Juan Garcia Esquivel

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The Independent Online

Juan Garcia Esquivel, arranger, composer, pianist and bandleader: born Tampico, Mexico 20 January 1918; married six times (one son); died Jiutepec, Mexico 3 January 2002.

The easy-listening craze of the mid-Nineties brought a generation of Fifties and Sixties arrangers and composers back to the mainstream. Hailed by Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, as "the great unsung genius of mind-curdling space-age pop", Juan Garcia Esquivel became one of the names to drop alongside those of the orchestrator Les Baxter and the songwriter Burt Bacharach.

A pioneer of stereo recording, Esquivel was a staple of home entertainment in the late Fifties but more recently his distinctive and idiosyncratic orchestrations have featured in films including the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998). He had a healthy disregard for budgetary constraints and thought nothing of recording two orchestras simultaneously in different studios to widen the sound spectrum. Esquivel was an influence on the producer Phil Spector as well as rock groups such as Steely Dan and, more recently, Stereolab. The actor John Leguizamo is due to star in a film based on Esquivel's colourful life.

"Some people say I'm from Mars," Esquivel once told a night-club patron who was enquiring about his origins. More prosaically, he was born in Tampico, Mexico, in 1918 and moved to Mexico City with his parents 10 years later. A precocious and gifted child fascinated by the mechanical workings of the pianola, he built a primitive radio set out of basic components and played the piano constantly.

By the age of 14, Esquivel was appearing regularly on XEW, the Mexico City radio station. He kept showing up at the studios until one day the owner let him play the piano live on air for 20 minutes, for the princely sum of two pesos. Over the next four years, Esquivel improvised quirky incidental music to accompany comedy skits broadcast live every evening. Having started with a small ensemble, he kept expanding the line-up and eventually conducted a 54-piece orchestra on stage and during broadcasts. In the Fifties, he scored and appeared in two Mexican films, Cabaret Trágico and La Locura de Rock'n'Roll ("The Madness of Rock'n'Roll"), before issuing his first album, Las Tandas de Juan Garcia Esquivel, in 1956.

Impressed by this Mexican-only release, the RCA Victor producer-manager Herman Diaz Jnr brought Esquivel to the United States and gave him carte blanche to create original recordings showcasing the new stereo technology. Between 1958 and 1960, on albums such as Other Worlds, Other Sounds, Strings Aflame and Infinity in Sound, the arranger perfected his highly original sonorama style and earned consecutive Grammy nominations for Best Performance by an Orchestra and Best Engineered Recording.

Not content with relying on brass, violins and percussion, Esquivel added unusual instruments to the orchestral palette: the buzzimba, an instrument played with mallets and sounding like a low-register clarinet, the Ondioline keyboard, and the eerie theremin so beloved of current rock bands like Spiritualized and Super Furry Animals. "What I tried to do was not to follow the style that was popular at that time," he explained:

We had no synthesiser, so I tried to get different sounds out of conventional and non-conventional instruments. I explored a little. My approach was as if I were a painter: I can see the canvas and music is colours. For instance, F-sharp is like bright red; A-flat might be deep purple, or yellow. Van Gogh had a lot of influence on me because his paintings had an extraordinary blend of colours.

Variety soon dubbed him "the Mexican Duke Ellington" while in 1961 the comedian Ernie Kovacs used the nonchalant "Sentimental Journey" and the atmospheric "Jalousie" from Infinity in Sound Vol 2 to accompany his television sketches.

On Latin-Esque (1962), Esquivel pushed the stereo medium to the limit. Commandeering RCA's Hollywood studios 1 and 2, he conducted one orchestra himself while Stanley Wilson led the other a block away. These majestic performances demonstrating the possibilities of channel panning and separation – and touted on the sleeve as "the sound your eyes can follow " – were achieved with the help of television monitors and a "click track" now commonly used in today's pop music. "RCA was very nice to me," Esquivel recalled:

If I wanted to record the orchestra using drapery behind the trumpets to soften the sound, they would allow me. If I wanted to record the violins with wooden floors beneath to brighten the sound, they would allow me. I could do whatever I wanted.

Mostly, Esquivel employed his amazing array of effects and trickery – complete with whistling and the odd "zu-zu-zu" or "pow! pow!" from the Randy Van Horne Singers – on eccentric cover versions of standards such as "Begin the Beguine" or "Lazy Bones":

When a listener hears a song he's familiar with, he is more likely to notice differences in the rhythm, or the chords, or the voices. He is more likely to appreciate the work of the arranger.

But he also created his own gimmicky novelty compositions such as "Mucha Muchacha" or "Whatchamacallit". "Sometimes, I find myself laughing when I'm writing," he admitted. "I use nonsense syllables. I laugh hard!"

Briefly moving to Reprise Records for the More of Other Worlds, Other Sounds album in 1962, he later devised a stage show, The Sights and Sounds of Esquivel, which he performed in night-clubs and casinos all over the United States. Meticulous to the point of obsession, he asked all members of his touring company to sign "The Regulations and Bylaws to Belong to the Esquivel Organisation" and fined musicians who arrived late and female dancers and singers who gained weight. Lengthy residencies in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe as well as lucrative television and film work kept the orchestra conductor so busy that The Genius of Esquivel, his last US studio album, back on RCA Victor, only came out in 1967.

Esquivel spent the next 10 years composing and recording innumerable scores and mood pieces for Universal Television. Aficionados of the arranger may unexpectedly hear his trademark glissandos, dramatic keyboard runs or sharp bursts of brass in episodes of Columbo, Ironside, Kojak, The Munsters, Quincy and The Six Million Dollar Man. He also created the distinctive two-second sound blast, the "Universal Emblem", which marks the appearance of the Universal Studios logo at the end of all their television series.

Charismatic and good-looking, Esquivel hung out with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas and escorted a succession of beautiful women in Hollywood. He returned to his native Mexico in 1979, and was confined to a wheelchair in recent years. Last summer he got married for the sixth time, to his 26-year-old nurse.

He missed America but enjoyed his new-found cult status with lounge-music fans who bought CD compilations of his work, Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music (1994) and Cabaret Mañana (1995). "After so many years," he said, "finally my music is something to believe in."

Pierre Perrone