THE SOUND OF THE BARRIO: THE SALSA
THE RED GARNER ERA
The Red Garter was a semi-obscure venue located on the border of the Bronx and the Harlem River Drive in New York. Its owner was only open from six in the evening to two in the morning and from time to time he would host some of the popular bands in the area on his stage. That night, like many others, the musical gathering went unnoticed except for the skill of a sound engineer, who had recorded on tape the presence of the musicians that made up the nascent Fania All Stars group. The idea of forming this orchestra came from Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco, the entrepreneurs of the nascent company, Fania Records, who, inspired by the All Stars of the sixties, decided to bring together the most representative musicians of the same in a single group. The record label had only been in existence for four years and if this type of formation did not open new paths, everything they had built would collapse. That is why they persisted in the idea and formalized the possibility of making a new attempt, although it took them three years to do so.
On August 26, 1971, the Fania All Stars reconvened at the ballroom located on 52nd Street Broadway, thanks to the relationship between Fania’s owner, Jerry Masucci, and the owner of the place, Ralph Mercado. That night’s concert was an apotheosis, which was recorded in two anthological albums containing the hits Anacaona, Quítate tú and Ahora vengo yo, and also in a film made by León Gast, which had as its main elements the scenes of the concert at the Cheetah. The film was titled Nuestra Cosa Latina and for the first time showed here the whole series of hardships of the Latino community in New York.
The film, meanwhile, gave the definitive name to all the music those stars represented. It gave the name to a musical genre as varied and complex as Jazz, a contemporary sonorous force and a popular expression that identifies the Latin community. In other words, it gave a distinctive name to the infinity of rhythms that Caribbean music possesses and that at that time were dispersed among the Latinos of New York. And although the tape did not continue the testimonial principles of Nuestra Cosa Latina and was lost amidst the demands of Hollywood, it went down in history for simply being called Salsa.
Under the Fania label, all the Latin musicians became Salsa stars artistically led by Pacheco, the Dominican who alternated the direction of Fania All Stars with that of his own orchestra, a group that followed the same musical parameters as Sonora Matancera.
Superimposition Eddie Palmieri
But the greatest musical influence was represented by two boys from the Bronx: Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colón. The former had been forced by his parents to become a pianist and during the sixties was already the leader of the group La Perfecta, where the strength of his sound rested on trombonists Barry Rogers and José Rodríguez. With them, Palmieri composed and arranged his songs to sound sour, hoarse and aggressive, as was life itself in New York’s Latin Quarter.
Fania All Star
Flute player Pacheco was joined by trumpeter Héctor “Bomberito” Zarzuela and singer Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez. Pianist Harlow was accompanied by trumpeter Larry Spencer and singer Ismael Miranda. And the young trombonist Colón was backed by his second trombonist Reinaldo Jorge and singer Héctor Lavoe. Alongside these orchestras, Fania had called in two young leaders like bongocero Roberto Roena and bassist Bobby Valentín. They would bring along independent guitarist Yomo Toro, Eddie Palmieri’s trombonist Barry Rogers, Tito Puente’s singer Santos Colon and soneros Bobby Cruz and Cheo Feliciano. The latter two were special guests at the Cheetah reunion to sing some numbers. Alongside them was virtuoso pianist Richie Ray. Such a gathering of Latin stars definitively catapulted Fania’s name as a musical symbol of the community in New York, but only until a new concert and a new movie, the label would be defined.
Fania All Stars Live at Yankee Stadium
The 1973 concert was held at Yankee Stadium, which had some striking facts: First, the series of changes in the line-up, with Nicky Marrero on timbales, Lewis Kahn on trombone, Ray Maldonado and Victor Paz on trumpets, in addition to singers Justo Betancourt, Ismael Quintana and two special guests, Mongo Santamaría and Celia Cruz. Second, the concert was suspended due to the frenetic crowd, which overflowed the dividing walls of the stadium and flooded the lawn.
William Anthony Colón, without having the academic training of Palmieri, also used trombones, but these were even more aggressive and that made him an idol of the Latin community for his heartbreaking accent reaffirmed by the charismatic presence of his singer Héctor Lavoe. Colón composed his songs so that each lyric sounded dramatic, full of overwhelming charge and his arrangements became unceremoniously cruel. That’s why he called himself El Malo, a title that after a few months became a hallmark for other groups that continued his sound, such as La Orquesta Narvaez and La Conspiración. Colón had met Héctor Lavoe at the end of 1966 on a street in the Barrio. “Look, I have a recording, but I’m missing the singer,” Colón had told him and Héctor had not liked it. That’s why he replied: “No, I have my own little group”. Willie insisted: “Well, let’s do something. You record the LP with me and then you leave” Hector thought that sounded good. The guy was really talking about a record. What did it matter who it was, after all it was an opportunity. The first rehearsal was the next night at the Tropicoro Club in the Bronx. They recorded the album a couple of months later. It was called El Malo. It was an immediate success and the lives of both changed. Together they traveled a salsa road that lasted seven years, in which they recorded ten albums and a dozen hits, including Cheché Colé, Juana Peña, Piraña, Calle Luna Calle Sol, La Murga and that sensational Día de Suerte: “Cuando llegará el día de mi suerte. I know that before I die, my luck will surely change”.
But in 1973 Willie Colón decided to leave the group. For Lavoe it was a hard blow, almost smacking of betrayal, but he had no hard feelings towards his friend. After all, he owed him his successes, the public’s recognition and his arrival at the Fania All Stars, which in salsa terms was the equivalent of being in heaven. In addition, Willie had forged his style, giving it that flavor that the entire Caribbean recognized.
