April 20, 1954: Everybody Loves Mambo!
On April 20, 1954, Tito Puente and the Mambo-Rhumba Festival came to Symphony Hall.
In America, 1954 was the Year of Mambo, the year the dance craze peaked in popularity. That was the year of Perry Como’s “Papa Loves Mambo,” Rosemary Cloony’s “Mambo Italiano” (she hated it), Les Brown’s “St. Louis Blues Mambo,” and yes, Duke Ellington’s “Bunny Hop Mambo.” The top bandleaders—Pérez Prado, Machito, Tito Puente—were on television and radio, and in all the magazines. The October 6, 1954 issue of Down Beat included a Tito Puente feature by Nat Hentoff, “The Mambo!! They Shake A-Plenty With Tito Puente,” and no, Nat didn’t write the headline.
Of course, jazz knew what was happening underneath the commercial fluff, and had for years. There’s no need to recount that story here.
Anyway, on April 20 the Mambo-Rhumba Festival, with Tito Puente, Miguelito Valdes, Pupi Campo, and the Joe Loco Quintet rolled into Symphony Hall. “Latin American stars appeared before an audience of astonishing proportions and literally tore the place to pieces,” wrote George Clarke in the Daily Record a few days later.
Mambo started getting serious in Boston in 1952, oddly enough on the Jazz Corner, at Wally’s and the Hi-Hat. There was more of it in 1953, but the mambo wave struck with tsunami force in the fall of 1954. Pérez Prado played the Roseland-State Ballroom just after Labor Day and drew over 1,100 dancers, the biggest crowd Charlie Shribman had seen in years. It was newsworthy enough for a story in Time magazine. There was a mambo festival at the First Corps Cadets Armory. During October, when Tito Puente did a week at the Hi-Hat, mambo was everywhere: at the 5 O’Clock Club with Rene de la Osa; at Frankie Mack’s out near the airport with Don Rolando and His Mambo Band; at the Cave with Olga Menendez; at the Band Box with Paul Raval; at the Hotel Touraine’s Surry Room with Jose Romez; at the Coral Room in the Theatre District with Rosanna, the Mad Mambo Queen.
It didn’t last. December 1955, was about the end of it—of the popular craze in Boston, that is. Happily, jazz and Cuban music were already in a more permanent union.
Here are two audio tracks, both tunes that were probably played during that mambo festival 59 years ago. First is Tito Puente’s “Hong Kong Mambo,” followed by Joe Loco’s “Jive Mambo.”