MADRID (AP) - Renowned Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes, a composer and bandleader who recorded with Nat “King” Cole, was musical director at Havana’s legendary Tropicana Club and a key participant in the golden age of Cuban music, has died in Sweden at age 94.
The father began playing accompaniments at Havana’s famous night clubs in the 1940s. He then worked with singer Rita Montaner as her pianist and arranger from 1948 to 1957, when she was the lead cabaret act at the Tropicana.
His orchestra Sabor de Cuba also accompanied singers Benny More and Pio Leyva at the club. It was during this period that he and rival bandleader Perez Prado developed the mambo, a rhythmic style of dance music that swept the world. Valdes and his orchestra devised another rhythm called the batanga which he said helped differentiate his sound from Perez Prado’s.
“I was a jazz musician from a very young age,” Valdes once said. “I started playing like the first jazz pianist I heard, a guy who was popular when I was a kid: Eddy Duchin.” He said other influences were Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Bill Evans.
In 1958, he worked on Nat “King” Cole’s album “Cole Espanol,” collaborating with arranger Nelson Riddle on the orchestral backing tracks that were all recorded in Havana. He also worked with singers Lucho Gatica and Mona Bell.
Valdes said one day a revolutionary guard went to his house demanding the pianist accompany him to a plaza where Castro was giving a speech. “I asked if there was going to be music there and he replied to me that Castro was music,” he said, adding that he then knew it was time to go.
After a brief stay in the United States, Valdes set off on a European tour.
Valdes went to Stockholm in 1963 for a concert with the Lecuona Cuban Boys and fell in love with a Swedish woman, Rose Marie Pehrson, a cavalry officer’s daughter.
They got married the same year and he settled in Sweden. He described it as the most important moment of his life.
“It was like being hit by lightning,” he said. “If you meet a woman and you want to change your life you have to choose between love and art.”
Valdes lived in Stockholm until 2007 where he often struggled to interest people in Cuban music and Latin jazz. He earned a meager living playing in restaurants, on boat cruises and in some of Stockholm’s finest hotels, although he said he did once consider becoming a bus or taxi driver.