
salary higher than he had ever earned and Juan Cugat de Bru returned to the
ship, gathered his family, and become residents of Havana.
Havana, Cugat learned to play the violin and became so proficient at it
that by the time he was nine he was employed in his first
professional job as part of a three-piece ensemble that played the musical
accompaniment for silent movies. By age 10 he quit school and was
educated at home. The next year, he auditioned for the National
Theater Symphonic Orchestra and was awarded the seat of first violin. One year later
the National Theater Symphonic Orchestra accompanied the Metropolitan Opera Company from
New York for a one month performance in Havana. The following year the Opera Company
returned with its star and it was then that Cugat met the great Enrico
By the time
the month-long run of the show was completed, Caruso and Cugat had grown
close and Caruso told Xavier's father that his son was destined to become a great
concert violinist and that he would personally assist in the arrangements for his son's
debut at Carnegie Hall.
The family moved to New York to join
another son Francis, already living in New York. However, when the Cugats
arrived Caruso was away on tour so Javier began studying with the best violin teacher
in New York City, Henry Schradieck. Javier was very anxious to make his debut
at Carnegie Hall and Schradiek did his best to discourage a premature debut at Carnegie
Hall since he knew how ruthless the New York music critics were. During
this time, Enrico Caruso returned to New York to prepare for the next opera season
but shortly after the season began he took ill. While recovering in Italy the great
tenor died unexpectedly.
did debut at Carnegie Hall. Although he felt
very good about his performance, the critics felt otherwise. They stated the performance was fair
but the performer was forgettable. Schradieck suggested Cugat needed to
study in Berlin to master the
greatest and most difficult works of the master composers for violin so Cugat enrolled at
Berlin's renown Conservatory of Music.
Upon completing his studies he
returned to New York in 1925 and at the age of 25, he decided it was time for a second concert at Carnegie Hall. This
time the critics praised his tone and technique but Cugat wanted
more; he wanted to be referred in the same way as the three greatest violin masters of the time, Heifitz, Kreisler and Elman.
He was so discouraged, Cugat threatened to forsake the violin.
His friends introduced him
to Vincent Lopez, owner of the club Casa Lopez and leader of a very popular orchestra.
Although Cugat had not specialized in popular music, he was offered the job as first violinist
with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra and, along with a generous salary,
Unfortunately, the music offered no challenge and after a year Cugat quit. About that time he met Ignacio Abadal, a wealthy Spaniard who was an art
and antiques dealer. Knowing of Cugats current dissatisfaction with music he
proposed an unusual business deal. He asked Cugat to go to Los Angeles to sell the
remaining half of a shipment of priceless art treasures from Spain. Cugat accepted,
departed for Los Angeles, and was very successful selling the art.
Cugat began making many new
friends who, upon learning of his past violin concerts, encouraged him to
try again; this time at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. However, only about 200 people attended which affected Cugat's
performance and the reviews were bad. Cugat decided that he had had enough
with trying to be a
classical concert violinist and he left classical music forever. Cugat took a job with the Los Angeles Times as the resident caricaturist where he remained
for one year.
was during this time that Cugat met the beautiful Carmen
Castillo, the Mexican stand-in for Dolores Del Rio, at the time one of Hollywood's biggest
stars. Carmen was the guardian to her eight-year-old niece Margot and they
both lived with
Carmen's mother. The family was very close to the other Latin Americans in Hollywood
and would host lively dinners accompanied by music provided by their many musician
friends. Cugat soon began attending the evening gatherings.
Eventually, Cugat asked Carmen to marry him and the Cugat-Castillo wedding took place one afternoon at City Hall.
While working on a movie that was taking a long time to go into production, Carmen encouraged her husband to form a Latin Dance Orchestra. Margot was
enrolled in the Cansino School of Dancing run by Eduardo Cansino, the Mexican father of
future star Rita (Cansino) Hayworth.
forming his own Latin band, Cugat's band was hired as the relief band at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. The
headliner at that time was Gus Arnheim and his orchestra. Singing with Gus were the Rhythm Boys of
which Bing Crosby was part and a trio of girls billed as the Andrew Sisters. Cugat's
Latin rhythms were so wildly accepted that dancers refused to leave the dance
floor when the headliner's band was due to return for another set. Cugat specialized in Rumba, Tango, Conga and Bolero
and he hired hired eight couples
to dance authentic Tango and then announced the dancers would be happy to teach anyone in
the audience who wished to learn. This teaching method was quite successful in
garnering larger crowds fanatical for Tango. The dancers were called the
"Gigolos". Warner Brothers producer, Brynie Foy hired Cugat and his
dancers, for the first-ever produced musical short entitled "Cugat and His
By this time Margot, Carmen's niece, now 15 years of
age was dancing Latin numbers in a well-respected club. Rene Black, an executive with
the Waldorf-Astoria, was instantly impressed with Margot and asked her to dance at the
world famous hotel. Understanding very little English she insisted Mr. Black speak
with her Uncle Javier. The next night Mr. Black paid a visit to the Cocoanut Grove
and was also instantly impressed with the Javier Cugat Orchestra. He wanted both
family members and their respective acts for the opening of the Starlight Roof.
decision to move to New York and work at the Waldorf-Astoria could not have been
better. His band was an instant sensation and after finishing the set, the patrons
refused to leave the dance floor.
time, Jack Denny's band was the starring band and Jack Denny was so upset at all
the attention Cugat was receiving, he gave the Waldorf-Astoria an ultimatum; it
was either his band or Cugats! Denny left the Waldorf-Astoria after they
refused to fire Cugat and his orchestra.
It was also during this time that Xavier met a young
man by the name of Desi Arnez. During one of the group's performances, Xavier Cugat
caught the act and offered Desi a job with his orchestra. Desi wanted to accept Cugat's
offer, however, he told him he had another six months until he finished high school.
After he graduated, Desi was offered a job with Cugat at $25 a week. Desi was
a quick learner and he learned to how manage and handle a big band orchestra.
After about one year with Cugat, Desi and a friend left the orchestra to go to Miami
and start their
own rumba band. Desi even convinced Cugat to let him use the Cugat
name. In consideration of a mere $25 per week royalty, the
Desi Arnez and his Xavier
Cugat Orchestra was born.
Although Xavier Cugat never had a contract with the
Waldorf-Astoria, his band played there for 16 years. At the beginning, his salary was $500 per week
which grew to $7,000 per week plus a percentage of the door. At was during this time
that Cugat began
recording for RCA Victor and also was heard on the radio from coast to coast.
in several full-length films as himself, Cugat's successful Hollywood career in the late 20s,
30s, and 40s featuring his orchestra helped popularize Latin American music.