Born William Anthony Colón Román on April 28, 1950, Willie Colón almost single-handedly redefined salsa as a movement and way of life. Originally a trumpeter and a self-taught trombonist, his lack of technical virtuosity did not hinder him becoming salsa’s trombone icon par excellence. ...MORE >
Born William Anthony Colón Román on April 28, 1950, Willie Colón almost single-handedly redefined salsa as a movement and way of life. Originally a trumpeter and a self-taught trombonist, his lack of technical virtuosity did not hinder him becoming salsa’s trombone icon par excellence.
A native Nuyorican, Colón grew up in the 1960s and unavoidably, some of the turbulence of the era was reflected in his music and personal life. He led his own ensembles practically from the start, and his talent was first spotted by the visionary Al Santiago, the owner/manager of the legendary Casa Alegre Record Store and founder of the Alegre Records label. (Colón was once Al’s employee and first met his future signature vocalist Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez, a.k.a. Héctor Lavoe, in the store.) His album debut for Santiago’s Futura label was never realized as financial mayhem led Santiago to fold. However, the master tapes came to the attention of Johnny Pacheco at the nascent Fania Records label, whose keen ears spotted a diamond in the rough. Pacheco didn’t hesitate; he signed the band on the spot. The rest, as some would say, is history.
With a prolific career spanning more than 40 years, Willie Colón is still a leading force within the Latino community. This set, produced with the direct input from the maestro himself, proudly illustrates some of its definitive milestones.
1) Fuego En El Barrio
This track is Colón’s very first recording with his own band. Recorded in 1966, it has only recently been reissued. Tony Vázquez, these days a Born-Again Christian preacher, was the band’s original singer.
2) The Hustler
The title track of Colón’s 1968 Fania follow-up demonstrates the developing identity of his band. The approach is more confident, yet the raw quality of his debut, El Malo, is still present. The track features 18-year-old and future Fania All Star Nicky Marrero marking his territory with a stunning performance on timbales. The late Mark Dimond, an extremely gifted talent who lost his way amidst the turmoil of the time, was the new piano player on this recording. In addition to The Hustler, he played on Guisando and Cosa Nuestra before forming his own band in 1970. The 18-year-old Willie was yet to develop his own style on trombone, but at this stage in his career it was all about guts. Apparently, it was the influence and inspiration of Barry Rogers and Mon Rivera, together with the loss of his trumpet skills through abuse of the higher register a la Roy Román, which prompted his switch to trombone.
3) Che-Che Colé
Colón’s rise to fame resulted from this breakthrough single (included in 1969’s Cosa Nuestra), an adaptation of a Ghanaian children’s song set on top of an ingeniously constructed bomba/calypso mix. The popularity of this song led to further rhythmic experiments from the laboratory of Colón and percussionists Milton Cardona and José Mangual Jr. (both making their debut on this album), which they dubbed “Wacco rhythms”, including 1970’s “Ghana’ E” and 1973’s “El Día De Suerte.”
4) El Malo
The tough guy has arrived…and he’s got the guts (and heart) to prove it! This was Colón’s calling card from his 1967 debut album on Fania. Legend has it that it was older musicians mocking Colón’s limited range on the trombone at the time who bestowed the moniker “El Malo”. However, he capitalized on it and built a tough, street smart image around him, giving the nickname a whole new significance. His band at this point, also criticized and stigmatized as amateurish, consisted of future legends in their raw form, like bassists Eddie “Guagua” Rivera and Joe Santiago (formerly a trombonist), percussionists Nicky Marrero, Mario Galagarza and Pablito Rosario, and pianist Dwight Brewster. Héctor Lavoe, joining the band at Johnny Pacheco’s recommendation, perfectly complemented Colón’s initial rough and edgy approach to the music. New York’s Latin scene would never be the same.
5) Willie Whopper
It is hard to believe that the young bandleader who recorded "Willie Whopper" in 1967 would, years later, be the singer behind straight-ahead salsa anthems like "Idilio." Here's a fun shing-a-ling blessed with funky swashes of organ and a lethal bass line.
