JOE CUBA – EL ALCALDE DEL BARRIO

Chris Coyne

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JOE CUBA – EL ALCALDE DEL BARRIO



It was the evening of Sunday, February 15, 2009, when I was informed of the passing of Joe “Sonny” Cuba. Ironically, I had been working on these very liner notes at the time and had been speaking with him on a regular basis, seeking his input in preparation of this album. Regrettably, Joe suffered from a multitude of ailments and was not allowed the opportunity to appreciate this tribute to his works. Joe Cuba was born Gilberto Navarro on April 22, 1931, in Spanish Harlem, New York City, where his Puerto Rican parents had moved in the late ’20s. Due to the tough times of the Great Depression, his mother, Gloria, was forced to place Gilbert and his older brother, Jack, in a foster home after his father abandoned the family.

The following year, the boys were taken in by an Italian family, the Liottas from Staten Island, where they learned to enjoy suburban life. When Gilbert was five, his mom, who was a frequent visitor, remarried and reclaimed her children, much to the dismay of the Liotta family and the boys, who had grown accustomed to the lifestyle. Gilbert had picked up the nickname Sonny from Mrs. Liotta—who adored him and thought he was exceptionally bright—but he would soon take on the surname of his new stepfather, Miguel Calderón. In the coming years, Gilbert and Jack had to acclimate to life in Spanish Harlem. Luckily, their stepfather was a good man who owned a candy store on 115th Street in El Barrio, and Gilbert got to help out. Captivated by the conga playing of Sabu Martinez, Gilbert took the opportunity to learn the instrument while recovering from a broken leg suffered playing stickball. Gilbert jammed in the street until given the chance to replace Sabu for a few months in the local band La Alfarona X in 1950.

Shortly after, he joined Spanish Harlem’s Joe Panama Quintet, where Jimmy Sabater was a timbales player. After recruiting vibraphonist Tommy Berrios, Gilbert and the band had a falling out with Panama and formed the Cha Cha Boys with Gilbert Calderón as the bandleader. Much to his surprise, Gilbert would soon be billed as “Joe Cuba” by his promoter, Catalino Rolón, and the name would stick. Once fully established, the Joe Cuba Sextet lineup included Tommy Berrios on vibes, Nick Jiménez on piano and serving as arranger, Jules “Slim” Cordero on bass, and timbalero Jimmy Sabater sharing vocal duties with newly added Willie Torres. In 1965, Torres would leave the group to join José Curbelo’s orchestra, replacing Santos Colón who had left to join Tito Puente. José “Cheo” Feliciano took over Willie’s role in the Joe Cuba Sextet until 1966, when he left, only to be replaced by Willie Torres. The material on this two-disc compilation is truly exceptional. It includes recordings from the Seeco, Mardi-Gras, Tico, and Fania labels, providing you an accurate assemblage of Joe Cuba recordings never previously compiled in album form. Joe always felt that his music should be appreciated equally by the Anglo market as well as his countless Latin devotees and often employed English lyrics to appeal to his American and young Latino fan base. He unquestionably accomplished that with international hits like “Bang Bang” and “El Pito (I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia).” As architect of the Joe Cuba sound, Joe was adept at creating pure excitement in all of his 240 recorded titles. Few entertainers can claim to have performed at Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, Hollywood Palladium, Madison Square Garden, and the Caribbean Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, but Joe certainly could.

Listen to “Boom Boom Lucumi” and witness the electricity that Joe conveyed to his many fans whenever he performed. Joe had the innate ability to make those performing with him shine; they worked with maximum vigor while playing for the Joe Cuba Sextet. And Joe himself was always thinking a few steps ahead. I recall one occasion when, after remixing a tune with Joe, he pulled two three-inch speakers from a bag and asked the engineer, Jon Fausty, to play the final mix through these miniature speakers. In amazement, Jon and I stared at each other. “My fans listen to my music through portable radios on Orchard Beach,” Joe explained. “If the final mix sounds good through these speakers, it’ll sound great on the beach.” Jon and I learned a valuable lesson that day. The first time I saw Joe Cuba was at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. I was captivated by his performance and became an instant fan. Two years later, I found myself eagerly attending a rehearsal for his upcoming My Man Speedy! album in his home in Baldwin, Long Island, accompanied by my writing partner—vibraphonist, percussionist, arranger, and composer Louie Ramírez—who had informed me that Joe was looking for new material for an album. That following week, being in the presence of Jimmy Sabater, Willie Torres, Nicky Jiménez, and Slim Cordero became one of the highlights of my life. During his waning days, Joe worked on a manuscript depicting special incidents experienced during his fascinating journey through life. He unpretentiously felt a movie describing his life in El Barrio and escapades throughout his illustrious career would be of particular interest to the public. Hopefully, this will come to fruition some day. The Joe Cuba Sextet enjoyed life to the fullest. They joked, laughed, and teased each other constantly. I recall one evening when Sonny and Jimmy joined me at a cocktail party I had arranged for Brazilian vocalist Nelson Ned, who, despite his diminutive size, possessed a gargantuan singing voice. As Nelson stood and proposed a toast to his many admirers, Sonny whispered to me, “You’d think the guy would have enough class to stand up while addressing his guests.” That was Joe Cuba, his humor and passion for life both relentless and contagious—everyone wanted to be with him, around him, and a part of whatever he was into.

