15 February 2006

The Tico Records Story, Parts Five And Six

Hector Rivera LP

King of the Cha-Cha Mambo!
The History of George Goldner's Tico Records
by Donny Jacobs

Part Five:
Al Santiago joined Tico's production staff for a year, overseeing numerous albums including Celia Cruz's début with Tito Puente, and La Lupe's first solo outing, They Call Me La Lupe. Twenty-one albums were issued in 1965, nearly matching the 1963 output. Juggling a full roster of artists on both Tico and Roulette eventually proved to be an impossible task for Teddy Reig. By the mid-'60s, he was delegating work on many Latin sessions to assistants. Foremost among them was Morris "Pancho Cristal" Perlsman, a Cuban-born Jew who ultimately succeeded Reig as head of Tico A & R.

Pancho Cristal's ascension to the post coincided with the release of a number of albums featuring Tico's finest acts in combination with one another. Of course, there were various artist compilations like the Bailables series and Latin Golden Oldies for Dancing; but there were also more ambitious projects, like Homage to Rafael Hernández, a Tito Puente/La Lupe tribute to one of Latin America's greatest composers, and a series of live albums recorded by a group known as the Tico All-Stars. This was a concert-only aggregation featuring Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Tito Puente, Arsenio Rodríguez, newcomer Joe Cuba and several guest stars. Their albums contained descargas, long, freestyle jam sessions that took up an entire LP side.

The concept was pioneered in 1957 when Cuba's Panart label released a descarga album featuring legendary bassist Israel "Cachao" López. This album (Cuban Jam Sessions) and its follow-ups became widely regarded as musical textbooks for Latin musicians. Al Santiago decided to copy the concept in 1961, bringing together a supergroup comprised of Johnny Pacheco, Charlie Palmieri, merengue legend Dioris Valladares and others for his Alegre All-Stars album series.

Now, Tico was creating its own Latin spectacular on vinyl. This would be its biggest show since "Mambo USA", and it still had enough star power to pull off such a feat. The concert was taped in late 1965 at New York's Village Gate nightclub, a Jazz venue that gave over its stage to Latin acts on Monday nights. With "Symphony Sid" Torin hosting the show, the Tico All-Stars performed extended live sets, which were waxed by Pancho Cristal and released on three separate albums over the next two years. All are considered highly collectible. Among the esteemed guest performers on stage were Cachao himself, Alegre All-Stars Johnny Pacheco and Charlie Palmieri, and "Mambo USA" alumnus Candido Camero. Depending on how you look at it, there may actually be four albums in the series: Candido later cut a rare studio album, Candido's Latin McGuffa's Dust, with Cachao, Tito Puente and other Tico All-Stars as sidemen.

Perhaps even better known than the Tico All-Stars releases are a pair of mid-'60s LPs called Spanish Songs Mama Never Taught Me. As the title would suggest, these compilations feature songs with prurient subject matter performed by Tito Puente, Machito's Afro-Cubans, The Joe Cuba Sextet, Graciela and Miguelito Valdés. The latter two easily steal the spotlight on these records, treating lewd topics like sodomy, masturbation, fellatio and penis size in grand style! Their brazen enthusiasm on selections like "La Bochinchera", "Juanito", "Los Hermanos Pinzónes" and "Juanita, Saca La Mano(Remove Your Hand)!" is quite marvelous, but these albums would be worth buying just for the cover photos of five Latin music legends casually sharing dinner together.

The Palladium Ballroom closed in April of 1966; Eddie Palmieri's band was one of the closing night attractions. The shuttering of so revered a Latin music institution signaled a sea change in the sound and appeal of Latin music. A blend of pachanga/cha-cha rhythms with African-American Soul was growing popular, and dancers called it Latin boogaloo. Writer Juan Flores describes it as "cha-cha with a backbeat." The phenomenon can be traced back to the early years of the decade and hits like Cal Tjader's "Soul Sauce", Mongo Santamaría's "Watermelon Man" and of course, "El Watusi" by Tico's own Ray Barretto.

