“Al, you’ve got to check these guys out” percussionist Mike Collazo and his brother urged. They wanted Al Santiago, owner and producer of Alegre Records, to check out a new band that was becoming the talk of the town. So they ventured over to The Triton Club in the Bronx to listen to Johnny Pacheco’s Charanga band. Pacheco had been playing flute and percussion for Alegre’s Charlie Palmieri orchestra off and on for the past five years prior to that. Upon listening to Johnny Pacheco y su Charanga and witnessing the effect this music had on the dancers, Al agreed to sign him up.
So in 1961, It was the first album released by Alegre and and ultimately became the top selling album ever produced by Al’s label. It was released at a perfect time for New York dancers to develop a new dance: La Pachanga; a dance coming out of Cuba that had taken New York by storm. This remarkable album, PACHECO Y SU CHARANGA, which features Elliot Romero on vocals, is a package of exciting music that comprises a nice blend of Pachangas, Son Montunos and cha-cha-cha’s. For Johnny Pacheco it was key because it kick-started the flautist/percussionist/producer’s career which ultimately brought him fame and fortune as a bandleader and as co-owner/producer of Fania Records. Pacheco went on to produce recordings by the biggest names in Latin music including Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades. The Pachanga sound and dance flourished in Cuba for many years before Pacheco introduced it to the New York crowd. Pachanga dancers were required to hop from one foot to the other while swaying to the music. Pacheco incorporated rhythmic violin riffs to accompany his electrifying flute solos. No horns were used.
RECORDANDO EL AYER is another of Pacheco’s many albums worth mentioning. It features Johnny, Celia Cruz, Justo Betacourt and Papo Lucca. It was a great follow-up release after the tremendous success of previous recordings by the combination of CELIA & JOHNNY. This time they are accompanied by vocalist Justo Betancourt who shares the spotlight with Celia and Papo. Justo is a Fania recording artist and bandleader in his own right. And how about the inclusion of the fabulous leader of Sonora Ponceña, Papo Lucca, on piano and musical arranger on four of the tracks while mastering the keyboard. This album opens strongly with the hit, “Besito De Coco”, an Ismael Rivera composition, followed by nine additional gems of equal quality. The unmistakable sound created by Pacheco is omnipresent in this album. Pacheco’s unique voice is quite evident backing up Celia on coro along with Ramon Rodriguez. To give the album a slightly different flavor Pacheco assigned Louie Ramirez and Jorge Millet to write arrangements without missing a beat. The very talented Sonny Bravo fills in on piano on “Se Que Tu” and “La Equivocada”. This swinging conjunto includes notable musicians Victor Venegas on bass, Louie Mangual on bongos, Johnny (Dandy) Rodriguez playing conga, and Ismael Quintana doing a splendid job on maracas. Charlie Rodriguez rounds out the fabulous conjunto on tres, along with the wonderful Luis ‘Perico’ Ortiz and Hector ‘Bomberito’ Zarzuela on trumpet. It sure has the makings of a great album not unlike releases by CELIA & JOHNNY in 1975 and TREMENDO CACHE a year later.
Born Juan Azarías Pacheco Knipping in the Dominican Republic, Pacheco and his family moved to New York when he was 11 years old. His first marriage ended up in divorce but gave Johnny the opportunity to meet Jerry Masucci, a divorce lawyer and former New York City cop who had taken a liking to Cuban music while stationed at Guantanamo Bay during the Korean War. The two of them hit it off and Johnny convinced Jerry to join him on a venture to create a dynamic record label. And in 1964, Fania Records was created. The rest and the incredible journey of Fania Records is historic. Sadly, in 2021, Johnny Pacheco lost his life battling pneumonia. He was 85 years old. —Bobby Marin