STORY OF GEORGE GOLDNER AND TICO
King of the Cha-Cha Mambo!
THE LAST GASP, FANIA & THE DEATH OF GEORGE GOLDNER
Between 1967 and 1972, the Machito, Ray Barretto and Eddie Palmieri
bands all said goodbye to the Tico family. Pancho Cristal did so
as well, leaving Art Kapper, Miguel Estivíl, Fred "Paco"
Weinberg and George Goldner to trade off production duties. Twenty-four
LPs hit the racks in 1968, but album output would diminish in subsequent
years. Curiously, Tico didn't phase out monaural album releases
until 1971; the rest of the music industry had gone "stereo-compatible"
three years earlier.
As the focus shifted from orchestras to individual singers, the
producers recruited an unofficial house band for musical accompaniment
purposes. It usually included Vinnie Bell on guitar, Sonny Bravo
on piano, Bobby Rodríguez on bass, Johnny Rodríguez
on bongos, Mikey Collazo on timbales and a brass section led by
Barry Rogers. Tito Puente's featured vocalist Santitos Colón
stepped into the spotlight with a pair of solo albums. Colón
had been singing with Latin bands since the late '40s, but didn't
make much of an impact until he joined Puente's orchestra in 1957.
He sang lead on Puente's very popular Dancemania albums for
RCA Victor, and from that point began to draw his own following.
A short, slight man with ferretlike features, Colón wasn't
the likeliest of candidates for stardom. However, his foghorn voice
had no problem cutting through a full-throttle dance arrangement
like "Babarabatíri", and it took on a sexy velvet
tone for boleros like "Imágenes". Marketing Santitos
Colón albums proved to be a sound financial move for Tico
Records; unfortunately, the same can't be said for releases by Sophy
Hernández and Shaun Elliot, two other vocalists Tito Puente
had occasion to employ.
Noraida Moré, widow of legendary Cuban sonero Beny Moré,
got an album deal and became the latest to benefit from a Puente
send-off. He did no less than produce her début, La Bárbara
del Ritmo Latino, and the reliable Charlie Palmieri contributed
arrangements. While it sold well enough to justify cutting a second
album, Me Voy A Desquitar (I'll Get Revenge), Noraida never
generated the kind of public sensation Tico had hoped for. Neither
did Puerto Rican singer/actress Nydia Caro, who was unsuccessfully
promoted as a sort of '60s-era Jennifer López. Hardly anyone
noticed when the label issued Yo Canto, the first stateside
album by international heartthrob Julio Iglesias;
however, Morris Levy shouldn't be judged too harshly for failing
to get Iglesias airplay so early in his career. It would take more
than a decade for the Spanish crooner to become popular in this
country, and even then he needed the help of superstars Willie Nelson
and Diana Ross!
People did take notice when yet another seminal figure from the
early days of Latin music came to call. At one time, singer/songwriter
Myrta Silva had been the toast of Latin America. Discovered singing
for pennies during the Great Depression by celebrated Puerto Rican
composer Rafael Hernández, Silva became the main attraction
of his Cuarteto Victoria. She performed with Hernández in
New York, Puerto Rico and Colombia to great acclaim, and cut sides
for RCA Victor. Migrating to Cuba in the '40s, she put together
a risqué repertoire comprised mostly of her own and Rafael
Hernández's compositions that made her a sensation in Havana
cabarets. She went on to precede Celia Cruz as featured girl singer
with La Sonora Matancera, and appear at special North-American events
like 1954's "Mambo/Rhumba Festival". Now Silva was a TV
hostess in her native Puerto Rico, but she returned to New York
long enough to bless the Tico catalogue with an album of her greatest
songs, The Author and Performer, and delight long-time fans with
her very own volume of Spanish Songs Mama Never Taught Me.
