Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


VALDÉS, Miguelito

(b 6 September 1910, Belén district, Havana; d 8 November 1978, Bogotá, Colombia) Internationally famous sonero (improvising Latin singer), composer; nicknamed 'Mr Babalú' because he recorded and performed the song so often: an acclaimed interpreter of Afro-Cuban songs, which both celebrated the heritage of Cuban blacks and highlighted their suffering. Born to a Cuban-Spanish father and Mexican Maya Indian mother, from age ten he grew up in Havana's Cayo Hueso district listening to Santería (Afro-Cuban cult music) and classical music; his friends included Arsenio Rodríguez, Chano Pozo and Félix Chappottín. He became an automobile mechanic at age eleven after only six years of primary school. He started boxing '26 for Cuban YMCA; became Cuba's amateur welterweight champion '29 and sang songs during radio interviews, switching to music full-time as a singer with Sexteto Habanero Juvenil; after two years guitar and singing tuition from María Teresa Vera (singer/ guitarist/ composer; b 6 February 1895, Guanajay, Cuba; d 17 December 1965, Havana), he joined her group Sexteto Occidente '29 as a chorus singer; Machito was also a member at the time. He relocated to Panama '33-6 and became a major star there as the vocalist with the Lucho Azcarraga orchestra '34-6. Shortly after he returned to Cuba in Sep. '36, alto saxist/ leader Manolo Castro recruited him to his high society band Los Hermanos Castro (founded '30; dissolved '60); Valdés's innovative improvisational rendition of Afro-Cuban numbers caused a sensation.

Finding the regime in Castro's band too stingy and inflexible, he and six other members departed '37 to found a corporation which organized a twelve-piece band incl. pianist/ arranger/ composer Anselmo Sacasas (b 23 Nov. '12, Manzanillo, Oriente province, Cuba), second trumpeter/ballad vocalist Walfredo de los Reyes (see Israel 'Cachao' López), violinist/ director Guillermo Portela and Valdés as administrator/ drummer/ Afro and uptempo vocalist. The band acquired the name Orquesta Casino de la Playa when Valdés negotiated a five-year contract with a co-owner of Havana's Summer Casino resort, then a daily slot on the CMQ radio station which launched them in Cuba and led to tours of Latin America. Casino de la Playa signed with RCA Victor '37 and made about 200 78s, many collected on Memories Of Cuba 1937-44 '91 (including Valdés's original '39 hit version of 'Babalú' by Margarita Lecuona), Adios Africa 1937-40 '94 and Fufuñando 1937-1940 '95 on Tumbao, Miguelito Valdés '94 (with Orq. Casino de la Playa '38-40) and Orquesta Casino de la Playa '95 on UK Harlequin label. Regarding the band's period with RCA Victor, Valdés told writer Max Salazar in '76: 'We had no union ... no agents to protect us. We were paid $20.00 each, and never received royalties ... but the exposure it got us was priceless.'

