When I watched the HBO documentary, Latin Explosion: A New America which chronicles the history of Latin American music and its impact in the U.S., I was beside myself at a glaring omission. The documentary all but skips over the decade of the 1960s indicating that there was no Latin artist worth noting during the decade. But there was. That person was La Lupe who – it can be argued – was the first cross-over singer. La Lupe was known as the Queen of Latin Soul. She was the first Latin artist to sell out Madison Square Garden and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The David Frost Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Dick Cavett Show. At the height of her popularity in this country no other Latin star got nearly the same amount of publicity as La Lupe did. Perhaps it was her style, a controversial blend of performance art, improvisation and a hint of the occult. Her music was described as “soul, fire, sex and voodoo” and it could not be easily categorized into any one genre.
La Lupe had a raspy voice and an impressive range. I’d describe her vocal stylings as somewhere between Edith Piaf and Eartha Kitt. While she’d no doubt entertain with her singing it was her stage presence that usually left audiences mesmerized. She was just as likely to sing a straight ballad as lose herself by flinging off her outer garments, shoes and fake eyelashes. An emotional performer La Lupe was unique in the realm of entertainment, an artist who did much to keep Latin music on the map during the 1960s. In fact, NPR’s Alt.Latino referred to her as “a massively influential figure across Latin culture.”
La Lupe was born Lupe Victoria Yoli in 1936 in a small town called San Pedrito in Santiago de Cuba. Similar to the start of the great Celia Cruz, Lupe earned a teaching degree, but her calling since early in her life was music. She skipped school one day to be a contestant in a radio singing contest, which she won by imitating Olga Guillot, an extraordinarily famous Cuban songstress. Guillot recalled when someone told her, “we’re bringing a young singer to see you who sounds just like you.” Guillot was blown away by the young Lupe, but gave her a piece of advice right off the bat, “forget about Olga Guillot and find your own style.” And boy did Lupe ever do that!
Lupe moved to Havana to concentrate on performing and by 1957, “La Lupe” was all the rage in nightclubs across the city, nightclubs that rivaled those of the great cities in the world, by the way. When La Lupe had her day in Cuban nightclubs the island-nation was both a playground for American talent and business as well as a revolutionary pot, which would boil over in the not too distant future.
Lupe joined the group, “Los Tropicuba” and married the lead singer, Eulogio “Yoyo” Reyes. After her first performance he told her he thought she’d had an epileptic fit on stage. That was the unique style I mentioned, which her audiences adored. Lupe and Reyes divorced in 1960 after a third singer was brought into Los Tropicuba and began an affair with Reyes.
La Lupe ventured out on her own and didn’t miss a beat. She was the leading solo performer in Havana. Musicians who accompanied her in Havana are featured in the PBS documentary, La Lupe: Queen of Latin Soul and they recall thinking there was something wrong with her. La Lupe would – at the spur of the moment – turn to the conductor and demand he play a bolero really fast. She’d also start screaming, hit walls, muss her hair or remove her shoes at moments throughout her performance. What seemed off-kilter to those musicians then later resulted in “a strange kind of coherence” and a supremely entertaining performer. La Lupe was always particularly popular with what people considered anti-establishment audiences. In fact Cuban magazines and newspapers during those years were known to mention that she was dividing Cuba in two.
As far as her music was concerned La Lupe was as adept at boleros as she was at Afro-Cuban music as she was at jazz standards. Audiences couldn’t get enough of her unique style, but when the Cuban Revolution dawned she was deemed a bad example. Like many other Cuban artists at the time she left her country in 1962 and went straight to Mexico to continue her career. Once there though Mexico proved a poor match for her talents so she continued on to New York City.
Upon her arrival in New York, the penniless Lupe went to see an agent who was representing newly arrived Cuban artists. That man wrote a letter and sent Lupe to see Celia Cruz who had herself only been in the U.S. for a relatively short period of time. That meeting resulted in La Lupe joining artistic forces with world-renowned percussionist and bandleader, Mongo Santamaria who recalled how La Lupe would accompany him to clubs and get on stage without prompting. Audiences were always blown away. La Lupe recorded with Santamaria and became a sensation in Latin and jazz clubs throughout New York with her popularity quickly spreading everywhere else.
