As a small child, Charo took her first guitar lessons from gypsies who camped out near her grandparents’ farm. Then, from age 9 to 16, she studied under Andres Segovia, perhaps the most revered classical guitarist of all time.
But while Guitar Player Magazine would eventually name her the top flamenco guitarist on multiple occasions, it wasn’t the guitar that brought Charo fame.
It was the cuchi cuchi.
“When I came to the United States, if I mentioned to the audience, ‘I’m going to play flamenco,’ they look at me in disbelief,” Charo said in her trademark Spanish accent, with its rolling R’s. “ ‘What is she talking about? What is flamenco?’ ”
In fact, that was basically what happened when she went on “The Tonight Show” the first time.
“With my guitar in hand, I said to the producer, ‘Can I play flamenco?’ ” said Charo, who performs at the Clark Center in Arroyo Grande on Saturday. “He look at me and said, ‘Girl, this is not a zoo. We do not have flamingos for you to play with.’ ”
While the producer, Fred de Cordova, was probably joking with her, Charo understood what she had to do to impress the influential Johnny Carson. So with little command of English, whenever Carson would ask her a question she didn’t understand, she merely wiggled and said, “Cuchi cuchi.”
It didn’t make a lot of sense. But it was comic gold. And not only did Carson invite her back, but Charo — transformed from classical guitarist to quirky, sexy Spanish personality—would become a TV show regular, with numerous appearances on shows such as “Love Boat,” “Hollywood Squares” and “Fantasy Island,” leading to her own successful Vegas show.
Meanwhile, her guitar skills took a backseat.
“Now, after the cuchi cuchi — that baloney thing that show me the way to the bank — after that I grow up,” said Charo, who speaks Spanish, English, French, Italian and Japanese.
Still, she knows she can’t ignore her comic side.
“The audience will be very disappointed if I show up to the stage in a tuxedo, keep my mouth shut and sit down on a chair and play for 90 minutes,” she said from her home in Los Angeles. “They probably want to say, ‘What’s a matter with that b----?’ ”
So her Hot Flamenco Night show is split in two — the first half featuring comedy, costume changes and current music, the second featuring the tuxedo and classical guitar.
“There is a balance,” she said.
Born with the breathtakingly long name Maria Rosario Pilar Martinez Molina Baeza in Murcia, Spain, Charo has fond memories of the gypsies who hung around her grandparents’ farm during the summers. Every day, she remembers, they played music and danced.
“They always say goodbye and celebrate the sunset and welcome the night — the moon,” she said. “And they make a big campfire. I can close my eyes and tell you it’s so beautiful to grow up like that.”
Thanks to the guitar training she got from the gypsies, she easily passed her audition for Segovia’s class.
“Segovia was a very serious man,” she said. “I don’t think he had too much sense of humor. Because I never saw him laughing or smiling.”
After lessons with Segovia, the teen went on to become a performer in Spain and eventually met bandleader Xavier Cugat, who married her—despite a significant age difference — so she could easily get to America. In the States, Carson saw her perform with Cugat at the Plaza Hotel in New York and had Cugat and Charo booked for his TV show.
While Carson didn’t anticipate the funny banter he would have with Charo, it was such a hit he would have her back dozens of times. (Her “cuchi cuchi” line, by the way, came from childhood. When calling for her dog, Cuchi, she would yell, “Como, Cuchi, como, Cuchi.”)
Numerous TV spots followed, and Charo would become a successful Vegas act. But after marrying businessman Kjell Rasten and having a child, she and the family moved in the 1980s to Hawaii, where they raised their son and ran a Mexican restaurant where Charo performed. The next time most people saw Charo again was on the VH1 reality show “The Surreal Life,” which puts celebs from yesteryear in a house together and records virtually everything.
“When they called me, very seriously, the casting people said, ‘OK, I know you say no to reality show, I know you really don’t have any consideration for reality show,’ ” Charo recalled. “But VH1 promised that this show was going to be called ‘The House of Music,’ and that ‘you’re going to be there with a lot of musicians, same like you, or even better. And all of you together are going to make a hit.’ ”
While initially reluctant to do reality TV, Charo liked the premise.
“And I said, ‘I’m going,’ ” she said. “ ‘This is my opportunity to erase the stupid idea of the cuchi cuchi bullsh--.’ ”
The other houseguests weren’t quite what she was expecting, however. The first co-star she met was Flavor Flav, the gold-toothed hype man from Public Enemy, who arrived wearing a Viking hat. Then came Brigitte Nielson, actress and Sylvester Stallone’s ex-wife, who showed up drunk. The others didn’t make her feel much better: Jordan Knight, formerly of New Kids on the Block; Dave Coulier from the TV show “Full House;” and “American Idol” runner- up Ryan Starr.
She tried to escape through a window the first night, she said. But, “They got the whole house wired.”
So she decided to make the best of it.
“I said, ‘OK, I like comedy. I don’t want to be a b----.’ ”
While the burgeoning relationship between Flav and Nielson took the spotlight of the show, one episode did showcase Charo’s talents as a flamenco guitarist — revealing to many, for the first time, how good she was on guitar.
Since then, she’s continued to perform—and even had a dance hit with “Sexy Sexy” last year. But what she really wants to showcase is the skills she learned back when she danced with the gypsies.
“I understood the game,” she said of the entertainment business. Then she added, “This is the moment I say, ‘If you think that all I was was cuchi cuchi, I’m sorry to tell you that you have a surprise.’ ”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.