STORY OF GEORGE GOLDNER AND TICO
¡Qué sabroso está!
MAMBO USA, MORRIS LEVY & RHYTHM'n'BLUES
Goldner embarked on a frenzy of recording activity in 1951, making
up for lost time. He and engineer Allen Weintraub practically took
up residence at Bell Sound, which, along with Broadway Studios and
A & R Recording, was one of his favorite recording sites for
Tico sessions. The following year, the label issued 27 ten-inch
record albums on Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente, Leal Pescador,
Joe Loco, Pupi Campo, and two anonymous groups of pick-up musicians,
Los Rumberos de Cuba and the Tico Orchestra, culled from both new
and old recording sessions.
By 1956, the records were selling briskly enough for Tico to inaugurate
a 12-inch LP series. No less than thirty long-players hit the market
that year; it was an all-time production high. Goldner continued to
expand his artist roster. Conguero Mongo Santamaría took a
break from Tito Puente's band to cut a solo session, and vibraphonist
Pete Terrace quit
Joe Loco's band to form his own quintet, The Latin Boys. However,
Goldner hardly needed to cannibalize existing acts to acquire new
talent - it was literally flocking to his door. By 1954, his new
signings included three veteran Cuban bandleaders: José Fajardo
and Rosendo Ruíz, Jr., who specialized in the hot new rhythm
called cha-cha-chá, and Arsenio Rodríguez,
whose lusty guitar-playing added a piquant new flavor to the mambo.
Also welcomed to Tico was Alan "Alfredito" Levy, a Jewish
percussionist whose mambo band ranked with the best; celebrated
Mexican troubadours Trío Los Panchos, masters of the bolero
ballad form; and José Alfredo Jiménez, the portly
singer/songwriter who was already being hailed by some as Mexico's
greatest composer. From the Dominican Republic came Ricardo Rico
and his merengue band, and from the Palladium Ballroom bandstand
came Machito and His Afro-Cubans. With Machito's signing, George
Goldner managed to corral all three of the Palladium's biggest stars.
The beauty of having an act like the Afro-Cubans on your label
was that it was like getting three stars in one package: Frank "Machito"
Grillo and his sister Graciela Pérez, two incredibly charismatic
vocalists, along with their brother-in-law, music director Mario
Bauzá, an unapologetically progressive horn arranger. Bauzá
had roots not only in Latin music but also in the great swing ensembles
of Cab Calloway and Chick Webb. He hung out with guys like Dizzy
Gillespie, Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, and there was no telling
who'd show up to lend a hand on record dates Bauzá supervised.
After singing for Xavier Cugat, Noro Morales, Alberto Iznaga and
other bandleaders, Machito had his fill of working for other people.
He resolved to form his own band in 1940, recruiting Bauzá
the following year. By the time Graciela arrived from Cuba in 1943
to substitute for her brother, who'd been drafted into the Army,
the Afro-Cubans had been installed as the house band at Manhattan's
Club La Conga. The club broadcast their sets over station WOR, and
they became a sensation. Bauzá's fusion arrangements won
them the patronage of important jazz disc jockeys like Fred Robbins,
and the admiration of established jazz stars like Stan Kenton.
In 1947, promoter Federico Pagani hired them as one of three house
bands at the Palladium, where they came under George Goldner's direct
scrutiny. Machito and company began their decade-long tenure at
Tico Records with a 10-inch album of cha-cha-chás, and each
successive release got hotter and hotter. The hottest was probably
"Sí, Sí, No, No", a record in which Graciela
vocally approximated an orgasm while Machito gleefully egged her
on. A live recording originally released on Columbia Records, it
became an X-rated smash throughout Latin America, anticipating by
at least twenty years similar hits by Jane Birkin, porn star Marilyn
Chambers and Donna Summer. The Afro-Cubans recut their 1949 cult
smash "Asia Minor" for Tico with excellent results, and
also essayed an ambitious album of songs inspired by the movie version
of Ernest Hemingway's novel "The Sun Also Rises". Led
by a family of proud black Cuban musicians, their albums, singles,
and live performances were as popular among African-Americans as
they were among Latinos. Black audiences may not have understood
all the words, but they couldn't fail to recognize their cultural
idiom whenever Graciela stepped to the microphone and screamed,
"Listen, listen, honey . . . ¡qué sabroso está!"
