Born Juan Garcia Esquivel, January 20, 1918, in Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico; married Blanca Servin (a dancer and model), c. 1941 (marriage dissolved); married Virginia Llaca (a singer), c. 1950 (marriage dissolved); married Joyce McCullough (a club owner; marriage dissolved); married Yvonne DeBourbon (a singer), c. 1973 (marriage dissolved, 1978); children: (with Servin), Mario. Addresses: Record company--Bar None Records, P.O. Box 1704, Hoboken, NJ 07030.

Pianist, bandleader, and arranger Juan Garcia Esquivel is a pioneer in stereo recording techniques. During the 1950s and 60s he recorded a series of quasi-psychedelic easy-listening albums featuring unorthodox instrumental textures and effects. Into the 1970s he led a live band and scored television shows. His music has recently found a new audience: the alternative rock fan with an ear for the bizarre.

Juan Garcia Esquivel was born in Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico on January 20, 1918. He began playing the piano as a child, often practicing long into the night. At age 12 he played the piano on radio station XEW in Mexico City. There he formed a small band which grew in size until a comedian at the radio station named Panseco offered him a position as director of an orchestra providing background music for Panseco's routines.

Esquivel's original compositions for the comedian set him apart from his peers at the radio station who used stock arrangements. As he told interviewer V. Vale, "The comedian was very pleased with the musical backgrounds I invented. He might say 'I want background music for a Frenchman walking in Russia.' I would think, 'How can I describe that?' This is how my imagination started developing." Composing for the comedian was also an opportunity for Esquivel to learn the ranges of many instruments and innovative combinations for different effects.

Esquivel's first release in the United States came about in 1957 when RCA Mexico's music director sent some of the musician's pieces to the New York office. RCA Victor in New York were so impressed they brought Esquivel to Hollywood to record a new album. Esquivel drew upon his experience scoring music quickly for the radio comedian; he was allotted five hours to complete the album, but finished it in three-and-a-half. The result, Other Worlds, Other Sounds, was described by Gramophone upon its release in 1959 as "a biting view expressed in terms of scathing piano, relentless brass, vicious saxes, and ferocious rhythm of what Latin-American music might sound like in outer space." Time magazine called the album "something new and cunningly deranged," while praising its "stunningly opulent sound."

Esquivel continued to record for RCA Victor and Reprise Records through 1967; his albums were nominated for Grammy Awards seven times. Esquivel's music gained other high-profile admirers in the entertainment business. Television pioneer Ernie Kovacs used two of Esquivel's arrangements, "Sentimental Journey" and "Jalousie," as soundtracks for animations of office furniture and kitchen appliances on a 1961 program. The Fender-Rhodes company designed an electric piano called the "Esquivel" after a Fender executive was impressed by his music on the radio.

Vocal arranger Randy Van Horne, who worked on many of Esquivel's albums, considers Juan "an experimenter, a brilliant innovator, and a very nice man." Van Horne reminisced about working on Esquivel's 1962 album Latin-esque: "We used two studios, a block away. Juan was in [RCA's] Studio One with the brass, I was in Studio Two with [The Randy Van Horne Singers]. He was trying to get complete stereo separation by using two studios, each with two-track stereo, because all we had was two-track recording facilities." Van Horne commented about the difference between the early 1960s' record release schedules and today's. "We were trying to do something to get listeners' attention. There was no record promotion like there is today. In those days, so many albums came out a week. If one was a hit, great, if not, move on to the next thing. The only way to be noticed was to be different. Juan was an experimenter, and he was definitely different."

This difference was the unique sonic textures Juan Esquivel created using imaginative combinations of instruments; he embellished his arrangements with exotic percussion instruments such as bell trees, boo-bams (a set of 24 tuned bongos), jaw harps, gourds, and timbales. Electronic instruments like the theremin (an eerie-sounding instrument operated by waving hands around two antennae) or electronic keyboards added atmospherics. Randy Van Horne's vocal choruses wafted over the top, scatting the melody with syllables like "zu, zu, zu," and punctuating with a "pow!"

From 1962 until 1974, Esquivel had a live show called "The Sights and Sounds of Esquivel!" The group featured Esquivel playing piano and conducting six musicians and four female vocalists and dancers, in addition to a light show. Each woman was of a different nationality and would be featured with a representative song from her country. As Esquivel reminisced to Spin's Neil Strauss, "The Japanese girl was very short, very slender. I would present her as the delicate Nana Sumi. But when she started singing, she had a voice so strong and so deep that I could see the faces of the audience reacting in surprise. She sounded like a man's bass."

Being a member of Esquivel's band required a tremendous amount of discipline; members were required to abide by a strict set of by-laws. Inductees watched the show for 60 days before becoming full-fledged band members; performers leaving the organization were required to give 60 days' notice in order that he could adequately train a replacement. Such discipline achieved the desired result; in 1964 a Variety writer described Esquivel's show as "a cerebral display of virtuosity, almost strenuous to keep up with."

After he disbanded his touring group, Esquivel was unable to work long hours as a result of back problems from a spinal injury in 1961. He wrote music for various television shows including Charlie's Angels, Magnum P.I., Kojak, and Simon & Simon. He also wrote music for a highly successful Mexican children's show Burbujas. In 1993 he broke his hip and is currently wheelchair-bound.

Although Juan Esquivel was not in the public eye during the 1990s, a cult following was silently amassing. The composer gained attention from the publication of the books Incredibly Strange Music Volume 1 and 2; the second volume features an extensive interview. Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, an anthology of his 1950s and 60s RCA Victor recordings on the independent label Bar None sold well, inspiring numerous reissues of similar music of that era.

Esquivel is pleased by the audience that has rediscovered his work. He told Billboard in 1995, "Perhaps what happened was I was too ahead of my time.... My only hope is that I don't have to wait another 35 years to see the result of what I write now."

by Jim Powers

Juan Esquivel's Career

Began playing piano professionally at radio station XEW in Mexico City, c. 1930; recorded first album, To Love Again, 1956, on RCA Victor; formed live band The Sights and Sounds of Esquivel!, 1962 (disbanded, 1974); scored for films and television, late 1970s.

Juan Esquivel's Awards

Two Grammy Award nominations for Other Worlds Other Sounds, 1958; three Grammy Award nominations for Strings Aflame, 1959; two Grammy Award nominations for Infinity in Sound Volume 1, 1960.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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