By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When his music became popular again during the 1990s lounge-music revival, Juan Garcia Esquivel — known singularly and more exclamatory as Esquivel! — was fond of telling a favorite Chicago story.
"There was a very influential columnist named Sig Sakowicz," Esquivel said. "He wrote an entertainment column, where he would critique everyone playing in town. Before we opened, he wrote in his column, 'Esquivel! ... Why?' He came to the show, and I showed him why. He came almost every night. The next week in his column, he wrote, 'Esquivel is so good, he deserves two exclamation points.'"
In 1974, several years after Sakowicz had moved on, Esquivel landed a gig back here in Chicago — six months performing nightly at the La Margarita Mexican restaurant in Morton Grove. The age of the great bandleaders had long passed, and Esquivel's group was down to a combo of four musicians, two singers and himself on piano. The music, however, still had the zing! and the pow! and the wow! that earned him those exclamation points. While they were in Chi-town, the restaurant manager suggested they record a live album to help promote the gig.
They did, and Bar/None Records recently reissued the session as a disc titled "The Sights and Sounds of Esquivel." (The original title was as windy as the city: "An Evening at La Margarita With Esquivel! and His Sounds.") The music wasn't captured live at La Magarita, though. Esquivel being a bit of a control freak — for good and ill — the songs were cut "live" in a studio in December of that year.
"I've had this tape for years and years," said Yvonne DeBourbon-Rodriguez, Esquivel's widow (he died in 2002 after years of ill health after a fall) and one of the two vocalists in the band at La Margarita, in a recent interview. "This was done exactly as we would do the show, on one track with no overdubs. The only thing added was the applause. Juan was very, very particular when it came to recordings. I don't think he would have wanted to record in a nightclub. He never made any actual live recordings. This is it."
Esquivel's meticulous detail in making his "space-age bachelor pad" music is one of the reasons his albums were lurking in hipsters' collections long before the '90s lounge-music fad and will remain there long after. Esquivel was a Latin bandleader in an era when "Latin bandleader" meant Ricky Ricardo. He was one of the first arrangers to make use of stereo recording, leading his slide guitarist or his drummer to pop in and out of the left or right speaker for lively, unpredictable effects. His music was aimed at the easy-listening market, but it wasn't always the easiest listening.
His resurgence in the '90s was often heralded as "unlikely," but given the electronic music experiments taking place at the time around the world, it wasn't all that surprising. DeBourbon-Rodriguez saw the connection.
"People still feel connected to this music. It's like Trekkies. It doesn't matter how old 'Star Trek' is, people will always be fascinated with it," she said. "You know, when his music became popular again in the '90s, he was absolutely delighted. He loved arranging — that was his forte. He played incredible piano, but he wasn't as interested in composing as he was in arranging. It was fascinating for him to see how he could make an old song dance to a new tune, or the challenge of bringing something alive that was in a dusty vault somewhere. All these young people and their remixing today — it's the same thing. That's why they love him."
Esquivel loved performing his arrangements as well, which is why even into the '70s, he was accepting the gigs offered him — like playing dinner music in the Chicago 'burbs. But whether performing at the Hollywood Bowl or the early equivalents of Planet Hollywood, Esquivel was always as entertaining and unpredictable as his tunes.
"He was a consummate performer," said DeBourbon-Rodriguez. "He looooved having an audience. He had a glow about him when he was onstage, and he loved having little jokes with the audience, double entendres.
"We were performing in Puerto Rico one time. I'd had surgery and couldn't perform the dance routines. The crowd was calling out, 'La colora!' He couldn't figure out what that meant, though he spoke fluent Spanish. Finally, someone said, 'The redhead!' They wanted me to dance. He tried to explain why I couldn't, saying I'd had surgery. 'Want to know where she had it?' he asked the crowd. 'In Las Vegas!'"
You can almost hear the rim shot.
Things in Chicago remained pretty hot. Literally.
"I think we experienced one of the mildest winters Chicago had ever had," she said. "I love snow. I live in California, where normally we don't have snow, but that year in Chicago, it was beautiful. I enjoyed the smell of it and walking in it. I'd been in Chicago in January, downtown with winds off the lake, and oh my God, my ears felt like they were burning off, but for some reason that winter was very mild, and we made such lovely friends with the musicians and their families."
Several years ago, during the revival of his music, a movie about Esquivel's life was reported in the works. DeBourbon-Rodriguez said it's still "in the works" to her knowledge, with Alexander Payne ("Election," "Sideways") contracted to direct and John Leguizamo starring.
In the meantime, DeBourbon-Rodriguez is still involved with music, working with husband and Latin jazz musician Bobby Rodriguez. The two recently finished a book, The ABC's of Latin Jazz.
"We discuss Juan in the book," she said, "because of his contribution to arranging and because of the music he used. You know, he's not often thought of as a Latin music figure other than the fact that he was from Mexico. But he helped pioneer clave, that kind of rhythm. He was one of many musicians who were using native music styles at the time, but it wasn't identified as such then. It's just one of many ways he was a pioneer."
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.