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Xavier Cugat, Big Band Leader, Dead At 90

October 28, 1990

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) _ Xavier Cugat, the Spanish-born band leader who introduced the tropical beat of the rumba to millions of Americans, died Saturday. He was 90.

Cugat died of heart failure in a Barcelona hospital, doctors Jorge Rius and Jaime Pujadas said in a statement. He had checked into the hospital Oct. 8 with a lung infection and failure of his left ventricle.

″Coogie,″ as he became known to millions of Americans and Europeans, became a star in the early 1930s playing Latin dance music at the Cocoanut Grove club in Los Angeles and later at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Cugat and his band, the Gigolos, were featured in several popular Hollywood movies in the 1940s and 1950s.

Born Jan. 1, 1900, in San Cugat del Valles near Barcelona, Cugat began as a violinist at age 12 with the Havana Symphony in Cuba, where his parents moved when he was 4 to escape political persecution. He had first appeared with the Cuban orchestra six years earlier as a guest performer.

Later, the 12-year-old musician, with his violin under his arm and ″not a penny in my pocket,″ went to the United States. He became a U.S. citizen three years later.

Unable to find much work as a classical musician, he made his way to Hollywood, where he drew caricatures of movie stars for the Los Angeles Times.

Rudolf Valentino told Cugat that the actor had to dance the tango in a silent film and asked the musician to put together a band to accompany him.

That was the beginning of Cugat and his Gigolos. Thanks to Valentino, they got an engagement at the legendary Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel.

That engagement led to others at Al Capone’s Chez Paris in Chicago, the Hotel Chase in St. Louis and more than a decade at New York’s Waldorf Astoria.

Cugat’s career as a band leader stretched from the big band era in the 1940s to the 1960s. He played the violin and directed the band with his bow.

″I learned very early that everyone in the United States specialized in something,″ Cugat explained in a 1986 interview, ″so I decided to specialize in tropical music - we called it the rumba abierta then. Today they call it salsa, but it’s all basically the same thing.″

His splashy, tropical Hollywood films like ″Neptune’s Daughter,″ in which he starred with Esther Williams and Red Skelton in 1949, made his name a household word.

Cugat had a history of heart ailments and high blood pressure. He was hospitalized in Los Angeles before he gave up his band and returned to Spain in 1978.

But despite further heart problems and hospitalization, he formed a new 16- piece band at the age of 86 and began touring Spain.

Cugat was married and divorced five times. His wives were Cuban Rita Montaner, Mexican Carmen Castillo, Chicago-born Lorraine Allen, Brooklyn-born Abbe Lane and Spaniard Charo Baeza, known professionally as Charo.

″If I had it to do all over, I’d marry the same ones,″ he said. ″We always divorced for our careers. You cannot play the violin in Philadelphia when your wife is in Rome making a movie with Marcelo Mastroianni.″

Cugat had no children but raised dogs and wrote two books - ″I, Cugat″ and ″My Wives.″

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