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Ros, Edmundo [real name Edmund William Ross]free

(1910–2011)
  • Sue Steward

Ros, Edmundo [real name Edmund William Ross] (1910–2011), bandleader and singer, was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on 7 December 1910, the son of William Hope-Ross, the illegitimate son of a Scottish–Canadian plantation owner, and Luisa Urquart, a teacher with possible Carib ancestry. His father worked as a ship's electrician and took Luisa and the children, Edmund and his sister Ruby, on his Caribbean trips until they reached school age and attended Tranquillity School in Port of Spain, where their younger sister, Eleanor, also went later. The family fragmented when Ross was around fourteen and became what he later described as 'a delinquent' (personal knowledge). He was sent to board at the Police Academy in Port of Spain, where he studied euphonium (or 'bombardin') and kettle drums with Edgar Wallace, from Kent.

When Ross was seventeen, his mother linked up with a man at the academy and had a child they named Hugo. After that, Ross left and with a letter of recommendation from Wallace went to study in Caracas, Venezuela, at the Academy of Music under Vicente Emilio Sojo, who soon installed him as tympanist in his Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra. The Caracas clubs attracted workers from the new oil sites and Ross supported himself by playing percussion and singing the latest Cuban hits. By then he was known as Edmundo Ros, and in his lifetime many thought him Venezuelan.

In 1937 Ros won a fellowship to study conducting and composing at London's Royal Academy of Music. He travelled to London by boat and train and lodged with other West Indian students but regretted both the different social mix compared to Caracas and being a non-white 'outsider' among the Royal Academy's intellectual escapees from fascist Europe. But on his first night in London he met African students at a dance party and made friends with Dolly Myers and Muriel Belcher (the future owner of Soho's famous Colony Rooms), who later drove him to the Soho basement club, The Nest, a haunt of military officers, high society characters, and musicians. There he met the Cuban pianist and bandleader Don Marino Barreto and African musicians playing hits Ros had performed in Caracas. He began playing bongos and singing. In 1938 the American rhythm jazz pianist Fats Waller visited The Nest and invited him to play on his classic record, 'A Tisket-A-Tasket'.

In 1939 Ros played on Barreto's six Decca records with his Cuban Orchestra but Barreto's frequent trips to Paris left Ros in charge and eventually he took over. Melody Maker magazine commented: 'He came … he saw … he conga-ed'. Edmundo Ros and his Rumba Band ran from 1939 to 1941 with changeable musicians including the Nigerian pianist Fela Sowande and Nigerian percussionist Folorunsho (Ginger) Johnson. The five-piece band performed at afternoon salon sessions in Mayfair, to ladies looking at the new fashions. The tall, handsome, light-skinned man with a honeyed voice was aware of his Trinidadian lilt and taught himself to speak ‘proper’ English; his accent soon became that of an upper-class Englishman.

At the start of the blitz, Ros worked in the Cosmo Club and St Regis Hotel but was soon forced to entertain in the cellars. After driving ambulances in Devon in 1941, he was offered a residency at the celebrated Coconut Grove and Bagatelle clubs with a now expanded sixteen-piece orchestra. He released his first record, 'Los Hijos de Buda', on Parlophone later in 1941. The Bagatelle was an elegant, élite club where Churchill, Eisenhower, and De Gaulle, military and intelligence officers, and royalty escaping from Europe planned and relaxed. Princess Elizabeth arrived once with her beau, Captain Wills, and Ros panicked as she danced to his raunchy calypso, 'Brown Skin Gal', but luckily missed its double entendre. On other occasions he lent his private rooms to Princess Margaret and Captain Peter Townsend for 'secret drinks'. Loyalty to the royal family never abated.

In 1945 the romantic bolero 'Cuban Love Song' became Ros's signature tune. After the war he founded a holding company for a dance school, publishing and talent agency, and photographic studio, and his popularity increased through live radio concerts produced by the BBC's Cecil Madden. In 1947 'The Coffee Song' with its Brazilian rhythms was a hit and introduced Carmen Miranda to the London Palladium for a year. In 1949 he recorded 'The Wedding Samba', a Latinized Yiddish song, which the following year reached number sixteen in the American top thirty and sold over three million copies in the UK. But 1949 also saw Ros called to the High Court for a highly publicized case involving the wife of an officer in the Welsh guards whom he had taught to dance, and who was accused of adultery with a Dutch army officer; the plaintiff alleged that it was Ros who had led her astray. Ros remained silent and was fined £1000 for having befriended the woman but the Dutch officer paid £300. The racial implications were obvious. His own first marriage, to Josephine Hernandez, having ended in divorce, on 19 October 1950 Ros married a Swedish society model, Maj-Britt Viola (Britt) Kolming, daughter of Anders Johansson, architect, and former wife of Stig Sixten Roland Kolming. She designed their Swedish-style house in Mill Hill where they brought up their children, Douglas (b. 1952) and Luisa (b. 1956), who went to boarding schools.

