Celebrating the Centennial of Benny Moré

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Cover design of “El Bárbaro del Ritmo, Mexico & Cuba Recordings 1947-1962” Image: Grosso Records, Spain

This past Saturday, August 24, marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré, better known as Benny (or Beny) Moré. He is the most famous male Cuban singer in the world. Unlike his great female counterpart, Celia Cruz, who lived a rich and full life, Moré drank himself to death in 1963 at the age of 43. Nevertheless, his songs are etched into the minds and souls of millions who have loved and danced to his immortal music. To them, Moré is the “El Bárbaro del Ritmo” and “El Sonero Mayor” – The Barbarian of Rhythm and The Greatest Sonero (singer of son). His music is played on radio and on dance floors around the world to this day. Our colleagues over at Alma del Barrio dedicated a full day of music to him just recently.

Benny Moré was born in Santa Isabel de las Lajas, Cuba in 1919. He reportedly descended from the king of a tribe in the Kingdom of Kongo, who was captured and sold as a slave to a Cuban plantation owner. A precocious Moré made his first guitar out of a board with a string at the age of 6. He would later buy a real guitar with money he made from cutting sugar cane. Moré’s music career began when he brought his guitar to parties, becoming well known in his hometown before moving to Havana in 1940. There he played in cafés and parks, then in clubs.  He migrated to Mexico City in 1945, first singing with Conjunto Matamoros, before working with Pérez Prado and gaining popularity with the emergence of the mambo. Moré acted in many films and tv shows while in Mexico and his star continued to rise. In the early 1950’s he recorded his first big hit, “Yiri Yiri Bon” with bandleader Rafael de Paz. The song also hit big in West Africa; check out this cover by Benin’s Gnonnas Pedro. Moré returned to Havana in 1952.

Here is an amazing performance to “Yiri Yiri Bon” by the China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe, a deaf dance company. This song sure gets around! 

Cuban music was big in New York City in the 1950’s, with Machito, Miguelito Valdés, as well as the new “Cubop” style. A fusion of Cuban music and bebop, Cubop was championed by Dizzy GillespieCharlie Parker, Xavier Cugat, and Chico O’Farrill. Benny Moré would take Cuban music to a new level with his smooth and passionate singing. He cut a fine figure in the most fashionable zoot suits. Unfortunately, he was also wild and unpredictable, often showing up late or missing gigs entirely due to alcoholism. Although admired for his bold and brazen attitude, Moré often went too far and alienated fans. He once beat up a Venezuelan promoter who hadn’t paid him with a lead pipe wrapped up in a newspaper. His protest that he only used a newspaper did not spare him from jail time.

Moré died of cirrhosis in 1963 at just 43. Despite a short career and premature death, he has earned a permanent place in Latin music’s pantheon of mambo kings. Celebrations in many countries marked the centennial of his birth this past Saturday, August 24. 

“Que Bueno Baila Usted” (How Well You Dance) is one of my favorite Moré songs with his big band (La Banda Gigante). The big band performed this hit song at the 1957 Academy Awards. Listen for Moré calling out Generoso Jiménez, his trombone player, who turns in a great solo. In the band photo shown at 0:34, Moré stands in back in the white suit.

Another Moré evergreen, the beautiful bolero “Como Fue,” shows how he imbued a ballad with great feeling.

This screwy, funny cornball clip comes from a movie Moré made while in Mexico City. The husband arrives home to his wife hosting a dance party and doesn’t like it. My thanks to Humberto Capiro for helping find this and other classic 1950’s Mexican videos.

For further discovery, I recommend an article from Miami Herald, which travels to his hometown and tours the Benny Moré museum, as well as the documentary Benny Moré - Hoy Como AyerHappy 100th birthday, Benny Moré!