Bobby Marín was the coproducer of the second session of this album, and he still recalls the exact circumstances that surrounded his involvement. “Héctor started the record with Joe Cain, but for whatever reason,” he says, laughing, “they only got about halfway through the recording. That was when I came into the picture and finished it up for UA Latino.” It is a tribute to Bobby’s skill as a producer that, when you listen carefully, it reads as fairly seamless. ...MORE >
Bobby Marín was the coproducer of the second session of this album, and he still recalls the exact circumstances that surrounded his involvement. “Héctor started the record with Joe Cain, but for whatever reason,” he says, laughing, “they only got about halfway through the recording. That was when I came into the picture and finished it up for UA Latino.” It is a tribute to Bobby’s skill as a producer that, when you listen carefully, it reads as fairly seamless. I asked him what the overall goal was with this session, and Bobby simply states that “Héctor really wanted to do a date with four trumpets.” This was pretty unusual, because at the time, an ornery herd of trombones was still the blaze du jour. “A”-game bandleaders and producers like the brilliant Willie Colón and blistering sidemen like Barry Rogers (with Eddie Palmieri) alongside other partisans of the slide were the accepted standard in Nuyorican music. The misty origins of that era had in turn been tagged the “swing to brass” period, the shift away from the driving string- and flute-dominated charanga of the early ’60s and towards a jazzier and funkier tumbao configuration in the mid-’60s, just before the boogaloo escalation transpired.
Bobby points out in our conversation that Héctor resembled another unsung master: “Héctor was, in many ways, a lot like Louie Ramírez; you always saw them walking around with music and charts.” This should come as no surprise, as both men were reliable triple threats as composers, arrangers, and straight-up musicians. Héctor had a long and interesting career as a leader, which is odd, because except for really die-hard salseros, he is not a figure that is particularly well known. This is one of those instances where the confines of history have done a disservice to a man who was undoubtedly a top-shelf talent. On the most basic level, this oversight can be viewed as a simple case of an “embarrassment of riches.” It is hardly a secret that a tidal wave of great salsa music was being made in the period from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s. As a consequence, it was an ultracompetitive arena, and if you had big hits, you’re moliendo café (grinding coffee); if not, you’re grinding it out in the cuchifrito shadows. Bobby agrees when I suggest that Héctor needed a group with a killer cantante con carisma like Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Maelo, or Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez. Héctor never had that lucky break, and he missed a key associative benefit that his career and legacy demanded.
However, there was the long summer of 1967, and in this moment in time, Héctor Rivera scored a modest but actual hit with a track called “At the Party” on Barry Records. This was Héctor’s biggest record, and in one sense, it’s kind of a shame, because the sum of his talent was so much richer and deeper than that one recording would suggest. While Héctor may have had his little run at the height of the boogaloo craze, his career inaugural as a bandleader began auspiciously in 1957 with Let’s Cha Cha Cha on Mercury. The now- forgotten title is somewhat misleading, as the session has a lot more to it than just cashing in on the cha-cha craze.
In the ten years between his blazing debut as a leader and his crossover phase, Héctor hit the sidewalks, gigging, writing, and arranging for New York’s top Latin music makers, including Joe Cuba, Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco, Orlando Marín, La Lupe, and Kako. Having your lone pair of hits (he also had a good look with “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” from 1969’s Hecto-Mania) happen during the Latin-soul explosion (and both in English) almost certainly damaged his overall cred with the standing army of ultraserious amateur salsero historians that populate this field of music. Beginning with Let’s Cha Cha Cha and then At the Party, both sessions were cooked up to quickly capitalize on a cresting but ultimately evanescent trend (but, despite any contrivances of the market, Héctor always brought nothing but heaters when it was his turn to deal). You might apply a similar but subtler twist on this commercial dynamic to illuminate Y Vuelve’s very title and intention. This record fell smack into the middle of the so- called típica movement in New York. This was a period that revisited the legacy of the Cuban masters, and artists like Beny Moré, Arsenio Rodríguez, Felíx Chappotín, and Luis “Lili” Martínez Griñán were once again accorded the profound respect that they deserved as the original architects of the form. It seems fair to assert that this movement was in some measure a specific cultural reaction against the controversial Latin soul/boogaloo chapter. Now la gente were about raíces y cultura, and a decidedly neotraditional sentiment swept across the salsa landscape. This same tension saw a similar renaissance in the African American community—Alex Haley, anyone? The original liner notes to Y Vuelve allude to this típica zeitgeist and act almost as a subtle third-person mea culpa when they assert that “circumstances did not allow him to record his one true love...down home typical music...the son montuno, guaracha,
guaguancó, and the beautiful bolero...” This album served to address and solve that existential clave dilemma.
From the first track, “Ahí Viene la Lenguetera,” penned by Tite Curet Alonso, it is clear that this album is not a crossover attempt to cash in on a commercial trend but instead is a hard- hitting Havana-by-way-of-Harlem session aiming straight for the head, heart, and feet of Latinos everywhere. side one, as I discovered in our chat, was in actuality the final session produced by Bobby Marín. Héctor and Bobby cut the tracks at New York’s Mayfair Recording, and it certainly sounds like a smaller, tighter room when compared to the acoustical profile of side two, which was recorded at Capitol studios, New York City, by Bobby Cue. As a producer of records, I’ve learned that part of my gig entails selecting what kind of recording space is the right container for the artist to do their best work. In the case of this band, I feel the same way as Bobby did: the smaller and louder space is correct. This punchy, pressurized, and attack- heavy envelope is the sound of Nuyorican salsa as pioneered by Fania. The late Irv Greenbaum and Jon Fausty were largely responsible for the recording quality of the major Fania recordings, and they deserve the love that Rudy Van Gelder gets for his contribution to Blue Note or Tom Dowd and his legacy with Atlantic. This session has that searing, in-your-face energy. I think that one has got to attribute a great deal of the overall drive of this recording to the sole percussionist that played on both sessions, Luis Mangual. To salsa heads, Mangual is probably the best-known player on this album. Certainly, Ray Romero has his adherents as does Joe Rodríguez, but neither are included in the pantheon that encompasses the Mangual dynasty. His relentless martillo (hammer) and swinging campana (bell) act as the musical goalposts on this record; keep it between the two uprights, and everything is cool.
Most of the songs here are about having good times, dancing, and love, with a few double entendres thrown in for good measure. This is not a heavy-duty social commentary record like Willie Colón and Rubén Blades’s Siembra, but what it may lack in trenchant social insight, it makes up for in funky rhythm, and alma con alma. Most importantly, however, is that Y Vuelve— one of the few true salsa dura albums from the West side Latino catalog—set the stage for Rivera’s heavy salsa sessions on Tico Records, 1973’s Para Mi Gente and 1974’s Lo Máximo, both cited as influential to the trumpet-heavy sound of salsa in the mid- to late ’70s.
And in the end there is Héctor himself. Playing nonstop piano, writing thirty percent of the songs, and arranging all of it, he proves once again that he was a soldier of this music. He may not have had the biggest hits, the best singers, or the flamboyant personality of the Fania royalty, but when we look back on the history of this scene, he is a man who worked hard to create a lasting musical legacy, and he deserves a fair shot in the annals of la música latina.