Juan Garcia Esquivel

¡VIVA EL MAESTRO!With the studio as his launching pad, Esquivel blew the hi-fi into outer space

Courtesy Carina Osorio Perez and Irwin Chusid

Believe it or not, those of us who watch television — you know, that invention where they show shows, as Samuel L. Jackson (playing the messianic gangster Jules) so aptly puts it in Pulp Fiction — already know the music of Juan Garcia Esquivel. For more than 40 years, every program that was ever produced at Universal Studios, from McHale's Navy to Law & Order, has concluded with a jarring blast of orchestral music over the Universal emblem. The cue is only three seconds long, but it speaks volumes about the freewheeling and eclectic demeanor of the man who created it.

Esquivel is often lauded as the “big daddy-o” of the early lounge sound — a trendy musical by-product of the atomic age (that is, the late '50s and early '60s) — but at his iconoclastic core, he was, first and foremost, a razor-sharp composer, arranger and producer. Born in 1918 in Tampico, Mexico, he took up the piano at an early age; by his late teens, he was conducting his own orchestra for Mexico City's XEW radio station, where he learned about early recording techniques and echo chamber effects. Eventually, he became so popular in Mexico that executives north of the border at RCA Victor took notice.

Other Worlds, Other Sounds (RCA, 1958) was Esquivel's American debut, and as its title suggested, the album introduced what would become known, many years later, as “space-age bachelor pad music.” Almost defiantly weird and exotic, the music was akin to big-band jazz on the surface, but all resemblances to straight jazz quickly disappeared beneath the wash of strange sound effects and the Spector-ish wall-of-sound bursts that Esquivel often demanded of his musicians. (“That Old Black Magic,” with its abruptly blaring horn lines, slinky conga-and-bass groove, Hawaiian slack key guitars and dreamy chorus of singers scatting “doo-wee-wee” is a grade-A slice of the Esquivel style.)

“Obviously, I didn't have the electronic equipment we have now,” the maestro explained in an interview with Electronic Musician (“Space Age Pioneer,” September 1996), “so I had to produce these different sounds purely with instrumental arrangements. I was trying to achieve with conventional instruments these strange sounds that I had in my mind.”

Esquivel was also fascinated by the possibilities of stereo, a new medium at the time. He tested the waters on Exploring New Sounds in Stereo (RCA, 1958), which was recorded in New York's Webster Hall by splitting the orchestra into “left” and “right” sections, with Esquivel directing from his piano in the middle of the room so he could get a feel for the stereo experience. The sessions also marked his first use of electronic instruments — in particular the theremin (on a version of Miklós Rózsa's “Spellbound”) and the Ondioline (played by Esquivel on the campy “Whatchamacallit”).

“Esquivel told me that he had two sets of charts for the mono and stereo versions of that album,” recalls Boston-based DJ and producer Brother Cleve, who — as a member of the lounge-core troupe Combustible Edison — helped spark a wave of renewed interest in Esquivel's music in the early '90s. “Exploring New Sounds got a Grammy nomination for best engineering. Juan had an electrical engineering degree, so he was aware of that stuff, but it was really more the aesthetic he was interested in. Five years later, that concept turned into the whole idea for Latin-Esque [RCA, 1962].”

Esquivel decamped to Hollywood for Latin-Esque — an album that surpassed, in sheer sonic wackiness, 1960's legendary See It in Sound, which RCA had actually refused to release (thus prompting Esquivel to record the one-off More of Other Worlds, Other Sounds in 1962 for Frank Sinatra's Reprise label). What made Latin-Esque so profoundly unique was the maestro's radical new approach to recording the orchestra.

“Acoustic separation was extremely important to me,” he said in 1996. “We recorded directly onto ¼-inch stereo tape, and I had to be very careful that the sound didn't leak from one channel to the other. When I wanted something in the right speaker, I didn't want to hear even slight ghost images of it in the left speaker. So I asked RCA to book two studios that were one block apart. We hooked up a closed-circuit television, and all the musicians wore earphones so that we could keep everybody in sync with a click track.”

As crazy as it sounded, the album's title track alone is a triumph of stereo manipulation (beginning with the cascade panning of an echo-drenched xylophone) and proto-psychedelic tape delay effects. “Even though there are extremes in Esquivel's records,” says producer/archivist Irwin Chusid, who facilitated the compilation Esquivel! Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (Bar/None, 1994), “it never got to the point where he simply wanted to show off what could be done with panning or stereo mixing or effects. It had to make sense, musically.”

By the late '60s, Esquivel's popularity had waned, although he performed at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas until 1973 and experimented with an updated sound featuring electric guitars with fuzz-tone and wah-wah. When the rigors of keeping a large ensemble on the road proved too exhausting (and expensive), he returned to Mexico; his background music for a children's TV show called Burbujas featured the sounds of various Moog and ARP synthesizers (including the ARP Axxe) and was his most unusual work of the period.

Esquivel resurfaced in the mid-'90s a bit worse for wear — he'd broken his hip in 1993 — but he was still able to enjoy the accolades (from such fans as Stereolab and Thievery Corporation) that accompanied a rediscovery of his music. Although the maestro passed away in 2002, the unadulterated weirdness and whiz-bang dynamics of his patented sound continue to inspire hipster cocktail parties the world over.