While the ink on Machito's contract was still wet, George Goldner was
finalizing plans for the most ambitious Latin music extravaganza yet mounted
in this country. As conceived by Goldner and concert promoter Irving Schact,
"Mambo USA" was to be a nationwide tour featuring the best mambo
bands and dancers working in New York. The bill would include over forty
artists, stopping to perform in 56 cities. Predating by nearly a decade
similar rock 'n' roll tours by Berry Gordy's Motown Revue and Dick Clark's
Caravan of Stars, it was an ambitious attempt to give these artists some
nationwide exposure, as well as promote the latest Tico Records releases.
Goldner and Schact gave New York a tour preview on February 20, 1954,
booking Carnegie Hall for a "Mambo/Rhumba Festival". Tito Puente,
Joe Loco and Pupi Campo headlined the sold-out date, with the Phillips-Fort
Dancers stepping fancy for the crowd, Cuban percussionist Candido Camero
holding forth with his shirtless-and-covered-in-baby-oil conga drum routine,
and singers Miguelito Valdés and Myrta Silva appearing as special
guests. A week later, Tito Puente and Joe Loco kicked off a mini-tour
at Brooklyn's Paramount Theater, and in July, Goldner sent Machito's Afro-Cubans
on a three-week jaunt to whet the public's appetite a little more. It
took the better part of a year to get the logistics down, but "Mambo
USA" finally hit the road that fall.
Four decades later, Max Salazar spoke with Pete Terrace, one of the tour
participants. "The tour began in late October", Terrace remembered.
"On the bill was Machito's orchestra, Graciela, Joe Loco's Quintet,
dancers Mike and Nilda Terrace, the Facundo Rivero Trio and the Mambo
Aces (a duo comprised of dancers José Centeno and Anibal Vásquez)".
Actor/singer Carlos Ramírez, Mexican comedy star Tin Tan, and several
other Latin dance teams also performed. Reportedly, Pérez Prado
and His Orchestra joined the tour for selected dates on the West Coast.
"We performed in Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Washington,
DC, Miami Beach, San Francisco, St. Louis, and other cities in Texas.
In most of the cities, the turnout was disappointing. Some nights, we
were playing to less than twenty people sitting in the audience!"
Poor turnout was bad enough, but another problem - blatant racial discrimination
- was worse. Pete Terrace: "Most of the musicians travelled in a
bus marked 'Mambo USA', and when we stopped to eat, we were refused because
of the dark-skinned musicians. Julio Andino, our Afro-Cuban bass player,
developed an ulcer . . . the discrimination (he) experienced made him
ill". Meagre box office receipts and the musicians' discontent over
treatment they received in segregated cities ended the tour prematurely.
If any live performances were taped, none ever saw release. However, George
Goldner did issue a 10-inch Joe Loco album titled Mambo USA, featuring
the peppy theme song and other numbers Loco had performed onstage. A positive
result of the tour was that many people in the South and Midwest got a
chance to see Latin bands live in concert for the first and possibly only
time. At the end of the day, Tico Records more likely than not derived
some promotional mileage out of it; still, the thousands of dollars lost
in the debacle taught Goldner a stiff lesson about the limits of Latin
music's appeal outside its home base.