He led an extraordinary life and left behind a legacy of wonderful music for us to take pleasure in, as you will discover upon listening to this album. His presence will be eternally missed, but his spirit remains with those fortunate to have known him. The compilation opens with “Do You Feel It,” a song in which Joe’s exceptional narration expresses his exploits and eternal love for the place where he was recognized as “El Alcalde” (the mayor) of his beloved barrio in Spanish Harlem, New York City. This provocative cut from 1972’s Bustin’ Out features the superb singing of Ray Pollard, who gives a slightly pessimistic account of his days as a Black man wanting to leave El Barrio to find a better life. I took the liberty, with Joe’s blessing, of urbanizing this cut by doing some overdubbing and editing, giving the cut a more contemporary approach. When Willie Torres replaced the illustrious Cheo Feliciano as vocalist, the band didn’t miss a beat, as is illustrated superbly by Willie’s vocal on “Hey Joe, Hey Joe.” With the addition of Torres, an underrated singer and writer, the band went on to become one of the most sought-after acts, with Willie being a big part of the crossover sound that Joe Cuba is identified with. In 1964, “Bang Bang” was introduced during a Joe Cuba Sextet performance at New York’s Gardens Club (years before it became the celebrated Cheetah nightclub). During an intermission, Joe’s timbalero/vocalist, Jimmy Sabater, noticed a lack of interest in their music by the predominantly African American attendees. Jimmy approached Joe and pianist Nicky Jiménez with the idea of coming up with a sound that could get the spectators on the dance floor. What they came up with was the vamp you hear at the beginning of the tune. Jimmy bet Sonny a beer that it would work, and they opened up the set with it. From there, they winged it as they noticed the dance floor fill up and the dancers chanting “She freaks, ah! She freaks, ah!” during the musical breaks. The crowd was wild and wouldn’t let the band put an end to their fun, so they kept extending the song to the dancers’ delight. A phenomenon was created that night.

The following day, Joe called a rehearsal for the band with the idea of creating a proper arrangement for “Bang Bang,” in which he added “Bi bi, ah! Bi bi, ah!” to the mix. The next day, he had to convince Tico label owner Morris Levy to let him record the song and include it in his upcoming album, Wanted Dead or Alive, more commonly referred to as Bang! Bang! Push, Push, Push. Levy was not the easiest record executive to influence, but Joe Cuba seemed to always get what he wanted from Morris. The song was introduced on the album, creating a national blockbuster hit and prompting other bandleaders like Pete Rodríguez, Richie Ray, Johnny Colon, and Joe Bataan to join the bandwagon (no pun intended) and give the youthful record buyers of that era a type of music they would treasure and call the Latin boogaloo. Sonny decided to include eight-year-olds Hector Rivera Jr. and Nicky Jiménez Jr. in the chorus, giving it a more street sound, despite the objections of producer Pancho Cristal. He also used an overhead boom-operated microphone to give it more of a “live” sound. Joe Cuba was a great visionary and knew how to use various gimmicks and interesting rhythm breaks to enhance his recordings. The adeptness of Joe Cuba’s background vocalists is wonderfully demonstrated in the bolero/ballad “It’s Love,” featuring the harmonies of Jimmy Sabater, Willie Torres, and Ray Pollard. The tune showcases the dynamic trio’s ability to sing background doo-wop accompaniment as well as three-part crooning à la old-style groups like the Lettermen and the Four Aces. Very few bands can excite the best dancers with their mambo and salsa renditions as well as perform first-rate romantic ballads with such dexterity. In 1966, Joe Cuba released a tune that would become one of the biggest hits of its time, “El Pito (I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia),” cowritten by Jimmy Sabater. Featuring the renowned Cheo Feliciano on vocals, the song also has an addictive break that includes melodic whistling. Joe, always on top of gimmicks to help promote his hits, had thousands of “El Pito” whistles manufactured to distribute to his fans. Nina Calderón, Joe’s wife, recalls how, in 1967, they furiously unpacked five thousand of these novelty whistles to hand out during a performance of “El Pito” at New York’s Madison Square Garden while touring with the James Brown show. During the performance, they hurled thousands of whistles from the stage, causing a mild uprising with people running down the aisles trying to get their hands on a Joe Cuba “El Pito” whistle. Later, after having his own set blemished by all the whistle-blowing going on during his performance, James Brown was heard uttering, “That motherfucker will never work with me again!” When “My Man Speedy!” was recorded, the band was riding high. Louie Ramírez had replaced the then recently deceased vibraphonist Tommy Berrios. Louie’s influence is recognized early in the tune with his mimicry of popular bandleader Kako, while lead singer Willie Torres does a brilliant impersonation of the cartoon character Speedy Gonzalez. “Psychedelic Baby” is a song I had composed with the title “Hey Hey Girl.” But Sonny wanted to join the hippy/psychedelic movement of that era, so he re-titled the song. He thought it was a good idea to have me do a duet with Willie Torres, which seemed to work, in spite of this writer’s lack of singing talent.

