The history of the Fania All Stars, Fania Records' flagship supergroup comprising of the label's bandleaders, top sidemen and vocalists, represents the rise and promulgation of salsa as a marketing tag for Latin music. Italian-American lawyer Jerry Masucci (1934-1997), who co-founded Fania in 1964 with Dominican Republic-born bandleader Johnny Pacheco, explained the genesis and early development of the band in a 1973 piece entitled The Story of the Fania All Stars: ...MORE >
The history of the Fania All Stars, Fania Records' flagship supergroup comprising of the label's bandleaders, top sidemen and vocalists, represents the rise and promulgation of salsa as a marketing tag for Latin music. Italian-American lawyer Jerry Masucci (1934-1997), who co-founded Fania in 1964 with Dominican Republic-born bandleader Johnny Pacheco, explained the genesis and early development of the band in a 1973 piece entitled The Story of the Fania All Stars:
"In December 1967, I was vacationing in Acapulco. I was out fishing and when I got back I received a phone call from New York from two promoters: Jack Hooke (1916-1999) and Ralph Mercado of Cheetah fame (a club on the southwest corner of 52nd Street and 8th Avenue, which Mercado co-managed in the '60s, promoting R&B acts like James Brown and Aretha Franklin). At that time they were holding concerts at the Red Garter (in Greenwich Village) Monday nights and were interested in getting the Fania All Stars together to do a jam session with invited guests Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri of Tico Records and Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz of Alegre Records. It sounded like a good idea to me, so I flew back and got in touch with Johnny Pacheco. We put some material together and packed the place with 800 people. We also made the first two recordings of the Fania All Stars: Live At The Red Garter Vols. 1 & 2 (1968), although the albums were not too spectacular regarding sales."
This anthology opens with a track from the first Red Garter volume, "Me Gusta El Son" featuring Pacheco's ex-vocalist Monguito (died: 26 May 2006) who was just beginning his solo career at the time, and solos from piano maestro Eddie Palmieri and trombonist Barry Rogers (1935-1991,) with whom Palmieri developed the two trombone and flute sound of his seminal Conjunto La Perfecta at the beginning of the '60s. "At that concert," continued Masucci, "I got the idea to make a movie. In 1971, I was ready to begin production of the second Fania All Stars concert, which would be recorded and filmed live. My first idea was to hold it at the Fillmore East for exposure to both rock and black audiences. However, we were unable to get the Fillmore, so we contacted different promoters about various places, but they turned us down, saying that a concert by the Fania All Stars was a bad idea and that it wouldn't draw. I called Ralph Mercado who thought it might work, but would make no deals. I was to give him the act free, make a record, film the concert and he would promote and take the door. Since no one else wanted it, I made the deal according to his terms. We held the concert on (26 August 1971) a Thursday night (Ralph wouldn't give us Friday or Saturday). The Cheetah held 2,000 people and no one thought we would sell-out. But the night of the concert 4,000 people squeezed into the Cheetah and the lines outside stretched around the block. Volumes 1 and 2 of the Live At The Cheetah, which were recorded that night, became the biggest selling Latin albums ever produced by one group from one concert."
The Cheetah concert formed the backbone of the electrifying documentary Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa), which premiered in New York on 19 July 1972 and played a key role in launching salsa on the worldwide stage. It is fitting therefore that this collection features three Cheetah cuts, "Descarga Fania," a springboard for an array of solos, "Anacaona" and "Quítate Tú," all taken from Volume 1. "Anacaona" was a hit single (selling over 140,000 copies) from Cheo Feliciano's 1971 solo debut album Cheo on Fania's subsidiary Vaya label, composed by the revered Catalino "Tite" Curet Alonso (1926-2003), who co-produced and wrote most of the project. Larry Harlow, who played piano on Cheo and soloed on the original version of "Anacaona," also takes a solo on the Cheetah version. Masucci's all-time favourite, "Quítate Tú," a tune inspired by a narrow door in which the singers try to outdo each other with their improvised lyrics, is the edited single version, which has never been anthologised before.
By 1973, the Fania All Stars were on a roll. Despite advice to the contrary, Masucci took the bold step of booking New York's massive Yankee Stadium for a salsa concert on Friday 24 August 1973. "They thought we were crazy," said Masucci. "But I rented the place for one night for $180,000 cash." Before the event, he ambitiously predicted in The Story of the Fania All Stars that: "this concert will revolutionize the music business like the Beatles in the early '60s and Woodstock in 1969." His gamble paid off, because the event attracted a crowd of about 45,000 and demonstrated that the All Stars had literally become Latin music's first stadium band. They went on to debut in San Juan, Puerto Rico, opening the new Roberto Clemente Coliseum, and toured Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Panama and Mexico.
Material from the Yankee Stadium and Roberto Clemente Coliseum concerts were issued in the album Latin-Soul-Rock (1974) and in two volumes of Live At Yankee Stadium (1975; Vol. 1 received a Grammy nomination). Clips from these concerts were also included in Masucci's movie production Salsa (1976), the soundtrack album of which received a Grammy nomination. It is from the San Juan concert that the never before released version of Cheo Feliciano's incredible vocal performance of "El Ratón" (The Mouse) is taken, featuring a fantastic cuatro solo from Yomo Toro. The band performs the song at a slower pace than the more familiar version from Latin-Soul-Rock. "El Ratón", which Cheo originally wrote and sang when he was a member of the Joe Cuba Sextet for their album Vagabundeando! Hangin' Out (Tico Records, 1964) refers to a snitch and became one of his trademark tunes.
