Record companies seemed to be quick to jump on the bandwagon for instrumental trends in the early 1950s. The combination of the waning popularity of big bands and a large cache of powerful musicians still under contract, record companies such as RCA were looking for every opportunity to take advantage of the next big musical fad. Trends came and went during this time, such as the exotica sounds made famous by Martin Denny and the cool lounge style of Les Baxter. Right in the middle of this period, Latin marimba player Manny Lopez was asked if he would put a full album together of ch cha cha songs. He did and another popular instrument trend promptly swept the country.
With the release of nine full albums in just a few years, Manny soon became known as "The King of the Cha Cha Cha!"
What you must know about Manny is, unlike the marketing managers within the record companies, Manny was not turning out the albums to simply take advantage of a new trend, Manny excitedly put together a hot Latin band, practiced each tune and added his own energetic musicianship to make music and have a blast doing it! Along the way, Manny employed many musicians and arrangers. Manny was a gifted bandleader and marimba player capable of playing straight-ahead jazz, yet he embraced the fame he achieved as the Cha-Cha King and he remained immensely proud of the music he made!
When Manny’s son Steve called me to tell me his father passed away on May 14, 2019, I immediately played one of his cha chas and reflected on our friendship. I was lucky to have interviewed him for the NAMM Oral History program in 2011 and we remained friends. I would visit Manny as often as I could, the last begin just a few months before he passed.
What I learned from Manny was that behind the commercial success of instrumental trends were dedicated and passionate musicians who put their heart and soul into their work. In addition to his Ch Cha Cha Records, his musical performances graced the stages in Las Vegas, Cuba and Los Angeles beginning in the late 1940s and continuing into the early 2000s. Manny was also a noted songwriter and he even built several musical instruments that he used on stage and in the recording studios including a number of marimbas.
Click here to see a segment from Manny's Oral History Interview.
Even during my last visit with Manny, he still possessed the love and passion for music that was at the center of his 60 plus year career.
The King of the Cha Cha is dead. Long live the King.
Rest In Peace Manny.
Dan Del Fiorentino