Cugat! Puente! Cruz!

Explore legends of Latin music for Hispanic Heritage Month

Created date

August 21st, 2019
Celia Cruz in the 1950s with the members of the  Sonora Matancera in Havana, Cuba.

Celia Cruz in the 1950s with the members of the Sonora Matancera in Havana, Cuba.

Luis Fonsi’s enormously popular song “Despacito” became the first Latin song to be streamed a billion times. Reflecting on his phenomenal success, Fonsi points out Latin music is nothing new and he just happens to have the good fortune of working in an era when streaming services and social media expose new sounds to a wider audience. 

Fonsi is correct, of course. The roots of Latin pop music in America stretch back at least to the 1920s, long before Billboard magazine started publishing its “hit parade.” 

As America celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month 2019 from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15., there’s no better time to look at Latin pop music’s rich history in the U.S.

The Coconut Grove

In the 1920s, celebrities like actor/director Charlie Chaplin frequented the world-famous Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles, Calif. At the time, tango dancing was all the rage and the Grove was home to the best tango sound in Hollywood, that of Xavier Cugat’s band. 

Cugat (1900-1990) encouraged the owner of the nightclub to hire dancers to teach patrons how to tango. Those dance lessons were such a hit, a short film X. Cugat and His Gigolos (1928) was produced to bring the tango to a wider audience. The “gigolos” were male dancers who demonstrated how to dance the tango with a group of beautiful “starlets.”

In 1933, Cugat moved his act to the Waldorf Astoria ballroom in New York City. He had a following in New York, but Cugat was nowhere near as famous as major bands like those of Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman. 

However, an opportunely timed labor dispute helped propel Cugat into the national spotlight. 

In 1941, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) banned the radio networks from playing its songs, so when it came time for the major bands to perform on radio programs, they could only play songs in the public domain—songs like that toe-tapper “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.”

Cugat, however, had a secret weapon to save American listeners from pure boredom. He knew a treasure trove of non-ASCAP Latin tunes for his band to play on the popular radio program The Camel Caravan

America loved the rhythmic beats they heard. Latin music had arrived. Cugat went on to appear in films and on television, often with his conductor’s baton in one hand and his Chihuahua in the other.

‘King of Latin Music’

Cugat opened the door to Latin music, but it was Tito Puente (1923-2000) who brought it home to stay with his unique ability to fuse traditional Latin beats with the familiar sounds of American jazz. 

Puente said his proudest achievement was introducing Afro-Cuban and Caribbean sounds to the American public. 

Though he was a songwriter and music producer, most people identify Puente with his enthusiastic timbale playing. He brought percussion to the forefront, both figuratively and literally, by placing his wildly colored timbales center stage where the audience would have the best view of his ebullient performances. 

During the late 1940s and 1950s, Puente released a steady stream of albums featuring songs made for dancing the mambo and the cha-cha-chá and, in later years, salsa, bossa nova, funk, and Latin soul.

Over the course of his 50-plus-year career, Puente came to be known as the “King of Latin Music.” He earned five Grammy Awards and countless other honors, including the prestigious National Medal of the Arts. 

‘Queen of Salsa’

With her wild wigs, sparkling gowns and towering heels, singer Celia Cruz (1925-2003) was the most popular Latin artist of the twentieth century. 

Known both as the “Queen of Latin Music” and the “Queen of Salsa,” Cruz began her singing career in her native Cuba. She was an established star when the turmoil of the Cuban revolution forced her to flee in the early 1960s—first to Mexico and later to the U.S. 

Though she sang a variety of Latin rhythms, she was best known for her salsa music. Her high-energy performances and clear vocals made her a superstar, but beyond that, Cruz had a unique connection with audiences who cheered every time she yelled her trademark azucar!—the Spanish word for sugar.

Her body of work included over 70 albums for which she was honored with Grammys, a National Medal of the Arts, and an honorary doctorate from Yale University.

In 1990, Cruz returned to Cuba when she was invited to the U.S. base in Guantanamo. Before returning home to New York City, she filled a small bag with dirt. According to her wishes, that bag was placed in her coffin so she could take a bit of Cuban soil with her.