The Bluffer's Guide
Perez Prado



i am a collector of cries and noises, elemental ones like seagulls on the shore, winds through the trees, men at work in a foundry. Mambo is a movement back to nature, by means of rhythms based on such cries and noises, and on simple joys." -- Perez Prado, in conversation with legendary jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason.

If Damaso Perez Prado hadn't been born in 1916 in Matanzas, Cuba, it would have been necessary to go back in time and invent him. During his reign as King of the Mambo (the mid-1950's), Prado was ubiquitous as bandleader, on-tap personality, and combustible foil to the staid 40's big band icons he first admired and then eclipsed. While his name might evoke little more than a quiver of semi-recognition from most casual listeners of popular music today (a quiver which might become more aggressive if the phrase "Mambo No.5" gets tossed around), his music remains a timeless avant-lounge-pop that can still be sequestered for Guinness adverts and Hollywood soundtracks.

This is no accident: Prado's success both in his time and outside of it emerges from the singular handprint of his compositional and conducting style. Simple enough to explain, the Prado sound engages constant tension in the rhythm players and sudden flourishes from the solo instruments: a sparkling wash of timbales, a pizzicato figure dashed out on the violin, a brazen brass wah-wah or a shout uncoiled from Prado's own gut—the excitement of the dance made vividly tenable. The basic rhythms come from the Cuban danzon, which itself was adapted from the more courtly contredanse or contradanza of 19th Century Europe—the African element injected more fire and polyrhythms into danzon and the birth of what would become salsa began. Perez Prado, brought up on Xavier Cugat and big-band swing as well as the music of his natal home, combined these elements to popularize (though not invent) what he referred to as mambo. He would later refer to it as "Afro-Cuban rhythms with a dash of American swing," but it is in how Perez Prado applied the dash that demonstrated his uniqueness and sealed its popularity.

Living on a guest visa in Mexico (he would be forced to leave in '53, though he eventually returned to his adopted country), he established the core of his sound during the late 40's, in particular his sessions with popular singer Beny More. Moving to New York City as the Mambo craze engulfed the US, Prado began cutting full-length records for RCA that wavered between re-recordings of his original Mexico City tracks, reinterpretations of standards and excellent new material. Despite his status as an alien working under one of the more conventional record labels of the time, Prado took enormous chances with his music—recording side-long Afro-Cuban jazz suites inspired by Duke Ellington, working with musicians from the big-name bands of the day as well as creating more "roots"-orientated material like the classic Havana 3 A.M. album. He even appeared in the quickly forgotten film Underwater with Jane Russell, and would score his biggest hit with "Cherry Pink & Apple Blossom white," ironically a cha-cha-cha rather than a mambo.

Investigating the works of non-canonical artists whose recording careers began and ended before the era of digital technology is always a hedgy bet. What's available on CD is not always representative, and so many versions exist of most Prado tunes that it's almost impossible to know what one is getting at the checkout counter. My advice to the curious is to begin with the vinyl; much of this music can be found by the persistent LP-shopper for a negligible sum. As with most any pop artist, collectible-minded evaluators have left Prado in the dustbin alongside Rod McKuen and Ferrante & Teicher. If one looks to CD, the double sets of RCA must-haves such as Havana 3AM / Mambo Mania and Voodoo Suite / Exotic Suite of the Americas are excellently remastered and given extensive recording session notes and a servicable essay, thanks to the amazing Bear Family label. In addition, both the Primal! and Proper Introduction compilation discs are essential documents of the pre-US recordings of 1948-1950.


Perez Prado - "Rica" (1947)

The best place for a fan of Latin or Cubop to start investigating Prado, the early recordings (1947-1950) represent him at his rawest and most salsa-like. "Rica" is typical—a storm brews on the drums, Prado provides lightning in the form of vivid horn washes bleeding into the red. The lovely chanting chorus placed against zig-zagging hand percussion is a very traditional folk touch that he would abandon during pop sessions, but would re-incorporate nicely into Havana 3 A.M and "Voodoo Suite." The mambo is slowly taking shape, but the action is still dominated by the talking of the drum, not the swing of the whole band.


Perez Prado y Beny More - "Pachito E Che" (1948)

Working with a vocalist must have made quite an impression on Prado. Whether positive or negative, it's impossible to know: he so rarely used them once he'd made a name for himself (with the exception of the occasional background chorus and bizarre pairings a la his album with Rosemary Clooney). His recordings with Beny More were huge Latin American hits, and it's easy to see why here: a strong sense of control reins in the rhythms, more swing-derived flourishes are applied and the melody of the vocal is given enough space to act as co-driver to the beat. We even hear Prado's trademark tic here, the grunt of "dilo!" or "give it / say it," his injunction to the musicians, which comes so fast it usually just sounds like "ugh!"


