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Obituaries

Juan Garcia Esquivel, 83; Bandleader

January 10, 2002|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Juan Garcia Esquivel, who became a pop-music cult icon when his eccentric music from the 1950s and '60s was rediscovered in the '90s, died Jan. 3 at his home in Jiutepec, Mexico, after a stroke. He was 83.

The pianist-composer-bandleader, who used just his last name (followed by an exclamation point) professionally, was known for bold, idiosyncratic orchestrations marked by radical dynamics, odd, wordless vocals and unexpected sounds such as steel guitar and whistling.

His meticulously recorded albums, bearing such titles as "Exploring New Sounds in Hi-Fi" and "Infinity in Sound," were nominated for several Grammys and were used to promote the wonders of the era's hot new technology, stereophonic sound.

"What I tried to do was not follow the style that was popular at that time," Esquivel told The Times in 1995. "We had no synthesizers at that time, so I tried to get different sounds out of conventional and nonconventional instruments. I explored a little.'

That music struck a nerve among young fans in the 1990s when the Bar/None label launched a series of reissues of his vintage work, catching a wave of nostalgic interest in the sounds and symbols of '50s and '60s "cocktail culture." The title of the first reissue captured the zeitgeist: "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music.'

Esquivel wasn't expecting a revival, but he was pleased when it happened.

"I'm surprised, because those recordings were made 35 to 36 years ago," he said. "Perhaps the fact is that my music was too much for the time. The audience wasn't ready for that type of music. Now they are used to the sounds and the technology. I'm glad the young artists are trying to follow my style of writing. I love that."

In recent years, his music has been used in such Hollywood films as "The Big Lebowski," 'Four Rooms" and "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America." The Kronos Quartet has recorded a string arrangement of his 1967 composition "Mini Skirt" for its upcoming album, "Nuevo," and according to the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Steely Dan cited Esquivel as the inspiration for the use of marimba and vibes on the group's album "Pretzel Logic." Actor John Leguizamo is developing plans to star in a movie based on Esquivel's life.

The musician was born Jan. 20, 1918, in Tampico, a city in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. He became a popular pianist and bandleader in his homeland, starring in and scoring two films, "Cabaret Tragico" and "La Locura de Rock 'n' Roll.'

In 1957, RCA Victor Records brought him to the U.S., where he turned out 10 albums in six years. His most widely heard piece of music is probably the two-second fanfare that for decades has accompanied the Universal Studios logo at the end of the company's television shows.

Esquivel also led a troupe of performers on tour and hobnobbed with Frank Sinatra, Liberace and other celebrities.

Alcohol and prescription drug abuse eventually curtailed his work, and though he was a U.S. citizen, he returned to Mexico in the 1980s. He composed soundtracks for a children's TV program, but was inactive during the 1990s, when a broken hip and a spinal injury left him bedridden.

Esquivel, who said he was married six times, is survived by his widow, Carlina; his son, Mario Eddi Garcia Servin, of Taxco, Mexico; and two sisters, Luz Maria Cuevas of Mexico City and Aida Garcia Ganz Amado of Carmichael, Calif.

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