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Condensed together in one single disc, the greatest hits by the legendary orchestra known as the Fania All Stars paint a vivid picture – in bold, stark colors – of the salsa explosion that shook Latin music during the ’70s and ’80s.
The concept itself sounds hopelessly naive: expecting the greatest singers, instrumentalists and bandleaders of an entire genre to leave all egos aside and collaborate harmoniously in the creation of a swinging mega-band. Sometimes, however, miracles happen. The Fania All Stars did become a reality, and everyone involved had a grand time recording and touring the world together. To this day, they still offer the occasional concert, the few standing veterans, smiling to the sounds of “Quítate Tú,” remembering the days when they changed the music industry together. Cheo Feliciano’s smoldering “Anacaona” sums up the power of the Fania All Stars live experience.
Recorded at the Cheetah club during the night that officially launched the New York salsa explosion, this concert version is as powerful as the original studio gem that marked Feliciano’s 1971 return to form after an extended hiatus. Cheo is surrounded by some extraordinary talent: Larry Harlow duplicating the album’s fiery piano solo; Ray Barretto on congas; a magnificent coro section including Santos Colón, Ismael Miranda, Adalberto Santiago and Héctor Lavoe. Lavoe himself contributed generously to the All Stars mystique. A composition by the orchestra’s ever smiling musical director, Johnny Pacheco, “Mi Gente” became a higlight of their live shows. Lavoe also participated on many of the outfit’s studio recordings. “El Rey de la Puntualidad” pokes fun at the singer’s habit of arriving hours late anywhere he went.
Framed by a lovely charanga orchestration, “Isla del Encanto” is a love letter to Lavoe’s beloved Puerto Rico. The Fania All Stars had many kings, but only one queen. In fact, it was through the All Stars that Cuban diva Celia Cruz confirmed once and for all that she was meant to be salsa royalty. Performed with the intensity of a melting volcano, the 12 minute-long “Bemba Colorá” from the Yankee Stadium extravaganza, is arguably the most transcendental moment in Celia’s career, a master class in Afro-Caribbean intensity. She also contributed hit singles to the band, adapting the Gipsy Kings’ poppy anthem “Bamboleo” to the tropical field with impeccable taste.
By the time we reach the exhilarating rendition of “Azuquita Mami” recorded live in Puerto Rico, it’s 1994. Pete ‘El Conde’ Rodríguez is still in top vocal shape, and the velvety solo by Sonora Ponceña’s piano genius Papo Lucca brings tears to the eyes. The smoky vocalizing of veteran Puerto Rican sonero Ismael Rivera on “Bilongo” and the evocative poetry of Panamanian troubadour Rubén Blades on “Juan Pachanga” complete a picture of the Fania All Stars as an indestructible machinery of Afro-Caribbean wonder. An organization that allowed its many members to express the best of themselves with freedom and good humor. These greatest hits, sure enough, are just the tip of the iceberg.