Best Of '99: 'Mambo No. 5' Singer Lou Bega Endured Doubts, Rejections

On way to worldwide Latin-pop hit, he put up with more than a little bit of grief.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Friday, Nov. 5.]

Down-on-his-luck songwriter Lou Bega knew he had a hit on his hands when

he wrote new lyrics for an old Cuban song called "Mambo No. 5."

But for a while, he couldn't find anyone who agreed with him. On his way

to scoring one of the biggest singles of 1999 with "Mambo No. 5 (A Little

Bit Of ... )," Bega endured a round of record-company rejections and the

advice of people who told him he had no business singing.

"Everybody told me I was not a singer," Bega said. "They said, 'Your voice

is not Mariah Carey, Lou.' You know, Mick Jagger can't sing compared to

Luther Vandross. But he goes onstage and screams and people go wild."

Even Muppets are going wild to Bega — Elmo of "Sesame Street" is

featured on a website dancing to a knockoff of Bega's single called "Mambo

No. 5 (A Little Bit of Smiles)" — and no one is more surprised than

Bega himself.

"I knew it would be a hit," Bega, 24, said recently from a hotel room in

Los Angeles. "But I had no idea it would be, like, this big. It's crazy,

you know."

"Mambo No. 5" (RealAudio

excerpt), from the album A Little Bit of Mambo, is a worldwide

sensation. It's a hit in at least two dozen countries, including the U.S.,

where both the album and single climbed to #3 this week on the Billboard

200 albums chart and Billboard Hot 100, respectively.

"This is fantastic," Bega said. "I can't lie about that. It's the sunny

side of life, and I haven't always had the sunny side before."

Bega, who is Ugandan and Italian, grew up in Germany, living in small

apartments with his mother, sister and brother. His mom loved to listen

to Cuban music, particularly the mambos of Cuban composer Perez Prado.

His dad, he said, "was, how do you say over there, a little bit of a

rolling stone, and money was tight sometimes."

Bega left Germany for Miami for a brief time in his late teens, but he

tired of the South Beach lifestyle and living in hotel rooms, and he wasn't

having much luck with his songs.

"I spent a lot of time writing lyrics for singers who have never made it,

who no one has heard of," he said.

Eventually, he decided he'd sing his own songs, despite criticisms of his

voice.

First up for Bega was a remake of "Mambo No. 5," which Prado wrote in the

1940s. Bega wrote a catchy melody and flirty lyrics — "A little bit

of Rita is all I need/ A little bit of Tina is what I see/ A little bit

of Sandra in the sun/ A little bit of Mary all night long" — to lay

over Prado's time-proven groove.

He pitched the retro-sounding Latin-dance tune in the U.S., but there

were no takers. So he went home to Germany to make his record.

It quickly climbed the German charts. Bega performed for the first time

on German television six months ago. Since then, his popularity has soared,

and his song has become a sensation.

Raul Merciano, a professor at the University of Miami School of Music,

said Bega hopped on a train that has been drawing throngs for 500 years.

"Latin music has been captivating audiences for all that time," said

Merciano, a founding member and onetime keyboard player and musical

director for Gloria and Emilio Estefan's Miami Sound Machine ("Rhythm

Is Gonna Get You," "Conga").

"Latin music is so very accessible. The tone, the beat — it's all

more familiar to the Western ear than, say, Oriental or Indian music.

But at the same time it's foreign and exotic."

Bega's debut album is loaded with Latin-dance numbers, heavily influenced

by his mother's listening preferences and the time he spent in Miami

soaking up the Cuban flavor of that city and its mambo kings. He covers

the Cuban classic "Tico Tico" as "Can I Tico Tico You" (RealAudio

excerpt); that will be his next video. Bega wrote the rest of

the songs.

"I really want people to get up and dance," he said. "This is feel-good,

get-moving dance music."

In addition to the long-standing U.S. romance with Latin music, Bega credited

his success to image. He pays close attention to the Lou Bega look:

vintage pinstripe suits with a '40s feel.

He said he knows it is over the top, but he makes no apologies.

"You have to make an impression onstage, and to do that, you have to overdo

things," Bega said. "If I went onstage in jeans to sing this song, it

wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't be this big. I'd say 30 percent of it

is the impression you make."

But he's more than just his duds. "I am not an overnight express success

either," he said. "It just looks that way. I am working hard for this

stuff."

He's not sure what he'll do next. Maybe a "Mambo No. 6," he said.