Columnists » Fame With Bebe Sweetbriar

Charo :: From ’cuchi-cuchi’ to ’sexy sexy’

by BeBe Sweetbriar
Tuesday Jul 17, 2012

You have seen her all over the place performing what has become known as the cuchi-cuchi girl's comeback song, "Sexy Sexy." The song, though, wasn't written for Charo, but was originally intended for Britney Spears and was written by Charo's son and songwriter Shel Rasten.

She premiered the internationally popular song on "The Wendy Williams Show," then provided her adorning gay fans a treat with performances at New York City nightclub Splash's F*Word Party, and again during this year's White Party in Palm Springs.

It has been over 45-years since Charo made her American television debut on "The Today Show." Now nearly 30 years away from the limelight, she has resurrected her career. This time around, even in the twilight of her entertaining days, Charo is determined to do things her way using her classical and flamenco guitar skills as the means to captivate an audience.

Born and raised in Spain, Charo is said to be one of, if not the first Latin performer to put Latin music in the mainstream of America. Along with Cher, we must remember before there were the one-named show biz types like Madonna, Beyonce, and Adele, there was Charo!

As the multi-talented performer was preparing for a visit to San Francisco, a city where she was honored with a Charo Week Proclamation in 2005, and served as its Gay Pride Parade Celebrity Grand Marshall in 2008, to perform at Yoshi’s San Francisco in mid-July, I was able to have an extensive conversation with Charo about a variety of topics covering how she came to America, why she hates discrimination, and how she was able to rebound from the cuchi-cuchi image.

Classical Charo

BeBe: I know when looking over your career, it was about 50 years ago the first time you appeared on television on the ’Today Show’ here in the United States, and I remember looking at you over the years on the talk shows and the variety shows, and all of that, but it took a long time for most of us (public) to realize how talented you were in playing classical and flamenco guitar.

Charo: Thank you, BeBe. In this country, now it is like they are waking up a little bit. Not completely, but a little is better than nothing.

BeBe: When I hear you play guitar, not only hear you but see you play guitar, it is such a skill. Not everyone has the capability to do what you do on the guitar. People do not realize how difficult it is to play the classical and flamenco styles of music you play on the guitar.

Charo: BeBe, it is very difficult, especially when you have small hands. In Spain, the guitar was only a business for guys. A gypsy old man put a guitar in my hands when I was about seven years old, because in the south of Spain during the summer the gypsies go around in carnivals in July, August and little bit of September. They play guitar every night with a big bonfire to say goodbye to the rain.

And I learned right there in a very difficult start. Musicians today would say ’what in the hell are you doing?’. Well, this old man, who was very, very old knew that he would not come back for another summer because he would die, so he gave me his guitar. So he taught me guitar to be ready for my audition to the Institution of Andres Segovia (named after one of the best classical guitarists of the 20th century). He (Segovia) taught me a lot, but I didn’t get flamenco from him. Classical came from Segovia, but the flamenco came from the gypsy. And when I came to America, I went to my first show with a translator (her sister), and I said to the producer, ’Sir, can I play flamenco?’. And, he looked at me and said, ’We don’t have a place for flamenco. This is not the playground for flamenco. This is a show.’ He didn’t even know what flamenco was. He thought I was asking to play with a flamingo bird (we both laugh)!

By then I knew how to say ’shit’! So, I looked at my sister and said, ’shit!’ We were completely fucked. So, goodbye guitar. All my life I say ’cuchi-cuchi’ and dance. If that is what they wanted, I’m going to give it to them. An then one day when they know the difference between flamingo bird and flamenco music (I’ll get my chance). I kept making money and making money until one day I was looking in the mirror and said, ’You are a cheap hooker.’ I was prostituting (myself) for money, not my knowledge.

Then I really started getting very frustrated. But little by little, with a lot of patience, I starting introducing what I was trained to do. So, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and any Latin performer are supposed to say ’thank you, Charo’ because they didn’t even known when I came to America, salsa music was nothing. The song ’Dance A Little Bit Closer’ in 1979 was a huge thing, BeBe, because I put Spanish phrases in between the English ones (Spanglish singing), which I was told had never been done before. They (producers) told me that people are going to wonder, what in hell you are talking about in between verses? And I said that it was about time that the public hears something different.

BeBe, by that time I was making a fortune at the Sahara (Las Vegas) Hotel. At that time (late 70s), I was making $100,000 a week. Same pay as Johnny Carson or Jerry Lewis, Danny Thomas, Bing Crosby, anybody. So, I was so cocky I said that if they didn’t allow me to sing it (Spanglish), I won’t do it. So they gave up. I win, and it became a big hit ( recorded with Salsoul Orchestra became #18 on the U.S. Dance Charts).

Moving to Hawaii

BeBe: It was like a 25 year span between your recording your last song in 1981 (’La Mojada’) and you coming back in 2008 with ’Espana Cani’ (#14 on U.S. Dance Charts). You spent most of the ’80s and ’90s in Hawaii raising your son and attending to family, but do you think the long absence was also because of the issues you had with your image, as you say, and your music not being taken seriously?