Perez Prado - "Caballo Negro" (1950)

A hesitant step towards the perfection of the Prado sound. The peculiar syncopation begins to finally emerge, with the overall, rolling movement of the track dominating the percussion and directing it towards being accompaniment rather than driving force. The crash of cymbal and brass unite to swerve the groove out of the proper lane, and by the last half-minute you can visualize a certain 5'6" bow-tied cubano feeling the spinning of gears in his head and the slow sparkle of a smile creeping across his face.


Perez Prado - "Que Rico El Mambo / Mambo Jambo" (1952/6)

"Mambo No. 5" was the bigger hit, and will remain infamous for approximately eight more minutes due to a certain Mr. Bega, but it was actually the b-side of a little number called "Que Rico El Mambo." Renamed "Mambo Jambo" by Sonny Burke, around a dozen Prado versions of this one exist, my favorite being the slightly slower and more chugging 3-minute version rerecorded for Mambo By the King, 1956's stopgap compilation released after two more unconventional follow-ups to Mambo Mania. Call it "Que Rico El Mambo" or "Mambo Jambo," either way it's the moment when the mambo crystallizes as a sound and Prado comes into his own as bandleader.


Perez Prado - "A La Billy May" (1952)

"Cherry Pink" might have been the big smash, but his tribute to Billy May is the same tune sped out of the more languorous cha-cha-cha tempo and lashed across its shoulders with aggression and excitement. A come-hither trombone lures in the tempestuous trumpets, and a series of suggestive themes are worked out to the accompaniment of some sweet, sexy blowing on the saxophone (middle America, needless to say, got the message). Where Prado would later push this sound into lounge and exotica, la culeta, heavy washes of organ etc., here he keeps the focus on swinging hard rather than trying to groove, keeping the impressionism of the horns circling around the stop-start pattern so beloved by dancers doing those easy-to-master mambo steps. (One thing he can certainly lay claim to is the invention of the mambo dance, by the way.)


Perez Prado / Shorty Rogers - "Voodoo Suite" (1955)

When Prado went high concept—a 23-minute odyssey literally conceived, suggested, and recorded in a period of a little more than 24 hours—such was the ease with which choice West Coast sidemen like Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers, and Shelley Manne could be summoned in 1955. Raw drumming, wordless chanting and the slow addition of orchestral elements with folk intonations rapidly escalate into a mega-mambo with decidedly modern jazz elements. "Exotic Suite of the Americas" would bring this concept into the 60's, and though it was much more strongly developed in terms of alternating themes (driven by Prado's love of the Romantic composers), "Voodoo Suite" remains the archetypal rendition of Prado's sound in the language of the epic, playing as it did to his strengths—linear melodic simplicity and spontaneity and the incorporation of wildly different tempos into a syncretic whole. With the horn players given more room to solo and improvise over the steady changes of the different rhythmic episodes, something akin to (and clearly inspired by) Duke Ellington's great suites results: tempo shifts and thematic change-ups signaled by the enunciation of a Prado yelp or a folk call-and-response vocal, a distinct blending of Afro-Cuban tradition and jazz innovation.


Perez Prado - "St. James Infirmary" (1955)

Tucked away on the flipside of the high-concept Voodoo Suite LP, Prado's six tributes to his big band idols are nonetheless deft and enjoyable appropriations. Always keen on balancing his abilities as both stylist and innovator, Damaso gallops through tunes like "Stompin at the Savoy" and "In the Mood" by adding some clompy percussion, a few well-placed yelps, and a hint of ferocity in the brass. "St. James Infirmary" is probably the best, tom rolls and delicate string swells and pizzicatos underscore a menacing variation on Calloway's familiar melody. It’s Prado at his most forceful as a bandleader, with more swank than you can shake a stick at.


Perez Prado - "Bacoa" (1956)

Havana 3 A.M. is rightly held as Prado's most simultaneously innovative and traditional record for RCA. Coming as it did on the top of his wave of popularity, it may have puzzled a few by its slight return to classic Afro-Cuban sensibilities, but it surely ensnared more than it repulsed. "Bacoa" is typical—all the quirks of the earlier pop-orientated recordings are present and accounted for, but the rhythm is given more volume and space. The union of styles is almost perfect—strong intonations from each sonic element held under tight constraints by the bandleader, resulting in a song that aggressively blurs the lines between pop, jazz, and Latin "styles."


