For want of a guitar string, a career was born. The incident occurred in 1938, when 21-year-old Desi Arnaz landed a one-night job as a guitarist with a popular New York orchestra. Desi had been knocking around town for weeks, almost starving, trying to find a job. This one-night engagement promised to pay all of ten dollars, but Desi had misgivings. He knew his limitations as a guitarist, and realized that without formal training, he could not play arrangements. But he took the job anyway, and promptly managed to break two strings on his guitar. The bandleader was furious, but it was too late for him to hire another musician. In desperation, the man asked Desi if he could play anything else. Desi replied that he could play the conga drum and sing. He was permitted to do just that, and he turned out to be the hit of the evening.

That was the turning point. During the next twelve months Desi put together his own band, and played engagements in and around Manhattan. On August 5, 1939, columnist Malcolm Johnson reviewed Desi's act for the New York Sun:

"Desi Arnaz is a young man with a drum. He is a new type of Pied Piper who leads enthusiastic, uninhibited followers in the sinuous, serpentine conga dance every night at La Conga, the night club dedicated to torrid Cuban music and entertainment.

Two or three times each night, Arnaz steps down from the bandstand, his tall, goat-skin drum slung across his shoulders, and begins beating out the wild, savage rhythm which lures dancers on to the floor and behind him in the conga line.

Arnaz, a youthful, handsome Cuban (he is barely 22 years old), has headed his rhumba band at La Conga for two months now and is an established success...He is now the principal orchestral attraction at La Conga; George Abbott, the producer, has signed him for a part in a new musical to be produced in the fall; several movie companies have been making offers; and he also has been signed for phonograph recordings...."

The George Abbott show mentioned in the article turned out to be a college-musical romp called "Too Many Girls," that played on Broadway throughout the 1939-40 season. Desi did double-duty that year, taxiing back-and-forth between the theatre and La Conga, where his band continued to entertain.

In 1940, RKO bought the movie rights to "Too Many Girls," and Desi was one of the Broadway cast members hired to repeat his role in the film version. Hollywood, of course, brought marriage to Lucille Ball and a moderately-successful (but undernourished) movie career.

Desi still loved his music--he was always Ricky Ricardo at heart--and, in 1945, he arranged for his release from MGM. He assembled a full Latin orchestra, put together an all-new act (that included "Cuban Pete" and "Babalu"), and opened "black tie" at Ciro's nightclub in Hollywood.

Bookings at New York's Copacabana followed, and Desi often took his group on the road, playing to packed houses in Chicago, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Omaha, etc.

Feeling the need for a more-stable home-life, he spent nine months in Hollywood providing music for Bob Hope's radio series. More cross-country trips followed, however, until 1951, when Lucy persuaded him to stay home and join her in a risky new venture: a television show.

We Love Lucy was recently asked to compile a Desi discography--a list of his phonograph records. Our research staff discovered some 50 individual song titles, all originally released on 78rpm discs between 1939 (during Desi's La Conga engagement) and 1955.

There are rumored to be others. Collector Crescenzo Capece, Jr., indicates that Desi may have recorded a few numbers with the Andrews Sisters during the 1940s. "Old Don Juan" and "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" are possible titles.

Following, then, are the Desi recordings we were able to trace through artists contracts and library catalogues. We wish to thank the aforementioned Cres Capece, collectors Ed Maffei, Skip Koenig and Wayne Kosel, and the archivists at Columbia, Decca, RCA Victor and MGM Records for their assistance and cooperation.


--35216: "South American Way," "La Conga en Neuva York." (Record dates unknown; released 9/15/39)

--39937 (4 disc-album), includes disc 35400: "Ahi Viene La Conga," "Vereda Tropical." 35401: "Union Triste," "Vira Y Vira." 35402: "Congo Conga," "Africa Cantata." 35403: "Echa Un Pie," "Pero Ahora Comprendo." (Record dates unknown; released 3/14/40)

RCA Victor:

(Note: 25-0000 numbers denote International Series releases; 20-0000 numbers denote domestic issues.)

--25-1058: "Without You," "Cuban Pete." (Recorded 2/15/46)

--25-1062: "I'll Dream Some More," "Guadalajara." (Recorded 6/10/46) Ed Maffei reports that this disc was also catalogued as 20-1865, but cannot verify it was ever released.

--20-2020: "I'll Never Love Again," "Tia Juana." (Recorded 8/2/46 and 7/26/46, respectively)

--25-1071: "Carnival in Rio," "Carinoso." (Recorded 8/2/46)

--20-2052: "Mi Vida," "Another Night Like This." (Recorded 10/18/46 and 10/19/46, respectively)

--20-2094: "A Rainy Night in Rio," "Through a Thousand Dreams." (Recorded 10/19/46 and 10/19/46, respectively)

--P-198 "Babalu" (4-disc album), includes disc 20-2279: "Tabu," "La Comparsita." (Recorded 10/19/46 and 1/6/47, respectively) 20-2280: "Babalu," "Brazil." (Recorded 10/19/46 and 1/6/47, respectively) 20-2281: "Tico, Tico," "Peanut Vendor." (Recorded 1/6/47 and 1/20/47, respectively) 20-2282: "Cuban Pete," "Green Eyes." (Record date unknown, and 1/20/47, respectively) All sides later reissued on 45rpm (EPB-3096) and 33rpm (LPM-3096) and in special 45rpm "extended play" album in gate-fold cover containing two discs (547-0045 and 547-0046), two songs per side.

--20-2282: "Siboney," "Green Eyes." (Record dates unknown) Should not be confused with disc of same number included in above "Babalu" set.

