The Mamboniks

A repository for articles and artifacts regarding the intriguing history of Jews in Latin music.

THE MAMBONIKS began in 2001 as research for a book that remains unpublished. I hope that sharing my interviews and materials will help broaden the understanding of this unique moment in Jewish cultural history.

All material copyright Mark Schwartz, 2006


Mambo at the Raleigh

The Raleigh Hotel, in South Fallsburg, was one of the better-known resorts in the Catskills. While not as large as the Concord or Grossinger's, The Raleigh was well-known for music, which, in the '50s and into the '60s, was Latin. The hotel was sold in 2005, reopening soon after under the management of the Bobover Chassidic sect. David Hersher grew up in the Raleigh, and became the bass player in the popular charanga Orquesta Broadway.

I was born in Brooklyn, 1941, my brother [Ira] is three and a half years younger. That’s where we grew up, and because of the Raleigh Hotel affiliation that’s really what gave us the background in Latin music. All the hotels in the Catskills in those days -- we’re talking about the ‘50s and ‘60s -- all had a Latin house band along with the so-called American band which was really a show band — the band which played for the shows and played not a lot of dance music. Tito Puente was at, I think, the President Hotel or one of those…Machito was the house band at the Concord… Alfredito was also a Jewish guy. I think he was at one of the hotels as well, but every hotel had a house band. The Raleigh Hotel—it was called the Ratner Hotel to begin with, the name was changed in the early '50s to the Raleigh.

That was the name of my grandparents' partners in those days. It was the Ratner family and my grandparents. No longer after that, I’d say the late ‘40s, it was the Ratner family, then it was my family alone. The Raleigh hotel had a mambo show, a late night mambo show, on Thursday nights in those days which started at about 1 or 2 in the morning. All the Latin musicians from all the other hotels in the Catskills would come into the Raleigh Thursday nights after they had finished playing their night at their respective hotels. And there was a mambo show late night dance show at the Raleigh and the La Playa Sextet would do the reception, and then all the other Latin musicians would sit in. So it turned out to be a 10-15 piece jam session. Along with whomever the dancers brought. There were a lot of non–Latin people and Latin people involved in these dance teams. Characters such as Millie Donay, the Mambo Aces (those were 2 Puerto Rican guys), the Cha-Cha-Taps — they were Cuban teens. There were lots of Latin dancers.

Actually the highlight of those mambo shows was in the August of 1960, when an orquesta arrived from Cuba, played at the Raleigh. Aragón. That was probably August of 1960, and that was eight months after Fidel came in, New Year’s Day of ‘59. Andy Vasquez who was one of the dancers in the Mambo Aces, he brought Aragón. They would play in New York City and other places, and he brought them up here for one of the Thursday night late mambo shows. Everybody who was into Latin music in NYC was up here at the Raleigh Hotel that night. That night is a legend! And it was my brother’s and my first experience with Cuban music. We knew of Latin music, but we didn’t know much about the Cuban bands. That was our first experience with a Cuban band and we taped it, actually. We still have five or six tunes on tape from 1960, that night. Yeah it was a fabulous night! I mean if you run into any one of these people now, of course they are now in their 50s and 60s, and who were there that night, will remember that night fondly.

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Cugat and the Jews

Mambo, to paraphrase Madonna, made the people come together. Not just Jews and Latinos, but also Italians, Greeks, Irish, Blacks, and the occasional Protestant. But the decades prior to the ‘50s, while marked by the occasional outbreak of Latin rhythm among non-Latinos, were generally less inclusive. Language barriers, racism, and a general lack of cultural understanding about the people and cultures of the Caribbean and Latin America created a rift between Latin music as it was performed by and for Latinos and the exotic fare that was offered to white Americans, primarily by Hollywood musicals. The man who made his mark with the latter but eventually earned the grudging respect of the former, went by one name: Cugat.

Francisco de Asis Javier Cugat Mingall de Bru y Deulofeo was not a Jew. But so beloved was the Gironese violinist by Manhattan’s mamboniks that the rumor persisted. (That his third wife, Abbe Lane, was a curvaceous Jewess many years his junior is beyond reproof.) Cugat was, however, the link between Jewish movie moguls and Jewish mambo maniacs. He grew up in Cuba and found his fortune in Hollywood, selling millions of records from the ‘30s through the ‘60s.

Cugat began performing in films early on with a nattily dressed orchestra. He almost always played himself. Films that featured his occasionally saccharine outfit include Ten Cents a Dance with Barbara Stanwyck (1931) and the Mae West vehicle Go West, Young Man (1936); he was the star of the first musical short ever produced, Cugat and his Gigolos, for Warner Brothers. In addition to his film and music career, the bandleader was also a talented caricaturist whose drawings appeared in the Los Angeles Times: his skill at exaggeration cannily played up Latin stereotypes in dramatic, impressionistic works.

