The last time Charo was in San Francisco, it was a challenge to recognize her.
“Charo? The full-lipped chanteuse with a blond ponytail atop her head and a bazillion sequins (barely) covering her ample frame? That Charo?”
Yes, that Charo. BUT, the last time she was here, she was riding a Pride Parade float with a gaggle of Charo impersonators!
This time, though, Charo is excited to tell you that she’s here “mano a mano”—meaning she is performing for you, the audience, with her guitar. Yes, before Charo became a household name/caricature on countless talk shows in the ’70s, she was (and remains) a top-notch flamenco and classical guitarist.
Charo will be bringing her dynamic playing to Yoshi’s San Francisco on July 20 and 21—and, yes, she’s bringing the “Cuchi-Cuchi” with her. She explained that and the origin of her moniker in a fun, freewheeling interview. (It’s best to just let Charo drive and hang on for the ride!)
Charo: Como estas?
Corey Andrew: Very well. And you?
Charo: I am so excited to go to San Francisco. I think it has been three years since I have been. It’s the best audience in the world! I can’t wait.
Corey: What do you have planned for these shows?
Charo: Every time I went to San Francisco, I had dancers, but this time I am going for great, great sound. You know me—I don’t see life without energy, and I don’t see energy without music. So wherever I am, it’s with happy, happy music—beautiful classical and flamenco music. This is my favorite moment, that mano a mano. Good musicians, me and a great audience.
Corey: It sounds like a good show.
Charo: I only know one real happiness; there is me and my life with the audience. Television is fine, but it is so fabricated. What they call reality show is not real life. Everything is programmed. They tell you what to say and how to react. They tell you what’s going to happen. None of it is real.
Corey: I am like you. I really like a live show. I’m really looking forward to hearing you play guitar.
Charo: You don’t have a director. You don’t have people telling you what to do. That is the excitement. The excitement is the entertainer and the people. That’s it. I am excited because San Francisco is a very unique city, very unique. Nothing is traditional. The only thing that could compete maybe with San Francisco is if you put New York and Hawaii together. That’s the trick.
Corey: You have been called the best flamenco guitarist time and time again. Do you think you still have room for improvement?
Charo: There are some better than me, who play faster, but they wish they had my emotion. One that is a genius, who is a thousand, million times better than me, is Paco de Lucía. I hear that he has arthritis in the hands, which made me happy. Hee hee! Because he is huge. You give a guitar to Paco de Lucía, a few hours later, the guitar is on fire! He is great. There are also great flamenco guitarists who play too fast. Then there’s me. It’s like the rabbit and the tortoise. The rabbit goes very fast, but the tortoise finishes the mission. I could never go mano a mano with Paco de Lucía, because he is faster than the lights. I try to describe it like, you see lightning and a few seconds later, you hear the thunder, that’s Paco de Lucía! Paco is a nickname for Francisco just like Charo is a nickname for Rosario. Somebody told me he had a problem with arthritis in the hands, and I said, ‘One less competitor.’ I forgot to tell you I’m a b****!
Corey: How often do you practice?
Charo: Four hours a day. Two in the morning. No more noise. No more phone calls. My escape is practicing. I wouldn’t be able to survive, seriously, from one day to another without the guitar in my hand. I need to be in a silent room and try to forget anything that was making me feel bad. That is a good way to survive. It gives me the security when I am playing on the stage. You keep on chasing your dreams. I am going to keep on chasing my dreams. I am never going to let go! The other day I was in Hawaii, and I saw a triple rainbow! Not a double, a triple rainbow. I don’t know if I’m going to reach the end of the triple rainbow! I already got past the double rainbow by coming to America and establishing myself and my family. I will let you know when I get my triple rainbow! What rainbow are you chasing, number one or number two?
Corey: I think I’m after number two.
Charo: Great! Nothing is impossible.
Corey: I’ll keep shooting for it.
Charo: Sorry if I talk too much!
Corey: No, not at all! I didn’t know that Charo was a nickname for Rosario.
Charo: Rosario is one of the villages in Rosalie. You see in Spain in the town where I was born, the village is called Rosalie. The nickname of Rosario is Charo. Corey, you don’t have a nickname! What would they call you, Core? You can’t make it shorter. But anyone called Robert, they would be called Bob. Anyone called Margaret, they would be Margie. So, since the day I was born, they called me Charo. Just coming out from my mother’s belly, my grandma picked me up, and said, ‘Hello, Charo, welcome to Rosalie,’ where I was born. My first name is Rosario, nickname Charo. When I first came to the United States, I was in the William Morris Agency. They said, ‘We cannot sell you by the name Charo. What is your other name?’ I told them all my other names and they said, ‘OK, we will try to sell you by Charo.’ There’s Maria Rosario Pilar, so big that my passport look like a search party. That’s how I started with only one name in the United States. After that, showed up Cher and Madonna and Elvis! I am not kidding you, Corey. If you Google, you will see I was the first entertainer with one name, but William Morris did not want to put all my names in the booking.
