Pablo “Tito” Rodriguez remains a towering figure whose influence overn modern Latin music must never be underestimated. From his precocious musical beginnings in Puerto Rico, through his successful career in New York during the height of the mambo era, to his resettling in Puerto Rico and becoming an internationally known heartthrob for his universally appealing romantic ballad style, his work was always of the highest quality and diversity. In retrospect, it’s served as a musical blueprint for the salsa and Latin jazz of the 1970s and beyond. ...MORE >
Pablo “Tito” Rodriguez remains a towering figure whose influence overn modern Latin music must never be underestimated. From his precocious musical beginnings in Puerto Rico, through his successful career in New York during the height of the mambo era, to his resettling in Puerto Rico and becoming an internationally known heartthrob for his universally appealing romantic ballad style, his work was always of the highest quality and diversity. In retrospect, it’s served as a musical blueprint for the salsa and Latin jazz of the 1970s and beyond. This compilation aims to demonstrate the multidimensional talents of this seminal performer, bringing together essential tracks from several labels, across two decades of magical music making.
What made Rodriguez unique was his special combination of talents: simultaneously being a versatile vocalist and a multitalented instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader. This is evident from the early part of his career with George Goldner’s Tico label, for which he recorded numerous sides as Tito Rodriguez and Los Lobos del Mambo in a relatively small eight-piece format featuring four trumpets exclusively as the brass section. Our collection includes three bonus cuts, originally released as 78s, that come from volume five of a series of 10-inch mambo albums from the early 1950s. These records are extremely rare and though no master tapes exist, they are important enough to include and consequently are getting their first official release here. No greatest hits collection would be complete without some version of the Rodriguezpenned anthem “Mambo Mona,” named for Goldner’s Puerto Rican wife Ramona, later recorded as “Mama Guela.” From early on, Rodriguez was well aware of his music’s deep
African roots and showed a penchant for mixing in Afro-Cuban phrases and melodies borrowed from
folkloric elements – the Chano Pozo tune “Boco Boco” is an early example of this. “Bailala Hasta las
Dos” showcases Tito’s small-band arrangements that were in part modeled after the conjunto sound
of Arsenio Rodriguez. This recording, like many others, has been covered by modern salsa artists and
points to why Tito’s influence on Latin music has been so long lasting.
By the mid-’50s, Tico Records began to compile previously recorded 78s onto the new formats of
12-inch LPs and 7-inch 45 rpm singles and EPs. From Tito’s first full-length album, Mambo Madness,
comes “Chen Chere en Guma,” a popular dance number with some Congolese-language lyrics from
the Afro-Cuban Abakuá religious sect. Also from this seminal record is “Harlem Nightmare.” With its
cinematic, brooding main theme and manic percussion (Tito on timbales), it could be from a period
film noir and points to the powerful marriage of Latin and jazz that gave birth to the mambo. “Mambo
Manila” is an excellent example of the mostly instrumental, jazz-influenced cha-cha-chas and mambos
that were popular with the so-called “mamboniks” of the era and will be enjoyed equally by today’s
lounge-music aficionados. Like the other two members of the so-called Big Three, Tito Puente and
Machito, Rodriguez was in fact a fan of swing and bebop and, in this capacity, skillfully played the
vibraphone as evidenced on this track. In fact, he was the only Latin artist to release an official live jazz
album recorded at the legendary Birdland club in Manhattan.
After a short stint with RCA Records starting in 1953, Rodriguez returned to Tico briefly and released
the albums The Wa-Pa-Cha (La Guapacha), Señor Tito, and Latin Jewels. The humorous up-tempo
guaracha “Que Le Pasa a Pedro” and the Afro-Cuban-inflected cut “Yamboro” are from this crucial
stage in his trajectory. By this time, Tito had expanded his band into a much larger orchestra, adding
saxes (and later trombones) to the mix, making these recordings at once more dynamic and more
complex than his previous efforts.