In 1935 he had three hits on the pop charts: “The Lady In Red,” "The Cocoanut Pudding Vendor," and “Begin the Beguine,” the latter written by Cole Porter, with assistance from Cugat himself. Soon thereafter he began a lengthy residence at the Sert Room in New York’s Waldorf Astoria. Demand grew so great that Cugat was turning away gigs: the band simply couldn’t be everywhere at once. So, in 1937, Cugat established “Xavier Cugat Orchestras” in five cities. To lead the Miami franchise, he hired a white Cuban vocalist, Desi Arnaz.

Meanwhile, Cugat’s appearances in a spate of B-grade MGM films in the ‘40s – ten in all -- made “Cugie” the face of Latin music for mainstream America until the arrival of Perez Prado in the 1950’s. Jewish musical comic Mickey Katz noted his appeal to Jewish grandmothers and others in his “Yiddishe Mambo,” with the couplet “Her kugel is hot / For Xavier Cugat.” He teamed up with Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian star, who had become an American sensation at the same time, in 1948’s A Date with Judy. The pair became king and queen of Hollywood’s tropical kitsch.

Cugat’s watered-down versions of Latin rhythm – often with English lyrics that denigrated Latinos – was uniquely American: it was more pastiche than anything else. He famously described his rationale thus: “Americans know nothing about Latin music. They neither understand nor feel it. So they have to be given music more for the eyes than the ears. Eighty percent visual, the rest aural. To succeed in America, I gave the Americans a Latin music that had nothing authentic about it. Then I began to change the music and play more legitimately."

Indeed, Cugat’s relocation from Hollywood to New York, and competition in the hot-house of Afro-Cuban jazz, invigorated his anodyne arrangements. For a while, Miguelito Valdez, a true Cuban rumbero, fronted the band (it was he who hit first with “Babalú,” before Desi Arnaz’s more pallid rendition). Bands that emulated Cugat’s brand of cocktail Latin music became popular with the Jewish community, including Pupi Campo, Jose Curbelo, Noro Morales, and even the Jewish bandleader Alfredo Mendez (born Alfred Mendelsohn).

Cugat’s canny marketing (girls, Chihuahuas, and then music) and his willingness to jump on any trend, from tango to rumba to mambo to cha-cha-cha, insured his popularity for decades, until a stroke forced his retirement in 1971. Despite the treacle of his best-known work, Cugat must be credited for opening American ears to Latin sounds. Nor was his band anything to snicker at: In addition to Miguelito Valdes, Cugat worked with Tito Puente, the vocalist Tito Rodriguez, Machito, and, er, Charo (his fourth wife). He died in Barcelona in 1990.

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Sephardim in Harlem

One observer of Jewish Harlem in its brief heyday was the Puerto Rican activist Bernardo Vega. An early migrant who reached New York in 1916, he notes in his memoir a restaurant called La Luz. “We were attracted by the Spanish name, although the owner was actually a Sephardic Jew,” he writes. “The food was not prepared in the style that was familiar to us, but we did notice that the sauces were of Spanish origin.” It’s a rare outsider’s reference to East Harlem’s other Jewish community. New York’s Sephardim – mainly Jews from the Eastern Ottoman Empire, some 40,000 strong in the 1920s, were descended from Spanish exiles of Columbus’s day. They spoke Ladino, a mixture of medieval Spanish with Hebrew, Turkish, Italian, Greek, and Portuguese, and wrote it with Hebrew characters.

Individual Sephardic families – the Hayses, Hendrickses, and Peixottos -- some with roots in New York dating to the 1600s, made up a Jewish aristocracy in the 19th century. They had little to do with a second migration from Turkey, Cyprus, and other Mediterranean ports, who swelled the community’s numbers and added spice to Jewish Harlem. Relations between the Sephardim and their Eastern European brethren were often fraught. For their part, the Eastern European immigrants were baffled by these Jews who didn’t speak Yiddish, looked Hispanic, and prayed in such strange accents. At times, the Sephardim found a warmer reception from their Spanish-speaking, non-Jewish neighbors. Caribbean immigrants could communicate somewhat with these Jews in their medieval Spanish tongue, and intermarriage was common enough that Sephardic newspapers warned gravely against it.

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Sidney Siegel and Seeco Records

Sidney Siegel parlayed a ghetto jewelry store into one of the largest independent Latin record label of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Promising “The Finest in Latin American Recordings” on every disc, Seeco Records delivered stars including Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera not only to the U.S., but to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guatemala and Japan. It all began in a bombed-out building at 115th St, in the Spanish Harlem that until recently had been the second largest Jewish community in the country.