So there had been precedents by the time the Joe Cuba Sextet's releases filled dance floors in 1966, and there were other Latin acts who cut successful boogaloo records, but none of them became as identified with the style in the minds of non-Latinos. From the beginning, this group always had crossover appeal. Formed in 1954 from the remnants of the Joe Panama Quintet, the group consisted of vocalist Willie Torres, pianist Nick Jiménez, bassist Ray Rosa, Jimmy Sabater on timbales, Tommy Berríos on vibraphone and leader Gil Calderón pounding the congas. Calderón got the stage name "Joe Cuba" from the owner of one of the clubs where they played. Cheo Feliciano took over lead vocalist duties when Torres quit in 1957 to sing with the José Curbelo Orchestra, and shortly thereafter, Jules Cordero replaced Ray Rosa.

The Sextet's appeal to English-speaking crowds had much to do with their unusual habit of putting English-language lyrics to Latin dance numbers. They were among the first Latin acts to do so. Cheo Feliciano has confirmed this to interviewer Abel Delgado. "When I came into the group, they had instituted many English tunes", he recalled. "Willie Torres, (he) used to sing most of the tunes in English even though they were salsa. We did all the (English) tunes because we used to cater to a Jewish crowd, to an Italian crowd, to Black American crowds, and to Latinos, too. Crossover (for Latin bands) really started with Joe Cuba." The group was also unique in that it was able to satisfy dancers without using the standard Latin brass section(Joe Cuba's vibes-dominated sound was heavily influenced by that of Cal Tjader), and it certainly didn't hurt that most if not all of the group's members were drop-dead handsome! They were especially popular at Jewish vacation resorts, which provided their bread and butter for many years.

Their first significant hit was "Mambo Of The Times", a shoulder-shaking bilingual romp originally recorded for the Rainbow label in 1956. After a period on the small Mardi Gras label, the group landed on Seeco Records for a three-year stay, during which time they were the first act to cover Tito Puente's "Oye Cómo Va." In 1964, Tico had the good luck to sign them, and with Pancho Cristal manning the dials, the stage was set for them to cut their most popular releases to date. By now, Feliciano was alternating leads with Jimmy Sabater, who had unexpectedly proven himself a more-than-capable ballad singer with the Seeco cult hit "To Be With You." Cristal almost immediately began urging the group in a more R & B-oriented direction, which culminated on their fourth Tico album, We Must Be Doing Something Right! From that 1965 LP came the first Joe Cuba song to crash the national best-seller lists: "El Pito (I'll Never Go Back To Georgia)," a handclapper whose lyrics were specially tailored to African-American sensibilities.

Humorous dance numbers with an unrehearsed feel had long been a Sextet specialty, and those kinds of jams went over big at new clubs like The Cheetah Discothèque, where Black couples danced the African Twist into the wee hours of the morning. As Jimmy Sabater later detailed to Juan Flores, the material that the group wrote during this period was often inspired on-the-spot at their live dates. Sabater described a pivotal appearance at Manhattan's Palm Gardens Ballroom. "It was a Black dance," he recalled. "That night, we were playing selections from our new album . . . the one with 'El Pito' on it, you know. The place was packed, but when we were playing (our) mambos and cha-chas, nobody was dancing! So at the end of the first set, I went over to Joe Cuba and said, 'Look, Sonny (that's his nickname), I have an idea for a tune that I think might get them up . . . I went over to the piano and told Nick Jiménez, 'Play this (riff)' . . . before (long), the people were out on the floor going beep-beep, haaa! Beep-beep, haaa!"