The Live At Yankee Stadium albums are represented here by three cuts: "Mi Debilidad", "Mi Gente", "Hermandad Fania" and "Bemba Colorá". "Mi Debilidad", sung and written by guest artist Ismael Quintana (Eddie Palmieri's vocalist between 1961 and 1973), is the opening track from the first of five solo albums he made for Vaya between 1974 and 1983. Larry Harlow pitches in a notable solo. "Hermandad Fania" showcases the talents of the song's co-writers/arrangers: guest stars Ricardo Ray, who takes an ingenious piano solo, and vocalist Bobby Cruz, who both signed to Vaya in 1971 and remained with the label until 1987. Nicky Marrero contributes a striking timbales and Swanee whistle solo. "Mi Gente" (My People), a Pacheco composition Héctor Lavoe (1946-1993) also recorded for his 1975 Fania solo debut album La Voz, became an anthem of pride among Latin audiences. Another guest star from the Vaya roster, Celia Cruz (1924-2003), the undisputed "Queen of Salsa", made her Fania All Stars album debut on Live at Yankee Stadium Vol. 2 with a show stopping reprise of her 1966 track "Bemba Colorá" ("Red Lips", originally from Son Con Guaguancó on Tico produced by Al Santiago: 1932-1996).
"Los Muchachos de Belén" from the All Stars' first full studio album Tribute to Tito Rodríguez (recorded in 1975 and released the following year) marked another debut, that of the multitalented Rubén Blades. With the band of conguero Ray Barretto (1929-2006) at the time, Blades' swinging rendition was one of nine Tito Rodríguez classics recorded by the superstar aggregation in homage to the great Mambo King, who had died from leukaemia at the early age of 50 in 1973. Fittingly, the project was co-produced by Rodríguez' former musical director Louie Ramírez (1938-1993), who went on to play a key part in the band's productions. Fellow co-producer, Larry Harlow, a founder member of the Fania All Stars who worked on all their 1968 to 1975 albums and appeared with them in the films Our Latin Thing (which he co-produced), Live In Africa (1974; for which he produced the music) and Salsa, departed after Tribute to Tito Rodríguez. Pianist Papo Lucca, the musical director, arranger and producer of Puerto Rico's oldest active band, Sonora Ponceña, replaced him.
1975-6 was a pivotal period in relation to Masucci's pursuit of a wider market for salsa: he made deals with Columbia Records in the USA (for a series of four crossover-oriented albums by a reduced version of the Fania All Stars) and Island Records in the UK (resulting in the release of a compilation and two Fania All Stars' albums). 1976 was also the year the All Stars performed in Europe, notably at the MIDEM festival in Cannes, France, and London's Lyceum Ballroom, and in Japan. The band's predominately salsa-lite Columbia period is represented by the big bold salsa hit "Juan Pachanga", not the slick studio production from 1977's Rhythm Machine, but a new mix of the song sung live by Blades at their historic concert in the 4,800 seat Karl Marx Theatre on 3 March 1979 in Havana, Cuba, featuring a blistering trumpet solo from Juancito Torres (1936-2003). Still under contract to Columbia, the All Stars were part of a contingent of CBS superstars who performed at that year's Havana Jam festival as part of a musical exchange between the US and Cuba. Back on the Fania imprint, a supersize version of the band weighted in with Live (1978) recorded at Madison Square Garden, featuring another All Stars debut: "El Sonero Mayor" Ismael Rivera (1931-1987) singing on two cuts, including the track compiled here, "Cúcala", in duet with Celia Cruz.
From 1980, Fania went into a downturn (attributed to the flop of Masucci's major movie The Last Fight; agitation by artists for unpaid royalties; the distribution deals with Columbia and Atlantic Records not catapulting salsa into the mainstream US market as expected; and Masucci claiming he had tired of "the same old thing" after 15 years); and the New York salsa scene, to which the label was inextricably linked, became eclipsed by the Dominican merengue craze in the first half of the decade and by the Puerto Rico-driven salsa romántica trend in the latter '80s and '90s.
Reflecting the company's decline, Fania All Stars' releases slowed to a trickle as the '80s drew to a close. Their albums between 1980 and 1989 included the Latin jazz outings California Jam (1980) and the particularly feeble Guasasa (1989); the crossover effort Social Change (1981) with guests Steel Pulse and Gato Barbieri; Bamboleo (1988) with four salsa-fied versions of Gypsy Kings hits; along with the sturdier salsa albums Commitment (1980), Latin Connection (1981), Lo Que Pide La Gente (1984) and Viva La Charanga (1986). The decidedly jazzy "Vente Conmigo" compiled here is purportedly one of the "lost" sessions recorded by the "The Fania All Star Six" (Pacheco, Barretto, bassist Bobby Valentín, bongosero Roberto Roena, pianist Papo Lucca and timbalero Nicky Marrero) for the first Columbia outing Delicate And Jumpy (1976) that Fania collected on 1980's California Jam.