Perez Prado - "Granada" (1956)

Another gem from Havana 3 A.M., "Granada" shows the shift towards longer polyrythmic pieces that Prado would develop to fruition in his jazz suites. It also draws on the more lyrical, slower techniques that he would employ during the best recordings of his later years. The "Spanish" (in the manner of Rodrigo) accent in the opening bars gives way to a thumping groove much more swing than Latin, and the swirling brass and brash drums build into a Kenton-esque sleight-of-musical-hand that holds out an invitation to the bullfight (just be sure to wear no suit but your finest). If the reports of Prado's contributions while placing mics or leaning over the mixing board are true, this LP surely make a case for him as a fine studio technician—the warm, open arrangements and layering of the multitude of players have aged particularly well.


Perez Prado - "Leo's Special" (1958)

A one-minute orchestral tornado whips through the valley, dragging in its wake three and a half minutes of nothing but percussion (is that Leo on those bongos?), then momentarily returns to the horn-y interjections. It doesn't sound a whole lot different from something you might have heard on a Buddy Rich record of the time (this is an endorsement), but it also represents the sound of Prado reuniting the loose Afro-Cuban sound of his early sides with the equally loose Cubop of his late-50's recordings. Heard on his best album from that period, Prez, it puts into perspective the rootlessness of his musical wandering and gives one the realization that whatever "pop" concessions he may have made, Prado was a pioneer trying to turn straight America onto a fusion of hard swing and Afro-Cuban music.


Perez Prado - "Patricia" (1960)

The Hammond organ was the instrument of Perez Prado's transition from Mambo King to Lounge Impresario, and it's used to full effect on "Patricia." The undercurrents of the earlier records are there, but where once was the almost-dangerous caterwauling of the sax or the trombone, now we hear Prado's rather cheesy fills, fitting in much more with the light instrumental R&B use of the instrument, rather than the bop-derived approach of artists like Jimmy Smith. The overall effect is one of sleazy camp, something not lost on Federico Fellini, who used "Patricia" to great effect for that scene in La Dolce Vita.

***

For a household name who took the dancehalls and living rooms of America by storm in the mid-50's, Perez Prado remains a bit of a cultural enigma. The uncertainty of how to rate him in the newly-minted echelon of Cubop pioneers has led to such dismissals as Scott Yanow's, who rightly elucidates his achievements but fails to underline his stylistic flexibility and uniqueness in Third Ear's Afro-Cuban Jazz book. If Perez Prado had a failing, it was the same as that of all musical wildcards who attain an unexpected level of mainstream success: he took the baton and ran with it. Criticisms of his "catchy" pop sound miss the mark: he perfected his sound by the time he found widespread appeal, and for the most part it never pretended to be anything other than a clean, buoyant version of the jazz-inflected Afro-Cuban pop he honed during his time in Mexico. At the same time, he clearly had an ear for innovation and experimentation that led him to take chances; he may have lost the support of communities that bolstered "mambo soldiers" like Puente, but he was exploring ideas those traditionalists never really entertained.

Tapping into a rampant desire for exotica amongst the record-buying public, he could also be viewed as a turncoat—someone who repackaged the "primitive" and "raw" Afro-Cuban sound for the benefit of whitey. To do so is to engage in another form of colonialism, one which inevitably measures every creative exchange with the muddy yardstick of post-modernism. It fails (as it always will) because it ignores the man at the heart of the equation whose admiration for the oft-pompous and bombastic sounds of Stan Kenton and Billy May never wavered (if Prado got into the dinner club set, he damn well wanted to). It also ignores the copious evidence Prado has left behind, stamped on vinyls with a silver-on-black label and that ubiquitous Victrola-loving dog. Each commercial barnstormer cued an artistic detour: sidelong suites or "roots" excursions, flirtations with new and emerging rhythms in rock and jazz, even appropriations of and humorous digs at his fellow Latin bandleaders.

What emerges from these recordings after fifty years is the indelible mark of a completely distinct personality, or enough of one to leap out of the dollar vinyl bins I was in the habit of scouring during my post-college years, where I began the serious business of collecting anything with that alliterative name on the cover. Placed against the Cugats and whitebread cha-cha-cha of Dorsey & Co. that share his space at your local thrift, Perez Prado's music is a dynamo—explosions of color and unwieldy pleasure riffing against a groove so tight it's practically locked. As such, his place in today's musical environment is more that of signifier than persistent influence.

Stars are placed in the firmament of fame by their combustibility: they burn the brightest of a pool of possible claimants to whatever style happens to catch the public's fickle interest. Perez Prado didn't invent the mambo, but he owned it, for the duration of its lifespan as the "hot new thing," and he did so by virtue of his skill and inventiveness as a bandleader, his reckless panache, and his crafty determination to insert the fiery, elegant sexuality of his new dance onto every hi-fi in every living room in America.


By: Mallory O’Donnell
Published on: 2007-03-02
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