Tico released its first and only soundtrack album in the late '50s. It
featured a group called The Boataneers playing Bahamian music heard in
United Artists' tropical romance flick Island Women. This recording,
along with those of Ricardo Rico and Mongo Santamaría, was folkloric
in nature (in fact, Santamaría's Changó is said to be
the first Afro-Cuban folk album ever issued in the United States). These
albums sound quite rustic compared to the typical Tico release. Other
Latin label owners craved musical authenticity, and didn't seem to mind
if their product sounded like it had been taped on old-fashioned wire
machines in the Guatemalan jungle. Not George Goldner! Recorded in state-of-the-art
studios with impeccable arrangements, his Tico tracks were bold, sassy,
and tailored strictly to the tastes of big city consumers. He and Allen
Weintraub often bathed them in a rippling echo, making them sound as if
they were being played back in a subway station. Tico Records was about
fancy, dressed-up Latin dance music, and the keyword was sophistication.
Swing and bebop influence was evident on nearly every recording date,
and playbacks compared favourably to those of the best jazz bands working
at the time. It was major label quality with small label ambiance, and
that's what probably drew so many great artists through the doors of its
busy new offices at 220 West 42nd Street. It certainly wasn't Tico's royalty
rate, which by most accounts was hardly competitive with that of the major
Unfortunately, Goldner's spending habits had much to do with that fact.
His passion for Latin music was dwarfed by his mania for gambling. He
lost thousands of dollars on horse races and casino games, and his dependence
on loans from Joe Kolsky grew. Soon, he was dealing directly with Kolsky's
boss, Morris Levy, owner of the famed Birdland nightclub. Levy was widely
believed to have gangland ties, and while Goldner was no pushover, he
certainly must have been more than a little intimidated. When, in 1955,
Levy was instrumental in getting Tito Puente signed to an album deal with
RCA Victor, he could do little more than complain bitterly. By then, he
was far too indebted to the club-owner to challenge his actions. On the
other hand, Levy's seemingly inexhaustible sources of money gave Goldner
the freedom to sign acts, record them and release product at a rate few
other independent label owners could afford to. Accordingly, he took advantage
of the situation and began to branch out.
George Goldner's life took a fateful turn on the day he discovered
that many of his black and ethnic customers were turning their attention
to a new kind of dance music called rhythm and blues. With backing
from Morris Levy, he formed the Rama label specifically to market
the R & B vocal groups, which had begun to proliferate on the
East Coast. He recorded The Crows on a song called "Gee",
and Levy used his considerable promotional savvy to help make it
one of the first major R & B crossover hits. In the days when
black singers were all but banned from pop radio, this Top Five
R & B platter shocked the music industry by placing Top Twenty
on the national hit parade. Goldner later had Joe Loco record a
cover of "Gee" on Tico; in the '60s, future Tico artist
Joe Cuba would also take a crack at it. Its success permanently
shifted his focus to rhythm and blues, or rock 'n' roll, as these
records were increasingly being labelled. In 1954, he debuted Rama's
sister label, naturally called Gee, and signed The Cleftones. With
singles like "Little Girl
Of Mine", they also became successful crossover recording artists.
That same year, he hired gifted singer/songwriter Ritchie Barrett
away from another Gee group called The Valentines to assist him
in A & R. This lay the groundwork for the million-selling 1956
Gee single "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" by The Teenagers,
a group Barrett would later bring to his attention. Hot on their
heels was a new Rama group named The Heartbeats, who scored big
with "A Thousand Miles Away".
