How Sammy Deleon’s career began to flourish
There have been uncountable artists who have lifted Latin music around the world, and one of them has been conductor Sammy Deleon. This American of Puerto Rican parents was born in Lorain, Ohio, on August 18, 1961, and grew up in the same county with his 14 brothers. He started his professional career with the Trio Puerto Rico when he was just 13 years old, after which he was already beginning to demonstrate his incredible musical skills.
While it is true that neither of his parents were musicians, Sammy recalls with affection his mother while she used to sing at home and his father used to play the Puerto Rican cuatro during the Christmas season to celebrate the occasion to the sound of parrandas typical of the Island of Enchantment that were created for the occasion.
This musician greatly enjoyed the work of Tito Puente, with whom he later developed a great friendship and an excellent working relationship. That happened on one night when the King of Timbales was playing a concert in Lakeview Beach. Deleon made his way to the stage, greeted the timbalero, wanted to talk to him and asked to play with him. After doing some soundtracks and a unique display of talent, Puente accepted to let him play and together they shone on stage by making one of the biggest dreams of Sammy a reality.
After that, he ended up playing with Puente in his hometown, Orlando, New York and Puerto Rico. After many years, the same would happen with Tito Puente Jr. who would also take into account this musician’s talent for his shows.
Deleon has shown diverse musical abilities throughout his career, but without a doubt, he has been successful in percussion, more than in any other. Likewise, he has dedicated much of his time and effort to exploring Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms, resulting in a style that is unlike many other artists of his kind.
For the last 10 years, he has managed to conduct his own group Sammy Deleon Y Su Orquesta, with which he has had many of his successes in his career so far, one of them the respect and admiration of a vast multicultural audience that is always seeking innovation in the music which they hear.
During these years, he has managed to capture the attention of many DJs, dancers, and Latin music lovers thanks to his hard work and the enormous energy invested in each of his musical productions. Contigo Y Sin Ti and Baila Que Baila have been a gift to the ear on dance floors crowded with people of all musical tastes and different levels of skills in relation to dance and choreography.
Everything he learned during his career has also been benefitial to other musicians, as Sammy uses his knowledge to mentor would-be percussionists who want to follow in his footsteps and those of the most acclaimed musicians in history. Unquestionably, a noble task for those who, at a certain point, had the same dreams.
Interesting and emotional conversation with Sammy Deleon
A very good morning to all of you. This is Karina Garcia, North American director for International Salsa Magazine. I am very happy today because we have a very special guest. This is none other than Sammy Deleon who is a composer, timbalero, and musician with a long-standing career. How are you, Sammy? How are you feeling today?
I’m very well, thank you. I’m very well, thank goodness. From here in Cleveland, Ohio.
All right, Sammy, could you tell me what pushed you to go into music? What inspired you? What did you decide to take this path and why did you chose percussion?
Well, the one who put the music on was my father. Gumersindo Deleon was the one who started all this. I say he was a frustrated musician because his time was not very good, but slowly, he taught me and my two brothers Puerto Rican jibaro music when I was a little boy. Two years went by and one of my brothers was 15 years old, the other one was 14 and I was 13 when my brother taught us salsa when it was a boom in New York. That is how we started playing percussion on our own, since no one taught us.
We listened to music every day and from there started singing in church choirs with trios, ensembles, jibaro music and, little by little, we kept going up, up, up. That is when my older brother Roberto, who was a timbalero before I do, saw that I were interested in the timpani than him while he was dedicated to the conga and my other brother Micky was dedicated to the bongo. Then the three of us were rehearsing almost every day and my dad said that we were too loud when playing percussion. Years passed and my brother Roberto moved to Florida, my brother Micky moved to Kansas City and I were alone here.
I have been playing since I was 13, starting with the Trio Puerto Rico and, later, I started playing with a group called Conjunto Nabori with music by Cheo Feliciano and we were doing it with vibraphones, congas, timbales and so on. From there, we joined an orchestra called Charambo (meaning charanga and mambo) where I stayed for 10 years. Next thing after that, the orchestra was going to break up, another merengue group called Orquesta Marquis was being created when merengue was in full swing in the 90s. After being part of that orchestra for five years, we had a problem with the director, so we fired him and changed the name to Orquesta Impacto Nuevo where I stayed for 10 years. After burning the CD, we went to Florida to promote it and, after that, a few things did happen and I decided to go back to Ohio.
We created a group under my own name, so it was called Sammy Deleon Y Su Orquesta with which we have worked for almost 25 years now. We have joined many different singers. When we were in the Charambo Orchestra, we performed with Tito Puente, Adalberto Santiago, Chivirico Dávila, Vitín Aviléz, Conde Rodríguez, Luisito Carrión, Tito Rojas, Tony Vegas and many more. We played with Ismael Mirando for over a year and I won several awards in the city as Legend of the year and it was a big thing. I use an orchestra composed of 18 musicians and played mambo created by Tito Puente and Los Mambo Kings.
