Desi Arnaz was a television genius. Fifty years down the road, the antics of the Ricardos and the Mertzes may smell musty until you consider that Arnaz had mastered the sitcom formula well ahead of everyone else. He was the innovator of three-camera simultaneous shooting, still the standard method of taping sitcoms with a minimum of takes. And try naming another Latino who came as far as he did in an era of limited opportunities for minorities, including starring in his own television show over the objections of network execs who wanted an Anglo hubbie for Lucille Ball. But best of all, Arnaz helped bring Cuban music to the masses.
Along with Trio Matamoros, Benny Moré, Perez Prado, and other heavyweights, RCA Victor/BMG includes Desi in its new Cuban Originals series, and that inclusion is justified. To argue that Arnaz mainstreamed Cuban music to the point of steamrolling it misses the point. Raymond Scott, Arthur Schwartz, or Moises Simons, who composed some of the songs on Desi Arnaz, were hardly sons of Havana. But Desi's stated goal was to combine the Latin rhythms of Machito with the lushness of Kostelanetz, which meant grounding his arrangements in recognizable forms while tossing in the exotica that the public gobbled up.
Another strategy was flirting with novelty song elements, such as the silly voices on Carnival in Rio or the fake tribalism of Babalu, the only genuinely campy piece in this collection. Nearly every song steps up and shakes the listener's hand demanding to be noticed, from the likable rogue introduced by Amanda Lane on Desi's signature song Cuban Pete, to the orchestral quickstep of El Cumbanchero, or the wordplay of the Latin calypso You Can in Yucatán.
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Although no blazing soloists nudge the focus away from Desi, he apparently knew mere charm has its limits. Just as he played second banana to Lucy on the TV series, as band leader he supported arrangements in which he's so strategically used, I want more Desi rather than less. Thus his appealing but reedy vocals get scant attention compared to the orchestration. And the arrangements can be tepid. Compare his pastoral version of Peanut Vendor to Perez Prado's volcanic trumpet-breathing mambo or even his Babalu with Casino de la Playa's (both featured on the Cuban Originals new Baile Tropical compilation).
Despite its occasional blandness, there's no mistaking Desi's music for anything but Cuban, and you can't argue with his success. Between 1946 and 1949, the period covered on this disc, Arnaz recorded 43 sides for RCA Victor, broadcast radio shows twice a week, and starred in three films with his band. While I got my first taste of Cuban big-band music via first-run episodes of I Love Lucy -- that's how wizened I am -- I had no idea that Arnaz found great fame before his television days. This anthology gives Desi his due.