‘I Love Lucy’: Why Desi Arnaz’s Instrument of Preference Was the Guitar

by Suzanne Halliburton

Desi Arnaz loved to sing and play his Conga drum. He’s even credited with introducing the Conga dance to American audiences.

But did you know that the first musical love of the I Love Lucy star wasn’t the drum? Rather, it was a guitar. And given Arnaz’s flirty persona, you’ll understand about the guitar.

Desi Arnaz was a guest on The Late Show with David Letterman on May 23, 1983. And he explained why he loved the guitar best of all.

“All Cubans play the guitar and sing,” Arnaz said. “You need that, you need it to romance, where you serenade.”

Arnaz then smiled and strummed an invisible guitar. You can imagine that he trotted out this line for many lady friends through the years.

Desi Arnaz probably was going to gush more about his love for the guitar, but there was a strange interruption that startled and thrilled both Letterman and Arnaz. Jack Paar opened the door, stepped on the stage, and walked over to Arnaz. He shook his hand, then walked off the set. Paar was known as the father of late-night talk show. He made the genre popular in the early 1960s. Guys like Letterman can thank Paar for their careers.

What was so strange about the Paar appearance on Letterman? He wasn’t supposed to be a guest on the show. He walked on and off, all because of Desi Arnaz.

American Audiences Adored Desi Arnaz as Musician and Actor

American audiences knew Desi Arnaz mostly for I Love Lucy and his high-energy singing and dancing. He sang I’ll See You in Cuba that night on the Letterman show. The song was written by iconic composer Irving Berlin. Marco Rizo, who performed with Arnaz since the 1940s, accompanied his friend on the piano.

Music made Desi Arnaz into a big celebrity here. He came to the United States in the early 1930s when the entire Arnaz family fled an opulent life in Cuba and settled in south Florida. Bandleader Xavier Cugat discovered Arnaz. And eventually, Arnaz moved to New York, where he opened his own club.

Lucie Arnaz, who was the oldest child of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, credits her dad with introducing the Conga dance to the United States.

“He actually introduced the conga dance to the United States out of desperation one night,” Lucie Arnaz said in 2011. “That really was his ticket. He became quite famous for that and playing the conga drum and doing the conga dance in this conga line. Then he went back to New York and named the club La Conga. And he was playing at La Conga in New York when he was (discovered).”

Desi Arnaz earned a part in the Broadway musical Too Many Girls. He met Lucille Ball in 1940 when the musical was turned into a movie. They eloped late that year.

Famous Couple Broke Up in 1960

By 1951, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball introduced America to I Love Lucy. The country fell in love with the Cuban bandleader who loved to sing and play his Conga drum. Unfortunately for Desi and Lucy, their marriage broke up in 1960.

Desi Arnaz died of lung cancer in 1986. He was only 69. But old clips like this one from David Letterman keep him alive. Check out his interview and his performance of the song about his home country.