Never underestimate the power of a whistle. When the Joe Cuba Sextet set out to record Estamos Haciendo Algo Bien/We Must Be Doing Something Right in 1965, they were reaching a crossroads in their career.
By the mid-’60s, the group was already one of the hottest tickets in town, whether performing in uptown El Barrio ballrooms, upscale Manhattan clubs, or upstate dance halls in the Catskills. With the giant mambo orchestras on the wane, the compact size, and sizzle, of the sextet made them favorites of Latin dance fanatics and labels too—Mardi-Gras and Seeco had already released their records, and, by this time, they had found a stable home with the Tico imprint, which new owner Morris Levy had helped build into a Latin powerhouse.
The title of We Must Be Doing Something Right came from a popular ad jingle for Rheingold Beer, but Tico’s in-house producer Pancho Cristal (né Morris Perlsman) liked how it spoke to the sextet’s success as well. The group had already recorded three albums for Tico Vagabundeando/Hangin’ Out, Alma del Barrio/The Soul of Spanish Harlem, and Bailadores—and according to Cristal’s liner notes on We Must..., each had been more successful than the last, creating what he described as “a continuously increasing excitement which merits musical respect and admiration.” After all, would the group have enjoyed such good times if they weren’t doing something right? Probably no.
At the time of We Must..., the sextet had arguably their most storied lineup: Cuba on percussion; pianist and main arranger Nick Jiménez; bassist Jules “Slim” Cordero; Tommy Berrios on vibes; and the group’s famed lead vocalists, Jimmy Sabater and Cheo Feliciano. Jiménez and Sabater were especially productive, not just in playing or singing on the record, but also in writing nearly half its songs. That included the Jiménez original, “Bochinchosa,” a slick guaguancó. “One of my favorite tunes that we never played too much,” says singer Jimmy Sabater.
Outside contributors included local New York composer Genaro “Heny” Alvarez, who wrote the album’s opener, “Pruébalo,” as well as a good friend of the band, Héctor Rivera, who wrote the side A closer (mistakenly left off the cover credits), “Ya No Aguanto Mas,” a fiery mozambique. Rivera also arranged the album’s beautiful version of the ballad “Si Te Dicen” (made famous in the 1950s by Cuban singer Vicentico Valdés). Surprisingly, this song would be the first time Sabater and Feliciano shared a duet on record. “We both loved that tune,” recalls Sabater.
Sabater also wrote two songs, including the up-tempo cooker “Y Tu Abuela Donde Esta.” Behind its lively rhythms is an intriguing narrative about race, ethnicity, and skin color as Sabater sings of a Latino passing for White. He’s reluctant to say too much about the song’s inspiration but volunteers, “I wrote that about a Puerto Rican who played the race card, ’cause he’s light-skinned. Okay? And I’m not gonna mention who I wrote it for.”
The other song Sabater wrote would become the album’s signature hit: “El Pito (I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia).” According to Jiménez, he had been experimenting with a piano vamp, and Sabater got the idea to play the phrase “I’ll never go back to Georgia” off of it. “I got the idea for the song listening to ‘Manteca,’” Sabater explains, referring to the breakout Latin jazz song recorded by Dizzy Gillespie, co-written by his Cuban collaborator, Chano Pozo. Gillespie’s declaration of refusing to return to Georgia was a critique of the state’s infamous segregationist policies, though, ironically, no one in the sextet had actually ever been to Georgia. Jiménez recalls, “The state of Georgia’s legislature complained about the tune, so we told them it wasn’t about the state of Georgia; it was about a girl named Georgia.” Sabater had the hook, Jiménez had the vamp, and Cuba’s contribution completed a trifecta: the whistle. You hear it at the very beginning, as the call of “Oye, ese pito!” is answered by the band whistling back with a five-note melody (in a clave pattern, no less). As the song’s popularity grew, Cuba’s marketing acumen kicked in. Jiménez explains, “Joe had these little whistles made that advertised Joe Cuba and the Sextet, and every time we played ‘El Pito,’ we’d throw these whistles out to the public.”
At one Madison Square Garden gig, Sabater remembers watching a “sophisticated woman with a fur wrap” loses her composure once the whistles came flying out. “She dumped that fur and went running for that whistle,” he laughs. Importantly, the song’s sharp, driving blend of American soul, Latin rhythms, and catchy English hook would help form part of the blueprint for the boogaloo sound that would become the dominant New York Latin style between 1966 and ’68.
The album’s opener, “Pruébalo,” offers a titular “taste” of that style too, featuring a bridge built around a handclap rhythm and English exhortations of “everybody, come on and swing it, baby!” The sound is unmistakably similar to boogaloo songs that would start to creep out within a year, especially Hector Rivera’s “At the Party,” and, arguably the biggest hit of the boogaloo era, the sextet’s own smash from a year later, “Bang, Bang.” (Ironically, Sabater relates how the idea for “Bang, Bang” came to him during a gig where nothing off We Must Be Doing Something Right was moving the crowd: “We played the first set, nobody danced. Second set, nobody danced. So then I kept telling Joe Cuba, ‘Listen, I got this idea for a tune...’”)
In 1965, though, that future was still waiting to happen. The sextet was busy enough, riding the wave of the success of “El Pito” with gigs lined up from the U.S. to Puerto Rico to Venezuela. And everywhere they went, all they needed to hear were the whistles—coming back to them from the audiences—to know they must have been doing something right.
Thanks to Nicky Jiménez, Jimmy Sabater Sr. and Jr., Eliani Torres, Carolina Gonzalez, Rich Haupt, and Jonathan Bailey.
Liner Notes by Oliver Wang
El Pito (I'll Never Go Back To Georgia) / Joe Cuba Sextet
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