Remember that I come from a big family in which we were 14 siblings, 8 sisters and 5 brothers. The oldest was a DJ for many years and the one who brought salsa here in the 70s and 80s. I also had the joy of playing with the Gran Combo de Puerto Rico two years ago because their timbalero got sick, which is why I had the opportunity to play with them a couple of times while he was getting better. We have played in Buffalo, Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and many other places.
All right, Sammy. Everybody knows very well your admiration for Tito Puente before you even became a famous musician. In fact, I remember seeing an interview with you in which you recount an anecdote of how you met and played with him.
Thank you. You brought up a very cool issue. One time, Tito Puente came here to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1979. There was a big concert in Lorain, where I was born and raised. He played during the day, and at night, we went to watch him at a well-known jazz club. There, a friend of mine offered to give me 20 pesos if I was going to play with him, to which I replied yes. So I went to the stage, made a hand gesture, said give me a break and I do not think he heard me. However, he looked at me and told me to get close to him. When I was up on the stage, he said look at me, listen and don’t touch anything yet. That is when he did something, I did the same and we are continuing to do so. That was the last song on his set. He took me into his dressing room, asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Loraine, Ohio.
He asked me who taught me to play and I told him I was just self-taught. He said no way!, and can you read music?, to which I answered no, but that I was learning to do it. Then, he told me that I had a great future in front of me and to keep playing the timbales because that is an instrument that requires a lot of strength to be played because it is not like a 4-drum battery. So basically, he told me to move on because I was going to have a good future in front of me. He died several years later, but I played with him a couple of times here in Cleveland, New York, Orlando, and Detroit, Michigan.
After his death, I met his son, Tito Puente Jr. who came to Cleveland. I conducted an orchestra composed by 17 musicians, he played all of his father’s songs and we had a good time. When he comes in October, I have to provide him with the group again. Playing with Tito Puente was one of the best moments I have ever had.
You commented in that interview and now that it was memorable for you to play with Tito Puente. Apart from that, what other memorable experience could you mention?
There is an experience I had in 2016 when I won the jazz salsa and legend award. I was labeled a legend – imagine that, me a legend! Since when am I a legend? That took me by surprise when I got the prize. I am still shocked (crying). I didn’t expect that award because other musicians have had more years of trajectory than me.
When the lady called me and said me what’s going on, I asked her if she was sure of what she was saying and she answered yes. After hanging up the phone, I sat down and cried because I did not expect this. I had to call my family and explain to them what was going on. The day I got the prize, my whole family was there with me. To this date, it still shocks me because it was a very special day for me. I pray to Him not to cry again because these things enter my heart.
How does it feel to be on a par with your idols? How does it feel to play with them and to see the road you have taken?
It has been amazing to accompany artists such as Tito Puente or Tony Vega, who are on another level and I am trying to get there. I’m already old man and coming up on 60 years old, but I still have a way to go and try to pull ahead step by step. I’m going to make it, but it was an honor to play with all those legends. We have opened up for many groups such as La Sonora Ponceña, La Mulencia, Luis Henrique and so on. I will never forget those days and times.
I understand that you have been responsible for training young people who wish to become percussionists, is that right?
Yes, we are working with guys from Ohio to teach them about salsa, percussion, instruments and many other things. There are many who leave, but there are always two or three who stay on. Right now, we’re teaching kids all about salsa, which I love to do because I will not last long around here.
In what way has teaching contributed to your career? What is the most valuable thing you have learned from your students?
I learn that you have to be humble in life. When those boys go home and tell their parents that I’m teaching them, many of the family members want to come see what their kids are doing here. So I am working hard to see that they are learning only positive things and using their time well. What if they will be able to make good money and even become professionals about this in the future?
How do you think these young people perceive your music?
Many young people opt for Reggaeton, which is what is fashionable, but I give thanks that I have achieved that two or three young people stay with me to learn. They want to learn to play the bongo, the conga, the timbales, and other things. I always look for more of them to get them interested in salsa.
What do you do outside the recording studios and off the stage?
I love sports. When there is a basketball or football game (my favorite) that I want to see, there is no one to stop me from watching it.
Do you practice any of them?
Basketball, but I am too old for that. I used to play a lot, but I don’t do it anymore.
What advice do you have for young people who want to devote themselves to music in the context of this pandemic?
The only advice that I can give to someone who wants to learn to play music is to study, learn to read music, and choose an instrument before learning to play others. Many young people want to play many instruments at the same time, but they don’t master one. You have to master an instrument before trying to learn to play others.
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