This nonsense phrase was one of several party chants that were popular among Black young people in the '60s. Joe Cuba himself continued the story: "Suddenly, the audience began to dance side-to-side, (it was) a wave-type dance, and (they) began to chant . . . sort of like an African tribal chant and dance". For a quarter hour, musicians and dancers fed off of each other's energy. The scene was repeated at subsequent dates, and soon the Sextet was inflaming crowds all over town, setting off a frenzy of beep-beep-bang-banging, hip-swaying and finger-popping.

Thus was born the raucous and rowdy single "Bang! Bang!" Its absurd lyrics about cornbread, hog maw and chitterlings good-naturedly mock some of the more bizarre staples of African-American cuisine. Pancho Cristal rocked Bell Sound to its foundations cutting the record, which rivalled The Isley Brothers' "Shout" in frat party ambiance. It sold over one million copies worldwide, spawned a hit album of the same title, and probably inspired Donna Summer to write the toot-toot, hey! beep-beep tagline for her chart-topping Disco smash "Bad Girls" thirteen years later. Rising to #63 Pop and #21 R & B on the Billboard charts in the fall of 1966, "Bang! Bang!" became Tico's biggest chart record since "El Watusi". Cheo Feliciano left to pursue a solo career that year, but he stayed long enough to sing lead on "Bang! Bang!" Jimmy Sabater led the follow-up single, "Oh, Yeah!," a raunchy drinking song that encouraged turning lights off and "getting blind" on 100 proof whiskey! It actually charted one position higher in Billboard than "Bang! Bang!" did, and its inherent appeal to keg-loving college students no doubt had much to do with its success.

For the remainder of the '60s, The Joe Cuba Sextet was the hottest of tickets; with Willie Torres back singing lead vocals, the band found itself opening shows for The Temptations, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and James Brown. In the Latin community, their personal appearances got receptions akin to Beatlemania. "Joe Cuba became one of the most important (bandleaders) in New York," Cheo Feliciano confirmed to John Child. Poor Cheo undoubtedly regretted leaving Cuba and Tico Records when he did, but his stalled solo career finally picked up steam after he signed with Vaya Records in the '70s. As co-writer on all three Joe Cuba hits, Jimmy Sabater's stock in the group soared. What's more, his ballad style became so in-demand, he was spun off as a featured act. While remaining an active member of the Sextet, Sabater took time to cut several Tico albums of his own, one (Jimmy Sabater Solo) supervised by George Goldner.

Joe Cuba's success with boogaloo records precipitated an avalanche of young Black and Latin musicians recording in the style. Tico tried to crash the Pop charts again with Soul-tinged material by Nat King Cole Trio alumnus Jack Costanzo, but was unsuccessful. However, Alegre Records (by now Tico's sister label) had two strong boogaloo acts in the persons of Pete Rodríguez and Ritchie Ray.

In discothèques and on Latin radio, Rodríguez and his gravel-throated singer/songwriter Tony Pabón scored repeatedly with wildly popular dance sides like "Micaela," "Here Comes The Judge," "Oh! That's Nice" and "I Like It Like That." These singles were a tad more suggestive than Joe Cuba's hits, which may explain why they never crossed over to Pop. However, they proved to be enduring cult favourites. "I Like It Like That" in particular came to be regarded as a boogaloo classic, and in subsequent years, it garnered many cover versions. Pete Rodríguez was later instrumental in launching Rubén Blades' stellar music career, but the bandleader himself was fated to remain a barrio phenomenon only.

Ricardo "Ritchie Ray" Maldonado had more success appealing to non-Latin audiences. He's said to have led one of the best party bands working in the '60s, and was so highly regarded as a pianist, Pancho Cristal made him a featured musical guest at the 1965 Tico All-Stars concert. With future Jazz great Doc Cheatham on lead trumpet, and childhood friend Bobby Cruz on lead vocals, Ray's band had earlier knocked Latin New York on its collective nalgas with the jala jala rhythm, a samba-styled variation on the pachanga. His 1968 Alegre album Let's Get Down to the Real Nitty Gritty featured all English-language material, and cracked the Billboard charts with a remake of Shirley Ellis' 1963 floor-shaker "The Nitty Gritty." (Robert Spencer of the 1950s Doo-Wop group The Cadillacs sang the frenzied lead vocal.)

