There is an aura of mystery and fascination that surrounds the Alegre record label and its founder. One can't help but wonder where would Latin music, and salsa in particular, be today without the presence of Al Santiago. ...MORE >
There is an aura of mystery and fascination that surrounds the Alegre record label and its founder. One can't help but wonder where would Latin music, and salsa in particular, be today without the presence of Al Santiago.
Let's imagine for a moment that Santiago hadn't been there at that particular time and place. Would somebody else have discovered Johnny Pacheco? And what about Charlie Palmieri's Alegre releases? Without them, would the ubiquitous pachanga become the exciting dance craze that impacted the Latin scene in the early '60s? Would Willie Colón and Joe Bataan have recorded the sessions that ultimately motivated Pacheco to sign them to his new label, Fania, in 1966? Would Fania Records exist if Pacheco hadn't been discovered by Alegre first? Clearly, there would be no Fania All Stars, since this particular super group was patterned after the Alegre All Stars. And Eddie Palmieri? Would somebody else have shown the vision to finance the seminal La Perfecta records? Would the success of Chivirico Dávila, Orlando Marín, Kako y su Combo, Dioris Valladares, Mon Rivera and Willie Rosario have become a reality without the marketing savvy of the Alegre label?
I was 25 years old, a Nuyorican freshly discharged from the US Air Force, when I met Al at the Casalegre record store. It was 1966, and Al was in the middle of producing two bands from the Bronx for his new label, Futura Records. He hired me as his assistant, probably because I owned a car and he didn't. During the day, I attended meetings with artists, record distributors, and radio DJs Symphony Sid, Dick Sugar and Polito Vega. At night, I helped with the recording sessions. The only other person who came with us to all those functions was a teen artist by the name of Willie Colón. The other musician that Futura was recording at the time was Joe Bataan.
I recall sitting at a recording console next to my mentor, Al, as he was getting ready for Willie Colón's debut recording. The first track was an instrumental called “Jazzy.” It was done in less than 20 takes, and the band had warmed up for the next number, “Fuego En El Barrio,” which would become the first 45 rpm single in the Futura catalogue. Al was working hard, but he was eventually forced to relinquish the sessions of his young discoveries due to lack of financing. It was sad for me to witness this, but it was also exciting to watch a master at work under such difficult conditions.
Earlier that year, Santiago had been forced to sell Alegre due to financial difficulties resulting from his declining health. The buyer was Branston Music, a company operated by Santiago’s principal competitor, Morris Levy, owner of the thriving jazz/pop label Roulette Records. In 1957, Levy had already acquired the legendary Tico Records from George Goldner, due to Goldner’s weakness for gambling.
Having control over the Tico and Alegre catalogues gave Levy the power over the Latin music industry that he had lusted for. Ironically, tax liabilities would force him to sell both labels to Jerry Masucci's Fania empire in 1975. 30 years later, the Miami-based Emusica Records would acquire the complete Fania archives, including historical releases on Mardi Gras, Cotique, Inca, and Vaya Records, remastering the original recordings for international release in the new millennium.
Written by Bobby Marín
Al Santiago was born in a family of musicians. His uncle and father were night club performers, and his sister played the piano. At 15, Al took piano lessons, but found the instrument to be too demanding, and he eventually switched to saxophone. He learned to read music, playing brass and reed instruments while working as a band boy for his uncle’s orchestra. On occasion, he would be allowed to sit in with the band. Music was a constant presence in the Spanish Harlem apartment where he lived, since that's where el tío Bartolo held the orchestra rehearsals.
Uncle Bartolo would eventually leave the group in order to open the Casa Latina record shop on 110th Street. Al became the new bandleader, and replaced most of the older musicians with younger ones, except for his father. He named the revamped band The Chacka Nu Nu Boys, and played New York's infamous cuchifrito circuit, imitating the sound of the Machito orchestra. One evening, while he was staying at a hotel with the Chacka Nu Nu Boys, their timbalero died tragically, attempting to rescue his timbales from a fire. Al promoted Mike Collazo to timbalero. Mike went on to become one of the most illustrious percussionists in the Latin business, whereas Al realized that it was not in him to become a truly great musician. He decided to quit the band.
Trying to emulate his uncle, he borrowed $1,800 from friends and family and opened up his own record shop on 136th Street - Casa Latina of the Bronx. He sold 78s and, given that the rent was only $50 a month, he was able to make a go of it while attending school during the day. Three and a half years later, the city began demolishing a number of buildings nearby with the intention of replacing them with projects, a decision that would damage his business. Santiago worked in various department stores after that, until he was able to open the celebrated Casalegre music shop in November of 1955.
The store was formerly a spacious pawn shop, and the rent was eight times more than his previous location, but Al anticipated creating the most lucrative Latin music center in all of New York. Shortly after the opening, a record shop in the area closed down and offered its entire stock of 78s to Al. He purchased them for five cents each and used them as giveaways to those customers who bought new 78s at $1 each.
