Dámaso Pérez Prado (December 11, 1916 – September 14, 1989) was a Cuban bandleader, musician (singer, organist and pianist), and composer. He is often referred to as the “King of the Mambo”. Pérez was actually his surname, so Dámaso Pérez, his true name, but he became known by the paternal and maternal surnames “Pérez Prado.”
His orchestra was the most popular in mambo. His son, Pérez Prado, Jr., continues to direct the Pérez Prado Orchestra in Mexico City to this day.
Perez was born in Matanzas, Cuba, his mother Sara Prado was a school teacher, his father Pablo Pérez a journalist at El Heraldo de Cuba. He studied classical piano in his early childhood, and later played organ and piano in local clubs. For a time, he was pianist and arranger for the Sonora Matancera, Cuba’s best-known musical group.
He also worked with casino orchestras in Havana for most of the 1940s, and gained a reputation for being an imaginative (his solo playing style predated bebop by at least five years), loud player. He was nicknamed “El Cara de Foca” (“Seal Face”) by his peers at the time.
In 1948 he moved to Mexico to form his own band and record for RCA Victor. He quickly specialized in mambos, an upbeat adaptation of the Cuban danzón. Perez’s mambos stood out among the competition, with their fiery brass riffs and strong saxophone counterpoints, and most of all, Pérez’s trademark grunts (he actually says “¡Dilo!”, or “Say it!”, in many of the perceived grunts).
In 1950 arranger Sonny Burke heard “Que rico el mambo” while on vacation in Mexico and recorded it back in the United States as “Mambo Jambo”. The single was a hit, which caused Pérez Prado to launch a US tour. His appearances in 1951 were sell-outs and he began recording US releases for RCA Victor.
Pérez Prado is the composer of such famous pieces as “Mambo No. 5” (later a UK chart-topper for both Lou Bega in 1999 and animated character Bob the Builder in 2001) and “Mambo No. 8”. At the height of the mambo movement, in 1955, Perez hit the American charts at number one with a cha-cha version of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” (composed by French composer Louiguy).
This arrangement, featuring trumpeter Billy Regis, held the spot for 10 consecutive weeks. The song also went to number one in the UK and in Germany. Pérez Prado had first covered this title for the movie Underwater! in 1954, where Jane Russell can be seen dancing to “Cherry Pink”.
In 1958 one of Perez’s own compositions, “Patricia”, became the last record to ascend to #1 on the Jockeys and Top 100 charts, both of which gave way the following week to the then newly-introduced Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song also went to number one in Germany, and in the UK it reached number eight.
His popularity in the United States matched the peak of the first wave of interest in Latin music outside the Latino communities during the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. He also performed in films in the United States and Europe, as well as in Mexican cinema (Rumberas film), always with his trademark goatee and turtle-neck sweaters and vests.
With the end of the 1950s, his success waned, and the years gave way to new rhythms, like rock ‘n roll and then pop music. His association with RCA Victor ended in the 1960s, and his recorded output was mainly limited to smaller labels and recycled Latin-style anthologies. In the United States he was referred to as “Prez” Prado.
In the early 1970s Perez permanently returned to his apartment off Mexico City’s grand Paseo de la Reforma to live with his wife and two children, son Dámaso Pérez Salinas (known as Perez Prado, Jr.) and daughter María Engracia. His career in Latin America was still strong. He toured and continued to record material which was released in Mexico, South America, and Japan. He was revered as one of the reigning giants of the music industry and was a regular performer on Mexican television. In Japan, a live concert recording of his 1973 tour was released on LP in an early 4-channel format known as Quadraphonic.
In 1981 Pérez Prado was featured in a musical revue entitled Sun which enjoyed a long run in the Mexican capital. In 1983 his brother Pantaleón Pérez Prado died, and the press erroneously reported the death of bandleader Pérez Prado. His last United States appearance was in Hollywood on September 12, 1987, when he played to a packed house. This was also the year of his last recording. Persistent ill health plagued him for the next two years, and he died of a stroke in Mexico City on September 14, 1989, aged 72.