After 1966, Ritchie Ray product occasionally appeared under the Tico logo. Collectors are keen to locate his and Bobby Cruz's album collaboration with Tico artist Nydia Caro, Los Durísimos y Yo(The Strongmen and Me). Later, Cruz would jump labels again to cut Mano a Mano, a duet album with Jimmy Sabater. Ray and Cruz's contributions to the catalogue notwithstanding, Tico Records would never have another boogaloo act as hot as The Joe Cuba Sextet.

It was definitely a challenge to market Cuban and Puerto Rican music to mainstream America in the 1960s; Tico was one of just a handful of Latin labels to survive while doing so. The public's taste in Latin music changed, and Brazilian Jazz/Pop as performed by the likes of Astrud Gilberto, Walter Wanderly and Sérgio Mendes was suddenly the rage. Unfortunately, Morris Levy couldn't find a Brazilian artist with commercial appeal. Records such as "El Watusi" and "Bang! Bang!" kept Tico product competitive, but the pachanga never caught on big outside New York, and for all its crossover appeal, the boogaloo grew controversial.

Older Latin bandleaders like Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente expressed open distaste for it. Around 1969, popular young bandleaders like Johnny Colón, Joe Bataan, The LeBron Brothers and King Nando (most of whom recorded for George Goldner's new Cotique label) found themselves unable to get bookings. Music industry politics is believed to be the reason. "We were the hottest bands, and we drew the crowds, but we were never given top billing or top dollar," Fernando "King Nando" Rivera told Max Salazar in 1988. "The boogaloo bandleaders were forced to accept 'package deals' which had us hopping all over town . . . one hour here, one hour there . . . for small change! When word got out that we were going to unite and no longer accept the package deals, our records were no longer played over the radio. The boogaloo era was over, and so were (our) careers." Of course, the Joe Cuba Sextet survived because they had established themselves in R & B markets, but they couldn't keep a trend going all by themselves.

With boogaloo records no longer getting airplay, Morris Levy had no reason to keep releasing them. He was obliged to fall back on older music styles which may have met with the approval of purists, but no longer sold particularly well. By the time Levy moved into new offices at 17 West 60th Street in 1968, Tico's profit margin had begun to shrink substantially. From that point on, its niche in the Roulette empire was no longer secure. However, consistent sellers like Joe Cuba, Tito Puente and La Lupe allowed the company to greet the 1970s without drowning in a sea of red ink.

Part Six:
Between 1967 and 1972, the Machito, Ray Barretto and Eddie Palmieri bands all said goodbye to the Tico family. Pancho Cristal did so as well, leaving Art Kapper, Miguel Estivíl, Fred "Paco" Weinberg and George Goldner to trade off production duties. Twenty-four LPs hit the racks in 1968, but album output would diminish in subsequent years. (Curiously, Tico didn't phase out monaural album releases until 1971; the rest of the music industry had gone "stereo-compatible" three years earlier.) As the focus shifted from orchestras to individual singers, the producers recruited an unofficial house band for musical accompaniment purposes. It usually included Vinnie Bell on guitar, Sonny Bravo on piano, Bobby Rodríguez on bass, Johnny Rodríguez on bongós, Mikey Collazo on timbales and a brass section led by Barry Rogers.

Tito Puente's featured vocalist Santitos Colón stepped into the spotlight with a pair of solo albums. Colón had been singing with Latin bands since the late '40s, but didn't make much of an impact until he joined Puente's orchestra in 1957. He sang lead on Puente's very popular Dancemania albums for RCA Victor, and from that point began to draw his own following. A short, slight man with ferretlike features, Colón wasn't the likeliest of candidates for stardom. However, his foghorn voice had no problem cutting through a full-throttle dance arrangement like "Babarabatíri," and it took on a sexy velvet tone for boleros like "Imágenes". Marketing Santitos Colón albums proved to be a sound financial move for Tico Records; unfortunately, the same can't be said for releases by Sophy Hernández and Shaun Elliot, two other vocalists Tito Puente had occasion to employ.