Collections of double entendre material invariably included
one or two tunes written by Arsenio Rodríguez. The blind
guitarist died on the last day of December 1969; his final Tico
album, Arsenio Dice (Arsenio Says), had been issued the year
before. Credited with originating the modern Latin conjunto
(the special combination of instruments that gave mambo its unique
sound), as well as composing many popular Spanish tunes, his influence
was inestimable. Arsenio Rodríguez's passing was mourned
throughout the Latin diaspora, as was that of Tito Rodríguez,
claimed by leukaemia in 1973. Los grandes Rodríguez
were both honoured with posthumous Tico compilations. Recordando
a Arsenio (Remembering Arsenio) features Ray Barretto, Joe Cuba,
Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri, Jimmy Sabater and Cortijo performing
some of his greatest hits. Nostalgia con Tito Rodríguez
collects some of the singer's finest work from the '50s. Around
the time these tribute albums were released, Joe Cain, the new A
& R head of Alegre Records, agreed to double his workload and
begin overseeing Tico recording sessions.
Cain brought Vicentico Valdés back to the label. Tito Puente's
featured vocalist of many years ago was now a bolero singer of great
renown. He had become a headliner in his native Cuba, appearing
with La Sonora Matancera and other groups. More recently, he had
enjoyed a string of romantic hits on Seeco Records, which, incidentally,
Cain had produced. The uncle of Alfredito Valdés, Jr, Vicentico
Valdés was fast becoming as revered as Pedro Vargas, Toña
la Negra and Pedro Infante, famous balladeers from Latin music's
Golden Age. His only true rival during the '60s was Tito Rodríguez,
and few people respected his talent more than Joe Cain. "You
could play a melody (for Vicentico)", the producer recalled
in an interview many years later, "(and) he'd pick it up immediately
. . . after he'd hear the chords, he'd be able to manipulate the
melody in such a manner that you'd think it was Sinatra or Sarah
Vaughan changing it around". Valdés wasn't the smoothest
of crooners, but his nuanced phrasing and Cain's evocative arrangements
make his Tico début, Vicentico, ideal late-night listening
for amorous couples. With lights turned down low, sultry songs like
"Yo Lo Haré", "Nuestros Ojos", "La
Calle" and "Llora, Llora" all but provide a glow-in-the-dark
path to the nearest bedroom!
Joe Cain also brought veteran arranger/composer and session pianist
Héctor Rivera to the label, five years after his underground
boogaloo hit "At The Party" had inspired many a festive
gathering. His second Tico album, Lo Máximo (The Greatest),
features Cachao's fluid bass lines and future salsa star Héctor
Lavoe on backing vocals. It sums up the sound of early '70s salsa
quite nicely, but is perhaps more notable for having some of the
most bizarre album art ever seen on a Tico release. Izzy Sanabria,
editor of Latin New York Magazine, conceived the cartoonish
depiction of Rivera as a naked colossus, scaling the Empire State
Building à la King Kong. As if to heighten the painting's
surreal quality, the infamous ape himself is shown (or is that supposed
to be Morris Levy?) clutched in Rivera's hand.
Seriously, Héctor Rivera's studio prowess always came in
handy on other artists' sessions, like those for La Lupe's 1969
album The Queen, so Tico got more than its money's worth
out of him. For example, he was a key player in the proceedings
when Joe Cain decided to revive the Tico All-Stars, team them with
the Alegre All-Stars, and record them in concert at Carnegie Hall
in May of 1974. The other participants in that historic date were
the Joe Cuba Sextet, Ismael Rivera and Los Cachimbos, Charlie Palmieri's
Orchestra, and an expanded version of Tito Puente's Orchestra. La
Lupe, Vicentico Valdés, Vitín Aviles and Yayo el Indio
were the featured vocalists, and there were special guest appearances
by Cachao, Candido and trumpeter Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros,
among others. There's some outstanding music to be found on the
recording: Puente's take on the 2001 - A Space Odyssey theme
is magnificent, as is Lupe's exuberant ode to "Changó",
and Charlie Palmieri dazzles with his organ improvisations. However,
a few too many cuts on Live At Carnegie Hall, Volume One
lack for excitement. Joe Cuba's performance of "Boom Boom Lucumí"
is uneven, Vicentico Valdés' singing on "Confusión"
never catches fire, and Ismael Rivera's rendition of "Dormir
Contigo" probably wouldn't have shaken many legs at The Palladium
Ballroom. Still, the event was a good excuse to get Tico's top talent
(minus Celia Cruz, who'd recently departed) on stage together for
the first time since the mid-'60s.