Siegel’s father-in-law gave Sidney a building at 1393 Fifth Avenue as a wedding gift. Once one of the tonier areas of the neighborhood, it had fallen on hard times. The upper story, an apartment house, was condemned. But the ground floor was perfect for a shop, and Sidney opened Casa Siegel -- the House of Siegel -- in 1941. The store stocked low-cost furnishings, as well as jewelry, radios, and records. Howard Roseff, Siegel’s younger cousin, worked alongside him in the store as a child, and eventually became Sidney’s right hand in Seeco.

Casa Siegel’s clientele was mostly Puerto Rican, and returned often to purchase music from the shop’s selection of 78s, which included island music as well Argentine tangos, Mexican music, boleros, and Cuban rumbas.

The early ‘40s were a time of upheaval for American recording companies. First, a broadcasters feud with music publishers sparked a scramble for publishing rights, as hundreds of folk, blues, and international music compostions were bought up by American houses. Then, the American Federation of Musicians went on strike, resulting in a recording ban that kept the best bands out of the studios for over two years. When the United States entered World War II in December of 1941, non-essential industries, record manufacturing among them, all but shut down. Remembers Howard Roseff, “Part of the rationing was that one of the components of making records, shellac, was necessary for ammunition.” In fact, the War Production Board cut shellac production by 70% in April of 1942 and suspended the production of phonographs.

Seigel was keenly aware of the resulting music shortage, but also noted how the Latin music he sold from his shop had an insatiable market. When major labels began to release their Latin stars from contracts, Seigel snapped them up.

“All these recording stars in the Spanish world were out of work,” Roseff remembers. “Sidney knew who these popular artists were because he used to sell their records on RCA and Decca and Columbia….He couldn’t get the records manufactured here, so he had the bright idea of manufacturing in Canada,” his cousin remembers. He signed stars that would include Mexico’s Los Panchos, Cuban composer Miguel Matamoros, vocalist Vicentico Valdes, Spanish singer Lola Flores, and La Sonora Matancera, “and the next thing you know,” says Roseff, “he gave up the jewelry business, gave up the furniture business, and stuck with records.”

Seeco began recording in 1944. Some of the earliest sessions were with Pupi Campo and Noro Morales, two Barrio bandleaders who specialized in Xavier Cugat-style music. Campo in particular wooed the Jewish crowd, and when television hit, he was a regular on Jack Paar’s show. But by and large, Seeco catered to the tastes of Spanish Harlemites first. “Our market was Harlem,” Roseff recalls, “but we did a lot with Puerto Rico and Cuba, and then we eventually wound up in Guatemala and Panama.” Such practices were common for major record labels, but for an East Harlem independent, Siegel’s ambition was notable.

Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s and into the ‘60s, Seeco and its subsidiary Tropical, manned by Howard Roseff, specialized in a wide variety of Latin music, including tangos, Mexican rancheras, Dominican merengue, Spanish flamenco, and more. In 1954, Seeco pressed the first Latin twelve-inch LP, while 10-inch 78s would continue to be a staple of the Latin market into the ‘60s.

While Latin jazz was simmering in New York, Siegel’s tastes ran to the folkloric, and he traveled to Cuba monthly. Eventually, Seeco carved a niche with Cuban recordings, from the boleros of the Trio Matamoros to the fiery big-band sound of La Sonora Matancera and its young vocalist Celia Cruz. Vicentico Valdes, who was briefly the vocalist in Tito Puente’s band, made Seeco the most successful Latin label for a decade. Siegel was known as a straight shooter, telling artists, “You aren’t going to make any money with Seeco…However, I will put you on the map.” Roseff adds that “Sidney allowed the artists to do what they wanted to do. They would pick their own repertoire…we did singles at the very beginning, and you cut four sides at the session. The artists themselves would pick the numbers.”

The momentum kept the label near the top of the heap through the mambo era. In 1953, Variety ranked Seeco second behind the giant RCA in the surging Latin music market. But Seeco couldn’t keep up with the New York Latin sound being created by Tico and other competitors, and lost Celia Cruz and Vicentico Valdez in 1965. At the same time, Seigel was named in a series of royalties-related lawsuits. Says Roseff, “Paying royalties at the time was not too important to people who were just concerned with getting the project out…Not to besmirch Sidney, but he was a businessman and you try to get away with whatever you can, and when you get caught, you pay.” Siegel sold the business in the late ‘60s only a short time before he suffered a fatal heart attack.