Lavoe had one overriding quality. His singing was shrill, very crystalline but shrill, and this, far from relegating him, made him appear to the public as a vocalist who could tell a story from any neighborhood without sounding false. That is why his songs, which spoke of daily violence and marginal disillusionment, made him an idol. Added to that was his natural gift for improvisation, which he demonstrated ad nauseam in Fania with songs like Quítate Tú and Estrellas de Fania, but especially with Mi Gente.
His first album as a soloist was La Voz, an absolute success that proved two things: one, that he was ready to lead his own orchestra. Another, that he could sing all kinds of Caribbean rhythms with absolute mastery. This is evidenced by the smash hit Rompe Saraguey, perhaps the best of Lavoe’s interpretations in a display of unusual talent. It was from that album that the titles and nicknames came: El Sinatra latino, El cantante de los cantantes, or simply La Voz. But the public expected more. His next recording won the praise of friends and strangers alike, especially thanks to a song that would bring him universal fame: Periódico de Ayer, the same song that began by saying Tu amor es un periódico de ayer que nadie más procura ya leer. Sensational when it came out in the early morning, by noon already confirmed news and in the afternoon, forgotten matter.
Catalino ‘Tite’ Curet Alonso
The song was composed by Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso, the most brilliant and prolific composer in the history of Salsa. Born in Guayama, Puerto Rico, in 1926, Curet Alonso was a pharmacist’s project at the University, a letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office for 36 years and promoter of the record company Tico Records, before entering the field of composition. His first song to become famous was Efectivamente, recorded by Joe Quijano in 1965. Three years later the controversial singer La Lupe performed the boleros La Tirana, Puro Teatro and Carcajada final with Tito Puente’s orchestra. Since then, Tite did not stop his production, which exceeded 3,000 creations, of which 1,200 were recorded.
Tite was also the musical godfather of artists such as Cheo Feliciano, Ismael Rivera and Roberto Roena, to whom he gave the hits Anacaona, Las caras lindas and Marejada feliz, respectively. Cheo had popularized, however, the number El ratón and before Curet’s help he was already considered an idol both in Puerto Rico and New York. Rivera had meanwhile founded the group Los Cachimbos, along the lines traced by Rafael Cortijo, and Roena made Guaguancó del adiós, also composed by Tite, a masterpiece of Salsa. In 1980 Fania Records suffered a crisis due to its own excessive growth that made it an uncontrollable monopoly for Masucci and Pacheco. Fania acquired the licenses of all the New York salsa labels, where some musicians sought independence at all costs, while others surrendered to the demands of the monopoly. Within this brand, several alternative orchestras and ensembles emerged which, in spite of giving a refreshing air to the stars’ production, never gained a similar public following, with two exceptions.
Cheo La voz sensual
The most striking groups that followed Fania were La Compañía, led by flutist and saxophonist Bobby Rodríguez and trombonist Eddie Hernández Iglesias, La Típica 73, which featured musicians of the stature of Sonny Bravo and Alfredo de la Fe, Frankie Dante’s La Flamboyán, Angel Canales’ Conjunto Sabor, where the brilliant pianist Marcolino Dimond played, and Los Hermanos Lebrón, a Puerto Rican group located halfway between the sound of El Barrio and the style imposed by Cortijo. The two exceptions were Celia Cruz and the duo of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz.
Richie Ray had founded his conjunto in 1965 with the recording of the pachangas album Ricardo Ray Alives. Since then he emerged as one of the leaders of the salsa movement, without having the aggressiveness or the trombones of his colleagues Palmieri and Colón. Ray, actually called Ricardo Maldonado, was helped by precisely that: his ability to break out of the mold established by the New York sonority and get into the sound needs of the rest of the continent. Apart from that, there was the presence of his singer Bobby Cruz, the virtuosity of his piano and the perfection of his arrangements, a product of his academic training at the School of Fine Arts in New York.
El Sonido de la bestia
Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz’s ensemble made immensely popular the songs Que serían, El diferente, Richie’s jala jala, Tin marías, Aguzate, Amparo Arrebato and above all a masterpiece called Sonido bestial. With those numbers he marked the works of several South American groups such as the Peruvians of Mario Allison and Alfredo Linares, the Venezuelans of Cheché Mendoza and Nelson González, and the Colombians of Michi Sarmiento and Julio Ernesto Estrada, Fruko.
Celia & Johnny
Celia had excelled in detail in the Sonora Matancera, where she had won the title of La Mejor Guarachera del Mundo (The Best Guarachera in the World). No one dared to dispute her throne, not even after her arrival in the world of Salsa in the midst of her recordings with the orchestras of Tito Puente, Larry Harlow, the Fania All Stars and especially Pacheco. With the flutist’s ensemble he felt he was swimming in waters he knew perfectly. That is why she popularized to satiety the songs Toro mata, Quimbara and Tres días de carnaval. Celia would be, from the recording of the song Bemba colorá with “Fania, the number one of Salsa, without anyone being able to oppose her. Her voice and above all her charisma always exceeded the limits of any criticism.
In 1970, after returning from a tour of the United States with the cumbia group Los Corraleros de Majagual, Fruko had founded the group Los Tesos and recorded the album Tesura, which went unnoticed for two simple reasons: Nobody knew its interpreter and nobody in Colombia knew anything about Salsa. The little success of his work did not discourage Fruko who with trumpeter Jorge Gaviria toured the Brilles night clubs of Medellín in order to sell his little record. The same happened with the second one, titled “A la memoria del muerto” and sung by Piper Pimienta Díaz from Cali. It was like that for a long time until things began to improve with El Ausente, El Caminante, Manyoma and, of course, with El Preso, whose lyrics contained a whole psychological and social conflict when it began by saying: “Condemned forever in this humble cell, where there is no love or the voice of anyone”.