We haven’t featured Latin jazz in quite a while, and even though the subject might bring to mind guys like Xavier Cugat, Perez Prado, and Tito Puente, there were many others who were a big part of the history of the music. The popular bandleader known as Machito was an early star who had a lot of success for many years, but part of the credit should go to his brother-in-law, the talented Mario Bauzá, who ably served as the musical director of the band known as the Afro-Cubans.
Machito was born Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo in Havana, although one source says Tampa, Florida. In any case, the son of a cigar maker grew to adulthood in Cuba and was fully immersed in the local music scene by the late 1920s, working as a percussionist and singer. During the 1930s he found his way to America and logged some valuable experience working in the bands of established stars like Cugat and others. By 1940 he was in New York and forming his own band, which he called the Afro-Cubans.
Although the charismatic Machito was usually fronting the group, singing and shaking his maracas, the band didn’t really hit its stride until his brother-in-law Mario Bauzá came aboard as musical director. Bauzá was the consummate pro, a classically trained musical prodigy who could play several instruments and had already spent time in the top-tier bands of Chick Webb and Cab Calloway. With his help, the band soon became a polished, dynamic outfit; one that presented an audience-pleasing fusion of Latin percussion and big band brass.
The band’s popularity grew through the war years and beyond, and to add to the appeal the group began incorporating a lot of collaborations with conventional jazz stars like Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, and Buddy Rich. The band’s success continued into the 1950s, peaking in popularity during that decade’s mambo craze, but it continued to do well in the 1960s and 1970s. Bauzá’s death in 1976 slowed things down, but Machito continued to forge ahead and for several more years he was able to find plenty of spots for the group while continuing to make the occasional record. He was in his late seventies when he died in 1984.
Machito & The Afro-Cubans - “Adios”
Regular visitors to the GMC might remember that the Special Feature known as Country Catalyst is my humble effort to bring new fans to the genre by spotlighting a classic song. Today’s choice might be familiar to many because it’s been a hit in several different styles, but “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” has kept its identity through all of them — even though the original version is Kentucky’s official state bluegrass song.
It began life in 1946 when the legendary Bill Monroe wrote and performed the song with his Blue Grass Boys and followed up with a best-selling record. It was called a ‘bluegrass waltz’ and it didn’t take long for it to become a favorite of other country musicians, but within a few years some of them had started to add a few wrinkles of their own.
In 1954 a young Elvis Presley was working with Sun Records, trying to come up with what would be his first successful recording. They’d already decided on “That’s All Right” for the ‘A’ side, but were searching for something to back it. They finally cobbled together an upbeat, bluesy version of “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” that even featured a jury-rigged echo effect. Quite a change from the original.
Another treatment that did well was the country-pop version offered up by Patsy Cline in 1963 (the same year she tragically died). Although it wasn’t a huge hit for the amazingly talented singer, it has become a favorite for a lot of her fans, including me. And of course, a lot of other performers have recorded the song in the nearly seven decades it’s been around, including everybody from Ray Charles to the Beatles. A true classic.
Elvis Presley – “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”
Patsy Cline – “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”
If you set out on a quest to find the ultimate teenage heartbreak song from the 1950s, there would be plenty of candidates. I can think of a few myself and I’m sure the same is true for you. But I bet we’d both include the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You” on our list.
The original Skyliners came together in Pittsburgh, when lead singer Jimmy Beaumont was joined by Wally Lester, Jack Taylor, Joe Verscharen, and Janet Vogel. All had already spent some time in earlier singing groups, but finally hit pay dirt when they recorded their teen ballad in 1958. Although it never quite reached the top of the charts, it became a big favorite for many fans while also giving a boost to the group’s popularity.
Like many groups of the era, the Skyliners went through some ups and downs but never found another hit as big as the first. The quintet did have some success with several other records though. Both “This I Swear” and “Pennies from Heaven” were moderate hits and a few others did well, but by 1963 the original Skyliners had pretty much dissolved.
The members of the group were not necessarily finished with music, however. Most stayed musically active in subsequent years, and various versions of the group reformed from time to time. Jimmy Beaumont was usually involved, and in recent years he has been leading a reconstituted Skyliners on the oldies circuit.
The Skyliners – “This I Swear”