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Xavier Cugat, 90, band leader

Xavier Cugat, the Spanish-born band leader who introduced the tropical beat of the rumba to millions of Americans, died Saturday. He was 90. Mr. Cugat died of heart failure in a Barcelona hospital, doctors Jorge Rius and Jaime Pujadas said in a statement. He had checked into the hospital Oct. 8 with a lung infection and failure of his left ventricle.

"Coogie," as he became known to millions of Americans and Europeans, became a star in the early 1930s playing Latin dance music at the Coconut Grove club in Los Angeles and later at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.

Mr. Cugat and his band, the Gigolos, were featured in several popular Hollywood movies in the 1940s and 1950s.

Born Jan. 1, 1900, in San Cugat del Valles near Barcelona, Mr. Cugat began as a violinist at age 12 with the Havana Symphony in Cuba, where his parents moved when he was 4 to escape political persecution. He first had appeared with the Cuban orchestra six years earlier as a guest performer.

After joining the symphony, the penniless 12-year-old musician went to the United States. He became a citizen three years later.

Unable to find much work as a classical musician, he made his way to Hollywood, where he drew caricatures of movie stars for the Los Angeles Times.

Rudolph Valentino, who had to dance the tango in a silent film, asked Mr. Cugat to put together a band to accompany him.

That was the beginning of Cugat and his Gigolos. Thanks to Valentino, they got an engagement at the legendary Coconut Grove in Hollywood's Ambassador Hotel.

That engagement led to others at Al Capone's Chez Paris in Chicago, the Hotel Chase in St. Louis and more than a decade at the Waldorf Astoria.

Mr. Cugat's career as a band leader stretched from the Big Band era in the 1940s to the 1960s. He played the violin and directed the band with his bow.

"I learned very early that everyone in the United States specialized in something," Mr. Cugat said in a 1986 interview, "so I decided to specialize in tropical music _ we called it the rumba abierta then. Today they call it salsa, but it's all basically the same thing."

His splashy, tropical Hollywood films such as Neptune's Daughter, in which he starred with Esther Williams and Red Skelton in 1949, made his name a household word.

Mr. Cugat had a history of heart ailments and high blood pressure. He was hospitalized before giving up his band and returning to Spain in 1978.

But despite further heart problems and hospitalization, he formed a new 16-piece band at age 86 and began touring Spain.

Mr. Cugat was married and divorced five times. His wives were Cuban Rita Montaner, Mexican Carmen Castillo, Chicago-born Lorraine Allen, Brooklyn-born Abbe Lane and Spaniard Charo Baeza, known professionally as Charo.

"If I had it to do all over, I'd marry the same ones," he said. "We always divorced for our careers. You cannot play the violin in Philadelphia when your wife is in Rome making a movie with Marcello Mastroianni."

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