My father, Emilio de los Reyes (1920-1987), was a well-known and popular orchestra leader. This year was the 26th anniversary of his death and I’m grateful for the chance to share these reminiscences with readers of Allegro. Former Local 802 president Bill Moriarity told me, “All I ever learned about Cuban music I learned from Emilio. The 10 years I spent with his band were the best of my performing life. I can still see the whole band onstage at Roseland with your whole family in front. Beautiful times.”
My father was born in Cuba to a father who was a dentist, and a mother who was a piano teacher. His mother inspired Emilio and all four of his siblings to love music, and they all played musical instruments. My father learned to play the trumpet and read music from his brothers, and loved to sing as well. He had a beautiful voice. Music became his passion, and when he became a part of a jazz band in 1938, he never looked back. He started his own orchestra in 1943 and was engaged to play at the Zombie Club, one of Cuba’s most famous nightclubs. In 1947, my father was invited by Bill Miller to perform at his famous Riviera Club in New Jersey, and off my father went.
Upon arrival in New York City, my father was hailed as the “Cuban Harry James,” and became an integral part of the Latin craze of the 40s, 50s and early 60s. In 1947, he hired my mother, Irma Rodriguez, to sing with him in the orchestra. She had been hailed as “second to Diosa Costello” for her stellar singing and maraca playing, and had performed with many popular Latin artists. My parents married in 1949, and they were enthusiastically received everywhere they performed. They were very much in demand at all the most popular hot spots of the day, and my father was sought after by radio hosts to be a part of their broadcasts. His orchestra was chosen to appear on Jackie Gleason’s “America’s Greatest Bands” in 1955, and he made recordings with MGM, Mardis-Gras and Decca. My father performed at all the most exclusive and prestigious night clubs and venues with an endless array of well-known artists and celebrities, and he was highly respected by all he met.
Throughout his career, my father taught and introduced many musicians to authentic Cuban and Latin rhythms, and he was affectionately referred to as “Maestro.” He was meticulous and exacting with his music and performances, but he treated his musicians with fairness and compassion. Music was his heart and soul, and he especially wanted to create music that would inspire people to dance with joy. He wanted to excite his audience with his music, and his sounds lifted them out of their seats! His energy and love of music were infectious, and I learned from him the joy and wonder of sound. I remember going to concerts with him, and hearing him squeal and laugh with delight when he heard certain strains and chords that excited him, and I would squeal and laugh along with him.
Our home was alive with music and creativity. Every day my brother, Ralph, and I would hear our Dad practicing his trumpet, and watch as he sat at his desk writing down the notes of the songs he heard in his heart. Our Mom would sing and dance for us, and teach us how to sing and dance as well. She was a wild and beautiful dancer, and we marveled at the rhythms that emerged from her maracas. Our parents nurtured and encouraged our talents, and they took us to work with them when we were very young. Being on stage with them felt electric, and yet so natural. They were charismatic, and had a wonderful rapport with their audience. They made me feel at home with them on stage, and when we performed together, I felt the bond and embrace of their love more than ever. My brother and I performed with them often throughout the years, and it was always magical.
My father was a sensitive and caring man. He was a dreamer, and taught me to appreciate the beauty in the smallest everyday things. He saw the wonder in life and the miracle of the universe, and was thrilled with the fast-growing development of science and technology. Although he experienced many disappointments in his life, he was nonetheless excited by life. He always kept pushing onward, and his music was infused with this spirit. My dad developed lung cancer in 1986, but he continued to sing and play his trumpet at Roseland Ballroom in spite of his illness. He performed the music he so much loved with his very last breaths. He died on April 15, 1987. He leaves us with the wonderful legacy of his music.
You can read more about my father’s extensive career by visiting www.bitly.com/de-los-reyes.