Charo: Well, that sounds terrific, but I cannot lie to you. The reason for my absence was when my son (Shel) turned four years old in Las Vegas, there was nobody his age at his birthday party. The people that were there, including Ray Charles who sang ’Happy Birthday’ and Siegfried and Roy, were people I invited that I worked with. I was working at that time at the Moulin Rouge with 80 dancers, and the money was huge. So all the people there were grown ups. So, when I put him to sleep after the party, I said to myself that we have come to a difficult time because we’d been living out of suitcases from one place to another and Shel didn’t have one single person his age to play with.

My husband and I had a meeting, we had a glass of champagne and we said ’call it off.’ We canceled every single thing that was already scheduled. We lost lots of money, BeBe. We went to Hawaii because we already had a business there. My son went to school at Punahou School (the private preparatory school in Honolulu that President Barack Obama attended from 1971 to 1979). The school is known for only having geniuses there, which my son was not. But we got him a tutor for the whole year of school so he was prepared for tests. But my son was the reason why I was absent from show business.

BeBe: And that is a wonderful reason. I have spoken to a few veteran celebrities who had taken time away from the show part of show business to raise their families because they didn’t want to raise their children in that entertainment environment.

Charo: Oh BeBe, your speech is beautiful, but in the end when my son graduated with honors he said he wanted to be an actor, or a musician! And I say, ’aye yiya, bull-shit!’ I said, ’what happened to my career (I gave up)? What happened to everything (I sacrificed)?’ And he said that at least I have a stronger hand in our business.

I wanted him to be a lawyer, especially a lawyer for rich people when they get divorced (we laugh). I know all the millionaires. I wanted to be able to say when I see rich couples fighting at a party that one of them needed to call my son! If my son continued to be a lawyer, he could have made a fortune with Mark Anthony’s and Jennifer Lopez’s divorce, who are my neighbors. They live across the street and I heard them screaming, and I said, ’shit, if my son were only a lawyer right now.’ But, he did not want to be a lawyer. He said he wanted to be a musician, or actor and write scripts for the movies. He somehow managed to get royalties from stuff (as a writer of Charo’s ’Sexy Sexy’ song and theme for ’CSI:Miami’).

Her gay fans

BeBe: He was determined to be a musician regardless what you wanted. But you know, as a parent,
that as long as your son is healthy, happy an able to do what he wants to do and make a decent living at it, you’ve done a good job! Right?

Charo: Yeah! And it was also good in a way because while we were over there in Hawaii, I was able to perform in a show called ’Tropical Heat’ at the Hilton Hawaiian Village for ten years in Waikiki, and performed for Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and the Prime Minister of Japan. And then on my weeks off I would fly back to Kaui where I got the inspiration to introduce my show with guitar only.

BeBe: I know you are aware of this, but I’m going to mention it anyway, that you have a large gay audience and fan base.

Charo: They are my friend, are you kidding me? Seriously, BeBe, I hope this country will come to terms (to accepting equality), just as what’s going on in Europe. This is a super country, and I love it dearly; but it is one-step behind Europe in the education of children and in certain views of life. If I were ever in a position of power, I would do away with the name ’gay community’ or ’gay person.’ This bothers me a lot.

BeBe: We’re just people!

Charo: Exactly! The situation is that coming from Europe, I never learned the word ’discrimination’ until one day I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. crying. I was working with him on tour. - He was a genius, trust me! He owned the stage. But, he was crying.

We had a great show with a standing ovation together and everything. I asked him, ’why are you crying? Are you sick?’ He said no, and that I wouldn’t understand. But, I wanted to know what had happened to him. He told me that even with his big, big name that he was scared when traveling with his family and kids to a place where they would throw him out. It was on his mind. Thn he was approached by the maitre’d and told that he could not be there because he was black. I was so upset by this. He told me also that when he was working with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin that he was only allowed to walk into the front door Sands Hotel if he was with one of them. Otherwise he would have to come in throught the back door. Sammy Davis, Jr.! I could not believe it. That was the first time I know about discrimination and racism.

I was just in Valencia, Spain. You know what they call it? Gay Valencia! So I am completely against any kind of discrimination. But, I would never be able to enforce any kind of law because of, well, my accent (laughing) and they will say she makes too much noise and they’d send me to Tijuana. So, all I can do is complain as much as I can.

Feeling the love

BeBe: Well you will get a lot of man-on-man lovin’ when you come to San Francisco to perform at Yoshi’s. You will love the kind of small Las Vegas dinner club atmosphere it creates. The energy charge in the room with audience is great, and you will feel the love.

Charo: I hear the place is terrific.

BeBe: I am really glad that we here in San Francisco will have an opportunity to see you soon.

