From his beginnings in music, Willie Colón’s image was associated with that of the intrepid, shrewd and reckless boy who – by force – carved out a space for himself among the big names of Caribbean music in the complex world of New York in the 1960s.
Before the astonished gaze of those responsible for the Latin sound at the time, the young neophyte was a “no name”, an unknown figure on the stages of popular song and, particularly, a small-time musician, strange, inexperienced and an outsider.
In his beginnings he was censured for his loud and strident style and was even accused of being inharmonious by those who were veterans in the Latin music scene.
It is said that his nickname “El Malo” was associated, in the first instance, with the epithet used to refer to his trombone playing ability when he made his first appearances in the music scene, at only fifteen years of age. Of Puerto Rican parents, William Anthony Colón Román, who was born on April 28, 1950 in the Bronx, learned very early in his adolescence to discern between the derogatory images and adjectives that were poured on the Latino community and the harsh reality of immigrants in the “Big Apple”.
Thus, he soon turned his artistic work into the most forceful social testimony clothed in sonority, with memorable lyrics that narrated the details of the incidences of marginality, prejudice, poverty and misery. Although other musicians of the time took the same line, no one knew better than him how to conjugate in harmonies the feeling of heartbreak and helplessness of the Diaspora.
His music reflects, at the same time, a traditional rhythmic lyric and the farewell to the weeping and hope of a new generation, forced to abandon their land to congregate in the U.S. city,” comments writer James Moreno.
Willie Colón is, without a doubt, a painter of the faces of his people, an artist who captured in his songs -especially in his strong sound- the conscience of a generation that demanded social respect and fought for the vindication of their living conditions. A sage among geniuses.
The musician and arranger Willie Colón took his first steps in the arts as a trumpet player until he discovered the fascination of Mon Rivera’s work and the uses he employed with the trombone for the interpretation of the bomba and plena.
His musical passion, on the other hand, was derived from his grandmother, who raised him by lulling him to sleep with the melodies of the Puerto Rican popular songbook, introducing him to the fascination of the typical rhythms of the country.
Early in 1965, this intrepid young man took to the streets to prove his talent, just at the time of the Latin music boom in New York, where Tito Puente, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Larry Harlow and Ray Barretto, among others, dominated.
In 1967, when he was 17 years old, he joined the group of artists who formed part of Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco’s group and who were responsible for driving the rise of the new record label that would unite the new Latin musical expression: La Fania.
Willie Colón’s entry into the group marked the most significant moment in salsa, as it was the most impacting starting point that would develop the new salsa expression, in an attempt to homogenize the work that had been carried out for several years in the Latin world of New York, as part of a new sound proposal.
In this context, Willie Colón’s glory lay in his ability to elaborate the precise sound that identified the new rhythmic tempo, which in its sociological meaning meant the Latin representation. Nobody better than him could harmonize the musical tendencies of the Anglo-Saxon world with the “old” Latin school of mambo, son, pachanga, cha-cha-chá and guaracha, adding the nostalgia of the traditional Puerto Rican sound, inscribed in the jíbara music, bomba and plena.
The take-off of Willie Colón’s musical project was due, to a great extent, to his union with the Ponce-born singer Héctor Lavoe, who came to him on the recommendation of veteran musician Johnny Pacheco, and with whom he created the most important duo in salsa music. Together with the so-called “Singer of Singers”, he elevated his proposal to the highest level of the music scene, especially because of his assertiveness in weaving a new musical concept that combined the mischievous and hurtful tone of Lavoe’s voice and his attachment to the melodies of traditional Puerto Rican song, with the interest of the daring trombonist to project in his work the nostalgic evocation of the sound of the roots of Puerto Rican music, in union with the strong and aggressive sound of the urban world that sheltered them. During the seven years that the union of Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe lasted, salsa triumphed. The recipe for success was to disrupt the established rhythmic patterns to mark the beat of the new time of salsa, armed with modern compositions and tinged with typical phrases and phrases of the Puerto Rican peasantry.
Owners of the malice “EL MALO de aquí soy yo / porque tengo corazón” (I’m the BAD guy here / because I have a heart), thus ended the lyrics of Héctor Lavoe’s first hit with Willie Colón, which set the tone for the career of this neo-dynamic duo. This “bad guy” image accompanied them for more than a decade, helping them to create fame and serving, at the same time, as an image of identity of the Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York, creating problems in more than one corner.
Colón says that in the mid-seventies they had to move away from this perception, because everyone wanted to fight with them at the dances and, obviously, neither he nor Héctor had the physique to back it up. It was a funky image that caught on, because violence is part of the Caribbean culture. And there were many of Willie Colón’s compositions that touted violent competition in and for Latin spaces. But “El malo” is singular, although its reference was in one of the most remembered salsa couples of the salsa scene: Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe. In this song, which gave life to his first record production (1967), the idea was to set the tone for the career of a young man of little more than fifteen years of age in the tough commercial culture. Colón wanted to be strong and for others to lead the way. Singularly, he had to find a singer to record the number and here came Lavoe, joining in or competing for the bad guy image? According to the song, in the barrio there is no room for two bad guys; so it is suggested (that, at least at the beginning, Colón and Lavoe were competing for the reign this pairing was not just an image. This is the group that grew up with the Fania record label and with the popularization of the term salsa to name that musical project. This duo is the most characteristic of the genre, because none of them had been famous before, nor had they recorded with any big orchestra. The competition, perhaps, came from Larry Harlow, but more than the pianist of Jewish origin -who remained very attached to the Cuban sound- Willie Colón’s work was distinguished by its rhythmic mixture of calypso, bomba, plena, guaguancó, bugalú, guajira, mambo and jazz.
Interestingly, they are also known for their Jíbaro sound. This, in turn, facilitated their transition from New York to Puerto Rico. The ajibarado metal of Lavoe’s vocals and José Manual in the chorus gave these “locos” from New York a pass of authenticity for the music of the Nuyoricans to enter the Puerto Rican radio space.
Seen from the 21st century, the trip seems to have been easy, but we cannot forget the difficulty Puerto Ricans in New York had in those years to be recognized as authentic Puerto Ricans.
They achieved their passport to the Puerto Rican market with the album “Asalto navideño” (1971), with which the musician “assaulted” the national culture, proclaiming salsa as typical Christmas music. With phrases such as “aquí traigo la salsa” and “esta Navidad vamos a gozar”, the so-called bad boys emphasized the displacement of a community and a genre, approaching the national culture with a language similar to the one used to “take” the New York streets. This time, they also told their audience that “if you hurry you die”, and with a little more humility, because “there are jíbaros who know better”.