Bebo Valdés was born Dionisio Ramón Emilio Valdés Amaro on October 9, 1918 in Quivicán, Cuba. He started his career as a pianist in the nightclubs of Havana during the 1940s, replacing René Hernández as pianist and arranger in Julio Cueva’s band. In 1946 the band recorded Rareza del Siglo, one of his most famous mambos and from 1948 to 1957 he worked as pianist and arranger for the vedette Rita Montaner, who was the lead act in the Tropicana cabaret.
His orchestra, Sabor de Cuba, and that of Armando Valdés, alternated at the Tropicana, backing singers such as Benny Moré and Pío Leyva. Bebo played a role in the adaptation of the mambo into the big band format from the previously performed charangas during the late 1940s and 1950s. He developed a new rhythm to compete with Perez Prado’s mambo, called the batanga. He was also an important figure in the incipient Afro-Cuban jazz scene in Havana, taking part in sessions commissioned by American producer Norman Granz during 1952.
By the late 1950s he was recording with Nat “King” Cole and in 1960, along with Sabor de Cuba’s lead vocalist Rolando Laserie, Bebo defected from Cuba to Mexico. He then lived briefly in the United States before touring Europe, and eventually settled in Stockholm, spreading the techniques of Cuban music and Latin jazz. His career got a late boost in 1994 when he teamed up with saxophone player Paquito D’Rivera to release a CD called Bebo Rides Again. 2000 saw him in the film Calle 54 by Fernando Trueba giving his piano playing a wider audience and in 2003, Valdés and flamenco singer Diego El Cigala, recorded the album Lágrimas Negras (Black Tears).
During his career Bebo won seven Grammy Awards, His last musical production was recorded with his son in 2008, Bebo y Chucho Valdés: Juntos para Siempre (Together Forever). For that recording they won the Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.
Pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger Bebo Valdés, who led two famous big bands, was being treated for Alzheimer’s disease, which he had suffered for several years, when he passed away in Stockholm, Sweden, on March 22, 2013 at age 94.
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