This song from Colón’s sixth Fania release The Big Break (1970) marked a very important turning point in his early career. All it took was the daring insertion of a Puerto Rican aguinaldo bridge and chorus into what was meant to be a Cuban danzonete for all hell to let loose. Bringing traditional jíbaro folkloric music - dismissed by most young Nuyoricans back then as “old folks’ music” - into the salsa stew was viewed by many as a slap in the face of many musicologists who maintain even today that salsa is just an umbrella term to market Cuban music. Colón’s pan-American approach to salsa - instead of purely Afro-Cuban, as was the norm then - caused such stir that it prompted a redefinition of the genre. It took bandleaders as progressive as Colón, such as Eddie Palmieri and his fusions with jazz and African-American soul and Richie Ray’s takes on Puerto Rican jala-jala (a rhythm purportedly invented by Roberto Roena), to push the envelope for good.
Colón’s “bad boy” image received a boost from Izzy Sanabria’s magisterial album cover concept for The Big Break. Izzy employed cheap 25-cent pictures of Willie and random fingerprints from a “most wanted” sheet to portray him as an FBI fugitive - a fictitious FBI, as in Freaks Bureau of Investigations. The advertising and the original artwork made so much of a commotion that the real FBI demanded that Fania Records remove the “Wanted by FBI” tag from the cover. Daring music and daring advertising combined to create an absolute success.
7) La Murga
Colón’s exploration of Puerto Rican folkloric music reached its apex on 1970’s Asalto Navideño Vol. 1, another landmark album. By adding the traditional cuatro puertorriqueño to the mix (in the expert hands of Roberto García and seasoned veteran Yomo Toro, who made his salsa debut on this session) and revisiting traditional Christmas songs adapted to the band’s format as well as new songs written for the occasion, Colón and company closed the gap between the Puerto Rican communities in New York and the island. And, with this salute to Panama, the high point of the album, they expanded the party to all Latinos in the USA and beyond.
8) Willie Baby
9) Skinny Papa
Culled from El Malo, these two tracks represent the cool side of a young Colón who was very much aware of the boogaloo craze of the late '60s. One can't help but wonder what the development of salsa would have sounded like if Colón had chosen to stick to the "ella baila boogaloo" mode, instead of experimenting with progressive formats. In any case, his boogaloo material has certainly survived the test of time.
Disguised under an easy-going feel lays one of the cleverest and creative arrangements ever heard in a salsa song. If you listen closely to this track from 1972’s El Juicio, Colón’s trombones actually dialogue with Lavoe’s voice in typical call-and-response fashion during the main theme. After the trombone section’s opening quote from Tizol’s jazz standard “Caravan”, one can identify song snippets as they interact with the singer. Professor Joe Torres’ tasty piano solo provides the icing on the cake.
11) I Wish I Had A Watermelon
Brimming with musicality and bonhomie, Colón’s answer to the Herbie Hancock hit "I Wish I Had A Watermelon" benefits from appropriately rugged trombone riffs and a mesmerizing piano line courtesy of Mark Dimond. This track is taken from the album Guisando, as assured a sophomore effort as they come.
12) El Titán
The band’s sound displays a growing maturity here. Notice how the brass section switches places with the bass and piano accompaniment at one point as the latter duo takes over the main melody while the trombones lock in with the rhythm.
13) La Banda
Fania sprinkled the 1973 Christmas season with five albums involving most of their top artists. Sonora Ponceña recorded in Puerto Rico; Cheo Feliciano had a virtual Fania All Stars reunion for his release; Ismael Miranda and Adalberto Santiago appeared as guests on Impacto Crea’s session; Santos Colón delivered a romantic album; and of course, they asked Colón to serve-up a second helping of his successful Christmas stew. Colón’s two Asaltos are still widely regarded as the top Christmas salsa albums of all time, and more than 30 years after their original release, they are still Fania’s top sellers.