The Seeco example inspired others in a golden age of independent Latin record labels. Alegre, Verne, Mardi Gras, Tico, Ansonia, SMC, and Fania were just a few of the players in the Latin biz who took their cues from this dapper Jew.

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Rumberos on the Radio: Jewish DJs

In New York City, the first radio hosts to play Latin music on English-language radio programs were Jewish, as was a significant portion of their English-speaking audience. That surprising demographic may have had something to do with the fact that these Latin music shows ran on the "ethnic" radio stations that also catered to Jewish audiences. While Jewish mothers and fathers would listen to Yiddish music and talk programs in the afternoons, the same station might suddenly yield to Spanish music in the evening. As one writer remembered his tenement youth in the '40s: "The songs of Yiddish star Molly Picon and the words of Molly Goldberg, our own Jewish TV sitcom sage, spilled out of the living room to compete with the music of Arsenio Rodriguez, La Sonora Matancera, and Conjunto Casino de la Playa."

The pioneering Latin deejay Art “Pancho” Raymond shared just such a childhood. Today, Art Raymond is known as the dean of Yiddish radio, thanks to 35 years behind the long-running shows “Raisins and Almonds” and “Sunday Simcha” on New York’s WEVD. But at the start of his career, Raymond’s musical signature was Latin. He was drawn to the similarities between Latin and Jewish music. “A lot of it was written in a minor key, as is a lot of Jewish music, and I had a love for Jewish music since I was a young kid,” the 82 year old says. “It sounded almost like Jewish music, many of the songs.”

It was in 1943, at the height of World War II, that Raymond began his radio career at WPAT in Paterson, New Jersey. “One day I was asked to do a half-hour Latin-music program in the middle of the day, around 12:30. Xavier Cugat was number one at the time. He was what they called ‘commercial Latin music’ – it appealed to the American audience. So while I’m doing this program, playing Cugat, I started using a Spanish accent. Using my high school Spanish, I began the program with “Muy buenas tardes, queridos amigos, como están Ustedes?’ The station manager heard me and called me into his office. He said, I want you to the show every day. Use the accent. It’s cute.”

Raymond called his show “Tico Tico Time,” after the song popularized by organist Esther Smith in the film “Bathing Beauty,” and along with his occasional addresses in Spanish, he also gave some Latin dance instruction over the air. It was, if not the first, one of the very first Latin-music shows to be aimed at a non-Spanish speaking audience.

Deejays such as Raymond and his direct competitor, Dick “Ricardo” Sugar, educated their non-Latin audience as well. For this crowd, the whitewashed sound of Xavier Cugat opened the door to the gutsier, more authentic rhythms of musicians such as Machito, Noro Morales, and young kid named Tito Puente. The end result was that, in neighborhoods such as East Harlem and other communities, Jews and Latinos were listening to the same music. Before long, Raymond, Sugar, Bob “Pedro” Harris, Matty Singer (“The Humdinger”), and later “Symphony Sid” Torin, Joe Gaines, and Roger Dawson could count on a vast Jewish audience for their radio programs and dance parties, and Latino musicians – local and even touring bands from Cuba – found a white audience for the music in Jewish enclaves of New York, Philadelphia, Miami, and elsewhere.

A case in point: April 21, 1946 – Easter Sunday – a day of infamy for Latin music in New York. It was the culmination of a serious of white-hot dance matinees at the Manhattan Center on 34th St., promoted by Art “Pancho” Raymond and Gabriel Oller, the Puerto Rican proprietor of the Spanish Music Center record shop. Five bands were booked, including Machito’s Afro-Cubans and the orchestras of José Iznaga, Juan “El Boy,” Luis Del Campo, and José Budet. Doors opened at 1 p.m. for dancing that would last until 1 a.m. Just two hours into the event, the New York City Fire Department closed the doors; 5000 revelers were inside. Although no ethnic profile of the crowd exists, its not hard to imagine that an Easter Sunday dance matinee would attract a largely Jewish – or at least skeptical – crowd. The mix of bands certainly appealed to both a Barrio audience and non-Latino fans who were familiar with Machito from the Afro-Cubans’ residencies at downtown clubs such as the Beachcomber and La Conga. By eight p.m, the bar was tapped out, and jokers in the balcony began tossing bottles on the dance floor. Police retaliated by firing warning shots into the ceiling of the cavernous space. “When music stop,” Gabriel Oller told the contemporary jazz critic Marshall Sterns, “everyone punch everyone; when music start, everyone dance.” And so the music kept going, throughout the chaos. Four dancers were sent to St. Vincent’s hospital, and a police officer’s scalp was sliced open by a flying chair.

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