STORY OF GEORGE GOLDNER AND TICO
Az˙car Pa' Ti
EDDIE PALMIERI, CELIA CRUZ & LA LUPE
The pachanga dance craze had a tremendous impact on the sound of
Latin New York, as evidenced by the large number of pachanga albums
released during the early '60s, both on major and independent labels.
The dance was a high-energy mix of merengue and cha-cha-chá
rhythms. Flute-and-violin charanga bands dominated the scene,
and none were more popular than those led by pianist Charlie Palmieri
and percussionist-turned-flautist Johnny Pacheco. Both Palmieri
and Pacheco recorded for Al Santiago's Alegre label, which would
later be bought out by Roulette. However, for the time being, Alegre's
artists were competition, and Teddy Reig had to keep his artists
viable in the marketplace. Soon, he had signed charangas led by
Rosendo Rosell, Pupi Legarreta, and Alfredito Valdés, Jr.
Though Alfredito chose to abandon his solo career in order to join
Machito's Afro-Cubans, his George Goldner-supervised album was so
popular, it rated a reissue in 1969. Reig also revamped the orchestras
of Machito, Pete Terrace, and Arsenio Rodríguez to fit the
pachanga mould. The playing of flautist Mauricio Smith was prominent
on most if not all of the recordings Tico cut during this period.
He got to strut his stuff under his own name in 1963 on an album
called Machito Presents Fluta Nova.
Even Tito Puente, returning to Tico after a frustrating five years
at RCA Victor, got a charanga-style makeover. His biggest contribution
to the pachanga craze was a song that would outlive it: "Oye
Cómo Va", introduced on his 1962 Tico album El Rey
Tito, Bravo Puente! It would become his most lucrative copyright
after Carlos Santana remade it as a Latin rock song in 1971. Despite
Puente's later statements to the contrary, it was also a sizable
hit in its original version. That said, another of Teddy Reig's
new signings, Ray Barretto, cut the only hit single on Tico that
most people remember from 1962.
While New York's Latino population was twisting hips and waving red handkerchiefs
to the rhythms of pachanga, the rest of America was caught up in teenage
dance crazes like the Twist, the Monkey, the Mashed Potatoes and The Watusi.
During this time, the pop charts were bursting with dance records by artists
like Little Eva, Chubby Checker, Major Lance and Joey Dee and The Starlighters.
Latin music was dance music, after all, so it made sense for Tico to
try and cash in on the trend.
However, Ray Barretto was the last person you would've expected to cut
a pop record; he wasn't oriented in that direction at all. Like Joe Loco,
he had as much jazz background as Latin, if not more. In the '50s, he'd
played on dates with Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Cannonball Adderly, Herbie
Mann and a host of other jazz greats. His conga playing was one of the
major attractions on Tito Puente's final recordings for RCA Victor. He
emerged as a bandleader in his own right in 1961, cutting pachanga music
for the Riverside label. With his band, Charanga Moderna, he came to Tico
the following year and scored big with his very first album. Noting the
word "Watusi" in the title of one of the twelve tracks he'd
cut, Teddy Reig chose it as the single, hoping that teenagers would take
notice. They did, and it's not hard to figure out why.
The record begins with the crack of handclappings at six-beat intervals
while Alfredito Valdés, Jr. plays a wicked piano vamp. Then,
like three hip Puerto Rican guys rapping on a street corner, Barretto's
vocal group, consisting of Wito Kortwright on lead, with Pete Bonnet
and Goody Basora on back-up, makes with some groovy Spanglish dialogue
over a sizzling pachanga beat. That beat proved so irresistible,
English-only speakers had no trouble being seduced by it. Clearly
a precursor of rap music, but far more danceable than most rap records,
"El Watusi" helped change its namesake from a line dance
into a booty-wagging showpiece for go-go girls and beach bunnies.