In 1951 Ros bought the Coconut Grove Club and renamed it Edmundo Ros's Dinner and Supper Club, an élite playground operating under strict etiquette where guests including Peter O'Toole and King Hussein of Jordan were rejected for their informality. Meanwhile he continued as a bandleader and singer. His syncopated Cuban and Brazilian rhythms caused problems for Britain's dancers until Victor Silvester told him: 'The British can't dance, they have no sense of rhythm, but they will dance to a melody' (personal knowledge). So Ros chose a 2/4-time version of 'Colonel Bogey' and applied it to the Dominican merengue, and sold over a million records with flattened rhythms but sophisticated arrangements and melodies. Silvester's granddaughter Tara visited the Silvesters and their neighbours Ros and his wife around this time and recalled ‘Uncle Edmundo’ as 'stern, scary and quite disciplined but very good fun and very posh. Their flat was the most exotic place with drums and strange instruments' (private information).

A new turning point for Edmundo Ros came in 1953 when Decca's Belgian record producer Marcel Stellman introduced him and his fellow bandleader, Stanley Black, to the company. 'Rhythms of the South' was an immediate million-seller for Ros, but Stellman, like Silvester, encouraged him to adapt to British tastes. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, albums including Calypso Man (1958), Ros on Broadway (1959), Sing and Dance with Edmundo Ros (1963), Hair Goes Latin (1969), and Ros Remembers (1974) were more diluted. Most bizarre and fascinating was his album Japanese Military Songs (1968), tuned into Latin style.

In 1959 Ros sold his club and took to touring, mingling with celebrities and royalty from Monaco to Las Vegas and Rio, and spent time with the nation's favourite radio and TV programmes. In 1960 Cecil Madden directed the launch of the BBC's new Television Centre with 'A Night of 1000 Stars', with the Edmundo Ros Orchestra supporting guests including Vera Lynn and the Beverley Sisters. It was followed by the first Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium, where Italy's Caterina Valente harmonized in duets with Ros. They subsequently released two albums.

In 1963 Britt left her husband and moved to Bogotá. She divorced him in November that year and left him devastated. But the new ATV link between London and New York for the series 'Broadway goes Latin' was a distraction, in which he was paired with his American equivalent, Xavier Cugat. On 31 May 1971 he married Susan Barbara Smith, a 25-year-old Englishwoman (daughter of Harold Smith, supermarket proprietor) whom he had met on a train after visiting his son at boarding school.

Over the next few years, Ros's popularity in Japan was strong. But during his seventh tour of the country, in 1975, he had a row with one of his musicians who was acting as a Musicians' Union shop steward, over a cancelled concert. Back in London, he directed his long-term assistant to take his musical arrangements to the Bank of England and shred them. He then arranged a dinner for the musicians and their spouses, at which he announced, 'I'm closing the shop'. He and Susan had arranged tickets for a world cruise and left the next day. On their return they moved to their house in Javea, outside Alicante, and stayed there.

Work did not stop, however; and Ros continued to produce records, especially for a Japanese label. In 1994 he was invited to a farewell concert at the South Bank paired with Black. After the applause, he was the guest of honour on the television programme This is Your Life. A year later he worked with the BBC producer Alan Price on the programme 'BBC Big Band with Strings'. The new millennium brought several surprise events: the BBC Radio 2 presenter Desmond Carrington invited him to choose twelve favourite songs to play and discuss on air, and for his ninetieth birthday year, the composer Michael Nyman produced a Channel 4 documentary, I Sold My Cadillac to Diana Dors. The two men had met at a fellows' dinner at the Royal Academy of Music. Nyman described him as

A man of huge charisma who single-handedly introduced Latin American music to English audiences. I respected him as a serious musician in spite of the lightness of his music, but especially for his brilliant arrangements—often of mundane songs—and an almost avant garde edge which is unnoticed unless you listen close.

private information

Ros derived the greatest satisfaction from being made an OBE in 2000. He died on 21 October 2011 in Alicante, and was survived by his third wife, Susan, and his two children from his second marriage.

Sources

  • S. Steward, Salsa! Musical heartbeat of Latin America (1999)
  • M. Nyman and C. Rawlence, I sold my Cadillac to Diana Dors, documentary film, 2000
  • C. Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of popular music, 4th edn (2006)
  • www.edmundoros.com, 8 Sept 2014
  • personal knowledge (2015)
  • private information (2015)
  • m. certs. [1950, 1971]

Archives

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, performance footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, performance recording

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1939–65, Getty Images, London
  • photographs, 1946–75, Rex Features, London
  • photographs, 1949–2000, PA Photos, London
  • Vivienne, vintage bromide print, 1950–56, NPG, London
  • photographs, 1999, Photoshot, London
  • photographs, Camera Press, London