Noraida Moré, widow of legendary Cuban sonero Beny Moré, got an album deal and became the latest to benefit from a Puente send-off. He did no less than produce her début, La Bárbara del Ritmo Latino, and the reliable Charlie Palmieri contributed arrangements. While it sold well enough to justify cutting a second album, Me Voy a Desquitar (I'll Get Revenge), Noraida never generated the kind of public sensation Tico had hoped for. Neither did Puerto Rican singer/actress Nydia Caro, who was unsuccessfully promoted as a sort of '60s-era Jennifer López. Hardly anyone noticed when the label issued Yo Canto, the first stateside album by international heartthrob Julio Iglesias; however, Morris Levy shouldn't be judged too harshly for failing to get Iglesias airplay so early in his career. It would take more than a decade for the Spanish crooner to become popular in this country, and even then he needed the help of superstars Willie Nelson and Diana Ross!

People did take notice when yet another seminal figure from the early days of Latin music came to call. At one time, singer/songwriter Myrta Silva had been the toast of Latin America. Discovered singing for pennies during the Great Depression by celebrated Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández, Silva became the main attraction of his Cuarteto Victoria. She performed with Hernández in New York, Puerto Rico and Colombia to great acclaim, and cut sides for RCA Victor. Migrating to Cuba in the '40s, she put together a risqué repertoire comprised mostly of her own and Rafael Hernández's compositions that made her a sensation in Havana cabarets. She went on to precede Celia Cruz as featured girl singer with La Sonora Matancera, and appear at special North-American events like 1954's "Mambo/Rhumba Festival." Now Silva was a TV hostess in her native Puerto Rico, but she returned to New York long enough to bless the Tico catalogue with an album of her greatest songs, The Author and Performer, and delight long-time fans with her very own volume of Spanish Songs Mama Never Taught Me.

Collections of double entendre material invariably included one or two tunes written by Arsenio Rodríguez. The blind guitarist died on the last day of December 1969; his final Tico album, Arsenio Dice(Arsenio Says), had been issued the year before. Credited with originating the modern Latin conjunto(the special combination of instruments that gave mambo its unique sound), as well as composing many popular Spanish tunes, his influence was inestimable. Arsenio Rodríguez's passing was mourned throughout the Latin diaspora, as was that of Tito Rodríguez, claimed by leukemia in 1973. Los Grandes Rodríguez were both honored with posthumous Tico compilations. Recordando a Arsenio(Remembering Arsenio) features Ray Barretto, Joe Cuba, Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri, Jimmy Sabater and Cortijo performing some of his greatest hits. Nostalgia con Tito Rodríguez collects some of the singer's finest work from the '50s.

Around the time these tribute albums were released, Joe Cain, the new A & R head of Alegre Records, agreed to double his workload and begin overseeing Tico recording sessions. Cain brought Vicentico Valdés back to the label. Tito Puente's featured vocalist of many years ago was now a bolero singer of great renown. He had become a headliner in his native Cuba, appearing with La Sonora Matancera and other groups. More recently, he had enjoyed a string of romantic hits on Seeco Records, which, incidentally, Cain had produced. The uncle of Alfredito Valdés, Jr, Vicentico Valdés was fast becoming as revered as Pedro Vargas, Toña la Negra and Daniel Riolobos, famous balladeers from Latin music's Golden Age.

