Miguelito Valdes: the Eternal Mr. Babalu

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It was in 1978, at a famous hotel in Bogota, Colombia, where Miguelito Valdes performed for the last time. The Salsa boom was at its peak then, and yet today, few remember Miguelito as well as the Fania Records icons of that time.

Many Latin music fans may have heard but might not be familiarized with the music of Miguelito Valdes. Mr. Babalú, as he was known, passed this month during that 1978 performance in Colombia. Today, 41 years later, I take a moment to reflect on a musical legacy that we shouldn’t forget.

Miguelito Valdes: the Great Entertainer

Miguel Ángel Eugenio Lázaro Zacarías Izquierdo Valdés Hernández, his real name, was an extraordinary entertainer. Miguelito was born in the Belen neighborhood of Havana to a Spaniard father and a Mexican mother. However, a few years later they moved to Cayo Hueso, the same Havana neighborhood of Chano Pozo, who became one of his dear friends).

Miguelito Valdes with Tito Puente and Xavier Cugat
The charisma of Miguelito Valdes enabled him to make many friends, among them Tito Puente and Xavier Cugat, with whom he sang when he arrived in New York from Cuba.

Miguelito was very versatile and had many interests and skills. He played the guitar, tres, double bass, timbal, and conga. At one time, he even became a boxer, a skill that could come in handy in Cayo Hueso, but finally, music won his passion. And he sang with lots of it.

Perhaps because of his upbringing in Cayo Hueso, Havana, he had a keen ability to sing and perform afro-Cuban songs, like “Bruca Manigua” (written by the legendary Arsenio Rodriguez, and later recorded by Ray Barretto), and Babalú, the song that earned him his nickname.

While still in his mid-20s Miguelito quickly obtain fame with two of Cuba’s most popular orchestras of the 1930s. He popularized both “Bruca Manigua” and “Babalú” with Orquesta Casino de la Playa, led by Arsenio Rodriguez. In 1940, after three years with the Casino, he left to briefly join the Orquesta Riverside for some recordings before migrating to New York.

It turns out that his success followed him to the big apple. There he sang with main bands like Xavier Cugat, Noro Morales, and Machito, all top-notch bands in the ’40s.

Miguelito Valdes externalized his passion for the music he sang. In this video of his great hit “Babalú“, you can see from his expression that he’s deeply immersed in his performance.

Remembering Miguelito Valdes

Besides being a great musician, Miguelito developed great friendships wherever he went. His charisma transcended Latino audiences, which allowed him to perform with several American jazz bands, participate in Hollywood movies (he moved to LA in 1967), and put on his own review show in Las Vegas.

On this last point, Miguelito showed great skill. He would put together reviews/shows, which mixed music with a bit of acting. He started doing these in Cuba, later did that same during a stay in Mexico during the mid-1940s, and then brought those shows to New York and Los Angeles.

Mr. Babalú traveled extensively throughout Latin America. In early 1978, he suffered a mild heart attack in Mexico, from which he fully recovered. In November, he died during that last performance in Colombia. At age 66, I would speculate that performing with his usual passionate style likely triggered the fatal heart attack.

Shortly after Miguelito’s passing in 1978, two of his friends joined forces to make a tribute song for him. Puerto Rican Felix Castrillon, wrote a tribute song which was recorded by Willie Rosario in his album “Rey del Ritmo” (1979).

At that time, Rosario had Junior Toledo as his main singer, and singer Guillo Rivera makes his debut with the band. It’s interesting that the maestro Ray Santos was one of the arrangers in the album, and he surely knew Mr. Babalú quite well. Junior’s unique style shines in this song “Recordando a Miguelito Valdes”.

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