Charo used to scare me when I was a kid. As an overanxious and sheltered boy sitting two feet in front of my parents' television set, it wasn't hard to see why: her unruly mass of hair, her thick Spanish accent, her exotic hip-shaking, and most frightening of all, that chilling "cuchi-cuchi" squeal of hers. (That trademark line, incidentally, stems from a creepy name given to her childhood dog -- Cuchillo, Spanish for "knife." When a young Charo would call her dog, people found it cloying enough to egg her on, so it stuck.) But I only knew her as a manic creature, via her numerous cameos on The Love Boat (a guest-starring record 21 of them!); inside her cube on Hollywood Squares; and a particularly bizarre dream-sequence episode of The Facts of Life (during the show's final years, when the gals were running a chintzy shop). I didn't know why Charo was famous; she was just good at shocking me to attention.
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But aside from her bad television and even worse outfits, it turns out that this unholy cross between Carmen Miranda and Cyndi Lauper is quite the musician. Discovered to be gifted with the guitar at only 9 years old, Charo made her mark as a recording artist and star of a children's show while still in her teens -- the Hilary Duff of her time, but with discernable talent -- and later joined efforts with Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat. In the '70s, she made it to the States, produced a few more Latin-themed albums, and helped create a bilingual salsa sound, one that continues to be copied to this day by similar artists like fellow hip-shaker Shakira. Then Charo hit the late-night talk-show circuit, where she achieved the American dream of C-list celebrity status.
Soon she became far more recognized for her pelvic thrusts and frenzied persona than for her musicianship. ("[E]very time I say, 'Cuchi-cuchi,' people give me money," Charo admits.) So after cashing in on her fame (read: recording the time-honored Christmas album and opening a self-titled restaurant), she ducked out of the spotlight for years. She re-emerged in 2000 in the city where most washed-up acts surface: Las Vegas. And, lo and behold, audience members rediscovered why she was famous to begin with: for being mighty impressive with the guitar. Even Guitar Magazine awarded her "Best Flamenco Guitar Player" two years in a row. And although Charo has an impressive fan base of gay men -- whom you'll find dressed up in her signature wacko stylings at concerts -- she's also culled admirers for her impressive body of work within the Latin music sphere. She can still put on a strange spectacle, but in concert, you'll hear why Charo's talent allows her to do so in the first place.
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