Readers who, like me, grew up in the good old days of the cold war and McCarthyism, the 1950s, will associate the song "Cuban Pete" with Desi Arnaz, the Cuban musician who married Lucille Ball and starred as Ricky Ricardo on the TV show, "I Love Lucy." You probably think Desi wrote the song. Wrong, senor!
"Cuban Pete" was written by an English bandleader named Jose Norman. Jose Norman? What kind of name is that for an English bandleader, and what's he doing writing a rumba about a Cuban? Well, that's not the half of it. It should come as no surprise that among the zillions of special interest groups populating the internet, there is a group of aficianados of English dance band music of the early to mid twentieth century. So, thanks to Google, I have been able to learn quite a bit about Jose Norman recently.
First, he was born in 1906 in Liverpool. According to Jose's son Manny, Jose's father, who may have been a Polish Jew, was named Sternberg. Jose's mother was Scottish, and her maiden name was Henderson. Jose was originally named Joseph Norman Sternberg. After the couple separated, the boy took his mother's maiden name. It gets more interesting. Then he was adopted by a Greek couple, who moved to France! The boy trained as a classical pianist, and used the name Norman Henderson for classical performances. He also took an interest in popular music, and led a Hawaiian band in the 1920s, using the name Joseph Norman.
So let's recap. We have the son of a (possibly) Polish Jewish father and a Scottish mother, born in England. He is adopted by a Greek couple, moves to France, learns classical piano, leads a Hawaiian band, and by his third decade of life, has used four names. Whew!
So, how does the whole Cuban thing enter in here? At some point, he moved back to Liverpool and became acquainted with the family of the Cuban Consul General in Liverpool. From them he learned about Cuban music, and then he introduced the rumba to England. In 1933, Norman married the daughter of the Cuban Consul and they moved to London. He started calling himself Jose, and his band became known as Jose Norman and His Rumbaleros.
In 1936, Jose wrote the song "Cuban Pete." Now, if you try to find the lyrics on any of the innumerable lyrics sites on the internet, you'll find a number of versions of the song, all of which are wrong, as far as I can tell. I happen to have a book called The Big Book of Latin American Songs which includes Jose's original version. In the interest of copyright protection, I won't reproduce it here, but I'll point out a few interesting facts. First, like a lot of standards, "Cuban Pete" has a verse which is rarely sung. Second, in the original version, Pete is referred to in the third person, instead of the first person as in Desi's version. Third, there are a couple of lines that are more or less universally screwed up on the internet. The correct versions of these lines are:
"The senoritas, they sing, and how they swing with this rumbero,"
"And to the meter they bring a happy ring, never a care-o."
Anyway, I'd recommend listening to Louis Armstong's version of the song recorded in 1937, and for information on other versions, check out the Cubanocast Blog for 8/22/07.
BTW, good old Jose Norman left us in 1990, God bless him.