Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


LECUONA, Ernesto

(b 7 Aug. 1896, Guanabacoa, Cuba; d 29 Nov. '63, Canary Islands) Pianist, bandleader, the most successful Cuban composer, said to have written about 600 songs. A prodigy, initially taught piano by an older sister; first public performance at age five; wrote first compositions at eleven; started playing piano in silent movie houses around the age of eleven to twelve; concluded studies at National Conservatory at 17, winning first prize and the gold medal in his course; played recital in NYC '17. His Palau Brothers Cuban Orchestra was featured in movie musical Cuban Love Song '31, starring Jimmy Durante, opera star Lawrence Tibbett, Cuban/Hollywood star Lupe V‚lez; title song and score by Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields, but also 'El Manicero' ('The Peanut Vendor'), an international hit that year (not Lecuona's song). Formed a popular band Orquesta Cubana '32, but never actually played with them; classically trained pianist/composer/arr. Armando 'Fichin' Or‚fiche (b '11, Havana, Cuba) filled piano chair; at concerts Lecuona played his own solo piano pieces and the band performed popular Cuban tunes mostly penned by Or‚fiche and himself. He retired from touring with band '34 for health reasons and returned to Cuba; eleven-piece band was renamed Lecuona Cuban Boys co-led by Or‚fiche and trumpeter/guitarist/composer/arr. Ernesto 'Jaruco' V zquez; they successfully toured Europe until WWII, during which they toured Latin America (tracks collected in five CD vols of Lecuona Cuban Boys '89--94 on UK Harlequin label).

Following a leadership wrangle, Or‚fiche and his brother tenor saxist/bongosero Adalberto 'Chiquito' Or‚fiche split to organize the Havana Cuban Boys '46: eponymous CD '95 on Harlequin compiles some of their recordings. The Lecuona Cuban Boys based in NYC '46--60 continued to tour until the mid-'70s; Lecuona kept in touch via correspondence and telephone. He wrote cantatas, musical shows etc but is best known for songs covered hundreds of times, incl. standard 'Siboney' '29 ('31 hit by Alfredo Brito; recorded '53 by quartet with Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz, etc), 'Para Vigo Me Voy' ('Say Si Si') (recorded '33 by Xavier Cugat; a hit with English lyrics by Al Stillman for Glenn Miller, the Andrews Sisters '40, later for the Mills Bros, etc), 'Canto Karabali' ('Jungle Drums'), 'La Comparsa', 'Malague¤a' '27 etc. Some were intended as light classical pieces; darkly dramatic orchestral arr. of 'Malague¤a' was lead track on Andre Kostelanetz LP Lure Of The Tropics early '50s, while 'Andalucia' '30 became no. 1 hit by Jimmy Dorsey '40 with vocal by Bob Eberly as 'The Breeze And I' (lyrics by Stillman). Maurice Ravel admired 'Malague¤a', and Lecuona was called the Cuban Gershwin. Lecuona's daughter Ernestina sang with both the Lecuona Cuban Boys and Havana Cuban Boys; his niece, mezzo-soprano Margarita (b '10, Havana), made records incl. an album on Montilla, but had her name on others as the writer of songs, particularly 'Tabu' and 'Babal£': Lecuona Cuban Boys made the first recording of the former; Miguelito Vald‚s (aka 'Mr Babal£' because he recorded and performed the song so often) and Desi Arnaz were famous for 'Babal£' (though Arnaz's version was not considered very authentic); both songs were covered almost as often as any of Ernesto's. He left Cuba '60, lived in Tampa FL, then in Spain. Bis Records released the first of several albums of Lecuona's complete music for solo piano and piano with orchestra '96, with pianist Thomas Trino and Polish National RSO, Michael Bartos cond.