It broke Top Twenty on both the pop and R & B charts, sending
Morris Levy and Teddy Reig into fits of sheer ecstasy. Unfortunately,
it sent Ray Barretto into a state of confusion regarding his musical
direction - so much so that he later expressed regret at having
cut the song. He felt pressured to duplicate its success, and spent
the rest of his time at Tico unsuccessfully trying to do so. However,
over the course of four albums, Barretto made an important discovery:
he didn't really like the sound of charanga bands! He added a brass
section to his 1964 album Guajira Y Guaguancó, setting
the stage for harder-edged recordings he'd begin making for Fania
Records three years later.
In 1963, Tico marketed twenty-two albums. Graciela got a long-overdue
showcase as a featured artist on Está Es Graciela,
an LP that exploits her twin talents for passionate bolero
singing and spicy double entendre. Lest anyone fear she was leaving
the Afro-Cubans for a solo career, Machito and Mario Bauzá
were on hand to provide high-profile musical backing. Puerto Rican
songstress and politician Ruth Fernández, Spanish show band
Los Chavales de España and former Tito Puente sideman Willie
Bobo joined the Tico family that year. Back from an extended gig
in California where he and Mongo Santamaría had helped vibraphonist
Cal Tjader tighten up his Latin chops, Bobo was already showing
strong signs of evolving into the fusion artist he'd ultimately
become. He and his jazz-oriented orchestra cut just one Tico album
session (Bobo! Do That Thing/Guajira was his first as a bandleader)
before moving on to Roulette, and then, Verve Records. There, Bobo
waxed cult favourites like "Spanish Grease" and the original
version of Santana's 1971 million-seller "Evil Ways".
Motion picture and singing star Miguelito Valdés stayed
a little longer. Signing him to Tico was certainly a coup for Morris
Levy and Teddy Reig; one of the most successful and respected stars
of Latin music, his career dated back to the late 1930s when he'd
co-founded the influential Casino de la Playa Orchestra in Cuba.
That group also gave the world Pérez Prado, the self-proclaimed
Mambo King. After migrating to the United States, Valdés
was a featured singer with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra and Machito's
Afro-Cubans. During the heyday of American movie musicals, he had
electrified the screen in films like Pan-Americana with his
exotic Cuban/Mexican looks, open-shirted sexuality and bombastic
conga drumming. Yet he was certainly more than a Hollywood pretty
boy; his rapid-fire vocal improvisations were amazing, and when
it came to the art of Afro-Cuban chanting, he had few equals. In
fact, Valdés had introduced the form to American popular
music in the '40s via Cugat waxings like "Babalú"
(the original!) and "Ana Boroco Tinde". The opportunity
to cut a reunion album with Machito brought him to Tico. He completed
that LP, a solo album recorded in Mexico with El Mariachi Tenochtitlán,
and another special project (which will be discussed later) before
resuming his international touring and acting career.
Pianist Eddie Palmieri came to Tico in 1964, just as Beatlemania
began spreading through the land. The younger brother of Charlie
Palmieri, he worked with Pete Terrace and Tito Rodríguez
prior to forming his Orquesta La Perfecta and signing to Al Santiago's
Alegre label. He rode the crest of the pachanga craze until Alegre
went bankrupt. Then Morris Levy bought his contract, and his next
scheduled Alegre album, Echando Pa'Lante, was issued on Tico
Records. He remained at Tico until the early '70s, scoring his biggest
hit with "Azúcar". At eight-and-a-half minutes,
it was the longest Latin dance tune ever released as a 45 rpm single
at that time.
"It was a hit before I recorded it", Palmieri told writer
David Carp in 1998. "I was already playing it all over town,
in Brooklyn, at the Palladium, (so) when I recorded it, I had to
record it the way we did it!" This presented Morris Levy with
a challenge. Here was a hit waiting to happen, but it was far too
lengthy by 1964 standards. However, he had an ace up his sleeve.
