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Henry Cuesta, 71; Clarinetist Played With Lawrence Welk's Orchestra

Obituaries

December 22, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Henry Cuesta, a highly regarded clarinetist best known as a featured musician with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, has died. He was 71.

Cuesta, whose technical mastery of the clarinet was often compared to that of Benny Goodman, died of cancer Wednesday at his home in Sherman Oaks.

Cuesta performed with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra on television and in concerts from 1972 to 1982, when Welk's weekly program ended after 27 years on ABC-TV and in syndication. Welk died at 89 in 1992.

Cuesta later appeared on five Welk tribute specials on public television that used archival segments of the original shows, including co-hosting "A Champagne Toast to the Big Bands." He also hosted two of the weekly Welk show rebroadcasts on PBS, which feature new 10- to 12-minute segments wrapped around the old programs.

In recent years, Cuesta was one of the most popular of the featured performers at the Welk Resorts in Branson, Mo., and San Diego, and for the past few years he toured with "The Live Lawrence Welk Show."

Cuesta originally joined Welk's orchestra on a tip from big band trumpeter Bobby Hackett that the bandleader was looking for a new clarinetist.

Cuesta was playing in Toronto when Welk called and invited him to appear with his band in Lake Tahoe.

"I thought I was set," Cuesta told the Riverside Press Enterprise in 1992, "but after the performance he asked the audience, 'How do you like this man?' They applauded and he turned to me and said, 'OK, Henry, get yourself a haircut and you have yourself a job.' "

Welk was a demanding bandleader, Cuesta said in another interview.

"He expected a lot of his musicians, and the clarinet chair was a hot seat because Welk loved the instrument and featured it a lot," Cuesta said.

Pete Fountain had once occupied the chair for two years, the longest of anyone before Cuesta was hired.

Cuesta was born in McAllen, Texas, on Dec. 23, 1931. He began studying classical violin at an early age but switched to woodwinds before he was a teenager. By high school he was invited to perform with the Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra.

He majored in music at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi and after being drafted into the Army in 1952, he entertained troops in England and Europe while serving in the Special Services branch.

After his discharge, he toured the United States and Canada for eight years, playing with the big bands of Jack Teagarden, Ted Lewis and Shep Fields. While living in Toronto in the 1960s, he formed his own band.

Over the years, Cuesta appeared as a soloist with Mel Torme, Bobby Vinton and Bob Crosby. He also performed in and conducted jazz festivals and pop symphony concerts, conducted the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra on tour and played at both of President Clinton's inaugural balls.

He is survived by his wife, Janette; daughters, Marion Cuesta and Lucinda Mariscal; sisters, Olivia Hernandez and Sylvia Parra; brothers, Raul and Lorenzo; and a granddaughter. Cuesta's son, Henry Cuesta Jr., preceded him in death.

Funeral services will be private. Donations in his honor may be sent to the Hospice Foundation, 2601 Airport Drive, No. 230, Torrance, CA 90505, or to a favorite charity.

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