Accounts differ about Valdés's departure from Cuba; he cited an ambition 'to make it big in the big country of opportunity' in a radio interview, and spoke of repeated invitations to join Xavier Cugat's orchestra whenever the bandleader was in Cuba; Salazar believes it was Valdés's intolerance of Cuban racism, citing a comment he made about Afro-Cuban musicians like tres guitarist/ composer Arsenio Rodríguez having been allowed to record with Casino de la Playa, but being prohibited from gigging with them (Adios Africa 1937-40 '94 included Arsenio playing tres on his composition 'Se Va El Caramelero'); differences with Casino de la Playa's director Portela have also been alluded to. Shortly before leaving Cuba, Valdés provided lead vocals to a series of sides made '40 by Orquesta Havana-Riverside (a rival of Casino de la Playa founded '38, directed by violinist Enrique González Mántici), twelve of these are included on Rompan El Cuero '95 on Tumbao. After giving 30 days' notice to Casino de la Playa's members, Valdés and Sacasas left Cuba April '40 and arrived in NYC on 16 May. Sacasas organized his own orchestra, which debuted at Chicago's Colony Club September '40 included 17-year-old Tito Puente; Poco Loco '95 on Tumbao compiles '45-7 recordings by his orchestra; he relocated to Miami '49, there hired as music director for variety shows at Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel c'51; then to Puerto Rico '63, where he became music director at the San Juan Hotel. He backed singers like Sammy Davis Jr, Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf at both hotels and returned to Miami to retire '76. Meanwhile Valdés first gigged with Alberto Iznaga's Orquesta Siboney, which included Machito on vocals; Cugat quickly sought out Valdés and signed him to a five-year contract. He made his RCA Victor debut with Cugat May '40; the bandleader switched to Columbia October '40. Sides featuring Valdés are collected on Xavier Cugat And His Orchestra 1940-42 '91 (including his second recording of 'Babalú' on Columbia '41) and Rumba Rumbero '92 on Tumbao, Bim Bam Bum 1935-1940 '92 on Harlequin. During his stint with Cugat he sang at NYC's Waldorf Astoria Hotel and other prestigious venues and performed in the Hollywood movie You Were Never Lovelier '42, starring Fred Astaire and Rita Heyworth. Hot-selling Cugat recordings enabled his photo to appear on the front cover of Billboard April '42, giving him national exposure. Cugat released Valdés from his contract '42 after the singer refused to work without a pay rise; he began a solo career as a top-billing act at NYC's La Conga club and later performed at all the City's prominent supper clubs. He made two albums on Decca with Machito and his Afro-Cubans '42 in 48 hours to beat the national musicians' strike; tracks collected on Cuban Rhythms '92 on Tumbao: 'We came with such hits like ''Bim Bam Bum'', ''Oye Negra'', ''Rica Pulpa'': every one was like a lucky thing; ''Oye Negra'' was the very last one I recorded: I didn't even have a voice, I was singing with my soul.' He relocated to Mexico City '42-4 where he appeared in twelve movies, then returned to the USA September '44 to reside in Los Angeles. His popular '40s recordings with La Sonora Matancera and Noro Morales collected on Señor Babalú on Tropical (reissued as Miguelito Valdés Sings '89 on Palladium); he recorded twelve remakes of Cugat tracks for Musicraft Oct. '45 and made a further eight sides during '40s with the Machito band on Verne. He appeared in the movies Panamericana '45 and with Machito band in Night In The Tropics c'46 starring Betty Reilly; visited Cuba '45 to be awarded a medal by President Batista. He organized his own big band in Los Angeles '48, which he led until '54; after debuting at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, Valdés's orchestra soon gigged in NYC and elsewhere.

Valdés and his orchestra made 22 classic recordings during five sessions '49 for Gabriel Oller's SMC label including pianists René Hernández, Eddie Cano, Al Escobar, percussionist Ray 'Little Ray' Romero (b 18 June 1923, Ponce, Puerto Rico); this material compiled on Mambo Dance Session '94 on Caribe. Valdés first saw Cano playing with the group of Tony Martínez in an L.A. club: 'About two weeks later,' explained Cano, 'Tony got a telegram: ''Need a piano player, please send me yours.'' So Tony says, ''Do you want to go to New York?'' ... and I said, ''Of course I do'' ... I joined (Valdés) in Minneapolis and stayed with the band for two years' (quoted in Barrio Rhythm '93 by Steven Loza). He made eight more sides on Musicraft '49 including 'Rumba Rhapsody', which received crossover airplay on some NYC pop stations; this material plus eight more tracks with Noro Morales '51 collected on Mr Babalú '93 on Tumbao (two more versions of 'Babalú'). He also recorded on Monogram '50; on Tico '53 as a soloist with the band of René Touzet (pianist/composer; b 8 September 1916, Havana). He disbanded '54 when business would not sustain a full-sized band, retaining Puerto Rican pianist Luisito Benjamín as an accompanist for tours. Faced with the mid-'50s emergence of rock'n'roll and new Latin stars, Valdés went into retirement in L.A. Music director Mario Bauzá invited him to return to NYC to reunite with Machito on LP Reunion '63 on Tico, 'which I believe is one of the best records I made in my life'. This re-established his career, including his own TV show '66-76. Albums include Mejico Yo Te Canto/I Sing Of Mexico '64 on Tico, a selection of Mexican mariachi standards recorded in Mexico; Inolvidables '67 on Verve, arranged and conducted by Chico O'Farrill, including Machito, Graciela, Victor Paz, Carlos 'Patato' Valdez; Miguelito Valdés '77 on Orfeón, a collection of tracks recorded in Mexico with La Sonora Matancera and his own band; Miguelito Canta A Panama '77 on Mericana, made in Panama and directed by Paz. He described the '70s salsa phenomenon as 'a beautiful continuation of something that started many years ago ... I'm glad it's still alive'. He had a mild heart attack in Mexico March '78, then collapsed and died on stage during a performance at the Hotel Tequendama, Bogotá, Colombia, in November. Producer Al Santiago organized the all-star Gaucho Band (aka the Santiago/Madera 22 Piece Studio Band), including Machito, Bauzá, Puente, Charlie Palmieri and others for a tribute single to Valdés on Gaucho '79. (Additional quotes from interview '75 with Dr Ken 'Leo' Rosa.)