Xavier Cugat was the first bandleader to front a successful Latin orchestra in the United States. He was largely responsible for popularizing Latin music among North American audiences, paving the way for such future stars as Perez Prado, and Tito Puente.
Sources differ widely on Cugat's early life and career. It seems, though, that he was born on January 1, 1900, in the Catalonian region of Spain and moved to Cuba with his family when he was only a few years of age. A child prodigy on the violin, at age 12 he earned a seat as first violin with the orchestra of the Teatro Nacional in Havana. The young Cugat also apparently struck up a friendship with famed opera singer Enrico Caruso, who brought him to America near the end of the First World War. In New York Cugat met pianist and fellow Catalonian Agusto Borgunyó. Together they formed a classical duo.
In the early 1920s Cugat decided to abandon classical for popular music. His main interest lay in Latin rhythms, and picking up on the tango craze he formed a short-lived band called the Gigolos. He spent the next few years playing odd engagements and working with such popular orchestras as those of Vincent Lopez and Phil Harris. In the late 1920s he jumped on the sound movie bandwagon and formed a new version of the Gigolos. With this group he finally achieved a modicum of success, opening at the Los Angeles Coconut Grove in 1928 and appearing in the 1929 film Mexicana.
Cugat worked in Anson Weeks' orchestra during the early 1930s before forming a new outfit of his own. He continued to lead his band throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, spending a great deal of time at the Waldorf- Astoria Hotel in New York. Cugat also had his own radio program. In the early 1930s he had a big hit with the song ''El Manicero'' (''The Peanut Vendor''), which started a rumba craze across America. His other hits were "Perfida" in 1940, and the original recording of "Babalu" in 1944. Cugat’s band always had very fine musicians and singers, and he put on a top notch performance on stage.
He was married five times, including to two of his vocalists, Abbe Lane and in the ‘60’s to Charo, who incidentally is still capitalizing on her association with him. He used his popularity in the music business to also have a very successful film career and made scores of film 1930 to 1960. During the ‘50’s and 60’s Cugat continued performing and recording, both on the Mercury and Decca labels. He left quite a recorded history and his music is still very popular today, and always sells. He briefly had his own television program in 1957 and also spent time in Europe directing Italian television. He was also quite a talented cartoonist and his caricatures are now valued by collectors. Cugat retired from show business in 1971 after suffering a stroke. In 1978 he settled in Barcelona.