Sergio De Karlo

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De Karlo in 1944.

Sergio De Karlo (December 15, 1911 – January 10, 2010) was a Bolerista and the maestro of the Cuban Bolero. He composed more than 300 rumbas and boleros. De Karlo was named "Artist of the Year" in 1942 by Billboard Magazine.[1]


Born in pre-revolutionary Havana with the gift of music to affluent, often distant parents, the young Cecilio (later to become Sergio De Karlo) grew up on a large estate outside of central Havana. With his upbringing left largely to the care of his nanny, Sergio's earliest musical experiences were rooted in the techniques of Afro-Cuban rhythms. These tribal rhythms combined with the traditional music of Spain, constituted the advent of the Cuban Bolero.

When Isabel takes Sergio to a local celebration in a nearby village, he is exposed to images and sounds that he's never imagined. He watches with keen anticipation as the eerie sounds of pulsating drumbeats and rhythmic chanting fill the night air with excitement and confusion. A fever pitch ensues as dancers sway to the rhythmic pulse of the drums. An enormous bonfire crackles in the background, with red-orange flames shooting skyward. The gathering continues throughout the night, with young Cecilio taking in every moment and every sound. His senses are stirred as he encounters his first taste of the Afro-Cuban rhythm.

Cecilio tries to incorporate these rhythms into the Spanish ballads that he plays on the family piano, but can't quite make the connection. When Yoyo, the son of a local cook who works at the family estate, comes by to visit his father, Sergio implores the young boy to play the African drum that he carries. As the boy begins to play, Sergio adapts his own classical playing style to the drumbeats and together the two youngsters create their first Bolero. Cecilio is so taken with this new sound that he begins to convert all of the Spanish ballads that he knows into this new musical style.

Immigration to the United States[edit]

At the age of 14, Sergio became a professional entertainer with a role as a chorus boy in a musical created by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. Shortly thereafter, Sergio ventures out on his own, forming "Arittola" one of the first jazz bands in Cuba. Forced to flee from his homeland because of a complicated romance, Sergio makes his way to New York City, where his dreams of stardom only complicate his struggle for survival. Depression era New York does not welcome young Sergio with open arms, but he does manage to find a job as a dancer, keeping his show business dreams alive by entertaining patrons in a Chinese restaurant.[2]

Early career[edit]

Befriended by The Gills, a brother and sister vaudeville team, Sergio is asked to perform his own material during their costume changes at the Winter Garden Theatre in Manhattan. The audience loves the enthusiastic young singer. When Sergio writes the show's hit song, "Last of the Rumba's", bandleaders such as Andre Kostelanetz and Xavier Cugat quickly begin to play it on their radio shows.

Irving Berlin, fascinated by the young man's knowledge of Afro-Cuban rhythms, offers Sergio a publishing contract for one of his compositions called "Bagoo", a song about island life in Cuba. As Sergio likes to put it, "I was "finally on my way" to realizing the "American Dream".

Mexican Debut[edit]

In 1934, with the hope of conquering new horizons, Sergio studies music with the world-renowned composer Agustín Lara, the composer of numerous hits including the Spanish standard "Granada." At this time, Sergio makes his Mexican debut at the Olympia Theatre in Mexico City, where he writes several songs for a new movie, including the beautiful and romantic ballad "Flores Negras." This song becomes an enormous hit, propelling Sergio to major stardom throughout Mexico. It also becomes an international hit, eventually being recorded by artists such as Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Lawrence Welk, Eydie Gormé with Los Panchos, Ana Gabriel and many others.

Life on Broadway[edit]

During the early 1940s, Sergio plays opposite Carmen Miranda at the Versailles Club in Manhattan and appears with Xavier Cugat at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. He co-stars in the Michael Todd/Cole Porter musical "Mexican Hayride" which runs for four years on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre. In 1940, Sergio appears in the Rodgers and Hart Broadway production of "Too Many Girls," replacing the Hollywood-bound Desi Arnaz as a Cuban heartthrob.

"Ambassador of Melody"[edit]

In 1942, Sergio writes a song for President Franklin D. Roosevelt called "Mr. Franklin D." The President is elated and gives Sergio the honorary title of "Ambassador of Melody".[2] During this time, Sergio tours Hawaii with the King Sisters, Edgar Bergen and Martha Raye on behalf of the war effort.

Hollywood Star[edit]

As his career flourishes in New York City, Sergio is invited to Hollywood to audition for the leading role in the picture "The Life of Rudolph Valentino." He also lands a supporting role in the Alan Ladd/Paramount Pictures film, "Captain Carey U.S.A." Playing an Italian minstrel, Sergio introduces the lovely romantic ballad, "Mona Lisa" to the world. This famous song wins the Academy Award for best song of 1950 and is later recorded by Nat King Cole.

Returning to Mexico City in 1950, Sergio starred in several feature films. Along with scoring many other theatrical productions, his songwriting ability and nightclub appearances render him the toast of Mexico. After achieving great success for many years in Mexico, Sergio eventually moved to Los Angeles, California where he continued to compose and arrange his music. He married his long time love Gracy Lopez and had 5 children. De Karlo died at the age of 99 in San Gabriel, California.


  1. ^ "Sergio De Karlo: The Maestro of Cuban Bolero - Profile". The Insider - Glendale College's Student Magazine. 2010. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "The Sergio De Karlo Project". Bolero Media. Retrieved 16 October 2012.