Charo: Thank you, because it is my favorite town in the whole world. The town is beautiful. There many other cities that are also beautiful, but it is the people (in San Francisco) that make it more beautiful. In San Francisco, you are on another planet, and love is in the air over there. Excellent food and friendly people everywhere. So those living in San Francisco are either very clever or very lucky!

BeBe: I like the way you put that.

Charo: I was just in Kaui, and prior to that I did two big, big concerts. One of them I was kind of worried about because it was in Italy and I don’t work too often in that country, but they loved it. They loved my song ’Sexy, Sexy.’ Everybody love that song. But my excitement about San Francisco is that I don’t have to worry. This time around I’m going for more guitar. I’m going to play a lot of guitar because it took me so long, BeBe, to play guitar for the audience. They thought I was a cucaracha (cockroach) with the high heels and really stupid.

BeBe: Now you were doing a lot of cruise ship shows up until recently.

Charo: I highly recommend gay cruises. BeBe, they are the biggest tippers, biggest spenders and they’re happy! They like disco and techno. They never sleep. It was on a cruise where we introduced the dance The Macarena. The Royal Caribbean almost became home for me. But I highly recommend the gay cruises on Atlantis because the have big DJs from all over world. They fly in their equipment so that the whole ocean is dancing. You would sometimes find me on the deck leading a conga line with everybody.

Coming to America

BeBe: We’ve been speaking about some of the differences in the United States versus Europe, particularly with social issues, but we both know that so many people across the world look at the United States as a place they want to come to whether it be to gain freedoms that they don’t have in their homeland, or to capitalize monetarily in the wealth of this country. And I know that you came to this country as a young woman and I am sure, have been able to realize a dream in the way that you live, with your music, and your ability to socialize with so many people. So, I would like to know if you had not come to America, what do you think your life would have been like had you stayed in Spain?

Charo: That is such a good question, and you are so intelligent. Number one, the best country in the world for freedom and opportunity is the United States of America, without a doubt! If you can be consistent, have some talent, and be original, the place to come is the United States of America.

The price that I paid is because I pretended to be married to a great musician Xavier Cugat. Legally we were married, but it was never, never, ever consummated because it was just a business arrangement. But I was too young to play in the casinos and clubs, so they changed my look in order for me to have no problems with performing in those places. If the casinos would have found out that there was a minor inside the place, they would have lost their gambling permits. The price I paid was that I could not date because I was wearing the ring of Mrs. Cugat. To not open my mouth because Xavier Cugat was really big in Barcelona, Spain.

From the beginning he went there and changed the papers (birth certificate) because he said that one day they will dig and he didn’t want people to think he was a pedophile. He purposely changed my age and my look. I have pictures where sometimes I look like Mae West with diarrhea. Ok, BeBe? Everybody who comes to this country pays a price. But at the end of the day, my price was so little because I was respected, and he brought over my sister and whole family later on.

But it was strictly business. You know that chihuahua on the commercial that says, ’ I want a Taco Bell.’ I was a chihuahua. I was what he needed to refresh his career and gain a different audience. So for him, I make him a lot of money. For my family and me, we were secure, untouchable. If I did not have this opportunity (to come to America), I would have definitely continued to be a musician, and perhaps tried to follow the road of Mr. Segovia and concentrated more in Europe in concert. When Xavier Cugat discovered me, I was playing a little girl on television in Madrid on a show called ’Villa Allegra’ (’Happy Villa’). It was a copy of ’Sesame Street.’

So, I was already oriented to what I wanted to do in my life. I would have never made it that big, I am positive. I don’t know if ever I would have been able to come to the United States or travel around the world. But I would have continued in Spain with my passion in a small way.

Charo will take the stage at Yoshi’s San Francisco for two nights on July 20 and July 21, 2012.
For more information, visit Yoshi’s website.

"Sexy Sexy: THE REMIXES" is currently available on iTunes.

You can follow what’s coming next on Charo’s agenda at her website.

Watch Charo perform at a New York club in 2010/2011:

Based out of San Francisco, BEBE SWEETBRIAR is the Omni Present Drag Chanteuse. As an entertainer and hostess, BeBe can be scene every week hosting and performing at countless events and parties in the San Francisco. One of the few drag personalities to sing live while performing, BeBe has literally graced every notable stage in San Francisco, bridging many gay sub-community gaps. She has also been the opening act for Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland, "Ugly Betty’s" Alec Mapa and Dance Diva Kristine W. Adding recording artist to her list of performance accomplishments in 2008 with the release of her first single "Save Me", Ms. Sweetbriar will soon release her fifth dance single in 2012 called "Show It Off"..
As an actress, BeBe was introduced to film with a lead role in the independent film "Under One Sun" with her character dealing with religious, racial and gender issues. Additionally, she appeared in the campy musical "Devious, Inc" (Australian Film Festival, San Francisco Short Film Fest) also adding additional vocals to the musical soundtrack. Both of these performances led to her selection for a lead role in Aisha Media’s next short film series, "" to be released in 2012.


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