The soaring, almost operatic voice of Raul Malo was the signature sound of the Mavericks, the Miami-based band that scored both critical and commercial success in the 1990s with its slightly Latin-flavored brand of country music. Malo, however, was not only the group's voice but also its creative spark, with musical interests that extended beyond country to rock and roll, jazz, and the music of his ancestral homeland of Cuba. After the Mavericks reduced their activities in the late 1990s, Malo struck out on his own with new projects that reflected his diversity of interests and resulted in distinctive recordings and intimate, small-venue shows.
Raul Martínez Malo was born on August 7, 1965, in Miami, Florida. His parents, separately, had fled Cuba after the revolution that put Fidel Castro in power in 1959; his mother had been an employee of the former dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and left immediately, while his father hid out for a time in the Mexican embassy in Havana. Malo's parents met and married in Miami, and Raul grew up with the music they enjoyed—American country music and romantic pop like Roy Orbison and Bobby Darin, as well as Cuban tunes.
Malo started singing early and formed a band at age 12. His motivations were partly nonmusical, he admitted to Aidan Smith of the Scotsman: "I couldn't get chicks playing sports. I mean, I could have got into the football team, but I'd have ended up getting the crap beaten out of me and I was ugly enough already. But chicks love music. Strap on a guitar, sing a few songs and they think you're sensitive. It don't matter what you look like, either."
He also played bass guitar, and he and his bandmates found gigs at quinceañeras, the "sweet 15" parties common to many Latin American cultures. He performed in several different bands in his late teens and early 20s; one, called the Basics, had minor success with a single called "Paperheart" that landed on an anthology of music by unsigned bands. Malo's turn toward country music came when he teamed with a high school friend, bassist Robert Reynolds, and with drummer Paul Deakin to form the Mavericks. Gigs were small and sparse at the beginning. "Once, we played a racetrack in Fort Lauderdale on a Sunday morning," Malo told Smith. "Four old-timers listened for a bit, then shuffled off."
With Malo as frontman, however, the Mavericks got attention in the country music capital of Nashville and were signed by the MCA label's Nashville division in 1991. They recorded for MCA, beginning with the album From Hell to Paradise, throughout the 1990s. The Mavericks never achieved country superstardom, but were a consistent presence in the country top 40 with danceable songs in which a sharp Latin snap augmented basic country two-step rhythms. Malo's vocals on songs like "What a Crying Shame" often drew comparisons to Roy Orbison, and the 1994 album for which it was the title track was certified platinum for sales of one million copies.
With Music for All Occasions (1995) and especially Trampoline (1998), Malo, who wrote many of the Mavericks' songs, began to explore music beyond the stylistic boundaries of country. Although the leadoff single from Trampoline, "Dance the Night Away," was a strong chart performer in Britain, the group found little U.S. success with these outings and went on hiatus in the 1990s, although they never broke up completely. Malo performed with the Latin American group Los Super Seven and did production work for Mexican-American country singer Rick Treviño while further exploring his own genre-crossing impulses. The results of his explorations were apparent on his first solo release, Today, which appeared on the small Omtown/Higher Octave label in 2001.
The album, in Spanish and English, used a large band of Cuban-American musicians, but it wasn't a straight Latin album. "Given the opportunity to sing in a purely Cuban style, he chose instead to hybridize," noted Jon Pareles of the New York Times. "Like a honky-tonk singer, he dropped toward the baritone end of his range, and he mixed the smooth projection of a Latin sonero [a singer in the Cuban son genre] with the growls and bluesy inflections of country." The album included Malo-penned originals as well as Cuban standards like "Siboney."
Malo continued to experiment on subsequent releases. In 2003 he reunited with the Mavericks. The Sanctuary label signed both the group and Malo as a solo artist, and two new Mavericks albums, one of them live, were released. In 2004 Malo added a new layer of versatility to his vocal art when he was featured, along with a group of top bluegrass instrumentalists, on The Nashville Acoustic Sessions. The album had been recorded for the CMH label before the Mavericks' reunion. Malo's first recording for Sanctuary was You're Only Lonely (2006).
You're Only Lonely, produced by Peter Asher of the 1960s duo Peter & Gordon, featured standards by Randy Newman and Etta James, as well as the title track. Its successor, After Hours, was released in 2007. It consisted of classic country songs such as Hank Williams's "Cold, Cold Heart" and Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times"—backed not by country instrumentation but by a small supper club jazz group. The album was recorded live in the studio. "This thing ("After Hours") was literally everybody in the room and me singing along with everybody," Malo told Preston Jones of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "It's the way records used to be made, everybody playing in the same room and a singer singing the song all the way through. That barely happens now. Hell, that barely happens live."
In late 2007 Malo returned with a holiday album, It's a Marshmallow World & Other Holiday Favorites. Marketed in conjunction with a Christmas ornament on Malo's Web site, the album included a mix of sacred and offbeat secular material like "Not So Merry Christmas." Malo recorded the album in Nashville's summer heat, and it was released in time for him to enjoy it with his family—consisting of his wife, Betty, and three children. As of 2008, the creative career of one of America's true genre-crossing singers was still evolving after nearly two decades in the music business.
For the Record …
Born August 7, 1965, in Miami, FL; married; wife's name, Betty; three children.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (with the Mavericks), 1995.
Addresses: Booking agency—Creative Artists Agency, 3310 West End Ave., Nashville, TN 37203.
Today, OmTown/Higher Octave, 2001.
(With Pat Flynn, Rob Ickes, and Dave Pomeroy) The Nashville Acoustic Sessions, CMH, 2004.
You're Only Lonely, Sanctuary, 2006.
After Hours, Sanctuary, 2007.
It's a Marshmallow World & other Holiday Favorites, New Door, 2007.
Austin American-Statesman, September 13, 2007, p. T31.
Daily Post (Liverpool, England), May 30, 2003, p. 26.
Denver Post, June 18, 2004, p. FF11.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 14, 2007.
Miami Herald, November 2, 2001; July 24, 2007.
New York Post, August 19, 2005, p. 59.
New York Times, December 3, 2001, p. E5.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 29, 2007.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), May 3, 2002, p. 14.
Times (London, England), September 19, 2003, p. 18.
"Raul Malo," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 27, 2008).
Raul Malo Official Web site, http://www.raulmalo.com (February 27, 2008.
—James M. Manheim