Bandleader, composer, pianist
While Latin music enthusiasts may argue whether or not Pérez Prado actually invented the style known as the mambo, his inimitable flair and high-energy approach to the music created a popular dance craze, and he would become known as the "King of Mambo." In the 1940s and 1950s, the Cuban-born bandleader took Afro-Cuban music and incorporated elements of American jazz, popularizing it throughout the Americas. Embracing a broad array of cultures and social classes, Pérez Prado catapulted his mambo to the top of mainstream pop charts. Late twentieth-century lounge music revival enthusiasts embraced the bandleader's catchy sound, and still others applauded his role as one of the most influential and talented Latin bandleaders of the era.
Dámaso Pérez Prado was born on December 11, 1916, in Matanzas, a part of Cuba known for its rich Afro-Cuban musical tradition. His father was a newspaper man and his mother taught school. As a child, he studied classical piano at the Principal School of Matanzas under the direction of Rafael Somavilla. He later went on to play piano and organ in local venues and continued to offer his skills as a pianist to small orchestras and in cabarets after moving to Havana in 1942. Radio audiences began to take note of the young musician when he appeared on Radio 1010 along with Orquesta Cubaney.
Prado's big break came when he was invited to join the Orquesta Casino de la Playa, Cuba's most popular band. According to Latin Beat magazine, Orlando Guerra ("Cascarita") loved Prado's high-energy arrangements, and invited him to become the orchestra's pianist and arranger. Prado's passion for experimentation, however, also hindered the growth of his career. So bold was his tinkering with traditional rhythms (not to mention the inclusion of trumpets and jazz elements), that fans began calling Prado's hot new sound "diablo" (devil). In a Cuban musical environment dominated by conservatives who were interested in preserving established song frameworks, Prado found it increasingly difficult to find work. In 1947 he left Cuba for mainland Latin America and eventually decided to settle in Mexico, where he became well-known for his work on Cuban radio.
Mexico City in the late 1940s was a major media center, and its musical trends received attention in the United States. When executives for RCA Victor in New York City heard a demo that Prado had recorded in 1949, they were interested, but told him his music was too complicated. Following their advice, he pared down and simplified the music. The resulting debut release, which featured Mambo N° 5 and Qué Rico el Mambo, set the Americas on fire.
With the help of a marketing efforts never before seen in Latin music, Prado's sound took the whole continent by surprise, with the songs Patricia and Mambo N° 5 becoming smash hits in the United States and Latin America. In 1955, Prado's mambo Cherry Pink/Apple Blossom White became, for ten straight weeks, the most popular record in the United States—an achievement only Elvis Presley would top, during the following year. The mambo was eagerly embraced by a generation of New Yorkers of all ethnicities, who flocked to the "temple of mambo" called the Palladium Ballroom. Many jazzmen who stopped by the fashionable club became inspired to incorporate Latin music into their recordings.
As is customary in Spanish-speaking nations, the musician used his first and second surnames (that of this father followed by that of his mother), and his first musical releases came out under the name D. Pérez Prado. Eliminating the "D" on releases in the United States, in 1955 the artist legally changed his full name to simply Pérez Prado.
Musicologists are far from reaching a consensus on the origins of the mambo rhythm, much less Prado's relationship to it. While the beginnings of mambo are unclear, the word was reportedly used by flautist Antonio Arcano in the late 1930s. In this case, Arcano was referring to alterations to the traditional Cuban danzón style, whereby the structure was modified and a syncopated pattern created through the addition of a drum. Prado later adopted this percussion pattern and combined it with American jazz influences—primarily those of jazzman Stan Kenton—and jazzier instruments like bass and drums. Also thrown in were bits of rumba and güaracha music. Prado referred to this fast-paced rhythm as "mambo."
In addition to his musical talents, Prado had a powerful stage presence. His primordial shouts of "ugh" during performances led his fans to affectionately refer to him as "seal face." According to Latin Beat, "In the pre-rockn-roll era, Prado became a countercultural hero with his lacquered pompadour and Dizzy Gillespie-style goatee, a symbol of Latino hipness." According to the UNESCO Courier, "Arcano was a talented musician, but it was his countryman Perez Prado who was the first to market his compositions under the name 'mambo,' which he popularized as a specific musical genre."
Some music critics have felt that Prado did more than simply popularize the musical craze. Taking issue with musicologists who denied Prado full credit for actually fathering the mambo, writer Sergio Muñoz declared in the Los Angeles Times that "Pérez Prado is the one and only mambo king." He went on to explain that "the mambo reached its peak in 1949, when Pérez Prado left Cuba to form a spectacular orchestra in México. To call Pérez Prado 'one of [mambo's] greatest popularizers' is far too narrow."
By the late 1950s the mambo had given way to the cha-cha-cha dance beat. By the 1960s this had been replaced by sounds like the pachanga and the boogaloo. To some, his new recordings appeared be somewhat formulaic, but when Prado attempted to move his music in a different direction, his hardcore fans made it clear that they wanted him to stick with the rhythms they knew and loved.
Following an illness of several months, Prado died at his home in Mexico City on September 14, 1989, after suffering a stroke.
For the Record . . .
Born Dámaso Pérez Prado on December 11, 1916, in Matanzas, Cuba; died of a stroke on September 14, 1989, in Mexico City; married; two children. Education: Studied classical piano under Rafael Somavilla at Principal School of Matanzas.
Began performing in Matanzas clubs and theaters, followed by Havana cabarets in early 1940s; performed on Radio 1010 with Orquesta Cubaney and Paulina Alvarez; joined Orquesta Casino de la Playa as arranger/pianist; released debut album Perez Prado, 1950; recorded more than two dozen albums.
Perez Prado, Victor, 1950.
Voodoo Suite, RCA Victor, 1955.
Mambo Mania, RCA Victor, 1955.
Havana 3 A.M., RCA Victor, 1956.
Prez, RCA, 1958
Latin Beat, May 2002.
Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1989; August 8, 1999.
UNESCO Courier, January 1995.
"Pérez Prado," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (December 30, 2004).
—Brett Allan King