14) Calle Luna, Calle Sol
From 1973’s top selling album Lo Mato, this tune proved to be particularly controversial. While the lyrics stay true to Colón and Lavoe’s style of narrating everyday barrio life, many salseros in Puerto Rico’s capital city were unhappy with the depiction of the two Old San Juan streets mentioned in the song title. Many residents of the notorious La Perla area were enraged by the implicit stigmatization of their neighborhood in Lavoe’s soneo: “Dile que fuiste a La Perla y pela’o te han deja’o” (“Tell ‘em you went to La Perla and they left you penniless”). Nevertheless, the tune became a big hit for the duo. In more recent shows, Colón opts for political correctness by substituting The Bronx for La Perla whenever he sings the soneo in Puerto Rico.
15) MC2 (Theme Realidades)
1975’s The Good, The Bad, The Ugly is considered Colón’s definitive “transition” album. After breaking up his original band, Colón came back with a totally experimental session, expanding his frontline with trumpets and saxes, flirting directly with Brazilian, flamenco, rock and jazz/funk influences and debuting as a solo vocalist on three tracks. “MC2 (Theme Realidades)” is a daring funk-meets-Latin experiment with Yomo’s cuatro sharing the spotlight against Elliott Randall’s rock guitar. Mangual Jr.’s bongo work adds extra fireworks. This song and the following two tracks are deliberately sequenced to showcase the evolution of Willie’s big band approach.
16) Pena De Amor
For this experimental session from 1975’s There Goes The Neighborhood, Colón teamed up with the dean of the trombone sound: Mon Rivera. Straight out of prison at the time, Rivera was not only a pioneer of the trombone frontline, but also one of New York's foremost authorities on the Afro-Boricua tradition. It was only fitting that Colón rescued Rivera’s legacy for the new generation with this session, which resulted in Rivera landing a recording deal with Vaya Records. Another Latin legend, Francisco “Kako” Bastar, made a guest appearance on the recording, playing timbales and quinto. Colón backed Rivera on his final session, 1978’s “Forever”, which was released posthumously.
Colón and Celia Cruz’s first collaboration, Only They Could Have Made This Album (1977) proved to be a challenge for both performers. This was an unprecedented opportunity for Cruz to showcase her versatility and extricate herself from the mighty shadow of her Sonora Matancera fame, perpetuated in her recordings with Johnny Pacheco’s Tumbao. Colón viewed this pairing with Cruz as his formal inclusion in the big league. Catering to her style without losing his musical grip was a challenge in itself. Here he prescribes Cruz a dose of Panamanian tamborito for another of his pan-American salsa fusions. Check out the bass work from Sal Cuevas, whose name was mistakenly omitted from the album’s credits.
Arranger Carlos Franzetti had double work on the album’s title track. After delivering the original chart, he was then asked to write a string score overnight. According to Jimmy Delgado (timbale player for this set) the song ended up being recorded faster than intended thanks to Sal Cuevas deliberately accelerating the tempo because he was in a hurry to make it to a jingle recording session!
3) Pedro Navaja
Colón and Rubén Blades’ second collaboration, 1978’s Siembra, was the first salsa album to sell a million units and is still widely regarded as the best-selling salsa release ever. All seven songs on the album were strong hits, especially the title track, “Pedro Navaja” and “Buscando Guayaba”, where Blades’ now famous scat solo filled-in for a missing Yomo Toro. Blades’ tale about Fania bosses Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci disliking the album before it hit the record stores is now famous. According to Blades, Pacheco complained that the lyrics in “Pedro Navaja” were too long to consider the number for single release. Needless to say, Colón and Blades proved them both wrong because “Siembra” and “Plástico” (a parody-style ode to materialism and shallowness), although not necessarily fitting Pacheco’s idea of danceable music, became classics.
Colón’s big band explorations climaxed on 1979’s Solo, which also marked his official debut as a solo singer. Sure, there were strings in Latin music long before this session, but this was the true birth of the “symphonic salsa” concept. Solo also marked the end of his gangster look, as he adopted a clean-shaven look and left behind the bad boy image for good, or at least for the rest of the ’70s.
