Ricky Ricardo: The 'Mr. Babalu' Next Door In the 1950s, the man who loved Lucy helped introduce mainstream America to a slice of Latin culture. He was based on Desi Arnaz — yet Arnaz was hardly just playing himself. Felix Contreras has a musical portrait of the fictional Cuban-American bandleader.

Ricky Ricardo: The 'Mr. Babalu' Next Door

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From the big screen to the small screen now. When the television show "I Love Lucy" debuted in 1951, mainstream American knew very little about Latino culture. But the character of Ricky Ricardo changed all that. His heavily accented English and rapid-fire Spanish were as new to some parts of the country as television itself. And then there was the music.

(Soundbite of theme song from "I Love Lucy")

HANSEN: In this installment of National Public Radio's In Character series, NPR's Felix Contreras offers this musical portrait of Ricky Ricardo, a fictional character who played very real music.

(Soundbite of theme song from "I Love Lucy")

FELIX CONTRERAS: I'm sitting in NPR Studio 4A with a pair of congas.

(Soundbite of theme song from "I Love Lucy")

CONTRERAS: I've been playing for over 35 years and I can't tell you the number of times people have not been able to resist coming up to these drums and doing this:

(Soundbite of congas)

CONTRERAS: ...and singing this:

(Soundbite of song, "Babalu")

Mr. DESI ARNAZ (Late Actor and Singer): (Singing) Babalu, Babalu...

Ricky Ricardo's version of "Babalu" was a mix of fact and fiction like everything else about him. The television character Ricky Ricardo was based on the very real Cuban bandleader and vocalist named Desiderio Arnaz y de Acha, or Desi Arnaz.

Ricky was from Havana; Desi was from Santiago de Cuba. Ricky migrated to New York, Desi to Miami. Ricky married Lucy McGillicuddy; Desi married Lucille Ball. Ricky's wife wanted desperately to be in show business; Desi's wife was already a successful radio and film actress. Ricky eventually owned a nightclub; Desi eventually owned television and movie studios.

So with just a few changes, the "I Love Lucy" writers turned Desi into Ricky.

Mr. TONY TERRAN (Trumpeter): They retained much of his character and his emotional side.

CONTRERAS: That's 81-year-old trumpeter Tony Terran, the last surviving member of the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra. He says while Ricky may have been fictional, his band was very real, and it was Terran's introduction to Hollywood.

Mr. TERRAN: When I first came into the business, 19 years old, when I was doing the Bob Hope Show with Desi.

CONTRERAS: The Ricky Ricardo Orchestra was made up mostly of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, which had been playing in ballrooms and theaters around the country when not performing on Hope's radio show. Yet many in Hollywood had their doubts about a television show based on all-American girl married to a Latino. The musicians felt differently.

Mr. TERRAN: I think the general feeling in the band was that it was quite a venture. It made some sense to us. You know, we didn't have the same doubts CBS had.

CONTRERAS: Terran says many popular orchestras back then - both Anglo and Latin - were designed for mass appeal, alternating between swing and Latin rhythms, with vocalists singing in both English and in Spanish.

Desi Arnaz got his start in the late 1930s with a band led by an early Latin crossover success, Xavier Cugat.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Arnaz wrote in his autobiography that he patterned his own band after Cugat's. And Tony Terran says the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra played the same kind of music.

Mr. TERRAN: We were commercial. We were more for TV.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARNAZ: (Singing) They call me juicy, I'm the king of the rumba beat. When I play the maracas I (unintelligible).

Mr. JOHN RODRIGUEZ (Percussionist): It was corny but commercial. You know, I mean, it wasn't the hip Latin music.

CONTRERAS: Percussionist John Rodriguez remembers both kinds of orchestras. His father played in Latin bands and so called society bands in New York in the late 1940s. The younger Rodriguez got his start at age 17, with Tito Puente in 1962. He says he heard from his dad, and from older musicians in Puente's band, that there were plenty of rewards for orchestras like Ricky Ricardo's.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: They wasn't, like, high-paying gigs. They weren't the standard Latin gig. It was the upper end, better-paying jobs, you know. This is Broadway, this is the Paramount Theatre, Roxy Theatre - this is not the Palladium, it's not a Latin club, you know. So you're talking about playing to Americanos or mostly Americans, you know.

CONTRERAS: Millions of Americanos tuned into "I Love Lucy," and most of them probably didn't realize that Ricky Ricardo's signature song was a tribute to an Afro-Cuban god.

(Soundbite of song, "Babalu")

Mr. ARNAZ: (Singing) Babalu, Babalu, Babalu aye...

CONTRERAS: "Babalu," written by Cuban composer Margarita Lecuona, is about Babalu-Aye, one of the seven main gods of the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria. It was first recorded by Cuban vocalist Miguelito Valdes in 1941 - and among fans of more traditional Latin music, he was the real Mr. Babalu.

(Soundbite of song, "Babalu")

Mr. MIGUELITO VALDES (Vocalist): (Singing) Babalu, Babalu, (unintelligible), Babalu aye...

CONTRERAS: Latin music fans will also say Ricky Ricardo was probably not the most authentic Afro-Cuban percussionist but John Rodriguez says that was okay.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I remember my dad saying that he was a terrible conga player. You'd see him playing on TV, he makes it look like it's great. The way they staged it, it looked good on TV and that's all that mattered.

CONTRERAS: It mattered because television, and Ricky Ricardo, helped spread the word about Latin music across the country even more than radio.

Professor CLARA RODRIGUEZ (Sociology): TV had this show, and had this Latin music, on a regular basis every week. They were the number one show for six consecutive years.

CONTRERAS: That's Fordham University sociology professor Clara Rodriguez. She points out that folks in the U.S. got their first taste of Latin music from films of the 1940s that featured Carmen Miranda and Desi Arnaz' old boss, Xavier Cugat. But while they were exotic, television's Ricky Ricardo had much more in common with Middle America.

Prof. RODRIGUEZ: He played a Latino who had a job, a steady job. They lived a middle-class way of life. He was the man for those times who was the breadwinner in the family. So he introduced a character which wouldn't have been very different if he had not been ethnic.

CONTRERAS: Ricky Ricardo was easy for non-Latins to accept. But I've often wondered whether or not this Latino Everyman would have been as successful a band leader as his real-life counterpart, Desi Arnaz, was in the television business.

Tony Terran, who worked with both, says yes.

Mr. TERRAN: If Lucy wouldn't get him in trouble all the time.

(Soundbite of television show, "I Love Lucy")

Mr. ARNAZ: Your Highness, I understand that your favorite number of ours is "Babalu."

Ms. LUCY ARNAZ (Late Actress): Oh, Babalu, Babalu.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONTRERAS: Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: There's music from the last surviving member of the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra and more at our Web site, NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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