I first saw Ruben Blades at the offices of Fania Records around 1969, where he worked in the mail department. Fania execs Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco perceived Ruben to be the next sensation to join the first-class roster of Salsa artists and kept him close. It was recognized that Ruben had the distinguishing characteristic of sounding like the iconic Cheo Feliciano. Ruben, who was born in Panama City, was a graduate of the Universidad Nacional de Panamá with degrees in political science and had a position at the Bank of Panama while he studied law.
But Ruben anticipated a loftier career for himself and headed to Fania Records to put his plan into effect. For a while he lived with Fania artist Andy Harlow while familiarizing himself with the technique of the Fania stars. His recording career got underway in 1970 when he recorded his first solo album De Panama a New York with the orchestra of Pete Rodriguez for Alegre Records, a subsidiary of Fania Records. He sang, played percussion, and composed for this album and raised many eyebrows among Fania bandleaders. Ruben, who had political aspirations, returned to Panama where he earned his law degree. Upon his return, he performed with the Ray Barreto band and Orchestra Harlow. In due course Ruben’s career took a positive turn when he chose to collaborate with trombonist/bandleader Willie Colón. Ruben’s unique ability to compose songs with specific meanings, often political, was picked up by several Fania bandleaders, enhancing their careers by utilizing Ruben’s writing ability. In 1978, he wrote Héctor Lavoe’s huge money-maker “El Cantante,” which was the title of the biographical film starring Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. While working on a Héctor Lavoe album in 2007 this writer learned from an ex-girlfriend of Ruben’s (Paula C.) that he had written that song for his own use. She showed me the hand-written note and I displayed it with the Lavoe album artwork. Ruben presented the song to Fania leader, Johnny Pacheco, who turned it over to the team of Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón. “El Cantante” became Héctor’s preeminent song when he performed. His many fans immediately fell in love with the song, often singing along with the chorus (La-la-la-la-la-la-la), during performances.
In years to come, Ruben earned many awards, including nine Grammy Awards. He also performed with the Fania All Stars touring the world and composed dozens of hit songs. He made movies, dozens of them. He used his political proficiency to run for President of his native Panama.
In 1978, Ruben and Willie Colén recorded Siembra, Fania’s all-time biggest-selling album. In 1982, he starred in his first film, The Last Fight, In 1985, he co-starred in and co-wrote the film, Crossover Dreams. That same year, Ruben earned a master’s degree in International Law at the prestigious Harvard Law School and was interviewed on Sixty Minutes. In 1998, Ruben had a key role in the Paul Simon Broadway play, The Cape Man. Ruben is married to Luba Mason, a singer/actress of Slovakian descent who spent time in Panama working with music and theater students. She has a lovely voice and did a top-notch job in her recording, in Spanish, of the Tito Rodriguez classic, “Inolvidable.” Ruben still records and performs at concerts with his magnificent orchestra for his adoring fans all over the world. —Bobby Marin