Various ArtistsBack On The Streets Of Spanish Harlem
In our two previous volumes of El Barrio, we provided an exciting introduction to the Latin music world of the late '60s and early '70s. It was a period of rapid political and economic change, a change that would often manifest itself through crisis. These exciting and sometimes frightening times generated many a leap forward in the arts. It was no different for a Latin world that was on the cusp of change between the crossover world of boogaloo and Latin soul and the pure salsa orthodoxy that would dominate the '70s. It is from this specific cultural moment that we love to discover hidden gems and dancefloor winners cherished by DJs and producers, exposing them to a wider audience.
We leave the pure salsa tracks to the parallel series of compilations New York City Salsa. What we have here is Latin music with an American twist - funk, soul or a touch of jazz.
Theoretically, we would be left with recordings made only in New York. This time, however, three of the tracks here were recorded in Puerto Rico.
The first one is by Roberto Roena and the Apollo Sound, culled from the Apollo Sound Vol. 1 LP. Roberto had been a member of both Cortijo’s group and El Grand Combo, and he would become a core member of the Fania All Stars. His main orchestra was the Apollo Sound, which he formed in 1969. Recorded at Trans Recording Studio in Santurce, the band's first two albums were clearly heading in the direction of mainstream salsa. Still, the group favored a progressive aesthetic, with a horn lineup inspired by mainstream rock bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. It recorded covers of songs by the likes of Santana and, in this case, Sly and the Family Stone. The group was made up of some of the most forward thinking musicians in Puerto Rico - always at the top of their game.
Roena was also present when the Fania All Stars made their debut in San Juan in 1973 - n fact, Apollo Sound played two numbers in the middle of the Fania All Stars set. Tracks from that concert were used when compiling the two volumes of Live At The Yankee Stadium and also the Latin Soul Rock LP. The tapes were edited and overdubbed. Recently, we recovered and remixed them to sound as they would have that night. The first fruit of this effort is the version of “Soul Makossa” that we feature here - slightly longer than the previously released one, and with Larry Harlow’s organ sounding more fully than ever before. Check out the guest appearance by the song's composer, Manu Dibango.
Our final Puerto Rican track is by Orquesta International, which recorded for the short lived Mavi label - a joint effort by Fania’s Jerry Masucci and Rafael Viera, owner of Puerto Rico's legendary Viera Discos. You may recognize “Mucho Control” from the version recorded by Ismael Quiñones for the Vaya imprint. This is the original, and in my opinion, the better of the two versions.
The Fania All Stars appear for a second time under the guise of Harvey Averne’s Barrio Band, with the Santana soundalike “Cucaraca Macaraca” from the Barrio Band’s only LP on the Heavy Duty label. That imprint was another Fania joint venture - this time with Harvey, who would later go on to form the Coco label and win the first ever Latin Grammy for the Eddie Palmieri LP The Sun Of Latin Music. Averne had been a successful building contractor before he devoted himself to the Latin music business. In the early days, he had effectively ran Fania for Masucci and Pacheco, when they were both busy with other matters. His own recordings had more of a soul and rock based groove. He released his first album, a Fania Production, through Atlantic in 1967, launching two other albums and several singles before the Barrio Band release. Still, this wasn't his Fania swan song. In 1971, he started to record what would have been the third album by the sweet voiced Ralfi Pagán. Even though the project was not completed, a single was prepared featuring the awesome funk tune “It’s Alright" - unreleased, except for a 45 rpm promo.
Central to this volume of El Barrio is the name of Bobby Marín - a Nuyorican who grew up in the Spanish Harlem wanting to sing like Frankie Lymon and spending too much time at the Apollo Theatre. His brother Richard was a producer for Decca and RCA. Inevitably, Bobby got into the game, making a number of fantastic records that filled dancefloors the world over. Two years ago, Christina Aguilera based her international pop hit “Ain’t No Other Man” on a rhythm track based on Bobby’s I’ll Be A Happy Man” for the Latin Blues Band on the Speed label. Like other classic slices of New York funk, the groove was played by Bernard Purdie. Bobby also produced Tony Middleton and Bobby Matos on “Return To Spanish Harlem” - an amazing record that was based around a James Brown-styled groove. Bobby first worked with Middleton when he was recommended to sing “Spanish Maiden” on an album by Chuito and the Latin Uniques.
Bobby didn’t make a lot of solo records. One of them was his only single for Speed: the fantastically rare “Your Moving Much Too Fast,” a fine shing-a-ling groove that would command a lot of dollars from collectors - if only they knew about it. It would likely follow the fate of Richie and the PS 54 Schoolyard’s “Hey Mr Skyjacker,” which commands three figures after becoming a cult club item. The Richie in this case was Ricardo Marrero. The label, Rabo, was a short lived company owned by Bobby and Ralph Lew.
Bobby also worked with two of Latin music’s biggest legends, writing songs for Tito Puente and filling in for Pete Bonnet on Ray Barretto's group. Both of these artists are present in this compilation. Even though he was responsible for some of the most incendiary Latin soul cuts ever recorded and was also a key salsa figure, Ray was also a serious jazz conga player, participating in a number of New York sessions in the early '60s before his own career exploded with the success of “El Watusi.” On numerous occasions throughout his career, he would prove his improvisational skills. “Drum Song” was originally an eight-minute percussion and poetry workout outlining the importance of the drummer.
The Puente track included here is a jazz-funk piece that verges on disco. Puente’s many talents are further highlighted by his production work on Quetcy De Alma’s London club favorite “Deep,” a tune that is far from typical but would sit well alongside La Lupe’s “Fever.”
Only a brave man could have predicted that Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe would become the biggest salsa stars of the '70s when Fania released their debut album in 1967. The 17 year-old Colón and his band were thought to be kids playing a man’s game - they were criticized for being "not proper musicians." They ended up having the last laugh, of course, but even this first album was a joy to listen to - including the hit boogaloo “Willie Whopper.”
The final three cuts are from George Goldner’s Cotique label. Goldner was a legendary figure in the New York record biz, running a series of labels starting with Tico in the late '50s, working with Roulette, End, Gone, Red Bird and ending with Cotique. He was great at discovering talent, but had a weakness for the race track that caused him the loss or bankruptcy of all those labels - he held on to Cotique probably because he died in 1970, before things could go wrong. Cotique found George returning to his Latin roots and discovering new talent while the boogaloo boom was in full swing.
Johnny Colón kick-started this wave with “The Boogaloo Blues,” and then made some fine LPs in a similar vein such as Boogaloo 67, from where “Got to Love You” is taken.
The Lebrón Brothers had a long and illustrious salsa career ahead of them, but their first few years owed plenty to the vocal tradition of doo-wop. The sumptuous “Summertime Blues” is a perfect example of this tendency, and would have taken Goldner back to the late '50s, when his labels were leading exponents of the doo-wop sound. “My Girl” comes from a similar place, though maybe with a more contemporary big-city soul sound. It was one of several Joey Pastrana tracks that followed this route - all of them stunning.