Serious chops, hilarious malaprops: Charo brings entertainment juggernaut to Lewis
By Lisa Butterworth
A woman wearing a sleek suit with a ruffled shirt and bow tie sits on a stool on a stage, holding a guitar. As the lights go up, her fingers begin to fly up and down the neck as her right hand plucks the strings in a blur, releasing the notes of a soul-stirring flamenco song.
The musician is Charo. And though the concert footage is from 1977, this icon’s guitar virtuosity has been one of pop culture’s best-kept (or perhaps most-ignored) secrets. Charo’s aiming to change that. At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 16 she’ll debut a new guitar-centric show at Lewis Family Playhouse, 12505 Cultural Center Dr., Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91739. Tickets and more info are at cityofrc.us/events.
“Cucamonga, I love it. The name, it is very cute. Lewis Family Playhouse, that is already so fun. I love that place — it sounds so good and the stage is beautiful,” Charo said, with her signature effusiveness. “This is going to be a tremendochance for me.”
Born María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza, the singular Charo, with her big hair, dazzling outfits, and self-deprecating humor, has been an entertainment fixture since making her first appearance as a teenager on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1965. She had just been “discovered” while performing on a children’s program in Madrid by famed bandleader Xavier Cugat, who brought her to the States on a student visa. It was this late-night performance that would introduce her “cuchi-cuchi” catchphrase to the world, which has been a blessing and a curse.
“No matter how much I’m trying to play guitar on the Instagram and on YouTube, it seems the concept or the perception [people] have about me is just from ‘cuchi-cuchi,’ jumping bean, and beautiful dresses,” she said. “But the truth is, that although I like that because this is the real me, at the same time I am a serious musician.”
In 1994, after making several disco- and pop-influenced records, Charo was successful enough to convince her label to release “Guitar Passion,” an album that showcased her six-string skill and artistry. She was told it would be a big mistake. It wasn’t. But despite its critical acclaim and popularity, the revelation didn’t stand a chance against her well-established persona. True musicians took note, though — she has since twice been voted “best classical flamenco guitarist in the world” by Guitar Player magazine.
She began studying classical guitar at the age of 9, under the tutelage of legendary Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia. But her love for the instrument and the music began even earlier, during the summers of her childhood when Romani families would camp on her grandparents’ farm in the south of Spain. Along with her older sister Carmen (who came with her to the States and has been her costume designer ever since), Charo would share food, play with the other children, and dance flamenco as campers played music under a canopy of stars.
When asked what makes her such a spellbinding guitarist, Charo set the record straight. “Compared with other guitarists in Spain, I am average. I know gypsies that can play incredible ‘bulerías.’ At a very young age, I was blessed for many years to mingle and share their passion for guitar,” she said. “And the gypsies are like birds, they don’t care [about] mañana. They live [for] the day because they’re free. And they cover their sorrow and their problems with music. The most beautiful, deep music you ever hear.” After her reverent reminiscing, she came back to the query. “My answer to your question is: love for the music — music is my medication. Love for people — I love people like oxygen.”
Another thing Charo loves is attention, which, as a consummate performer, has kept her in the public eye for more than five decades. After wowing Johnny Carson, she became a late night and variety show regular, performing on programs from The Ed Sullivan Show to The Carol Burnett Show to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. In the 1970s and ’80s Charo brought her outsized charm to TV shows like Chico and the Man, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island. More recently she had a guest arc on Jane the Virgin, and shook her hips for an audience of millions on Dancing with the Stars, nailing breakneck salsa and Paso Doble moves that belied her age (Charo is now 72).
“I started looking for attention when I was 3 years old,” she said. “I was a tiny little bitch saying ‘cuchi-cuchi’ to everybody. But they were giving me cookies! And pesetas!” Lest you think her catchphrase has salacious origins, cuchi-cuchi was simply the nickname of her grandparents’ dog, Cuchillo (“knife” in Spanish), named for his sharp snaggletooth.
But, much like another self-made, over-the-top, double entendre loving legend, Dolly Parton, Charo beats everyone to the punch by subverting the punchline herself. “It costs a lot to look this cheap” is one of Parton’s most popular Dolly-isms, and it similarly takes a lot of work for Charo to make her beloved schtick seem so easy. And even more now, to have her musicianship taken seriously.
When it comes to guitar playing, that work includes aesthetic sacrifice and a rather involved acrylic nail procedure. “If you see my hands, I look like shit! I look like a ‘cucaracha’ with an attitude!” Charo said. “Because my left hand, the fingernails are chopped, chopped, chopped short because I have to hold the strings between the fingernail and the skin. And I have so many calluses, that if you needed a hammer, and I’m around, I can be your hammer.” Each fingernail of her right hand is shaped to a particular length and fortified with a nail technician’s mixture of bonding liquid and white powder. “People think it’s like cocaine, but don’t misconscrewme!” she said, dropping another of her long-perfected malapropisms. This ensures her nails don’t break and bleed, and allows each finger to play the guitar strings just as they’re meant to. (The pick, she said, is a guitar player’s “worst enemy.”)
And though several hours of nightly playing is part of Charo’s typical routine, she’s been practicing six hours a day in order to perfect the three new concertos she’s debuting Saturday at the Lewis Family Playhouse. “And that means that my life sucks,” she said with a laugh. And “cuchi-cuchi-cuchi,” she continued, has been replaced with “practice, practice, practice. But when the people applaud, the reward is priceless.”