Pérez Prado and Mambomania
Part 3 of 4
The mambo was truly a cross-cultural phenomenon. The Park Plaza Ballroom, at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, was a favorite hangout for enthusiastic dancers from Harlem and other "ethnic" communities. Here inhibitions were checked at the door and dancers performed with spectacular abandon. Although the Park Plaza is acknowledged to be the true temple of the "authentic mambo," it was a little too authentic and a little too far uptown for the recent middle-class, white converts to the dance. Ultimately, it was the Palladium Ballroom (originally called the Latin Ballroom and paradoxically renamed by new owner Max Hyman), with its weekly mambo contests (held every Wednesday) which became its most impressive house of worship. It was reported that on Wednesday nights in New York City the demand for baby-sitters underwent a sharp rise and the amount of money lost on Canasta, gin rummy, bridge, and poker dropped precipitously.
There were a number of reasons for the mambo's success in the US. As a dance, it was easy to do and people often created their own steps. It also emerged at a time when the US was engaged in the Korean War and the mambo's uninhibited rhythms were an acceptable way of releasing social tensions in public. In addition, the rhumba craze of the 1940s had peaked. Professional dance studios were looking for a new source of income and mambo lessons were it.
Katherine Dunham hosted Prado and his orchestra at her dance school at 43rd Street and Broadway in New York. In her unpublished autobiography, Dunham wrote, "Our school became the popular meeting place of Caribbean, Central and South American diplomats, painters, musicians, poets, and the like. At our monthly Boule Blanches we usually presented new and untried Cuban orchestras such as Pérez Prado, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, and Bobby Capo." One might speculate that this introduction to the cultural elite of the African Diaspora lead Prado to experiment with the impressionistic pieces Voodoo Suite, Havana 3 a.m., and the Exotic Suite Of The Americas, in much the way Duke Ellington was also working at the time. Dunham, herself, would later appear in the 1954 film titled Mambo, which featured musical numbers by Prado on the soundtrack.
Oddly enough, as Prado's career developed, his popularity among the Hispanic-American community diminished. There was a general feeling that his version of the mambo catered too much to Anglo tastes and it was the more traditional, less "pop" sounds of Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, and "Machito" [né Frank Grillo] who were perennial favorites among the Latin communities in the US.
Nonetheless, the dance craze was such a crossover success that 1954 was dubbed "The Year of the Mambo" and a number of mainstream singers started cashing in. Most notably were Perry Como with "Papa Loves Mambo" and Rosemary Clooney with "Mambo Italiano." Even crooner Vaughn Monroe had a hit with "They Were Doin' The Mambo."
Although Prado recorded and toured with great enthusiasm, his first #1 hit in the US wasn't until 1955 with "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." It stayed on the American pop charts for 26 weeks (10 weeks at #1) and enjoyed similar success in Europe and Japan. Curiously, it was a song that was not a Prado original, but began life in France in 1950 as "Cerisier Rose et Pommier Blanc" and was then transformed into the Spanish "Cerezo Rosa" before becoming Anglicized as the tune we know today. Ironically for the Mambo King, his most popular single was actually a cha-cha-cha. It was also danced by Jane Russell in the film Underwater! (originally titled The Big Rainbow) in which Prado, playing himself, had a bit part.
The song features a spectacular trumpet solo by Billy Regis. The story goes that after Regis began to draw applause for his solos during personal appearances, Prado would stand directly in front of him, pretending to play the trumpet.
Prado is often remembered for his signature grunt, "Ugh!" According to Wylie Watson, "[He] is [actually] saying, 'Dilo!'-a Spanish word meaning 'Say it!' or, in the context in which Prado uses it, 'Give out!'"
Watson continued, "...with his guttural cry of 'Dilo!', he urges the brass section to 'Give out!', he coaxes the saxophones to 'Say it!' and he exhorts a trumpet soloist to make his horn rise and shine."
At first it seems to be a stretch of the imagination to interpret "Ugh!" as "Dilo!" However, listening closely to an original 78 of "Qué rico el mambo," one can hear that Prado really is saying "Dilo!" However, he slurs the two syllables together in such a way that to the casual listener it sounds like "Ugh!"
Later on, in the course of his performances, Prado would also give a high kick, which developed into a jump, to further accent his exhortations. Eventually, he got into the habit of shouting "Dilo!" and simultaneously propelling himself into the air, a startling sight to an audience who grew up on Tommy Dorsey and Cab Calloway.
Writing in Jazz Review, Robert Farris Thompson, Jr., said, "He developed a vocal prank of his Havana days into the trademark of the mambo... With this sign the layman could easily recognize [the] mambo, untroubled by considerations of rhythm. It was a trick and it worked."
Michael Mcdonald-Ross mentioned, too, that "vocables (chants, grunts, shouts &c) are an integral part of African and Afro-Cuban music. [Anyone] familiar with the guaguanco or who has heard Afro-Cuban soneros like Beny Moré or Machito will know how often they produce these inarticulate cries in the course of a number."
Dámaso and Pantaleón
In 1956, a feud between Prado and his younger brother Pantaleón (1926-1983) resulted in the strange affair of Pérez suing his sibling for $500,000, charging him with impersonation. In Spanish culture it is traditional for children to be given the surname of both parents and in this case the full birth names of the brothers were Dámaso Perez Prado and Pantaleón Pérez Prado, respectively - Pérez being their father's family name, Prado their mother's. RCA originally credited Dámaso's recordings as D. Pérez Prado, but when his albums started to appear in the US, the record company shortened it to the more alliterative name we're familiar with today. In 1955, Prado dropped his first name altogether and changed it officially to Pérez Prado.
About this time, Pantaleón, who played bass with his own group, appeared at the Alhambra Theater in Paris under the name "Pérez Prado, King of the Mambo." Pantaleón was then restrained by a court order from posing as Pérez (Dámaso). However, hostilities resumed when an irate French visitor to Hollywood called the Palladium where Pérez was playing and bawled out the management for presenting an "imposter," saying that he had danced to the "real" Prado (actually, Panteleón) in Deauville a few weeks before. The suit which followed effectively put Panteleón out of action, but the younger brother had a form of posthumous revenge. When Pantaleón died in 1983, a widely syndicated obituary was headlined, "Mambo King Dies In Milan," leading many people to believe (falsely) that it was Dámaso who had passed away.