Leaving the relatively small independent Tico label in 1960, Rodriguez hoped the newly formed
United Artists would prove to be greener pastures. He proved with his first release, Live at the Palladium, that he was a consummate showman in control of a modern, dynamic, and disciplined big band that was as powerful in a live context as it had been polished in the studio. The orchestra, which included the young Eddie Palmieri for the time, was able to execute the most awe-inspiring clockwork moves on the bandstand, with many band members improvising riffs. With the cowbell loud and up front, Tito’s surefire direction and magnetic presence whipped his audience and musicians into a wild frenzy. From this riveting Palladium session comes the huge international hit “El Sabio,” another Rodriguez original covered by everyone from Peret to the Fania All-Stars. No other Latin big band released a live recording from that storied dance venue; Tito recorded two brilliant albums there, proving his popularity with the multicultural milieu that frequented the club.
Though the jazzy big-band brass sound of the mambo was still popular at this time, the very different-sounding Cuban charanga orchestras of Fajardo, Aragon, and America were becoming all the rage in New York, and several homegrown orchestras like Charlie Palmieri’s La Duboney had great success with their own versions of the format. In the wake of the Cuban revolution, the pachanga dance craze soon invaded the dance floors of New York. Realizing this fad was taking hold of the youth, Rodriguez put out the powerful Charanga Pachanga, from which the incendiary “Bacalao Salao” is chosen. It is worth noting that unlike most of his recordings, the flute has prominence here, and, contrary to his other charanga arrangements – including the subsequent “Oyeme Antonia” from his triumphant Returns to the Palladium Live! – “Bacalao Salao” boasts an authentic Cuban string section, with the distinctive quijada (donkey jawbone) percussion and unique bell pattern used in the classic charanga orchestra. This is the exception to his generally Tito Rodriguez from the West Side Latino Archives brass-heavy sound. Rodriguez was adept at taking tunes popularized in one style and rearranging them in another, often choosing songs composed by others and making them his own to great success, a case in point being the massively popular Felix Reina composition “Vuela la Paloma” from Tito’s Broadway-themed West Side Beat. The song was made famous first in Cuba in the late ’50s by Reina’s own Orquesta Estrellas Cubanas, and then later by the electric-guitar-led La Playa Sextet (with Rodriguez joining on vocals), but is done here in a modified charanga format that removes the string section and adds some New York big-band brass orchestration to the characteristic Cuban flute. It seems this approach was a winning formula, as evidenced by his Latinized version of the smash 1962 Italian hit “Cuando, Cuando, Cuando” – appearing with one less “Cuando” in the title – on Tito’s Back Home in Puerto Rico.
Tito knew his audience and realized that with his stunning good looks and smoky tenor voice, he had
great potential as a romantic crooner of boleros and ballads. So, despite the opposition of his label, he
decided to record Tito Rodríguez with Love, an immensely popular album that opened up his market to
a wider international audience. “Inolvidable” is perhaps his best-known recording in this vein and set
the standard for modern Latin heartthrob idols to come. “Al Di La,” from the posthumous collection of
rarities Lo Inédito, shows his talent for taking a composition from another context – this time, an Italianlanguage hit for crooners like Connie Francis – and putting his own original stamp on it, retooling it as a gently lilting jazz-waltz bolero. While with United Artists, Rodriguez also rerecorded some of his earlier hits like the driving chacha- cha “Donde Estabas Tu,” initially recorded as a Tico 78 around 1950. It surfaces again, with its distinctive ascending piano figure, wandering bass lines (courtesy of Israel “Cachao” Lopez), and punchy brass stabs, on Tito, Tito, Tito, as does the haunting love song of the African hummingbird, “Sun Sun Babae,” originally put to wax in 1953. On El Doctor, Tito revisited another oldie with “Hay Craneo” to great effect (Bobby Valentin covered it in 1974). Tito’s 1968 recording, “Estoy Como Nunca” – featuring Jimmy Sabater of Joe Cuba Sextet fame on backing vocals and Manny Oquendo on percussion – was recorded again by Oquendo’s own groundbreaking group, Libre, in 1983.
The collection closes with the famous Arsenio Rodriguez composition “Llora Timbero,” which roughly
translates as “cry for the rumba performer,” also covered by Libre. Rodriguez starts his 1969 version
with a traditional opening for an all-percussion rumba, a bit of vocalese called the diana, and goes on
to sing moving lyrics that praise the deceased dancer and percussionist Malanga, and, in a way, the
recording serves as a fitting epitaph for Tito himself, because he was to die before his time just a few
years later and was similarly mourned by all. LESS >