(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on September 16, 1998)
One of the fringe benefits of this business, perhaps the most flattering, is that sometimes we get to rub shoulders with celebrities. Some may even become friends, and then they introduce you to other stars.
"Miguel, I want you to meet Desi," said my friend Marco Rizo as I stood in awe, watching the man the world knew as Ricky Ricardo stretching out his hand to greet me.
That was 14 years ago, at a reception across the street from the United Nations. I don't remember much about the event, but that moment, meeting one of my idols, will always remain fresh in my mind.
Arnaz died a couple of years later, in 1986. But my friendship with Rizo, the musical director of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, grew fonder over the years.
He was one of Latin America's greatest living classical music pianists; the composer of many classical and popular tunes, including the "I Love Lucy" theme song; a music historian who captivated his audiences with anecdotes about his many friends in the music industry -- from Arnaz to the late Ernesto Lecuona, Cuba's greatest composer.
It was a privilege to know someone so talented and yet so humble. We had agreed to have lunch together this week, upon my return from vacation. But upon my arrival, another friend called to tell me Rizo had died. He was 78.
At his funeral in Manhattan last week, Latin music legends of many generations were saying they considered him a musical genius. They were listening to a CD of his music and smiling -- Jose Fajardo, Johnny Pacheco, and Bobby Sanabria among them -- saying that the choirs in heaven had just acquired a new Latin beat.
I don't play a musical instrument. Yet I felt privileged. On four separate occasions I stood next to his piano and interviewed him as his aging fingers did most of the talking.
On "Images/Imagenes," the television program I host on the New Jersey Network, Rizo performed three times. Some five years ago, we paid tribute to Arnaz. "We go all the way back to the time when we were just kids in Santiago de Cuba," Rizo said. "His first love was the guitar, and my first love was the piano. We both dreamed of coming to this country and pursuing musical careers."
Those were dreams well realized. Arnaz came to the United States in 1933. Rizo came in 1940, having been the pianist for the Havana Philharmonic. In 1947, he joined Arnaz's band and began storing anecdotes in his mind.
Like the night Arnaz created the first conga line, asking dancers to follow him around the club with his conga drum strapped over his shoulder. "Eventually, it became such a craze that Desi would head out of the clubs," Rizo said, "and the people would follow him around the block."
And the night Desi shared a secret with him. "He told me he was creating a TV show to perform with his wife, Lucy, and that he needed a theme song."
Three years ago on "Images/Imagenes," we paid tribute to Lecuona, with whom Rizo had performed piano duets in Cuba and whose music he played and promoted since Lecuona's death in 1963. And in April, Rizo was on the show again, promoting his last CD, "Habaneras," featuring the classical music of four Cuban composers: Lecuona; Ignacio Cervantes, 1847-1905; Manuel Saumell, 1817-1870; and his own.
"The idea of this CD was to combine the style of the last 150 years of musical life . . . in Cuba," he said. He wanted to demonstrate that Cuba produced wonderful classical music, on which most of today's Latin music is rooted. "It's something young people have to know."
He received so many honors and told of so many special experiences that a single column cannot do him justice. At "Images/Imagenes," we are planning a program to pay tribute to him. Yet we know that a half-hour show will not be enough. "We loved him," said my producer William Sanchez, "like he was family."
For me, perhaps the most flattering moment of our friendship was the time when Rizo asked me to do a concert with him. I stood by his piano, like we had done on television, asking him questions evoking his many anecdotes -- and wondering how I could be so lucky.
With Pianist Marco Rizo at Victor's Cafe in New York City.
A Tribute to Desi with Marco Rizo On Images/Imagenes