But Willie was instrumental in giving me the confidence to perform on this recording and others to come. In “A Thousand Ways,” Joe demonstrates his fondness for doo-wop music in this interpretation of the Nicky Jiménez ballad. Notice how well the background vocalists sing in unison and then harmonize in the bridge of the tune. You’ll also hear a Joe Cuba narration a couple of times in this selection. Ray Pollard’s polished lead vocals are featured in “Ain’t It Funny What Love Can Do.” Selected for obvious reasons to cross over to the pop market, this tune shows the band’s versatility in covering various genres of the music spectrum. Ray grew up as an exceptional doo-wop singer with some of the top groups of the ’50s. “Swinging Mambo” is from a 1956 recording, I Tried to Dance All Night on the Mardi-Gras label. Early in his career, Joe Cuba employed the use of trumpets in his band, evident in this cut. The melodic vocal performances and Joe’s distinctive breaks are noticeable throughout as well. Willie Torres and the chorus of English lyrics helped Joe Cuba’s infiltration into the Jewish and Italian markets in New York and, later, throughout the country. One of Joe Cuba’s most requested recordings is “Wabble-Cha,” a very danceable number featuring a beautiful vibes solo by Tommy Berrios and vocals by Cheo Feliciano. The ubiquitous, clever chorus lines add to the overall pleasant color of this recording. Joe Cuba notwithstanding, Jimmy Sabater is the soul of the band. His cleverness and creativity has always been a vital part of the Joe Cuba sound, and his proficiency as a percussionist has been indispensable to the rhythm section. Additionally, Jimmy is a splendid vocalist and composer, proficient in singing salsa as a sonero and an accomplished crooner in his own right. Influenced by his admiration for the late Nat King Cole, Jimmy learned at an early age how to meld his personal style into his recordings. Jimmy has recorded albums under his own name and led his own group after leaving Joe Cuba. In “I’m Insane,” a Louie Ramírez composition, Jimmy’s velvet voice shines while Ray Pollard’s tenor voice and Louie’s vibes provide expert accompaniment. Always a Latin dancer’s favorite, and a recording utilized by many mambo instructors around the world, “Ariñañara” is a true party record. The rhythm section takes command of this number along with the wonderful vocal interpretation by Cheo. Notice the prominence of the claves throughout. Willie Garcia provides the exciting vocal on Hecho y Derecho’s “La Calle Esta Durisima,” which is often confused with the earlier recording “A Las Seis,” featuring Cheo on the vocal. Recorded years later in 1973 with Phil Diaz on vibes, the pace is faster and more danceable. The rhythm is tight as usual and the breaks as clever as ever. “Macorina” has a definite pachanga feel to it, which was all the rage when this was recorded circa 1960. Atypical of the conventional flute and violins sound, the recording still wants you to get up and do the pachanga, hopping around the dance floor while waving a handkerchief.

Tommy Berrios adroitly uses the vibes as a percussion instrument, helping to drive the tune. Cheo and the rhythm breaks are the icing on the cake in this forceful cut. In 1967, Joe wanted to pay tribute to his vocalist, Jimmy Sabater, by producing Joe Cuba Presents the Velvet Voice of Jimmy Sabater. From this album comes the classic bolero “Los Dos,” expertly interpreted by Jimmy. We round out disc one with one of Joe’s favorites, “Y Joe Cuba Ya Llego,” with vocals by Mike Guagenti. This 1979 recording was taken from Joe’s last recording for the Tico label, El Pirata del Caribe. In this cut, Joe displays his skills as a conguero during a swingin’ vamp while the coro chants “Hey Joe.” In 1974, artists from the Tico and Alegre record labels were presented in a concert at the world-renowned Carnegie Hall in New York City. One of the key performers of the affair was the Joe Cuba Sextet. After an introduction by Symphony Sid, Joe took the microphone and electrified the crowd prior to his performance of “Boom Boom Lucumi.” Once again, the Joe Cuba Sextet proved to be the most popular performer of the evening. Another popular recording by Joe Cuba with Cheo Feliciano on the vocals is “A las Seis.” With the chorus singing about their beloved Puerto Rico, Cheo reminds his date to be ready at six o’clock to go out pachangeando. Notice the distinctive way the vibes and piano drive the rhythm section during the montuno of the song. Also, listen to Cheo as he creates his own horn lines during the mambo. Cheo Feliciano singing in English? Yep, in this pop recording of “Remember Me,” Joe decided to use Cheo to sing the lead instead of his customary English-language vocalists, Jimmy Sabater or Willie Torres. Although the tune opens with a calypso feel, the background vocals provide a doo-wop sound that accompanies Cheo superbly on this track from the 1964 Seeco album Diggin’ the Most. Cheo Feliciano ultimately left the group to start a solo career and became one of the premier romantic vocalists of Latin music, reminiscent of the great Tito Rodríguez. In “Aunque Tú,” also taken from Diggin’ the Most, Cheo demonstrates the special way he handles a romantic bolero. The early Mardi-Gras adaptation of the classic Brown and Freed composition “Temptation” features the unison singing of the chorus with a step-out by Willie Torres and a fine vibes solo by Berrios. “La Malanga Brava,” another popular Joe Cuba recording, features a hard-driving rhythm section with ever-present electrifying breaks.