One of the most influential jazz deejays in New York was "Symphony
Sid" Torin, who hosted a Latin music show on WABC Radio. During
the '50s, Torin had emceed numerous live broadcasts from Birdland;
Levy knew him from those days. He called in a favour from Torin,
and the deejay promptly put Palmieiri's song in heavy rotation.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, and other radio stations
soon followed WABC's example. "'Symphony Sid' took it to the
hilt", Palmieri confirmed, "and I can never thank him
enough for that, (him and) Morris Levy". Foremost among other
jocks who pushed the record was Dick "Ricardo" Sugar,
still loyally waving the Tico banner after fifteen years. Also popular
in some R & B markets, "Azúcar" was the centerpiece
of Palmieri's 1965 album Azúcar Pa' Ti (Sugar For You).
His other Tico albums of note include the R & B-flavoured Justicia
produced by George Goldner, Champagne featuring the funky "African
Twist", Vamanos Pal' Monte with his brother Charlie as a musical
guest, and a critically-acclaimed concert disc, 1972's Live At Sing Sing,
recorded on site at the infamous prison with vocal accompaniment by the
Harlem River Drive Singers. 1967's Bamboleate, recorded with Cal Tjader,
was part of a special two album deal arranged by Morris Levy and producer
Creed Taylor in which Palmieri was loaned to Tjader's label, M-G-M, so
that the two could record another set, El Sonido Nuevo. Both LPs are
highly regarded. Palmieri, who later became the first artist to win a
Latin Grammy award, is noted for his tendency toward musical innovation.
Over time, he became one of Latin jazz's chief exponents. His band included
flautist George Castro, ace timbalero Manny Oquendo, singer Ismael Quintana
and trombonist Barry Rogers, who, in the '70s, would earn a reputation
as one of salsa's greatest arrangers.
Morris Levy acquired the brightest jewel in Tico's crown when he
succeeded in luring the great Celia Cruz to Tico in 1965. Famous
since the early '50s as lead singer of Cuba's highly regarded brass
ensemble La Sonora Matancera, she had defected with the band in
1960 in order to escape the Castro regime. After five years recording
with La Sonora for New York's Seeco label, she decided it was time
to pursue a solo career. However, after leaving La Sonora, her recordings
lacked the consistently strong musical backing she was accustomed
to. At Tico, she got just the sonic boost she needed - Tito Puente
and His Orchestra. Their first collaboration, Cuba y Puerto Rico
Son . . . (a reference to Cruz and Puente's respective ethnicities)
won critical acclaim in New York and across Latin America, as did
a dozen subsequent albums recorded with Puente, and with Mexican
bandleader Memo Salamanca.
The music was solid, but sales were not, and Cruz's time with Tico
proved to be a bittersweet experience for her. "I made eight
albums (for Tico) that went nowhere", she complained to Latin
Beat Magazine years later. "Nobody was promoting them!"
That's unlikely. Morris Levy was known as one of the best record
promoters in the business. For some reason, New York Latinos weren't
yet ready for what Cruz had to offer. Although she'd be proclaimed
Queen of Salsa in the 1970s, she was not the most popular female
act on the Tico roster during the '60s. That distinction belonged
to La Lupe.
A Cuban native who is barely remembered today in her homeland, La Lupe
is also unknown to most North Americans. However, her name still inspires
awe among a generation of Latin music lovers. La Lupe's approach to singing,
and to life in general, was passionate in the extreme. "(She) was
no ordinary singer", stresses John Ramos, a long-time fan. "Her
performances, including shouts of Ahí na má (loosely translated,
it means 'come closer to me, baby'), the kicking off of her shoes, the
ripping of her clothes, pulling her hair, biting her hands and arms, beating
herself and, at times, her musicians (!), laughing and crying while dancing
onstage, were unforgettable!" Lupe herself was known to say, "In
Cuba, they called me crazy". Many people in New York thought she
was insane, too, but many others considered her an artiste par excellence
who gave the most electrifying performances they'd ever seen. "(They)
were always awesome", Ramos confirms. "She was described as
a sado-masochist with a sense of rhythm". In order to experience
the full impact of La Lupe, you had to see her in person, but one record
comes close to capturing her dangerous sensuality: the malevolent rendition
of Little Willie John's much-covered hit "Fever" that she waxed,
as "Fiebre", for the Discuba label while she was still a resident
of Cuba is like a volcano erupting, so . . . well, so feverish that
it puts the Peggy Lee version to shame. Many believe it to be the definitive
interpretation of the song. La Lupe re-cut "Fever" on her 1968
Tico album Queen of Latin Soul.
