Victor Parra was a Chicago-area radio host, musician, and bandleader who championed Afro-Cuban jazz as the host of the weekly radio show “Mambo Express” on both WBEZ-FM and WDCB-FM.
Parra has been on Chicago’s broadcasts for over 25 years and has performed with her band for a similar amount of time.
“He was really in love with Cuban music,” said Juan Montenegro, a friend and former Chicago radio host. “And he was really a born musician and percussionist, and he was able to rally around him…he brought in musicians from the Chicago music scene.”
His wife, 34, Connie, said Parra, 87, died on July 26 at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago from a lung infection aggravated by wildfires in Canada. She was a long-time resident of the Little Italy neighborhood, she.
Born in Chicago to Mexican immigrant parents, Parra grew up in Little Italy and lost both parents when she was 9 years old. As a result, his wife said that Parra never attended grammar school or high school.
Instead, Parra did various jobs in her neighborhood from an early age, selling newspapers and shining shoes. He later worked in the apparel district around Maxwell Street, operating press machines and dealing in retail.
“My training was when I went out on the street,” Parra told the Tribune in 2017. “This is the best education you can get, my friend. You meet different people every day.”
Parra heard Mexican music at home, but told the Tribune she was “obsessed” with the mambo and cha-cha music of Havana-based long-running band Orquesta Aragon and began collecting Afro-Cuban records.
“I heard the 78s (records) of Orquesta Aragon and Perez Prado,” he told the Tribune in 1999. “I didn’t know it was Cuban music, it just sounded good. So I became a small-time collector and bought 78s wherever I could find them.”
Parra later served in the Army and served in Panama. Back in Chicago, he worked in the clothing industry and then began distributing records from his car, initially.
From 1972 to 1977, Parra ran his own record store, VP Records, in a former cigar shop at the intersection of Damen, Milwaukee, and North avenues in Wicker Park.
“I was one of the first guys to play music before you bought it,” Parra told the Tribune in 1999. “Before this kind of thing had a name, I used to work in clinics. (Musicians) would come to my shop and say, ‘This is the guy.’ Come here and ask him the questions.'”
Edwin Claudio, one of Parra’s record store employees, later served on the Chicago Board of Education and also helped develop a Latin music program for Board of Education radio station WBEZ-FM. Although Parra had no previous radio experience, this led Claudio to his former boss.
Parra began hosting “Mambo Express,” a half-hour show on the WBEZ on Saturday mornings with Chicago-based friend Bill Zayas, and Parra became the show’s sole host in 1988. it felt more like a bountiful two-hour Cuban dance party,” the Tribune wrote in 1999.
“I loved it, it was easy, it was a pleasure,” Parra told the Tribune in 1999. “People would call me and say they were planning parties around my show.”
Dayna Calderon, a friend and former producer of WBEZ, described Parra as a “walking party”.
“In the past, DJs would walk into WBEZ studios with vinyl-filled canvas bags from their personal collections, and Victor’s bag would be overflowing with all the stars of the mambo genre,” Calderon said. “He was so entrenched in this music that for the longest time I assumed he was Cuban. My Mexican comrade was a true fan of music and history.”
Famous New York record producer Harvey Averne, who founded a record label specializing in Afro-Cuban and Latin American music, described Parra as a “great salesman” for music.
“The best thing I can say about Victor is that he’s the real deal,” Averne said. “He loved music and was very knowledgeable. He just spoke from the heart and was a great messenger.”
In 1987, working as a day laborer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Parra founded her own mambo group, Mambo Express, with a group of senior local aides. A percussionist, Parra played congas and his band played in local clubs and later at city festivals such as Jazz Fest and Taste of Chicago.
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Victor always said that Cuba made the world dance musically because there was nothing political here. It was about the music,” said Parra’s wife.
Parra’s program at WBEZ ended in 1995 after he and the station’s management differed on whether to expand their focus to music from all over Latin America. Parra was adamant that she didn’t want to host a pan-Latin show.
Parra retired from UIC in 2001. In 2004, he continued to host the weekly program “Mambo Express,” this time on Sunday afternoons, on WDCB-FM, the public radio station run by the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. He hosted this show until his retirement in 2017, specifically referring to the long commutes from the city to Glen Ellyn during the winter months.
“It’s hard to let go,” Parra told the Tribune in 2017. “You never know what the weather will be like in winter. Sometimes I can’t get out of my garage. We get these snowdrifts and I have to shovel.
The first marriage ended in divorce. Parra’s two sons, Victor and Ted, survived in addition to his wife; and two grandchildren.
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