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A MAN AND HIS MUSIC – THE PLAYER
Born William Anthony Colón Román on April 28, 1950, Willie Colón almost single-handedly redefined salsa as a movement and way of life. Originally a trumpeter and a self-taught trombonist, his lack of technical virtuosity did not hinder him from becoming salsa’s trombone icon par excellence. A native Nuyorican, Colón grew up in the 1960s and unavoidably, some of the turbulence of the era was reflected in his music and personal life. He led his own ensembles practically from the start, and his talent was first spotted by the visionary Al Santiago, the owner/manager of the legendary Casa Alegre Record Store and founder of the Alegre Records label. (Colón was once Al’s employee and first met his future signature vocalist Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez, a.k.a. Héctor Lavoe, in the store.)
His album debut for Santiago’s Futura label was never realized as financial mayhem led Santiago to fold. However, the master tapes came to the attention of Johnny Pacheco at the nascent Fania Records label, whose keen ears spotted a diamond in the rough. Pacheco didn’t hesitate; he signed the band on the spot. The rest, as some would say, is history. With a prolific career spanning more than 40 years, Willie Colón is still a leading force within the Latino community. This set, produced with the direct input from the maestro himself, proudly illustrates some of its definitive milestones. Disc One 1. The Hustler – The title track of Willie’s 1968 Fania follow-up demonstrates the developing identity of his band. The approach is more confident, yet there is still the raw quality of their debut “El Malo”. Hear an 18-year-old and future Fania All Star Nicky Marrero marking his territory with a stunning performance on timbales. The late Mark Dimond, an extremely gifted talent who lost his way amidst the turmoil of the time, was the new piano player. In addition to The Hustler, he played on Guisando and Cosa Nuestra before forming his own band in 1970.
The 18-year-old Willie was yet to develop his own style on trombone, but at this stage in his career it was all about guts. Apparently it was the influence and inspiration of Barry Rogers and Mon Rivera, together with the loss of his trumpet skills through abuse of the higher register a la Roy Román, which prompted his switch to trombone. 2. El Malo – The tough guy has arrived…and he’s got the guts (and heart) to prove it! This was Willie’s calling card from his 1967 debut album on Fania. Legend has it that it was older musicians mocking Willie’s limited range on the trombone at the time who bestowed the moniker “El Malo”. However, he capitalized on it and built a tough, street smart image around him, giving the nickname a whole new significance. His band at this point, also criticized and stigmatized as amateurish, consisted of future legends in their raw form, like bassists Eddie “Guagua” Rivera and Joe Santiago (formerly a trombonist), percussionists Nicky Marrero, Mario Galagarza and Pablito Rosario, and pianist Dwight Brewster. Héctor Lavoe, joining the band at Johnny Pacheco’s recommendation, perfectly complemented Willie’s initial rough and edgy approach to the music. New York’s Latin scene would never be the same. 3. El Titan – The band’s sound displays a growing maturity here. Check how the brass section switches places with the bass/piano accompaniment at one point as the latter duo takes over the main melody while the trombones lock in with the rhythm. 4. Che-Che Colé – Willie’s rise to fame resulted from this breakthrough single (included in 1969’s Cosa Nuestra), an adaptation of a Ghanaian kiddie song set on top of an ingeniously constructed bomba/calypso mix. The popularity of this song led to further rhythmic experiments from the laboratory of Colón and percussionists Milton Cardona and José Mangual Jr. (both debuting on this album), which they dubbed “Wacco rhythms”, including 1970’s “Ghana’ E”, 1973’s “El Dia De Suerte” and the following track… 5. Panameña – This song from Willie’s sixth Fania release The Big Break (1970) marked a very important turning point in his early career. All it took was the daring insertion of a Puerto Rican aguinaldo bridge and chorus into what was meant to be a Cuban danzonete for all hell to let loose.