--20-2499: "Un Poquito De Amor," "I Love to Dance." (Recorded 4/30/47)

--20-2550: "Made for Each Other," "El Cumbanchero." (Recorded 4/30/47 and 6/10/46, respectively)

--20-2624: "Without You," "Siboney." First side reissue of 2/15/46 recording; second side record date unknown)

--20-2827: "Rumba Rumbero," "In Santiago Chili." (Recorded 12/29/47)

--20-2865: "Tabu," "Cuban Pete." (Record dates unknown)

--20-2866: "Brazil," "Babalu." (Record dates unknown)

--20-2887: "Little Romero," "Jipi Japa." (Recorded 12/29/47)

--20-3113: "Perhaps., Perhaps, Perhaps," "The Matador." (Recorded 12/29/47)

--20-3070: "La Ultima Noche," "You Can in Yucatan." (Recorded 12/19/47)

--20-3256: "Rumba Matumba," "Cuban Cabby." (Recorded 12/29/47)

Ed Maffei informs us that Desi also recorded "test pressings" of the following selections during 1946 and 1947: "I'll Dream Some More" (in Spanish only), "After Tonight," "I'll Take the Rumba," "Good Night," and "I Come From New York." These were never issued.

In 1948, the American Federation of Musicians went out "on strike," bringing a temporary halt to commercial recording.

In 1949, Desi recorded four more test pressings with a small, stringless orchestra and accompanied by a four-voice singing group called the Streamliners. These were Desi's last RCA tunes: "Ah-Bah-Nah, Coo-Bah," "It's Obvious," "The Straw Hat Song" (vocal by Desi only), and "Holiday in Havana."


--24713: "Un Poquito De Tu Amoor," "Similau" (English version). (Recorded 7/22/49; released 8/29/49) Later reissued on Decca's "Go Latin" album on 78rpm (A-873), 45rpm (9-257) and 33rpm (DL-5350). A Spanish veersion of "Similau" was also recorded on 7/22/49, but never issued.

--28483: "Old Don Juan." Promotional disc featuring Desi with the Andrews Sisters. (Recorded spring, 1951, released 1952) Later reissued on Andrews Sister album, title and catalogue numbers unknown. Also recorded was "Man Smart, Woman Smarter," but this song was not released.


--39937: "There's A Brand New Baby (at Our House)," "I Love Lucy." (Record dates unknown; released 1/30/53) Also issued as 45rpm (4-39937).

MGM Records:

--12144: "Forever Darling," "The Straw Hat Song." (Record dates unknown; released 11/22/55)

RCA Victor International:

--3L10040: "Desi Arnaz Y Su Orquesta" (12-inch, 33rpm album, reissuing 8 tunes from the 1946-49 sessions). Side One: "Siboney," "Cancion del sombrero de paja (The Straw Hat Song)," "Aquellos ojos verdes (Green Eyes)," "Capullito de alheli (You Can in Yucatan)." Side Two: "La Comarsita," "Quizas, quizasm quizas (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps)," "Tia Juana," "El Cumbanchero." (Released in Spain in late 1950s.)

Star Merchants:

--SM-1951: "Musical Moments from 'I Love Lucy.'" (12-inch, 33rpm album, comprised of musical numbers lifted from the soundtracks of "I Love Lucy" and Desi's "Your Tropical Trip" radio program.) Side One: "I Love Lucy Theme," "Cuban Pete & Sally Sweet," "El Cumbanchero," "The Straw Hat Song," "Guadalajara," "Medley: There's a Brand New Baby at Our House/We're Having a Baby." Side Two: "I Love Lucy Theme," "We'll Build a Bungalow," "Granada," "Mama Inez," "Babalu," "I Love Lucy Theme--Vocal." (Released 1981 to celebrate 30th anniversary of "I Love Lucy" series.)


--48507: "Babalu Music!" (CD and cassette tape, again comprised of musical numbers lifted from the soundtracks of "I Love Lucy.") Selections include: "I Love Lucy Theme," "El Cumbanchero," "Cuban Pete," "Babalu," "We're Having a Baby," "There's a Brand New Baby at Our House," "We'll Build a Bungalow," "The Straw Hat Song," "By the Waters of the Minnetonka," "California, Here I Come," "Nobody Loves the Ump," "Jingle Bells," "The Lady in Red," "I'm on My Way to Cuba," "Guadalajara," "Down Argentine Way," "In Acapulco," and "Granada." (Released 1991 to celebrate 40th anniversary of "I Love Lucy" series.)

RCA Victor:

--66031: "The Best of Desi Arnaz, the Mambo King." (CD and cassette tape, comprised of recordings made in late 1940s. All but three, "Holiday in Havana," "I Come from New York" and "Straw Hat Song," were reissues; these two were alternate takes never before available.) Selections include: "Babalu," "Cuban Pete," "Peanut Vendor," "Holiday in Havana," "Carnival in Rio," "A Rainy Night in Rio," "Guadalajara," "I Come From New York," "Mi Vida," "Tico Tico," "Rumba Matumba," "Tia Juana," "You Can in Yucatan," "The Straw Hat Song," "Brazil," "El Cumbanchero." (Released 1992)


--15767: "Big Bands of Hollywood: Desi Arnez (sic) and Chico Marx." (CD and cassette tape, comprised of musical numbers lifted from radio broadcasts featuring Desi and his Orchestra.) Selections include: "Chiu Chiu," "Begin the Beguine," "Easy Street," "Cachita," "Till We Meet Again," "Speak Low," "Rico Pulpa." (Released 1992)

For information about Desi Arnaz recordings currently on the market, visit our Lucy in the Media: Words & Music page.

This article was previously published in our club
newsletters of Spring, 1978, and Spring, 1993.

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Original material © 2005 Lucyfan Enterprises.
I Love Lucy is copyrighted by and a registered trademark of CBS Worldwide, Inc.
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Licensing by Unforgettable Licensing, Northbrook, Illinois.