1956 was also the year Goldner partnered with Joe Kolsky and Kolsky's
brother Phil Kahl in founding the Roulette label (the allusion to his
gambling habit was sharp enough to be painful). Roulette was to be a vehicle
for straight-ahead pop releases. Goldner's heart wasn't in this venture,
though, and according to some sources, he was never an active partner
in the company. It wasn't long before Morris Levy had bought out his share,
and installed himself as Roulette's chief executive officer. Kolsky and
Kahl would sell out in 1961. The Roulette label went on to be one of the
most important and longest-running independent record companies in the
business; hits by Buddy Knox, Jimmie Rodgers, The Playmates, Joey Dee
and The Starlighters and Tommy James and The Shondells kept its coffers
full-to-overflowing. Roulette proved most important to Goldner as the
distributor for Gone and End Records, his two newest imprints. They were
initially meant as jazz outlets, but the temptation to sign hot young
rock 'n' roll talent proved too strong. Soon, Gone and End singles by
acts like The Flamingos, The Dubs, Little Anthony and The Imperials and
The Chantels were shipping out of record plants, and smashes like "Could
This Be Magic", "Tears On My Pillow", and "I Only
Have Eyes For You" were climbing the charts. Hoping to simultaneously
appeal to both mambo and R & B fans, Goldner attempted some fusion
experiments on vinyl; artists like The Crows, Jimmy Wright and The Larke
Sisters found themselves cutting such unlikely titles as "Mambo-Shevitz"
and "The Lily Mae Belle Mambo". Predictably, these clumsy stabs
at Latin rock went nowhere. Unadulterated rhythm and blues is what paid
the bills and kept his bookie happy.
Within a very short time, George Goldner began to understand that rock
'n' roll was where the really big money could be made. Suburban white
teenagers with disposable income were embracing this new sound, and generating
huge profits for independent label owners like himself. There was just
no comparison between the fairly modest returns he got from a regional
Latin hit, and the monster-sized checks he pocketed after one of his vocal
groups took off nationally. Goldner released a rock novelty single on
a one-off label called Luniverse, and was astonished when Buchanan and
Goodman's "Flying Saucer" zoomed up the charts, selling millions.
However, the profits his rock records pulled in were quickly eaten up
by massive gambling debts; it seemed the more money he made, the more
slipped through his fingers. "He liked horses", Morris Levy
explained to author Fredric Dannen decades later. "He always needed
money. It's a shame, because George knew music, and knew what could be
a hit. But if he was worried about the fifth race at Delaware, and working
(a) record at the same time, he had a problem!" In April of 1957,
Goldner was forced to sell his interests in Tico, Rama and Gee to Levy.
As would all of his early labels over time, it became a subsidiary of
Roulette Records. Yet, Goldner didn't wash his hands of Tico - he still
loved Latin music, and it was his first successful company, after all.
He kept an active hand in its creative operations, and would occasionally
supervise recording dates for the label until the end of his life.
There was nothing middle-of-the-road about Morris Levy - people
either loved him or hated him. Reputed to be in the employ of the
Genovese crime family, he wasn't shy about throwing his weight around.
Depending on the situation, Levy could reportedly come across as
either hail-fellow-well-met or very much a bully. 1n 1975, he beat
up a plainclothes police officer, causing serious injury. His connections
were such that the matter never came to trial! During the thirty-plus
years he spent selling music, allegations flew in his direction
from all quarters: that he threatened to ruin artists' careers if
they didn't do as he wished; that he short-changed artists on royalties;
that he never wrote a song in his life, yet put his name to numerous
hits; that he bootlegged records on the side. He was implicated
in the "payola" scandal of 1959-60 and narrowly escaped
indictment by a grand jury. Levy's most high-profile dispute occurred
in 1978; he tangled in court with John Lennon over unreleased material
he believed he had the right to market - mistakenly, as it turned
out. The feds were constantly after him for one thing or another
(and in 1988, they finally convicted him of extortion). Still, Morris
Levy had his defenders, and not all of them were Mafiosi. "I
might not have received every cent of my royalties due", '60s
superstar Tommy James told Discoveries Magazine after Levy's
death, "but when (I) had a record out, I knew that it would
always get priority treatment because of Morris".
He was born in 1927 to one of the last Jewish families still residing
in Harlem. During the 1920s and '30s, Harlem was
the jazz capitol of the United States, and Levy grew up loving the music.