Commitment, the band's "official" return to fully blown típico salsa after their crossover foray, is represented by two cuts. The album's opener, "Encántigo", sung by Celia Cruz and Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez (1933-2000), was penned by Puerto Rican nueva trova singer Roy Brown and sumptuously arranged by his compatriot Luis García. Described by Masucci as "a special new talent and friend", García formerly led and played trombone and tres with Latin Tempo, who made three albums for Fania's International label between 1972 and 1977. The next track from Commitment, the sparkling "Cuando Despiertes", is sung by Celia and arranged and co-written by Louie Ramírez. Latin Connection also merits two selections. Firstly "Dime Qué Te Pasa" featuring the effortless vocals of Adalberto Santiago, the song's composer, and arranged by the multitalented José Madera, a stalwart member of the Machito and Tito Puente organisations. Secondly, a version of the Guillermo Rodríguez Fiffe standard "Bilongo" interpreted by Ismael Rivera (his last recording with the band and reportedly the penultimate session before his death) and arranged by Javier Vázquez, the musical director of his band Los Cachimbos.
After a gap of three years, the band issued Lo Que Pide La Gente, the highlight of which is collected here, "El Rey De La Puntualidad" (The King of Punctuality) arranged by Luis García and sung by Héctor Lavoe. Written by Pacheco, it pokes fun at Lavoe's notorious bad timekeeping. Two years later, Viva La Charanga augmented the band with violins to create the charanga sound suggested by the album title. Lewis Kahn, a veteran of Orchestra Harlow, the Fania All Stars and the Tito Puente orchestra, was bought in after the album was recorded to overdub a violin solo on the selection "Vacila Con Tu Trago", sung by Pete "El Conde" and arranged by Isidro Infante.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the band, Live In Africa, recorded in Zaire in 1974, and Live In Japan 1976 were issued in 1986. Thirty years of Fania Records was commemorated in 1994 by a three-city tour (San Juan, Miami and New York) by the reconvened All Stars. The recording of their June 1994 concert at Bithorn Stadium, San Juan, P.R., was issued as "Live" (1995), co-produced by Larry Harlow. It is from this album that the final selection on this anthology comes, "Quítate La Máscara", a tour de force by Adalberto Santiago of his hit with the Ray Barretto band from the 1970 album Power. The last proper Fania All Stars album, Bravo, was released on Jerry Masucci Music - Sony in 1997, the year Masucci died.
Written by John Child, contributor to Descarga.com
1/ Me Gusta El Son 8:12 (from Live At The Red Garter, Vol. 1, 1968; singer: Monguito; piano solo: Eddie Palmieri; trombone solo: Barry Rogers)
2/ Descarga Fania 9:12 (from Live at the Cheetah, Vol. 1, 1971; solos: Bobby Valentín, bass; Larry Harlow, piano; Johnny Pacheco, flute; Orestes Vilató, timbales; Ray Barretto, conga; and brass section; vocals: Adalberto Santiago; arrangement: Ray Barretto and Louie Cruz)
3/ Anacaona 7:16 (from Live at the Cheetah, Vol. 1, 1971 singer: Cheo Feliciano; piano solo: Larry Harlow; trombone solo: Reinaldo Jorge; arranger: Bobby Valentín)
4/ Quítate Tú 5:30 (45 rpm edit from Live at the Cheetah, Vol.1, 1971; soneos [ad lib verses]: Adalberto Santiago, Santos Colón, Cheo Feliciano and Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez; cuatro solo: Yomo Toro; trumpet solo: Roberto Rodríguez; arrangement: Johnny Pacheco and Bobby Valentín)
5/ El Ratón 7:54 (unreleased from Puerto Rico '73; singer: Cheo Feliciano; cuatro solo: Yomo Toro; arranger: Bobby Valentín)
6/ Los Muchachos de Belén 4:41 (from Tribute to Tito Rodríguez, 1976; singer: Rubén Blades; piano solo: Larry Harlow; arranger: Louie Ramírez)
7/ Mi Debilidad 5:38 (from Live At Yankee Stadium Vol. 2, 1975; singer: Ismael Quintana; piano solo: Larry Harlow; arranger: Bobby Valentín)
8/ Mi Gente 6:26 (from Live At Yankee Stadium Vol. 1, 1975; singer: Héctor Lavoe; trombone solo: Willie Colón; arrangers: Johnny Pacheco and Bobby Valentín)
9/ Hermandad Fania 7:21 (from Live At Yankee Stadium Vol. 2, 1975; singer: Bobby Cruz; piano solo: Ricardo Ray; timbales / Swanee whistle solo: Nicky Marrero; arrangers: Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz)
10/ Bemba Colorá 11:50 (from Live At Yankee Stadium Vol. 2, 1975; singer: Celia Cruz; arranger: Bobby Valentín)
1/ Vente Conmigo 5:28 (from California Jam, 1980; arrangement: Fania All Stars)