It was hard to choose just two songs from the “Solo” album, but this tour de force just had to be included. Colón not only delivers a stunning performance as a singer and arranger, but he also raises his game as a composer with one of his most impressive lyrical narratives, telling the tale of a young and naive campesino as he moves to New York City and struggles his way to prosperity. Check out Mauricio Smith’s flute virtuosity and Nestor Sánchez’s outstanding tenor voice in the background vocals.
6) Amor Verdadero
This and the following cut are from Colón’s 1981 best-selling solo follow-up Fantasmas. The overwhelming popularity of “Amor Verdadero” - an experimental fusion of Dominican merengue with the hustle/disco beat - virtually obligated him to attempt to emulate its success on further recordings like “Amor Barato” and “Noche De Enmascarados”, both penned by Brazilian composer Chico Buarque.
7) Toma Mis Manos
Colón’s lyrics on this cut are simply a masterpiece. For most of the song we get the impression that an over-confident Latin lover is narrating the story, however the seducer turns out to be none other than Death itself. Even more stunning is the fact that the inspiration for this song was the untimely death of Colón’s only sibling: sister Cindy, who sang background vocals in some of his late ’70s sessions.
8) What Happened
This is considered the standout track from the ill-fated movie project "The Last Fight," starring Rubén Blades as a singer-turned-boxer. By this time, the collaboration between Colón and Blades had run out of steam. They would reunite in 1995 for Tras La Tormenta, unable to recreate the sheer magic of Siembra.
9) Corazón Guerrero
This is the title track from the rather obscure 1983 follow-up to the popular Fantasmas album. A clearly non-commercial release, this album only yielded two singles: the hit “Casanova” and this track, where Colón lets loose on trombone for the last time - for Fania, that is! 1982 to ’83 was a very active period for Colón. Besides Vigilante,” “The Last Fight” and Corazón Guerrero (and several outtakes from “The Last Fight” that ended up as Blades “solo” releases for Fania after he left the label), Colón and his band produced two sessions outside Fania Records. One of them was Caribe for TH Records, featuring this hit song, for Venezuelan songstress Soledad Bravo. The other was Sophy in New York on Velvet Records for the legendary Puerto Rican diva of the title.
10) Juanito Alimaña
The 1983 album Vigilante was promoted as the soundtrack for a Fred Williamson film in which Colón portrays a ruthless gang member, unavoidably returning him to his young malote image. The four-song album marked the reunion of Willie with his compadre and former singer Lavoe. It was released after Colón and Blades’ infamous split and following their movie, Masucci’s “The Last Fight” (1982), which flopped and put Fania in serious financial trouble. Lavoe sings a soneo in “Juanito Alimaña” about the funeral of Blades’ ever-popular character Pedro Navaja, which many regarded as a subliminal hint. Blades’ decision to resuscitate the character for his 1985 song “Sorpresas” fuelled further speculation.
11) Un Bembe Pa’ Yemayá
Colón and Cruz’ The Winners was the last pairing of these two salsa icons, and yielded a Grammy nomination. Colón convened a deluxe five-trombone section (Barry Rogers, Steve Turre, Papo Vázquez, Leopoldo Pineda and Lewis Kahn) for a largely conventional session tailor-made for Cruz. However, he wrapped her in totally different package for this track, a salsa/funk formula that became the prototype for Celia’s later pop fusions on Sony Records, like “La Vida Es Un Carnaval”, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” and her posthumous single “Ríe Y Llora”.
12) Nunca Se Acaba
Fittingly, this collection concludes this with a bold declaration of principles from 1989’s Top Secrets, Willie’s very last album for Fania (actually his own production, licensed to Fania in the US) presenting his current band Legal Aliens. A call for Latino pride and a confirmation of his salsa icon status, Willie tells the listener that, no matter how many new musical idioms pop out of nowhere, salsa is far from being a sound from the past. And keep in mind that this statement comes from a guy who, in his own way, has tackled many of these idioms as they have come and gone. As long as bold musical forces like Willie Colón continue to deliver good music for the mind, as well as for happy feet, salsa music will be here to stay. La salsa nunca se acaba…
Liner Notes by Thomas Muriel, John Child and Ernesto Lechner. LESS >