The Mambo king discusses his new 80's album and his love-hate relationship with his 1999 smash.
"Make it known that I'm still alive!" says Lou Bega, as a message to everyone in the United States. "The guy didn't drown!"
Bega is kidding, of course. The 38-year-old is not only alive, but is still issuing albums. His latest, "A Little Bit of 80's," was released in June, and is mostly a horns-inflected covers disc with new takes on "Come On Eileen," "Karma Chameleon" and "Smooth Operator." The album's single, an amiable spin on KC & The Sunshine Band's 1983 hit "Give It Up," has a wacky music video that has attracted 47,000 viewers since hitting YouTube in June. Bega says of releasing an 80's covers album, "I'm a time traveler when it comes to music -- I started with the 50s music, the mambo music, and I wanted to add a new part into the time-traveling show."
Bega has been playing four shows a week since the promotional cycle for "A Little Bit of 80's" began. "It's actually too much," admits the Munich-born singer (real name: David Loubega) while speaking to Billboard on the phone from Germany. Bega and says that he's recently played his mambo music and 80's covers on three continents, flying out of Berlin to visit Russia, France, Italy, parts of Asia and South America.
Of course, North America is not included in that list. To most U.S. music fans, Bega will forever be known for his 1999 single "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit of…)," an innocuous pop ditty that rattles off female names and calls for a trumpet breakdown on multiple occasions. Born and raised in Germany, Bega traveled to Miami as an 18-year-old and became fascinated with mambo music, soaking in the side steps, brass, upright bass and vibrant percussion. He returned to Germany and began developing a contemporary take on the 50's music, as well as a slick-suited, pencil-mustachioed persona.
"Mambo No. 5" peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100 chart in 1999, but that statistic doesn't do justice to how massive the song really was. The track topped the Radio Songs chart for six weeks and the Pop Songs chart for five weeks, and because "Mambo No. 5" was never commercially released as a CD single by RCA Records, music fans (still years away from iTunes and YouTube) had to purchase Bega's full debut album, "A Little Bit of Mambo," to have a little bit of Monica in their lives. "A Little Bit of Mambo" has sold 3.4 million copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- a staggering number, and over one million greater than what 2013's biggest-selling album thus far, Justin Timberlake's "The 20/20 Experience," has moved to date (2.3 million).
"It felt like Sputnik -- you shoot up into the atmosphere in super-sonic speed, and you don't even know where your head is," says Bega of the fame that resulted from "Mambo No. 5's" massive success. "I switch on the television and see myself sitting on Jay Leno's couch. The next day, you fly… from Paris to New York City, then from New York to London, so you can have breakfast twice a day on two different continents. All these things you have to imagine, for a 23-year-old, were impressionable."
From 1999 to 2002, Bega toured the world behind "Mambo No. 5," and released a follow-up album, "Ladies and Gentleman," in 2001. But his moment in North America had passed -- "Ladies and Gentleman" was never released commercially in the States, and follow-up singles like "Tricky, Tricky" and "Gentleman" didn't come close to sustaining the "Mambo No. 5" power. By 2003, an exhausted Bega was sick of "Mambo No. 5" and had retreated to Germany, effectively stepping away from the plate instead of taking more swings at a U.S. career.
"My life and family and everything is in Europe," says Bega, "so I had to make a decision: full-blown career, or family life? I knew back then that I couldn't have both… I wanted, like, a 'medium' career, and it's a decision that I don't regret."
A decade later, Bega is still enjoying a more easily digestible career, now in Germany. He has released a total of five albums, including "A Little Bit of 80's," and achieved some success in Europe with his 2010 single "Sweet Like Cola," from his album "Free Again." According to his website, Bega is available for "concerts, galas, festivals and radio shows," in live performances that can consist of three female dancers, an eight-piece band, and the frontman in his signature hat, suit and pencil 'stache. "The oldest fans are like 70 and 80, and that was because they felt that I would bring back the 'good old music' they were dancing to," says Bega. "And the younger ones like it too, because there's a bit of a cheekiness in it, or something. I don't know -- I never understood it myself."
To this day, "Mambo No. 5" still generally sells between 1,000 and 2,000 downloads per week, according to SoundScan. The song is still a staple at U.S. weddings, bar mitzvahs and karaoke bars, despite Bega's years-long absence from the States. Does "Mambo No. 5's" singer get tired of performing, being asked about and ultimately being remembered for the song? "Sometimes," he admits, "especially when I play concerts, and there's that one guy in the audience… you don't want to play it as the first song, but that guy from the top of his lungs screams, 'We want Mambo No. 5!'
"I recognize that it is my signature song, and it will be my signature song," Bega continues. "It doesn't matter how many other songs I write in my life. I don't consider it the best song that I wrote, ever, but it surprised people -- from the way I dressed to the way it sounded -- and it had the biggest impact of all of them. So I have to love it, and I do love it… because without 'Mambo No. 5,' I'd still be David, just a striving musician under the bridge. It's a blessing from the skies, you know?"