He worked on the fringes of the jazz world for years, eventually becoming
manager and then owner of several New York nightclubs. In 1949, he hit
the big-time after opening Birdland. It became a Mecca for the cream
jazz talent: Count Basie, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis,
Billie Holliday, and the club's namesake, Charlie "Yardbird"
Parker, all headlined there. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner,
Sammy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn Monroe flocked to Birdland, too. The atmosphere
was very exciting, very glamorous, and (allegedly) very mob-connected.
Levy got involved in the manufacturing side of the music business in order
to record his Birdland acts, as well as claim a hefty chunk of their song
income via Patricia Music, his publishing company. The standard "Lullaby
of Birdland", written by George Shearing, was one of his earliest
and most lucrative copyrights. After the Roulette takeover, several Tico
artists suddenly "decided" to record it. Such conflicts-of-interest
were typical of the way he did business: in addition to running Roulette
and its sister labels, and publishing the songs his artists wrote, he
had a hand in jukebox distribution!
Ethical lapses notwithstanding, Levy did know how to package and move
inventory, and Tico Records definitely benefited from his knowledge. Everything
about Tico started looking more professional after the company relocated
to Roulette's office suite at 1631 Broadway. Photography for album sleeves
looked sharper, informative liner notes (usually in both English and Spanish)
replaced the catalogue list printed on the backs of early releases, and
songwriter and publishing credits started appearing on albums for the
first time. Many Tico albums got a second lease on life in the form of
budget reissues on Roulette's Forum subsidiary. In subsequent years, some
of the more jazz-oriented Tico sessions would appear on Roulette proper
- for example, Tito Puente's Bossa Nova and My Fair Lady albums, and
Machito's critically-acclaimed set Kenya. To his credit, Morris Levy
preserved Tico's Latin orientation, and didn't try to hedge his bets by
making it a jazz label. As always, jazz was a major influence, but danceable
Latin sounds remained the order of the day.
Bandleader Rafael "Ralph" Seijo became Tico's new head of A
& R. During his brief tenure, Tico signed and released albums by venerable
Latin pianist Noro Morales, Argentinean tango king Astor Piazzola, café
society bandleader Fernando "Caney" Storch, future "Mission
Impossible" theme composer Lalo Shifrin, and Marco Rizo, music director
for the "I Love Lucy" TV show. More aggressively than George
Goldner, Seijo tried to diversify the catalogue beyond mambos and cha-chas,
recording artists from Argentina, Mexico and Spain who performed in their
traditional styles. Marco Rizo, Machito and Pete Terrace each contributed
an album to a Seijo-conceived series that put a Latin-American spin on
great North American standards by the likes of Cole Porter and Irving
Tico artists kept Bell Sound buzzing with activity, and in the
years just prior to Fidel Castro's takeover, a few recording sessions
were also held in Cuba. Albums were issued in "dynamic stereo"
for the first time. Pete Terrace expanded his quintet into a full
orchestra, and arguably cut some of his finest dance tracks under
Ralph Seijo's supervision, among them "Chanchullo," "Broadway
Mambo" and "Cha-Cha-Chá In New York". Seijo
could also pull together a mean cha-cha compilation - you'd be hard-pressed
to find better collections than his 1959 releases, In The Land
Of Cha-Cha-Chá and I Dreamt I Danced The Cha-Cha-Chá.
He made it awfully hard to believe that Tito Puente was no longer
a Tico artist, because he did such a good job of compiling new Puente
albums from old tracks! Ralph Seijo departed Tico around 1960 for
the chance to record his own orchestra on the Somerset label, just
as the pachanga craze was beginning to take Latin music by storm.
It was left for Teddy Rieg, Roulette's head of jazz A & R, to
shepherd the label's artists into the swinging '60s. Despite the
fact that rock 'n' roll's growing popularity was taking an ever-larger
bite out of Latin music's consumer base, it would prove to be Tico's
most successful decade.
Picture research by Stuffed Animal,
Tony Rounce, Malcolm Baumgart, Richard Havers, Leonardo Flores,
Phil Milstein, Rat Pfink and Jeffrey Glenn.