Willie Colon is today one of the superstars of salsa, a living legend whose career spans almost 40 years. His groundbreaking albums of the 1970s, with vocalists Hector Lavoe and Ruben Blades, still stand as some of the greatest salsa recordings of all time. Not only were they groundbreaking musically, incorporating other Latin musical styles not often featured in mainstream salsa (samba, bomba, plena), but also non-Latin elements such as funk and disco. Their socially conscious lyrics describing the hardships of life in the barrio for ordinary Latinos, be it New York, San Juan or Caracas, made Colon and his singers "the people's musicians". ...MORE >
Willie Colon is today one of the superstars of salsa, a living legend whose career spans almost 40 years. His groundbreaking albums of the 1970s, with vocalists Hector Lavoe and Ruben Blades, still stand as some of the greatest salsa recordings of all time. Not only were they groundbreaking musically, incorporating other Latin musical styles not often featured in mainstream salsa (samba, bomba, plena), but also non-Latin elements such as funk and disco. Their socially conscious lyrics describing the hardships of life in the barrio for ordinary Latinos, be it New York, San Juan or Caracas, made Colon and his singers "the people's musicians".
But back in 1967, a very different Willie Colon was about to embark on the long musical journey that would eventually lead him to the top of his game. Just 17 years old, Colon has been playing trombone for a couple of years after starting out on the trumpet. Born in New York in 1950, he had grown up like many of his contemporaries, listening equally to the Latin music of his parent's homeland, and the black rhythm and blues, jazz and doo-wop of his native city. To many of the second generation Puerto Ricans of the time, there was no contradiction in this. Why couldn't you dig Tito Puente as well as Frankie Lymon, Otis Redding and Herbie Hancock? It was as normal as speaking Spanish and English in equal measures, or eating arroz con pollo one day, burgers the next. They maintained the cultural roots of their parents but were absorbed into the American society they grew up in.
"El Malo" showcased this cultural diversity perfectly. The album brought together Cuban guaguanco, son montuno and mozambique, Puerto Rican bomba, and the current craze at the time, boogaloo and shing-a-ling. The latter in particular was becoming hugely popular with Latino youth, but also crossing over into both the black and white communities. With a heavy rock/soul backbeat wedded to a slowed-down mambo rhythm, and lyrics in both Spanish and English, the boogaloo was threatening to take over.
Many of the young musicians and bands coming up through the boogaloo scene were dismissed at first by the established band leaders like Tito Puente and Charlie Palmieri. It was said that they couldn't play and they broke the golden rules - they played "out of clave" or mixed rhythms like bomba and guaguanco together! However very quickly, Willie and many of the younger musicians not only proved themselves musically but also in album sales, and the same established bandleaders soon backtracked, employing the new breed and also adopting the boogaloo sound in their sets.
Although very young, Willie Colon had all the right ingredients to make his debut album special. A young and energetic band including future Fania Allstar timbalero Nicky Marrero and bassist Eddie "Gua Gua" Rivera. He wrote some great arrangements and songs, perfectly judging the mood of the times, a desire for change, and Willie's boogaloo and shingaling tracks offered something new and vibrant. Finally, the Willie Colon secret weapon was one Hector Lavoe. A young teenage singer born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, raised in New York, Lavoe was the link to the Caribbean, the roots of Willie Colon's music. Lavoe had a beautiful tenor voice, tuneful but gritty, and with that nasal delivery of the traditional soneros. Young and inexperienced as they were, the Willie Colon band had something special and that's why Fania Record's Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco signed them. They were right - the album sold well– achieving excellent figures for a totally new and unknown artist.
Nearly 40 years later, "El Malo" still sounds fresh and exciting. Salsa has undergone so many changes and become at times too sophisticated. "El Malo" reminds you of it's purest and simplest elements - rhythm, percussive drive, blazing brass, hypnotic tumbaos/montunos and a great improvising vocalist. Opening track "Jazzy" is a mambo-jazz explosion, from it's opening brass riff through to the blues-tinged piano solo and on to Marrero's incendary timbal solo at the end. This still sends mambo and jazz dancers into ecstasy four decades later! Tradition is represented by the guaguanco "Borinquen" and the son montuno "Chonqui, both highlighting Hector Lavoe's majestic voice and "tipico" delivery. The new crossover boogalo sound of the time is represented by "Willie Baby", "Skinny Papa" and "Willie Whopper", a shing-a-ling featuring a funky hammond organ. The tracks are still fun and fill dancefloors in soul and funk clubs worldwide. The final two tracks show Willie Colon's desire to experiment,
even at 17! "El Malo" blends Puerto Rican bomba and Cuban guaguanco, whislst "Quimbombo" merges the two Cuban rhythms of guaguanco and mozambique into a trombone maelstrom, the perfect close to the album.
This truly is a classic album, and one that all Willie Colon fans should own, but also anyone interested in the history and developement of Afro-Rican music in the last century. A snapshot of the first forays into recording of a musician who would go on to shape the future of salsa in the 1970s and 80s.
Willie Colon – 1st Trombone Leader
Joe Santiago – Trombone
Nick Marrero – Timbales
Mario Galagarza – Conga
Pablo Rosario – Bongos
Dwight Brewster – Piano
Eddie Guagua – Bass
James Taylor – Bass
Vocals: Hector Lavoe, Yayo El Indio, Elliot Romero
Recording Director: Johnny Pacheco
Produced by: Jerry Masucci
Audio Engineer: Inving Greenbaum
Cover Photo: Irv Elkin
Cover Design: Shelly Schreiber