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Juan Garcia Esquivel: Music for the Space Age

Getty / Michael Ochs Archives

Juan Garcia Esquivel: Music for the Space Age

Juan Garcia Esquivel, who would have celebrated his 93rd birthday today, took lounge music to its space-age extreme. We look back on his life and the unique sounds he created.

Born in Tampico, Mexico, in 1918, Garcia Esquivel moved with his family to Mexico City when he was 10. By 14 he was appearing as a soloist on a popular radio program. By 17 he was conducting a 15-piece ensemble orchestra. A year later, he was composing for his own 22-piece band. He studied engineering in college, but his increasing popularity on television, radio and in nightclubs persuaded him to give up his academic career.

In 1957 he came to America to record for RCA Victoria (he'd already had a hit album with their Mexican division). His first U.S. release, To Love Again, already displayed a fully formed mastery of a musical style that would later be called lounge music, an orchestral hybrid that bridged the gap between 1950s easy listening and '60s psychedelia.

The release also showcased Esquivel's signature playfulness, a characteristic that set his music apart from his contemporaries (and most composers before or since, save notables like Spike Jones or Danny Elfman). Filled with quirky instrumentation, wordless ooh-aah choruses, harpsichord zings, exotic Latin percussion and brassy, abrupt dynamic shifts, Esquivel's music veered toward the campy, but it was too meticulously crafted to be easily dismissed.

Beginning in the 1960s, he took fullest advantage of stereo technology, experimenting with rapid panning, cross channel echoes, reverberation and extreme channel separation. For 1962's Latin-Esque album, he famously split his orchestra in two and had them play simultaneously in different studios over a block apart to enhance the stereo separation of sounds.

Not everyone appreciated his kitchen sink approach to music. High Fidelity magazine critic R.D. Darrell wrote:

Odd-sound fancier that I am, I have to draw the line somewhere, and for me, Esquivel oversteps it in his complete disregard for musical taste and tonal attractiveness. There is plenty of sonic sensationalism here, both in the frantically fancy arrangements and the spectacularly stereoistic recording, but almost without exception the crude effects cancel each other out. The sounds emanating from an electronic organ and a zu-zu-ing chorus, the nauseous glissandos on various instruments, and the squalling brasses are, for the most part, intolerable.

None of his records were big commercial hits, though they did well enough that he was able to enjoy a decade-long career at RCA and receive several Grammy nominations. He also worked in Hollywood, writing the theme for The Bob Cummings Show and recording a vast library of incidental music used in TV shows such as Kojak and McHale's Navy.

Beginning in 1968, he shifted his emphasis to live shows, becoming a big draw on the Vegas-Tahoe circuit where he often opened for one of his biggest fans – Frank Sinatra. His production included choreographed routines and the kind of elaborate light shows uncommon at the time.

But even futuristic music sometimes gets left behind. As popular tastes shifted, Esquivel's audience dwindled. His contract was cancelled, his musicians disbanded. He had drug and alcohol problems and was forced to sell most of his possessions when he could no longer afford to pay rent.

Fresh off a divorce from singer and manager Yvonne DeBourbon, Esquivel moved back to Mexico. In 1979, well after his creative peak, he landed the biggest commercial hit of his career when music he wrote for the children's puppet show Burbujas became a million seller.

Confined to bed after hip and spinal problems began surfacing in 1993, Esquivel would be rediscovered when audiences reacting against three-chord grunge rock and gangsta rap started a lounge music revival in the mid-1990s. Re-issues of his music began with 1994's Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and kept coming for the next decade. His songs began appearing in movie soundtracks for hits like Pleasantville and The Big Lebowski, and his composition "Mini-Skirt" is explicitly referenced in the theme song for HBO's Sex In the City. His music would also be a big influence on 1990s acts including Stereolab, Pizzicato Five and Combustible Edison.

Asked what he thought about his late life popularity, Esquivel told the Los Angeles Times:

I'm surprised, because those recordings were made 35, 36 years ago. Perhaps the fact is that my music was too much for the time. The audience wasn't ready for that type of music. Now they are used to the sounds and the technology. I'm glad the young artists are trying to follow my style of writing.

Though Garcia Esquivel died Jan. 3, 2002, his space age music will likely live well on into the future.