It was while Lupe was performing with Mongo Santamaria that Tito Puente “stole” her to perform with his own band. Puente was donned the “King of Latin Jazz.” He stood out for injecting a big band sound into traditional Latin music. Known throughout the world, Tito Puente had formed what would come to be called the “Tito Puente Orchestra” in 1948. Puente’s talent for fusing musical styles was a natural fit for La Lupe. Together they recorded a number of hit songs including the affecting, “Que Te Pedi” in 1964.
For the next four years La Lupe recorded and toured the Latin music circuit in the U.S., Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama and Spain. Slowly the union with Puente began to corrode, however. Some say that it was due to ego clashes and continuous conflicts because she didn’t conform. Her proclivity for improvisation and requests to change songs at the last moment may have gotten under the skin of the more disciplined Puente.
Still others have said that while the Tito-Lupe union started out as “Tito Puente and His Orchestra featuring La Lupe,” it evolved into “La Lupe accompanied by the Tito Puente Orchestra,” which may have dented the bandleader’s ego. Whatever the reason for the split it resulted in La Lupe going out on her own as a solo singer. She was replaced in the Tito Puente orchestra by the more mainstream and reliable, Celia Cruz.
In an interview late in her life La Lupe said that she’d accumulated 25 gold records by 1965. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but she was certainly a star in her own right from the mid to late 1960s. Lupe fit right in with the burgeoning counterculture. It was during this time and into the 1970s that she appeared on popular American talk and variety shows. Each of those appearances are unique and entertaining especially because the extravagant Lupe was in such contrast to her conservative hosts. Her appearance on The Dick Cavett Show on June 15, 1973 was described as a “WOW” by the host who ended up performing a song with her and removing his shirt. Cavett went on to say that it surprised him how many Latin people walked up to him and thanked him for having her on his show. “They thanked me as if she’d been their representative, not merely because they enjoyed it.” By the way, my own family has always loved La Lupe’s music, but my mother has been known to say “she was nuts” referencing her yanking off her eyelashes and such during performances. Still, she loved to watch her because you never knew what she was going to do next.
Unfortunately La Lupe’s star dwindled as fast as it had ignited. In the mid-1970s she was no longer in demand in New York. Her contract with Tico Records also suffered when the company was bought by Fania Records who promoted Celia Cruz as its featured female star.
From there things went South for the talented, innovative star. Lupe moved to Puerto Rico where she performed concerts and appeared on television, but now the venues were smaller and the programs were on local channels. I believe this performance of one of my favorite songs, “Cualquiera” is from a local show in Puerto Rico.
By the early 1980s La Lupe was back in New York and destitute. She suffered health and financial set-backs for the rest of her life. I remember going to one of the Cuban Day parades in New York in the 1980s with a group of friends. After the parade we walked to a restaurant on Columbus Avenue and as we opened the door to the establishment out came La Lupe. She stumbled and we froze gawking at her. She made a remark and continued on her way down the sidewalk where passers-by were oblivious as to who was in their midst. The Queen of Latin Soul. We knew we’d just been close to a legend though and I’d like to think that for that brief moment she knew we knew it.
I’ve wanted to spotlight La Lupe on this blog in some way ever since I saw the HBO documentary because her omission really stuck in my craw. So I post this in her honor to conclude my series of posts to commemorating Hispanic Heritage Month and the #DePelicula campaign I co-hosted with Raquel of Out of the Past. While La Lupe has no classic movie connections that I’m aware of her music has been featured in many movies and TV programs. You can take a look at the IMDB list for specifics. Although I’m sure the list is not complete because Mira Nair‘s The Perez Family (1995) is not included and it has a fabulous soundtrack of Cuban songs including La Lupe’s torch song, “Si Vuelves Tu” (If You Return).
La Lupe died on February 29, 1992 in The Bronx. She was 53 years old. She was survived by her husband and two children. In 2002 The Bronx renamed 140 Street La Lupe Way.
“The audience knew they were onto something different from anything they had ever seen. She gave off a pleasant, menacing quality. The quality that’s essential to most drama. What’s going to happen next?” – Dick Cavett