Bringing traditional jibaro folkloric music – dismissed by most young Nuyoricans back then as old folks’ music – into the salsa stew was viewed by many as a slap in the face of many musicologists who maintain up to today that salsa is just an umbrella term to market Cuban music. Willie’s pan-American approach to salsa – instead of purely Afro-Cuban, as was the norm then – caused so much of a stir that it prompted a redefinition of the genre. It took bandleaders as progressive as Willie, such as Eddie Palmieri and his fusions with jazz and African-American soul and Richie Ray’s takes on Puerto Rican jala-jala (a rhythm purportedly invented by Roberto Roena), to push the envelope for good. His bad boy image also got a boost from Izzy Sanabria’s magisterial album cover concept for The Big Break. Izzy employed cheap 25-cent pics of Willie and random fingerprints from a “most wanted” sheet to portray him as an FBI fugitive – well, a fake FBI, as in Freaks Bureau of Investigations. The advertising and the original artwork made so much of a commotion that the real FBI demanded that Fania Records remove the “Wanted by FBI” tag from the cover.
Daring music and daring advertising combined to create a totally rewarding success. 6. La Murga – Willie’s exploration of Puerto Rican folkloric music reached its apex on 1970’s Asalto Navideño, Volume 1, another landmark album. By adding the traditional cuatro puertorriqueño to the mix (in the expert hands of Roberto García and seasoned veteran Yomo Toro, who made his salsa debut on this session) and revisiting traditional Christmas songs adapted to the band’s format as well as new songs written for the occasion, Willie and company closed the gap between the Puerto Rican communities in New York and the island. And, with this salute to Panama, the high point of the album, they expanded the party to all Latinos in the USA and beyond. 7. Piraña – Disguised under its apparently easy-going feel lies one of the cleverest and most creative arrangements ever heard in a salsa song. If you listen closely to this track from 1972’s El Juicio, Willie’s trombones actually dialogue with Lavoe’s voice in typical call-and-response fashion during the main theme. After the trombone section’s opening quote from Tizol’s jazz standard “Caravan”, try identifying the song snippets as they interact with the singer? Professor Joe Torres’ tasty piano solo provides the icing on the cake. 8. Soñando Despierto – Bad boy fame had its consequences. Conguero Milton Cardona, recalling those days, says that to be a Willie Colón band member you had to be both a musician and a good fighter, literally, as some of their gigs actually ended up in brawls. The combination of Willie’s low-tolerance temper and Héctor’s in-your-face (agitador) savvy reputedly added to the volatile climate. Tite Curet Alonso relates that during one of the band’s many gigs in New York, an elderly man approached Lavoe and asked if the band could play a danza. Puzzled by the request, Lavoe whispered to Willie: “What’s wrong with this jibaro guy?” without realizing that he was being overheard. The jibaro got understandably angry and beat the hell out of Héctor. Hence Héctor’s brash dedication over the Puerto Rican danza bridge to this track from 1972’s El Juicio: “Para ti, mother… flower”. The guy got his danza request at the end! 9.Calle Luna, Calle Sol – From 1973’s top selling album Lo Mato, this tune proved to be particularly controversial. While the lyrics stay true to Willie and Héctor’s style of narrating everyday barrio life, many salseros in Puerto Rico’s capital city were unhappy with the depiction of the two Old San Juan streets mentioned in the song title. Many residents of the notorious La Perla area were enraged by the implicit stigmatization of their neighborhood in Lavoe’s soneo: “Dile que fuiste a La Perla y pela’o te han deja’o” (“Tell ‘em you went to La Perla and they left you penniless”).
