The Joe Cuba Sextet recorded countless hits across the decades, each embodying the soul of Spanish Harlem and capturing the sounds of the first generation of New York Puerto Ricans. With hustler instincts, Joe and his band—originally consisting of Jimmy Sabater on timbales and vocals, Tommy Berrios on vibes, Nick Jiménez on piano, Roy Rosa on bass (replaced early on by Jules Cordero), and Willie Torres on vocals—reinvented the Latin sound several times over. There’s little doubt that salsa owes its swagger and swing to Joe Cuba. Joe’s pride for his neighborhood spilled over into his playing, made his sound contagious, and birthed a movement reflective of Spanish Harlem’s vibrant soul.
Joe’s unique childhood gave him a cross-cultural perspective that would later imbue his music. Born to Puerto Rican parents struggling to survive the Great Depression, a young Gilberto Navarro (later, Calderón) and his brother grew up in foster care with a White, English-speaking family on Staten Island. After five years, Joe and his brother were reunited with their mother, Gloria, in Spanish Harlem, where he first heard Spanish being spoken. Rediscovering his language and roots at such a young age gave Joe a special appreciation of his heritage. As Joe stepped off the Six train on 116th Street and Lexington Avenue, the joys of Spanish Harlem unfolded before him. “It was beautiful. Record shops lined 116th Street, music blasting from their shops,” Joe remembered of his first experience at his new home. “It was a real community, a real neighborhood. Doors were always open, everyone would visit each other, and there was always a nice plate of rice and beans ready.” It was these memories, recuerdos de su barrio, that Joe later infused into his music.

New to the hood, Joe earned his stripes sliding hard into makeshift bases while playing stickball on the concrete of 116th Street—they would run away from police in the back-ally canyons of Spanish Harlem when games would get broken up; they would chill on stoops in the evening and kick game to the girls from around the way. He started his music career at the end of his stickball career: “I broke my leg sliding into second base, and I was in a cast for a while. So a friend of mine lent me his conga, and I would practice to Machito records.” Like many aspiring Latino musicians in the U.S. at that time, Joe found inspiration in the Cuban-born Latin jazz legend Machito, but growing up next door to the scene’s future talent also helped. “There were a lot of musicians on my block,” he said. “Santo Miranda, Negrito Pantoja, and Sabu Martinez, these guys would hang out on the block and motivate me.” When Sabu Martinez took a job in Hollywood, Joe replaced him and became the conguero for La Alfarona X, New York City’s first Puerto Rican trumpet conjunto. It was a short stint (Sabu eventually came back to claim his spot in the band), but Joe got a taste of what it was like to be a musician: “If you were a regular guy, the girls would just walk by, but if you were playing an instrument and singing a coro, they’d stop! And then you could rap to them.”

From the beginning, Joe’s band stood out, unconventionally using vibes in their arrangements. “Soy Pilongo,” one of Joe’s earliest recorded songs, features the band’s trademark vibes—riding cool on the montuno, contrasting the horns, and accenting the handclap break—a foreshadowing of the band’s nascent boogaloo sound. Eventually, Joe would drop the horns entirely, in favor of vibes, another unexpected but practical decision: “If I had horns, the police would shut us down, so I used vibes to keep the police from coming—problem fixed.” With a quieter and smaller ensemble, Joe and his band carved a niche for themselves playing side by side with Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez at the popular Latin band clubs like the Palladium, and they quickly earned a spot on the Catskill circuit.

The band gained momentum after sonero José “Cheo” Feliciano replaced Willie Torres in 1958. Cheo’s swingin’ and smooth singing in Spanish complemented Jimmy Sabater’s crooner-style English vocals, giving the band appeal to both English and Spanish audiences. “Cheo had a thick accent; that’s when they put me in to sing in English,” Jimmy remembers. “Cheo would sing one bolero in Spanish, and I would sing one in English.” It was this combination that made the sextet’s Seeco Records debut, Steppin’ Out, a crossover hit. Laced with hits like “A las Seis” and “To Be With You,” Steppin’ Out displayed the band’s bilingual versatility and dual shades of Nuyorican soul.

The band perfected their bilingual harmony with “Bang! Bang!” the monster hit that inspired Latin soul and boogaloo, striking a chord with New York’s growing bilingual Puerto Rican community. Gritty and slightly offbeat, “Bang! Bang!” was a tour of Harlem put to music. A mid-tempo montuno drives the tune as a group of boys “beep-beep” to the nonsensical chorus of “corn bread, hog maw, and chitterlings.” Cheo adds his occasional interruptions of “lechón” or “cuchifrito,” adding his favorite Puerto Rican soul food to the mix. The love for home and the swagger that the Joe Cuba Sextet brought to their music inspired the same pride, love, and attitude in younger musicians.

Joe’s infectious new sound was the catalyst for the boogaloo. “My group put that soul into the the music,” Joe said. “We were the first to do it that way.” But this Nuyorican soul went beyond the boogaloo. Infusing the sights and sounds of Spanish Harlem into the music is what made salsa distinctly New York and different from other styles of Latin music that came before it. While older musicians like Tito Puente resisted, Joe embraced the R&B aspects that were creeping into the Latin music scene. “I always mixed it up on my records: something in English, something a little soulful, something a little funky. But I always stuck by my salsa.” “Mi Salsa Buena,” from his last Tico album, 1979’s El Pirata del Caribe, is testament to Joe’s loyalty. It’s a slow-building tribute to salsa’s Puerto Rican roots that explodes midway into a proper New York dance-floor monster.

For all his pride, Joe never took all the credit for salsa himself. He recognized the work put in before him and the contributions of his peers: “In the ’50s, our music broke out, especially when Rodríguez, Puente, and Machito started opening doors downtown at the Palladium; and then I came along with my sound, and Eddie [Palmieri] came with his trombone, and Pacheco started Fania; we were building.”

More than his innovation to New York Latin music, Joe will always be remembered for the love he brought to his music. For him, fame was secondary; representing his barrio and the joy of playing were enough. “The beauty about it was, in those days, it was a pretty happy-go-lucky environment,” Joe said. “We played because we loved the music, and because it was a joy to play.” It’s this joy that Joe still shares. On a good summer day, if you get off the Six train on 116th Street and Lexington in Spanish Harlem, you’re sure to hear Joe’s music playing loud from some of the same record shops of his youth.

Liner notes by Kristofer Ríos