In the mid-'90s, Juan Garcia Esquivel enjoyed one of the most unexpected resurgences of popularity -- and hipness -- in the annals of 20th-century pop. The composer and arranger skirted the lines between lounge music, eccentric experimentalism, and stereo sound pioneer in the late '50s and early '60s on a series of albums aimed at the easy listening market. Both cheesy and goofily unpredictable, these records were forgotten by all but thrift-store habitues for decades. With the space age pop/exotica revival of the mid-'90s, however, Esquivel was not just being rediscovered, but was being championed as a cutting-edge innovator by certain segments of the hipper-than-thou alternative crowd.
Esquivel (in the manner of Dion or Melanie, he billed himself with a single name) actually enjoyed a long and varied career, of which his space age pop recordings were only a portion. Born in a small Mexican village, the pianist became a popular performer on a Mexican radio station, and studied briefly at Juilliard in New York. The radio (and later television and film) work actually gave him valuable experience in the art of quickly devising varied background music and orchestral arrangements, which he'd put to good use when he began recording for RCA in the late '50s.
This was the era in which stereo albums were first starting to be marketed. Esquivel -- along with several other of "space age pop"'s leading lights -- took advantage of this development to use his albums as laboratories of sorts to explore the spectrum of recorded sound, as reflected in LP titles like Other Worlds, Other Sounds and Four Corners of the World. He employed then-exotic instruments such as the theremin, the ondioline, early Fender Rhodes keyboards, Chinese bells, bass accordion, and a Boom-Bam (a 24-bongo kit tuned to F) to get what he wanted.
What kept Esquivel from serious critical appreciation at the time are, perhaps, the same factors that exerted a strange fascination upon listeners of the 1990s. In its form and content, Esquivel's material was lightweight martini-mixing fare, more geared toward suburban easy listening than challenging innovation. He threw in just enough sly, oddball quirks, however, to make one wonder whether he was in fact deftly satirizing the form, or at least using it as a forum to slip in some unbridled zaniness. Chipper white bread background chorus singers will slip into strange nonsense syllables like "boink, boink." Weird instrumental flourishes add unpredictable tension to bathetic easy listening instrumentals, sometimes almost jarring the listener from the state of bland relaxation for which the records were purportedly designed. The strains of cha chas and mambos (then in vogue among much of mainstream America) run through much of his work, though in a much more lounge-ish vein than what you would find in sweaty Havana ballrooms. Tempos and arrangements change with unnerving frequency and charge forward with unsettling manic energy, though never so often that the music sounds more experimental than pop.
So when post-moderns tired of punk, grunge, and industrial music, and needed some suitably different (but still ironic) music to chill out to in their dank clubs and cafes, they turned to forgotten artists such as Esquivel. The man himself had passed his heyday as a recording artist after the early '60s. He remained active for years with his live act (Frank Sinatra was a fan of Esquivel's Las Vegas sets) and television and film scores. By the 1990s, he was confined to a wheelchair in his brother's home in Mexico, the victim of numerous back injuries. He wasn't so ill that he couldn't be interviewed, however. His lengthy profile in the second volume of the Incredibly Strange Music book kicked off the Esquivel revival in earnest. 1995 suddenly saw Esquivel reissues flooding the market (at least three appeared that year, with many more following). Respected alternative figureheads like John Zorn and R.E.M. sang his praises. Esquivel was no longer gathering mold in the attic -- he was the epitome of hip.
As is the case with other space age pop heroes such as Martin Denny, some listeners were dumbfounded, or even angered, by the modern appeal enjoyed by Esquivel. His work will never be treated with respect by the "serious" music community; his music is too consciously geared toward light entertainment for that. And just as one wonders whether Esquivel was mixing irony and entertainment in his recordings, one wonders whether some modern Esquivel fans were championing his cause out of a desire to be more jaded-than-thou. Did they groove to his sounds precisely because Esquivel's records sound so ridiculously outdated, or simply because they want to become hip by attaching themselves to the most unfashionable music possible? Easy answers are not forthcoming, but Esquivel wasn't complaining. In fact, he became something of the spokesperson emeritus for the whole space age pop craze, conducting regular interviews for national publications from his Mexico bed, and hoping to eventually recover some of his mobility. However, in late 2001, Esquivel suffered two strokes in three months. The first left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak, and the second one led to his death. He passed away on January 3, 2002, four days after the second stroke in his home in Jiutepec, Morelos, Mexico. ~ Richie Unterberger