Heir to the solid musical tradition of his family, Justo Betancourt was an incomparable sonero, possessing a unique personal style, He began his career at a very early age in his native Cuba, where he participated with orchestras and bands.
In the 1960s, he arrived in New York, where he launched a new and brilliant stage of his career, singing vocals for the legendary and inveterate group, La Sonora Matancera, which was already established in the city. Betancourt stayed with the group for five years.
In later years, he was a member of the chorus of several groups, including those of Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto.
At the end of 1976 Justo settled in Puerto Rico, fleeing the limitations of the New York environment and separating himself from the tours and recordings of Fania All Stars, to enter the modern and freer scene projected by groups such as Sonora Ponceña, Willie Rosario, Bobby Valentín and Roberto Roena, among others, from the island.
With young musicians including vocalists Sammy Gonzalez and Tito Rojas, he created his own orchestra which he called “Borincuba”, a name to reflect the mixture of Puerto Rican and Cuban artists.
In 1976 Johnny Pacheco in his interest to maintain the successful formula of the modernization of the sound of the Sonora Matancera as the typical sound of his group (the Tumbao Añejo), unites the voice of Justo Betancourt with that of his compatriot Celia Cruz, it was the first time that this duo of Cubans in exile was reunited, in the album “Recordando El Ayer” and in which the young pianist Papo Lucca was presented in a big way. Justo’s voice was recorded in the songs “La Equivocada” (a duet with Celia), “Ahora Sí” and “Guíllate”.
That same year 1976, Justo is part of the ten vocalists that the Fania All Stars summons for his first production in a recording studio in the project “Tribute To Tito Rodriguez”, in which he performs the song “Cara De Payaso”, (the other vocalists were Santos Colón, Bobby Cruz, Cheo Feliciano, Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Ismael Quintana, Pete “Conde” Rodríguez, Rubén Blades (his first recording with Fania All Stars) and Chivirico Dávila (his only recording with the group).
To complete this productive year, Justo Betancourt joins percussionist Mongo Santamaría as the lead vocalist for the musical work “Ubane”, with the production of Marty Sheller, one of the important experimental albums of the salsa boom, a work that recovers the saxophone for the Salsa and bembé orchestra in the old Cuban Guaracha of the 50’s, and in which a constellation of New York, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Colombian musicians participate.
However, the album did not succeed in definitely catching on with the public and ended in the most unjust failure.
With his new orchestra, he recorded four albums, of which he recorded as lead singer in only two albums: “Distinto Y Diferente” (1977) which includes the songs: “No Estás En Nada”, “Distinto Y Diferente”, “Soy Profesional” and “Óyela”; and “¡Presencia!” (1978) which includes a tremendous new version of the bolero “Psicología” and the song, composed by Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso, “Camarón”. Justo was always among the best and remained oblivious to the decadence of the industrial boom of New York Salsa at the end of the decade.
His secret was to remain bravo by performing authentic Caribbean music without the commercial additives imposed by Salsa.
The young singer who performed in the chorus and Justo’s student in Borincuba, Tito Rojas, became the lead singer in the following album “Con Amor” (1978), which Betancourt conducted and participated in the chorus.
Tito Rojas’ last work before splitting from Borincuba to start his solo career was the album titled only as “Borincuba”, in which Justo also served as musical director and backing vocalist.
So in 1979, when Tito inherited the band, he started his solo career changing the name to Tito Rojas y el Conjunto Borincano¸ which had a short existence.
After a series of his own albums, he became the lead vocalist of the Puerto Rican Power Orchestra and appeared on their first two albums (1987 and 1989).
In 1990, Tito Rojas embarked on his solo career with the romantic salsa album “Sensual” which reached first place in the Latin Music Hit Parade in April.
In the following years, Betancourt, residing between New York and San Juan, continued in the inertia of the Fania contracts. In March 1979, when the Fania All Stars were part of the group of musicians who traveled to the island of Cuba to participate in the “Havana Jam Festival”, a musical exchange between the United States and Cuba organized by CBS and held at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana, Justo Betancourt and his compatriot Celia Cruz, for obvious political reasons, could not travel with the group; for this reason Justo decided to leave the All Stars.
Nevertheless, his contract with the Fania company remained in force, and that year he released another album titled “Justo Betancourt” (1979), produced by himself and Louie Ramirez, which included the songs “Yo Sin Ti” and “Qué Más Quieres De Mi”, among others.
In 1981, Betancourt returns to record again with the Sonora Matancera in an album entitled “Sonora Matancera Con Justo Betancourt”, produced by Javier Vásquez and recorded on the Bárbaro label, a subsidiary of Fania and owned by Jerry Masucci. On this album, four guest musicians appear for the first time to record with the Sonora: Pedro “Puchi” Boulong: on trumpet, José Daniel: on the tumbadora, Elpidio Vásquez Jr. (son of the bassist): on second bass, and Mario Hernández: on tres.
From this work the hit “Mala Pata” and a new version of the bolero “Hoy Sé Más” stand out.
In 1982, he recorded his last work on the Fania Records label “Leguleya No” (1982), with his own production company RMQ and with the arrangements and musical direction of Ray Santos and Javier Vásquez.
From 1982 onwards his appearances were variable, he participated in Israel Sardinas’ LP, “Israel, la Verdad” (1984), and participated in Celia Cruz and Tito Puente’s album “Homenaje A Benny Moré Vol. 3” in 1985, in one of the songs: “Tú Solo Tú”.
Except for these participations, he made no recordings between 1983 and 1989.
And so, there were plenty of reasons for Justo Betancourt, despite so many successes, to end up in virtual anonymity and indifference. He gradually withdrew from the world of the studios, although he continued to perform sporadically.
After years of recording silence, he returned in 1990 with his style with the album “Regresar” on his own label RMQ, of which he was the producer, director and did half of the arrangements written by Eric Figueroa.
In 1992 he released the album “El Bravo De Siempre”, for Rafael Viera’s RV Productions label, which featured the participation of Cuban percussion legend Carlos “Patato” Valdes, among other great Puerto Rican musicians.
In 1994 he participated in the project of Puerto Rican producer and musician Frank Ferrer called “Descarga Boricua”, alongside more than 30 experienced local and international musicians such as Ismael Miranda, Jerry Medina, Papo Vázquez, Juancito Torres, Alex Acuna, Mario Rivera, Pedro Guzmán and Ángel “Cachete” Maldonado, among others. There, and in several songs, he resorted to his superb vocal resources as in his good times. In the second work of the Descarga Boricua, edited in 1996, he participated briefly with some soneos in the song “Abrázate a Puerto Rico”, as well as in the third album of the reunion of the virtuous Puerto Rican musicians.
He returned to the recording studios again in 1998 with the CD “Mató” for the El Paso label in Puerto Rico, and from which the song “El Lema Del Guaguancó” stands out in the most vigorous style of Arsenio Rodríguez, composer of the song.
He also made his return as guest singer of the Fania All Stars for the concert of April 29, 2000 in Puerto Rico, a return that he made together with Ismael Miranda and Luigi Texidor to the group.
Justo Betancourt has participated as a backing vocalist in the recordings of many Latin music orchestras and works of renowned artists, such as La Conspiración de Ernie Agosto, Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Roberto Roena, Willie Colón, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Rosario’s orchestra, Héctor Lavoe, Adalberto Santiago, Kim De Los Santos, Van Lester and the Puerto Rican Power orchestra, among others.
In 2002 he participated for pianist Papo Lucca in the musical project “Festival de Boleros” with the song “En Cada Beso”, along with a constellation of Boricua singers and musicians.
Por: Jose Ramon Tremaria
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