Most Latin musicians of her era had extensive training in their craft.
Lupe Victoria Yoli had no musical training, just a teaching certificate
that she never used. Singing was her obsession - she wanted to be like
Olga Guillot, a Cuban grand diva whose personality came across on stage
as powerfully as her vocals did. After completing her teacher training,
Lupe gravitated immediately to the entertainment world. She joined a group
called Los Tropicubanos but couldn't get along with the other members,
and was soon asked to leave. Her talent and desire for a singing career
were both so strong, she managed to find success on her own.
In 1959, she landed a nightclub gig singing rock and pop songs
in Spanish. Her sets at Club La Red became the talk of Havana, and
if they were even half as outrageous as they became in subsequent
years, it's not hard to understand why. If legend is to be believed,
La Lupe recorded an album called Con el Diablo en el Cuerpo (With
The Devil In My Body), and then proceeded to act as if it were
so. Her stage performances became so scandalous that Fidel Castro
is said to have personally had her deported from Cuba! Whatever
the truth may be surrounding her departure from the island, it's
known that she made her way to New York in the early '60s and hooked
up with fellow expatriate Mongo Santamaría. He and producer
Orrin Keepnews were so taken with her raw vocal ability, they created
an album to showcase her, calling it Mongo Introduces La Lupe.
Released on the Riverside label in 1963, it caused quite a stir
in the Latin music community, and led to bookings at such venues
as the Apollo Theater and The Palladium.
Santamaría introduced her to Tito Puente, and much to his
consternation, she began appearing exclusively with Puente's orchestra
shortly thereafter. On the latter's recommendation and promise to
join her in the studio, Morris Levy offered her a Tico recording
contract in 1965. The first album release, Tito Puente Swings,
The Exciting Lupe Sings, became one of the fastest-moving items
in the catalogue, selling in excess of 500,000 copies, the equivalent
of a platinum record in the Latin music world. The album's eclectic
mix of pachanga, samba, pasodoble, merengue and bolero stylings
showed off La Lupe's high-voltage vibrato to excellent effect. Three
more Lupe/Puente collaborations followed and, for the next two years,
polls declared her Latin music's most popular female vocalist. Both
the bandleader and his new star vocalist had volatile temperaments,
and this eventually ended their association; but by then, Lupe had
enough of a fan base to sustain a solo career. Her Tico albums and
singles were snatched up like twenty-dollar bills and, while the
recordings had considerable merit, it was unquestionably her notorious
reputation that initially made them sell.
Her lifestyle, like her stage show, was extravagant - only the most ostentatious
cars, jewellery, clothing and living quarters would satisfy her. La Lupe's
flamboyance made her the first Latin singer to draw a large gay following,
many of them young Puerto Rican males. Consequently, she became a sensation
in Puerto Rico, especially after she exposed herself during an appearance
on Puerto Rican television and was banned. She grew to be so famous in
New York, she also was tapped to appear on North American variety shows
like Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett where, presumably, her performances
were less revealing. In addition to her striptease act and fits of physical
violence, audience members might see Lupe fall into deep trances onstage.
A devout follower of the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santería,
she claimed to be in constant communication with Changó, Ochún,
Yemayá and other orishas (saints). This supernatural aspect only
added to the mystique that mesmerized her fans. Yet, her religious convictions
were perhaps a little too intense: the ritual candles she lit each night
twice burned down her home!
Picture research by Stuffed Animal,
Tony Rounce, Malcolm Baumgart, Richard Havers, Leonardo Flores,
Phil Milstein, Rat Pfink and Jeffrey Glenn.