Cain had helmed an equally ambitious and more successful project
for Tito Puente in 1973. In an attempt to lend Latin dance music
a bit of classical ambiance, he assembled a twenty-two-piece orchestra
at Media Sound Studios. Charlie Palmieri guested on the date, and
the horn section was comprised mostly of jazz players. "Although
the majority of the arrangements were danceable", notes Puente
biographer Steven Loza, "a good part of the album was conceptualised
for the concert hall". Hence the title: Tito Puente and His
Concert Orchestra. Puente had flirted with jazz on a couple of
his RCA Victor albums, but this release initiated a much more aggressive
move toward the genre. It also reflected the stature he had earned
in the Latin music world. Most artists would've had trouble justifying
the expense of making an album like this. Tito Puente wasn't like
most artists. Since his days on the Palladium bandstand, he'd performed
all over the world and had become a veritable ambassador for Latin
music. Puente had managed to stay at the top of his profession for
25 years, and would do so for another 25. Morris Levy loved his
work, and gave him carte blanche to create whatever he wanted.
A new treatment of "El Rey del Timbal", a song he'd originally
recorded with George Goldner in 1951, emerged from the album to
become a radio hit. In 1978, Puente would provide Tico with its
last major success when his tribute album Homage To Beny Moré
won the label its first and only Grammy award.
The day finally came when the inevitable couldn't be delayed any
longer - Morris Levy had a tax liability he desperately wanted to
unload. Making what, in retrospect, was a shortsighted move, he
split off Tico Records and the Alegre catalogue from his other holdings
and sold them to attorney Jerry Masucci in 1975. Seemingly apprehensive
about the pending change of ownership, Joe Cain hastily compiled
several "Best Of" artist packages. He had reason to worry;
once Tico operations had shifted to Masucci's office complex at
888 Seventh Avenue, the lawyer dispensed with his services.
Bandleader Louie Ramírez subsequently took over A &
R duties for Tico and Alegre. Almost immediately, though, those
duties began to diminish. Writer David Carp has opined that Jerry
Masucci "scuttled the label to eliminate competition with (his
own record company) Fania". Most historians agree with this
assessment. Literally founded out of the back of a truck in 1964
by Masucci and Johnny Pacheco, Fania Records in the '70s was on
the cutting edge of the burgeoning salsa explosion. Ballsy, streetwise
releases by young Fania artists like Willie Colón, Héctor
Lavoe, Rubén Blades and Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez
were leading the way. Masucci bagged Celia Cruz just prior to the
takeover. Between 1975 and 1985, Tito Puente, Ismael Rivera, Jimmy
Sabater, Ritchie Ray and Bobby Cruz joined her at Fania's Vaya subsidiary,
where Cheo Feliciano was already thriving. Ray Barretto had been
in the Fania stable since 1967, Santitos Colón followed his
example in 1970, and Eddie Palmieri came on board in 1980. They
all became bigger stars than they'd ever been as Tico artists, and
their contributions helped turn Fania into the most successful Latin
music label ever.
However, some Tico artists didn't fit into Masucci's vision of
a salsa empire, and weren't able to make the transition. La Lupe,
unfortunately, was one of them. This is puzzling, because in her
heyday she was the certainly Tico's most cutting-edge act. Nevertheless,
Masucci seemed to prefer marketing compilations of her older recordings
to promoting her new ones. He liked Celia Cruz better as a singer,
and focused his energies on making her the salsa queen she deserved
to be. At the same time, a series of personal misfortunes - illness,
fire loss, bankruptcy - caused La Lupe to lose her momentum. She'd
always insisted on acting as her own booking agent, and by 1977,
her career was in shambles due to poor management. She gave one
of her last great performances that year, wowing a crowd of worshipful
fans at the Teatro Puerto Rico. Her repertoire that evening included
powerhouse renditions of "Qué Te Pedí" from
Tito Puente Swings, The Exciting Lupe Sings, and "Oriente",
her emotional tribute to the region of Cuba in which she was born.
In one of the great tragedies of Latin music, Lupe lost her fortune,
then her health, and finally, her life. The Queen of Latin Soul
died of heart failure in 1992 at the relatively young age of 53.
Thousands of Latin New Yorkers, many of them hysterical with grief,
gathered at La Iglesia de Díos in the Bronx to pay their
final respects. La Lupe's death coincided with the last gasp of
Tico Records. Its final release is believed to be a posthumous 1992
compact disc compilation of her hits.