Willie and Cheo sing on this track from 1966’s Wanted Dead or Alive. One more Joe Cuba favorite from his early recordings is the “Joe Cuba Mambo,” featuring Jimmy Sabater on the timbales. On this 1956 Mardi-Gras recording, you’ll hear horns, which were part of the ensemble before the group was downsized to a sextet consisting of bass, piano, conga, timbales, and vibes, with Willie singing and playing percussion. Of all Joe Cuba recordings, one particularly stands out as a genuine ultra-romantic classic bolero, “To Be With You” from 1962’s Steppin’ Out, though originally composed in 1956 by pianist Nicky Jiménez and vocalist Willie Torres. Sonny’s surprise decision to choose the inimitable Jimmy Sabater over Cheo reaped many rewards for the band. The song went on to become the wedding song for many young Latin couples. In 1969, for Salsa Records, I produced a disco version of “To Be With You,” vocalized capably, once again, by Jimmy Sabater. The record, which was a hit in New York, was one of the very first 12-inch 45 rpm singles ever manufactured. “Hecho y Derecho,” from Joe’s 1973 Doin’ It Right album, showcases the vocals of Willie García, husband of the fabulous vocalist La Lupe at the time. It’s a swinging mambo that dancers established as one of their favorites. From Joe’s third Mardi-Gras album, entitled Red, Hot and Cha Cha Cha (likely recorded and released circa 1961, though often cited as a 1965 release), comes the hot mambo “Componte Cundunga.” Cheo sings lead while Jimmy and Tommy solo on timbales and vibes. This was the last album recorded before Joe’s move to the popular Tico label where he recorded the majority of his hits. “Pregon Cha Cha” comes out of his first Mardi-Gras album entitled I Tried to Dance All Night when the cha-cha-cha was the dance craze of that time. Joe remembered performing this number at the famous Palladium Ballroom in New York while Hollywood luminaries Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and others danced the night away. Once again, we are captivated by the soothing voice of Cheo Feliciano, the composer of the beautiful bolero “Como Rien,” from 1962’s Steppin’ Out, Joe’s first recording for Seeco. Nicky Jiménez was the unsung hero of the Joe Cuba Sextet. His colorful tinkling on the keyboards can be fully appreciated during the intro of this recording, setting the stage for Cheo’s wonderful rendition. Jimmy Sabater wrote “Jimmie’s Jump” for the Mardi-Gras album Red, Hot and Cha Cha Cha. The tune is performed by Cheo and, of course, includes one of Joe’s fabulous rhythm breaks in this wa-pa-cha-style mambo. This recording helped put Joe Cuba on the map and catapulted his career to greater heights. Penned by Nicky Jiménez, “Bochinchosa” is a fabulous guaguancó played in a typical mambo fashion. Taken from 1966’s We Must Be Doing Something Right, the song features Cheo on vocals and an interesting musical arrangement by pianist Nicky. The sexy “Mujer Divina,” written by Joe’s multitalented music associate Hector Rivera, is a slow bolero-cha that can be danced as a slow cha-cha or a cheek-to-cheek bolero. The chorus once again carries the tune with sweet step-outs by Willie Torres. Once again, the velvety voice of Jimmy Sabater is featured in the romantic bolero/ballad, “This Is Love,” written by Diana Bonilla, wife of empresario Richie Bonilla. As usual, Willie Torres and Ray Pollard provide the backup vocals with their inimitable harmonic style. The album concludes with Willie Torres singing in English on the movin’ and shakin’ mambo entitled “Mambo of the Times,” composed by Nicky Jiménez. This selection became a favorite when the group toured the cuchifrito circuit in the Catskill Mountain resorts in upstate New York.