By the time they released “Back To Back” in 1982, the dynamic Nuyorican duo of keyboardist Richie Ray and vocalist Bobby Cruz were fully devoted to the dissemination of Christianity through the feverish beat of Afro-Cuban music. The combination of upfront religious messages with salsa is not exactly something you encounter every day.

Add to it the classical influence in the keyboard playing of Richie Ray, who is always ready to borrow bits and pieces from his favorite masterpieces and turn them into salsa songs, and the result is an idiosyncratic sound brimming with personality and melodrama. It is interesting to note that the partnership between Ray and Cruz blossomed before they converted to Christianity. Their first big hit as a duo came as early as 1965 with the infectious Comején. And in 1970 they released Agúzate, one of the most transcendental albums in their career, focusing not on spirituality but on earth shaking party music.

Ray became a born again Christian in 1974, and for a while it seemed as if his decision would result in the permanent split of the duo. But Cruz soon followed Ray’s example. Their song Adiós A La Salsa bid goodbye to secular music, and from then on, those powerful coros and addictive moñas were performed with the purpose of focusing the listeners’ attention on the Gospel. The duo dives into biblical territory right after the bouncy opener “Coco Coquito”. Anyone familiar with the immortal works of Johann Sebastian Bach will recognize the dramatic intro of “Nabucodonosor”, a motif that returns halfway through the tune: Richie Ray’s spidery solo, which reproduces the ubiquitous melody from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, underscores the fun that can be had by modernizing the classics. Brass and percussion emphasize the majestic mood of the piece until the song erupts into a soulful chorus that combines male and female vocals. The soulful female choruses are a trademark of the entire session, courtesy of Ray’s wife Angie Maldonado and Cindy Grohowski. Grohowski duets with Cruz on the syrupy “Búscame”– perhaps the only track on this album that has not withstood the test of time as successfully as the other ones. “Tu Ausencia”, on the other hand, is a buoyant salsa jam. An impassioned Cruz vows not to forget the divine even though the manifestation of God may take a while to actually take place. Regresa ya que no soporto tu ausencia, he sings. Come back, Your absence is unbearable.

A smoldering timbales solo adds combustion to a tune that burns with the same power as Fania’s non religious material. On El Sonido de la Bestia, a record released two years before “Back To Back,” Ray and Cruz had demonstrated that they knew how to bring an album to its conclusion with an epic sort of feeling. Here, they do it again with “Señales”, one of the record’s most intriguing tracks. The duo focuses on the current sociopolitic events of the time by mentioning the Falklands war, then unleashes an implacable chorus: Y la tierra va a temblar. And the earth will tremble. The duo’s prophecy is biblical, sure enough, but the earth did indeed shake in 1982 on the strength of the piano solo that closes the record. Christian music has something of a reputation for sounding didactic, even a bit harmless. With “Back To Back,” the inimitable Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz proved that they could deliver a thoughtful religious message and a dynamite Afro-Caribbean session– all in the same album. For Christian salsa fans, it’s the best of both worlds.

Credits: Richie Ray – Acoustic Piano, Fender Rhodes, Casiotone, Claves Bobby Cruz – Maracas, Güiro Ken Grohowski – Drums Jose Madera – Conga, Bongo, Güiro Mike Collazo – Timbales Ray Maldonado – Trumpet, Flugel Horn Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham – Trumpet Solos (“Nabucodonosor”, “Caridad”) Mac Gollehon – Trumpet, Flugel Horn Lead Singer – Bobby Cruz Chorus – Richie Ray, Angie Maldonado, Cindy Grohowski, Ken Grohowski Producer – Ricardo Ray, Bobby Cruz Recording Engineers – Irv Greenbaum, Mario Salvati Mix Engineer – Irv Greenbaum Arrangements – Ricardo Ray, Bobby Cruz Recorded at – “La Tierra” Recording Studios, N.Y.C. Original Album Art Direction and Illustration – Rickey Ricardo Gaskins

Written By Ernesto Lechner