Tico had ceased functioning as an active label long before that.
Though it was unable to survive the salsa era, that era would have
been inconceivable without its many contributions to Latin music.
Over its forty-year lifespan, Tico recorded Dominican merengues,
Mexican rancheras, Argentinean tangos, Colombian cumbias, Spanish
pasodobles and other styles, but judging by the way artists like
Trío Los Bandidos and Pepe Rico's Tango Orchestra failed
to renew their contracts, diversity of sound wasn't the label's
strength. What it did better than almost anyone else was sell Afro-Cuban
dance music with a Nuyorican (New York/Puerto Rican) flavour - the
foundation of salsa. And indeed, all of Tico's major artists are
respected as role models by today's salsa stars.
Disco and hip-hop music also have roots in the sound of Latin New
York; listening to Tico sides like "Mambo Mona (Mama Guela)",
"Chanchullo", "Oye Cómo Va", "El
Watusi", "Azúcar" and "Bang! Bang!"
leaves little room for doubt about that. Selected original albums
can sell for hundreds of dollars at auction, and reissue labels
are eager to mine the catalogue for new compilations of vintage
Latin music. Unfortunately, release rights have been in legal limbo
since Jerry Masucci's death in 1997, so scores of Tico master tapes,
reportedly stored in England at Abbey Road Studios, must gather
dust for the foreseeable future. For its high standard of musicianship,
the high calibre of its artists (nearly every major Latin star),
and the historical significance of many of its releases, Tico Records
rates as one of the most important music labels of the 20th century.
But of course, that can be said about several of the labels George
And what of George Goldner? He was in the process of starting yet
another new record company when he died of a massive heart attack
on April 15, 1970. According to Al Santiago, the circumstances of
his death were particularly tragic: "(He) died at a friend's
house after complaining about heart pains during his last recording
session. He refused to go (to the emergency room) because he lacked
medical insurance". What a sad irony, if true. One of the music
industry's most respected executives could bet $1,000 or more on
a long shot, yet he couldn't afford to pay for his own health care!
In a time period that spanned less than twenty-five years, George
Goldner founded over a dozen labels. In the process, he helped bring
acts like Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, The Shangri Las, Johnny
Rivers and The Isley Brothers to the public's attention. His most
famous and successful label was arguably Red Bird Records, headquartered
in the famous Brill Building, which he operated from 1964 to 1966
in partnership with Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Jeff Barry and Ellie
Greenwich. Among Red Bird's releases were monster hits like "Chapel
Of Love", "Leader Of The Pack" and "The Boy
From New York City". Yet the very first Red Bird single was
a number called "Mambito", performed by a Latin rock band;
Goldner never abandoned his first love. In late 1965, he launched
Cotique Records, another venture into Latin music that capitalized
on the boogaloo sound. Both Cotique and Tico outlived him, carrying
his belief in the commercial potential of Latin music into the '70s
Not unlike Morris Levy, who died of cancer in 1990, Goldner left
behind some enemies, but also many friends. "He was a wonderful
person", Red Bird staff producer George "Shadow"
Morton has said. "He was a creative man, and a businessman.
He did more for the foundation of rock than anyone".
Red Bird co-founder Jeff Barry states that, "George Goldner
was one of the few people in the music industry with genuine passion
for the product". The late Al Santiago praised him as "an
excellent record producer". Rock critic Bruce Eder noted that
he "discovered more talent, both in front of the microphone
and behind the scenes, than most producers get to record in a lifetime".
Because of his pioneering success with R & B vocal groups, George
Goldner earned the right to be called the king of doo wop music.
However, to lovers of vintage Latin sounds, he is more accurately
known by the name he inscribed on early Tico album releases: King
of the Cha-Cha Mambo!
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF JAMIE LePAGE
Special thanks to Dave Conn, Bill Osment, Charlie Stout and the
staff of The Music Exchange in Kansas City, Missouri, Chuck Haddix
and his staff at Marr Sound Archives/University of Misssouri at
Kansas City, Mike Callahan, Juan Ignacio Cortiñas, David
Edwards, Zeno Okeanos and Jeff Barry.
Picture research by Stuffed Animal,
Tony Rounce, Malcolm Baumgart, Richard Havers, Leonardo Flores,
Phil Milstein, Rat Pfink and Jeffrey Glenn.