Best Of '99: 'Mambo No. 5' Singer Lou Bega Endured Doubts, Rejections
[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
"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,
"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
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
"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
He's not sure what he'll do next. Maybe a "Mambo No. 6," he said.