Nevertheless, the tune became a big hit for the duo. In more recent shows, Willie’s opts for political correctness by substituting The Bronx for La Perla whenever he sings the soneo in Puerto Rico. 10.La Banda – Fania sprinkled the 1973 Christmas season with five albums involving most of their top artists. Sonora Ponceña recorded in Puerto Rico; Cheo Feliciano had a virtual Fania All Stars reunion for his release; Ismael Miranda and Adalberto Santiago appeared as guests on Impacto Crea’s session; Santos Colón delivered a romantic album; and of course they asked Willie to serveup a second helping of his successful Christmas stew. Willie’s two Asaltos are still widely regarded as the top Christmas salsa albums of all time, and more than 30 years after their original release they are still Fania’s top sellers. 11.Junio ’73 – Willie’s original band was at its peak at the time Lo Mato was recorded. Check out Barry Rogers’ ghost cameo on trombone here, taking over Eric Matos’ seat for this song and, in master/protégé mode, setting up Willie as they trade bars and leads. (Willie revealed this previously unknown fact during the preparation of this project.) Louie Romero crowns the number with a ruthless timbale explosion. Lo Mato was recorded in two sessions. The credits printed on the original album jacket are for the first session; the second coincided with those of Asalto Navideño, Volume 2 and included Yomo on cuatro and Adalberto Santiago subbing for Justo on coro. Notably, Willie also adds background vocals to the recording. 12. Pena De Amor – For this experimental session from 1975’s There Goes The Neighborhood, Willie teamed up with the dean of the trombone sound: Mon Rivera. Straight out of prison at the time, Rivera was not only a pioneer of the trombone frontline, but also one of New York’s foremost authorities on the Afro-Boricua tradition. It was only fitting that Willie rescued Rivera’s legacy for the new generation with this session, which resulted in Rivera landing a recording deal with Vaya Records. Another Latin legend, Francisco “Kako” Bastar, guested on the recording playing timbales and quinto. Willie backed Rivera on his final session, 1978’s Forever, which was released posthumously. 13. MC2 – 1975’s The Good, The Bad, The Ugly is Willie’s transitional album par excellence. After breaking up his original band, Willie came back with a totally experimental session, expanding his frontline with trumpets and saxes, flirting directly with Brazilian, flamenco, rock and jazz/funk influences and debuting as a solo vocalist on three tracks. MC2 is a daring funk-meets-Latin experiment with Yomo’s cuatro sharing the spotlight against Elliott Randall’s rock guitar. Mangual Jr.’s bongo work adds extra fireworks. This song and the following two tracks are deliberately sequenced to showcase the evolution of Willie’s big band approach. 14. Apartamento 21 – 1977’s Baquiné De Angelitos Negros, a salsa-ballet written for a TV special, saw Willie developing the concept he began in ’75 by adding a string section and more complex arrangements into the mix. This rather sophisticated percussion jam was the high point of the album and its only single. Cardona truly takes command of this song with his melodic approach on his three congas and his interaction with bongosero Mangual Jr. 15. Juancito – It was hard to choose just two songs from the Solo album, but this tour de force just had to be included. Willie not only delivers a stunning performance as a singer and arranger, but he also raises his game as a composer with one of his most impressive lyrical narratives, telling the tale of a young and naïve campesino as he moves to New York City and struggles his way to prosperity.
Check out Mauricio Smith’s flute virtuosity and Nestor Sánchez’s outstanding tenor voice in the background vocals. Disc Two 1. Chinacubana – Willie’s big band explorations climaxed on 1979’s Solo, which also marked his official debut as a solo singer. Sure, there were strings in Latin music long before this session, but this was the true birth of the “symphonic salsa” concept. Solo also marked the end of his gangster look, as he clean shaved and left behind the bad boy image for good, or at least for the rest of the ’70s. 2. Zambúllete – Willie and Celia Cruz’s first collaboration Only They Could Have Made This Album (1977) proved to be a challenge for both performers. This was an unprecedented opportunity for Celia to showcase her versatility and extricate herself from the mighty shadow of her Sonora Matancera fame, perpetuated in her recordings with Johnny Pacheco’s Tumbao. Willie viewed this pairing with Celia as his formal inclusion in the big league. Catering to her style without losing his musical grip was a challenge in itself. Here he prescribes Celia a dose of Panamanian tamborito for another of his pan-American salsa fusions. Check out the bass work from Sal Cuevas, whose name was mistakenly omitted from the album’s credits. 3.Pedro Navaja – Willie and Rubén’s second collaboration, 1978’s Siembra, was the first salsa album to sell a million units and is still widely regarded as the best selling salsa release ever. All seven songs on the album were strong hits, especially the title track, “Pedro Navaja” and “Buscando Guayaba”, where Rubén’s now famous scat solo filled-in for a missing Yomo Toro. Rubén’s tale about Fania bosses Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci disliking the album before it hit the record stores is now famous. According to Blades, Pacheco complained that the lyrics in “Pedro Navaja” were too long to consider the number for single release.