Corey: It makes it easy to remember; that’s for sure.
Charo: Exactly. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Maria Rosario Pilar Martinez Molina …’ Oh my, bring out that b****, so he will shut the hell up!’
Corey: Do you remember the first time you said, ‘Cuchi-Cuchi?’
Charo: It was the best thing that ever happened in my life, to say, ‘Cuchi-Cuchi.’ I was 3 years old, Corey. My grandmother loved dogs. One she rescued, they called him Cuchillo. C, like capital; U, like universal; C, like capital; H, like hero; I, like iBall; L, like lion; another L, like lion; O, like Ohio. Pronounced Cuchillo. It means knife. Because when the dog bites people, it wouldn’t let go. It was like getting cut like a knife.
For a little person, Cuchillo is a very difficult word to say. So, I called the dog, ‘Cuchi.’ Cuchi broke something in his spine so he don’t wiggle his sides. He wiggles his front and back. I played with that dog, and he never bit me or nothing. He didn’t like strangers.
With children, my cousin, my sister, he never, ever bit us, and he had a lot of patience with children. When he was happy, he wiggled like any other dog on this planet, but he did not wiggle side to side; he wiggled back and front. I copied him. I would run to my grandfather or anyone—I always wanted attention ever since I was a little girl—I would run to them, and I could wiggle like Cuchillo. I would say, ‘Look at me, Cuchi-Cuchi!’ and they would laugh.
To have a little girl looking for attention, growing up, and you give them attention and laugh, that’s it. That’s how I got into the business. Every time I was in trouble, or something they would get mad about, ‘Cuchi-Cuchi!’ and I would see them laughing. They give me cookies or candy. At the age of 7, I was already a professional. ‘Cuchi-cuchi’ everywhere.
When I came to America, and I was in trouble at ‘The Tonight Show’—I only knew three or four words in English—whatever Johnny Carson was asking me, I played it safe, I said, ‘Cuchi-Cuchi, oh, yes!’
That did it. I did that all my life, and, Johnny Carson, he must have loved it. I never knew what he was asking me. They told me, ‘The guy, he is an egomaniac. You say to him, ‘Yes,’ or agree with him, and he will invite you back.’ With that advice from my babysitter, who was called Maria, every time they invite me, my answers were always, ‘Cuchi-Cuchi, yes,’ and the guy said, ‘Wow.’ That’s the story, seriously.
My name was never Charo; they called me, ‘the Cuchi-Cuchi one.’ It’s true, it’s true, I say to you. Then I got a lot of bookings. I got money. But it completely destroyed the image of a serious guitarist.
So, in one hand, I was getting popular. I was getting invitations to the Dean Martin Show, every show. At that time, CBS, ABC and NBC. But they did not want me to play the guitar. They wanted me to do the ‘Cuchi-Cuchi.’ No ‘Cuchi, Cuchi,’ no invitation.
Also, my sister knows how to sew, but she did not know how to put on the zipper. She said, ‘OK, I’m gonna make a shortcut. I’m gonna make a little scarf to cover your breasts. I am going to make a little skirt or pants so I don’t have to put on a zipper.’
That became my fashion, a short, low-low-low cut, not because she designed it for me, but she did not know how to put on a zipper. That was also a problem with the censor. That was a daily fight because the ‘Cuchi’ wiggle back and forth and no zipper, I was probably labeled, ‘Red light! Red Light! Where’s she going?’
I had two or three censors around me. In those days, they gave me Band-Aids to cover my nipples because I did not wear a brassier. I had so many bandages. You would never know that because the people didn’t know that! That’s what happened in the ’70s. I had to put a lot of big bandages on the nipple. And I had to double secure that the breast didn’t move.
Corey: You’re a great storyteller.
Charo: Thank you! I hope we do well. Usually we are completely full. I don’t want to be bragging, but wherever we go, to the casinos, Mohegan Sun, Aquarius, South Point, wherever it is, we’re sold out. I keep the fingers crossed.
I will never forget ‘Cuchi-Cuchi.’ I will never, but I would like to be able to introduce the other persona. That will catch a lot of the audience by surprise.
Corey: I’m really looking forward to seeing you play.
Charo: And you will love my new outfit!
Corey: What does it look like?
Charo: Ah, surprise. It’s like I am covered in all the diamonds from South Africa.
Corey: Oh, boy.
Charo: Everything is on my body. They’re not diamonds of course. From Vienna, with a touch of gold dust. It’s sparkly when the lights hit it, it looks exactly like diamonds.
So it will be very difficult to miss me. I’m going to be blinding people!
Visit yoshis.com/sanfrancisco to buy tickets to Charo’s performances on July 20 and 21.