Charo keeps on pickin’

Though television appearances from “Laugh-In” to “The Love Boat” made Charo a household name by the late 1970s, the Spanish-born actress, comedian and performer has struggled to be accepted for her greatest passion: guitar.

“Back then, America was not ready for flamenco music, salsa music or anything even close,” says the classically trained musician. “The first time I said I wanted to play salsa, they thought I was talking about ketchup — something you put on your french fry.”

She’ll debut her new recording, “España Cañi” (“Gypsy Spain”), at the Herbst Theatre on Sunday in “The Return of Charo and Her Las Vegas Show.” In 2005, she sold out the room in a performance featuring music from the CD “Charo and Guitar.”

Before the show, she’ll be a celebrity grand marshal in Sunday’s LGBT Pride Parade, during which she’ll appear on a float accompanied by drag-queen look-alikes.

A star in her homeland by the 1960s, the buxom blonde was a Las Vegas staple by 1970. An appearance on “The Tonight Show” — well before she mastered English — gave Charo a reputation which continues to this day.

“When Johnny Carson asked me questions, and I didn’t understand one word, my way to survive was to say ‘cuchi! cuchi!’” she says, her accent still thick.

“People loved it,” she says. “I was this crazy girl, jumping around like a jumping bean, shaking my body, saying ‘cuchi! cuchi!’”

Though the image made Charo an international star — at one point more than 70 percent of Americans recognized the singer — it was also a burden. Management scoffed at her desire to return to guitar.

Even recording her biggest commercial hit, the 1977 disco-inspired top-20 hit “Dance a Little Bit Closer,” proved a struggle. Of her decision to sing in Spanglish, the artist says, “They thought I was crazy.”

Abiding management’s decisions most of her career, Charo says a return to her musical roots stayed in the back of her mind. Her dream finally came true with the 1996 release of “Guitar Pasion.” Considered among the year’s best albums, the recording led Charo to twice be voted the world’s best flamenco guitarist by readers of Guitar Player magazine.

Subsequent releases garnered equal critical and commercial success, winning Charo all-new audiences. A third-season stint on MTV’s “The Surreal Life” — opposite porn star Ron Jeremy and late televangelist Tammy Faye Messner — gained young fans for the colorful star.

IF YOU GO

Charo

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $40 to $100

Contact: (415) 392-4400 or www.cityboxoffice.com

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