Needless to say, Willie and Rubén proved them both wrong because this track, “Siembra” and “Plastico” (a parody-style ode to materialism and shallowness), although not necessarily fitting Pacheco’s idea of danceable music, became classics. 4. Siembra – Arranger Carlos Franzetti had double work on the album’s title track. After delivering the original chart he was then asked to write a strings score overnight. According to Jimmy Delgado, timbale player for this set, the song ended up being recorded faster than intended thanks to Sal Cuevas deliberately accelerating the tempo because he was in a hurry to make it to jinglerecording session! 5. Biata – Ismael Miranda made a triumphant return to salsa after a brief retirement by teamingup with Willie for 1980’s Doble Energía, from which this track originates. Despite heavy pressure to deliver the project within deadline – hence Willie not being wholly satisfied with the result – he bought the best out of Miranda’s vocal range. “Biata” is one of the experimental tracks of the session, with heavy strings dominating the impressive mix of 6/8 batá drumming, rumba, bomba and rock inflections. 6. Amor Verdadero – This and the following cut are from Willie’s 1981 bestselling solo followup Fantasmas. The overwhelming popularity of “Amor Verdadero” – an experimental fusion of Dominican merengue with the hustle/disco beat – virtually obligated him to attempt to emulate its success on further recordings like “Amor Barato” and “Noche De Enmascarados”, both penned by Brazilian composer Chico Buarque. 7. Toma Mis Manos – Willie’s lyrics on this cut are simply a masterpiece. For most of the song we get the impression that an over-confident Latin lover is narrating the story, however the seducer turns out to be none other than Death itself. Even more stunning is the fact that the inspiration for this song was the unexpected death of Willie’s only sibling: sister Cindy, who sang background vocals in some of his late ’70s sessions. 8. Juanito Alimaña – The 1983 album Vigilante was promoted as the soundtrack for a Fred Williamson movie in which Willie portrays a ruthless gang member, unavoidably returning him to his young Malote image. The four-song album marked the reunion of Willie with his compadre and former singer Lavoe.
It was released after Willie and Rubén’s infamous split and following their movie, Masucci’s The Last Fight (1982), which flopped and put Fania in serious financial trouble. Lavoe sings a soneo in “Juanito Alimaña” about the funeral of Rubén’s ever-popular character Pedro Navaja, which many regarded as a subliminal hint. Rubén’s decision to resuscitate the character for his 1985 song “Sorpresas” fuelled further speculation. 9. Corazón Guerrero – This is the title track of the rather obscure 1983 follow-up to the popular Fantasmas album. A clearly non-commercial release, this album only yielded two singles: the hit “Casanova” and this track, where Willie lets loose on trombone for the last time – for Fania, that is! 1982 to ’83 was a very active period for Willie. Besides Vigilante, The Last Fight and Corazón Guerrero (and several outtakes from The Last Fight morphing into further Rubén “solo” releases for Fania after he left the label), Willie and his band produced two sessions outside Fania Records. 10. Callejón Sin Salida – This cut emanates from Willie’s farewell album for Fania, 1984’s Tiempo Pa’ Matar – and he pulled-out all the stops. Salsa meets reggae roots!! With a large, star-studded cast that included the late piano great Jorge Dalto, this album yielded the ever-popular hits “Gitana” and the title track, as well as the lead single “Falta De Consideracion”. 11.Un Bembe Pa’ Yemayá – Celia and Willie’s The Winners was the last pairing of these two salsa icons, and yielded a Grammy nomination. Willie convened a deluxe five-trombone section (Barry Rogers, Steve Turre, Papo Vázquez, Leopoldo Pineda and Lewis Kahn) for a largely conventional session tailor-made for Celia. 12. Nunca Se Acaba – Fittingly, this collection concludes this with a bold declaration of principles from 1989’s “Top Secrets”, Willie’s very last album for Fania (actually his own production, licensed to Fania in the US) presenting his current band Legal Aliens. A call for Latino pride and a confirmation of his salsa icon status, Willie tells the listener that, no matter how many new musical idioms pop out of nowhere, salsa is far from being a sound from the past. And keep in mind that this statement comes from a guy who, in his own way, has tackled many of these idioms as they have come and gone. As long as bold musical forces like Willie Colón continue to deliver good music for the mind, as well as for happy feet, salsa music will be here to stay. La salsa nunca se acaba…
Willie Colón at a photo shoot for the LP The Original Gangster.Willie Colón
Courtesy of Miguel Lopez Archives