BARCELONA -- Xavier Cugat, 90, the "Rumba King" of the 1930s and 1940s who introduced Latin rhythms to millions of Americans and popularized Latin music in general in the United States, died of arteriosclerosis Oct. 27 at a hospital here.
"Coogie," as he was known to millions of Americans and Europeans, became a star in the early 1930s, playing Latin dance music at the Coconut Grove nightclub of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and later at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.
He and his band, the Gigolos, were featured in several popular Hollywood movies in the 1940s and 1950s. They introduced many popular Latin American rhythms to North American audiences and toured extensively every year, playing tangos, rumbas and congas.
"Under the influence of tropical skies and a couple of daiquiris, people developed a taste for my Latin American style of music," he once said.
He was born 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. He moved to New York about 1912, and became a U.S. citizen three years later.
A child prodigy, he appeared at the age of 6 with the Cuban Symphony and studied music in Berlin, Paris and New York before serving five years as violinist for Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. 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.
Film star Rudolf Valentino told Mr. Cugat he had to dance the tango in a silent film and asked the musician to put together a band to accompany him.
That was the beginning of Mr. Cugat and his Gigolos, who, thanks to Valentino, got an engagement at the legendary Coconut Grove. This led to spots at Al Capone's Chez Paris in Chicago, the Hotel Chase in St. Louis and more than a decade of performing at New York's Waldorf-Astoria.
His six-man band opened at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1933. Songwriter-composer Cole Porter heard him rehearsing and asked him to play his new song, "Begin the Beguine." Mr. Cugat recorded the hit tune, and it was a great success. He went on to record other Cole Porter hits such as "Peanut Vendor," "Maria Elena" and "Tico Tico."
Mr. Cugat played the violin and directed the band with his bow.
"I learned very early that everyone in the United States specialized in something," he explained 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."
In films he often appeared as himself, and led his orchestra in several MGM musicals of the 1940s, including "Bathing Beauty" and "Neptune's Daughter." He also appeared in Mae West's "Go West, Young Man" and was a popular entertainer in Las Vegas before his retirement. It was his splashy, tropical Hollywood films, such as "Neptune's Daughter," in which he starred with Esther Williams and Red Skelton in 1949, that made him a household name.
He had a history of heart ailments and high blood pressure and was hospitalized in Los Angeles before he gave up his band and returned to Spain in 1978. Despite further heart problems and hospitalization, he formed a new 16-piece band at the age of 86 and began touring throughout Spain.
He 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."
He was the author of two books, "I, Cugat" and "My Wives."
He had no children.