It wasn’t long before Casalegre became the gathering place for Latin bandleaders, singers, and producers from the mambo, cha cha cha and pachanga era. Music lovers traveled from afar on weekends to purchase records while rubbing elbows with the luminaries who created them. The store was an immediate success, and eventually surpassed the shop of Santiago's uncle in popularity.
In 1956, Al was approached by his friend Ben Perlman, a Bronx entrepreneur who knew that Al was looking to start his own record label. Santiago asked him for a mere $750, and soon after he started producing and releasing 78 rpm singles on his own. After releasing 44 singles during the first four years, Al had sold enough records to keep his head above the water. If Alegre was to compete with the likes of Tico, Mardi-Gras and Seeco, however, it would have to outdo the albums produced by its competitors and release some truly exceptional music.
Al hired some of his acquaintances to run the store, so that he could concentrate on the label. Casalegre was managed by his father, together with Mike Collazo, composer/vocalist Miguel Angel (Mike) Amadeo, music historian Joe Conzo, Charlie from the Cha Cha Taps, and others. Years later, after Casalegre had already closed, Mike Amadeo opened his own record shop, Casa Amadeo, just around the corner from Casalegre. Casa Amadeo is still in business today.
In 1961, Mike Collazo’s brother urged Al to visit the Triton Club on Southern Boulevard and check out a new charanga band that was creatng quite a stir. Being a fan of the traditional Cuban genre, Al went to the Bronx club and fell in love with the music of Johnny Pacheco y su Charanga. He went backstage and offered Pacheco a recording contract. After much negotiating, the bandleader signed with Alegre and released the classic Pacheco y su Charanga LP. It sold 100,000 copies - an unprecedented amount at the time. Pacheco would record five hit albums over the course of two years, after which he left Alegre in order to launch his own label, Fania, together with his divorce lawyer Jerry Masucci.
Eddie Palmieri was another superstar who made his debut performance with The Chacka Nu Nu Boys at age 14. Eddie, who had become the pianist with Tito Rodríguez, also wanted to form his own orchestra, La Perfecta. He signed with Alegre following the footsteps of his older brother Charlie, whose recordings with La Duboney had sold several thousand units. Al went on to produce albums by Sabú Martínez, Kako y su Combo, José Fajardo, Chivirico Dávila, Orlando Marín, and of course the Alegre All Stars, a gathering of the label's many stars. Most of these albums sold well, and Alegre became the hottest Latin label on the market.
Al was often under a lot of pressure during these years, and the stress got to him on occasion. He was an intriguing individual with a peculiar sense of humor. Life with Al Santiago was an exciting experience. There are several accounts of his exploits during the '50s, including the time when he showed up at a function sans pants because he was required to wear a jacket and tie. Or the time that he and Kako were fined for walking a horse along 42nd Street on their way to the studio. It seems that Al wanted to have a horse's whinny on Pacheco’s "A Caballo," and he wasn't aware of the fact that such sounds were available in the studio tape library.
Once, Al was called to the New York District Attorney’s office as witness to a shooting that took place at the Tropicoro club in the Bronx. Al actually introduced Willie Colón as his attorney. I know this to be true, because I happened to be there. In fact, I was introduced to the District Attorney as "Al's accountant." After Willie objected to some of the D.A.’s comments, he was asked for his bar association card. Willie fumbled around searching for it, until the District Attorney realized that Al was in one of his peculiar states and threw us out of the office, ordering Al to return with a real attorney.
Sadly, Al suffered from a disease named narcolepsy, which caused him to fall asleep instantaneously, often during a conversation. He once told me that he would withdraw to his mother’s house whenever he felt that he was losing control of his senses. He laid in bed for weeks, staring at the ceiling, until he felt that he had cured himself. When he returned to work, he was back to his old, remarkably efficient self.
On another occasion, he told me to drive to Idlewild Airport in order to take the next flight to Puerto Rico and work on promotions. Then, he fell asleep. Willie and I were very excited about the trip, but when we got there, Al woke up and wanted to know what the hell we were doing at the airport. Another time, we were crossing the Lincoln Tunnel, going to New Jersey, when he asked me to stop the car and had Willie hand him his trombone. He wanted to take a solo on top of my car in the middle of the tunnel. I asked him why he wanted to do this, and he replied: "because it's never been done before." I think Willie would agree with me in saying that those years were among the most enjoyable of our youth. Every day brought a new adventure into our lives, as we got to work alongside our mentor.
After Al was forced to sell Alegre to his competitor Morris Levy, he continued producing for the label, but the fire had been snuffed out of him. The burning desire to succeed was gone, because the company was no longer his. He created new labels and continued discovering great talent but was slowed down by various health and financial problems. He passed away in December of 1996.
Throngs of fans, friends and associates turned out in inclement weather to pay their respects to el enemigo del silencio ("the enemy of silence.") Al Santiago left behind a soulful legacy: he gave us the chance to take pleasure in the music of his life.