Latin American music was introduced to Britain by Edmundo Ros whose bands went on to sell records by the million.
He arrived in London from Venezuela just before the Second World War to study composition and harmony at the Royal Academy of Music. From the outset, he felt he was the victim of racial segregation as the academy packed him off to lodgings for colonial students. His ambitions then became two fold – to succeed as a musician and to be accepted by the British Establishment. He fulfilled both aspirations. His musical career speaks for itself. His social career was carefully nurtured. He acquired a BBC accent and, as his granddaughter once said: “He was good fun – he was posh, and he would do anything to stop you thinking he was black.”
Ros (originally Ross) was born in relative poverty in the West Indies, the son of a black Venezuelan woman and a telephone engineer of Scottish origins. There is some confusion about how he spent his early years – according to one account, he learned the saxophone, euphonium and drums while serving in the Venezuelan military academy in Caracas. He was apparently employed as a timpanist in a symphony orchestra in Caracas and moonlighted as a drummer in the night clubs of Venezuela.
The night after he arrived in London, he sought out a club in Soho where, again playing drums, he accompanied a pianist singing Cuban songs. On the following day, he was signed up to sing and play drums on the Mayfair circuit of supper clubs. When he opened his own club, the music paper Melody Maker neatly summed him up – he came, he saw, he conga’d. He launched his own orchestra at the Coconut Grove club in Regent Street while appearing at the Bagatelle Club off Piccadilly. His name was made when the young Princess Elizabeth danced to his music at the Bagatelle. In later years, he took great glee in describing how he had taught both Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret how to dance the rumba and the samba.
It was his fellow bandleader, Victor Silvester, who suggested he might widen his appeal if he gave the Latin treatment to songs that had already become popular. That piece of advice resulted in him having his own sound. From that moment, he was unstoppable. At the London Palladium, he supported the Brazilian samba star, Carmen Miranda, who was noted for wearing fruit in her hair. From 1941, he had a recording contract with Parlophone. He switched to Decca in 1944 and, over the next 30 years, he made more than 800 recordings, many of which are still available on CD. His hits included The Coffee Song (They’ve Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil) (1946), Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think) (1949) and Wedding Samba (also 1949), which sold three million copies.
In 1951, he bought the Coconut Grove, renamed it Edmundo Ros’ Supper and Dance Club and introduced his own form of segregation. King Hussein of Jordan, the novelist Graham Greene and Peter O’Toole were all refused entry for dressing too casually. By the 1960s, his style of music was being gradually edged out by a new form of pop. This was of little interest to Ros as he was by then extremely wealthy. He soldiered on until 1975 when, after a dispute with the Musicians’ Union, he announced the disbandment of his orchestra and the shredding of all his band parts. Edmundo Ros, who was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on December 7, 1910, died in the Spanish resort of Alicante on October 21 at the age of 100.
Richard Anthony Baker