Desi Arnaz, more commonly known as Ricky Ricardo or Lucy’s husband from I Love Lucy, was one of the most unique musicians to grace the American charts in the twentieth century–and not just because he managed to gain fame in the 1950s, a time when being anything other than white was generally frowned upon.
His beginnings on Broadway led to a play called Too Many Girls (an appropriate title suited to a Latin lothario such as Arnaz), which RKO Studios adapted into a movie in 1940. Arnaz was invited to play a role in the film version, starring Lucille Ball–and the rest, as they say, is history. The two were married the same year they met, which, in many ways, helped further launch Aranz’s career. His stint as a guitar player for that other Cuban band leader, Xavier Cugat, also aided in giving him a launching off point for his own musical path.
Although Arnaz is known chiefly for his innovation of the television genre, setting up the three-camera method and essentially paving the way for the ability to show reruns, his music, too, displayed a similar sort of departure from the norm. Considering Arnaz grew up in a wealthy family (his grandfather was an executive at Bacardi), his understanding of American culture was profound enough to tap into both sides of his culture. After his family absconded for Miami in the wake of the Cuban Revolution of 1933, Arnaz’s love for all things American only intensified.
Songs like “Cuban Pete,” “El Cumbanchero,” and, of course, “Babalu” brought an entirely different and unprecedented style to the mainstream. While he may have had a tumultuous personal life–surrounded by rumors of insatiable womanizing behind and in front of Lucille Ball’s back–there can be no denying that he altered the musical landscape for a moment in time. Unfortunately, not many people past said moment in time have the aural sensibility to appreciate his work.