His only true rival during the '60s was Tito Rodríguez, and few people respected his talent more than Joe Cain. "You could play a melody (for Vicentico)", the producer recalled in an interview many years later, "(and) he'd pick it up immediately . . . after he'd hear the chords, he'd be able to manipulate the melody in such a manner that you'd think it was Sinatra or Sarah Vaughan changing it around." Valdés wasn't the smoothest of crooners, but his nuanced phrasing and Cain's evocative arrangements make his Tico début, Vicentico, ideal late-night listening for amorous couples. With lights turned down low, sultry songs like "Yo Lo Haré", "Nuestros Ojos", "La Calle" and "Llora, Llora" all but provide a glow-in-the-dark path to the nearest bedroom!

Joe Cain also brought veteran arranger/composer and session pianist Héctor Rivera to the label, five years after his underground boogaloo hit "At The Party" had inspired many a festive gathering. His second Tico album, Lo Máximo(The Greatest), features Cachao's fluid bass lines and future salsa star Héctor Lavoe on backing vocals. It sums up the sound of early '70s salsa quite nicely, but is perhaps more notable for having some of the most bizarre album art ever seen on a Tico release. Izzy Sanabria, editor of Latin New York Magazine, conceived the cartoonish depiction of Rivera as a naked colossus, scaling the Empire State Building à la King Kong. As if to heighten the painting's surreal quality, the infamous ape himself is shown (or is that supposed to be Morris Levy?) clutched in Rivera's hand!

Seriously, Héctor Rivera's studio prowess always came in handy on other artists' sessions, like those for La Lupe's 1969 album The Queen, so Tico got more than its money's worth out of him. For example, he was a key player in the proceedings when Joe Cain decided to revive the Tico All-Stars, team them with the Alegre All-Stars, and record them in concert at Carnegie Hall in May of 1974. The other participants in that historic date were the Joe Cuba Sextet, Ismael Rivera and Los Cachimbos, Charlie Palmieri's Orchestra, and an expanded version of Tito Puente's Orchestra. La Lupe, Vicentico Valdés, Vitín Aviles and Gabriel "Yayo el Indio" Vega were the featured vocalists, and there were special guest appearances by Cachao, Candido and trumpeter Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, among others.

There's some outstanding music to be found on the recording: Puente's take on the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme is magnificent, as is Lupe's exuberant ode to "Changó," and Charlie Palmieri dazzles with his organ improvisations. However, a few too many cuts on Live At Carnegie Hall, Volume One lack for excitement. Joe Cuba's performance of "Boom Boom Lucumí" is uneven, Vicentico Valdés's singing on "Confusión" never catches fire, and Ismael Rivera's rendition of "Dormir Contigo" probably wouldn't have shaken many legs at The Palladium Ballroom. Still, the event was a good excuse to get Tico's top talent (minus Celia Cruz, who'd recently departed) on stage together for the first time since the mid-'60s.

Cain had helmed an equally ambitious and more successful project for Tito Puente in 1973. In an attempt to lend Latin dance music a bit of classical ambiance, he assembled a twenty-two-piece orchestra at Media Sound Studios. Charlie Palmieri guested on the date, and the horn section was comprised mostly of Jazz players. "Although the majority of the arrangements were danceable," notes Puente biographer Steven Loza, "a good part of the album was conceptualized for the concert hall." Hence the title: Tito Puente and His Concert Orchestra. Puente had flirted with Jazz on a couple of his RCA Victor albums, but this release initiated a much more aggressive move toward the genre. It also reflected the stature he had earned in the Latin music world.

Most artists would've had trouble justifying the expense of making an album like this. Tito Puente wasn't like most artists! Since his days on the Palladium bandstand, he'd performed all over the world and had become a veritable ambassador for Latin music. Puente had managed to stay at the top of his profession for 25 years, and would do so for another 25. Morris Levy loved his work, and gave him carte blanche to create whatever he wanted. A new treatment of "El Rey del Timbal", a song he'd originally recorded with George Goldner in 1951, emerged from the album to become a radio hit. In 1978, Puente would provide Tico with its last major success when his tribute album Homage To Beny Moré won the label its first and only Grammy award.

The day finally came when the inevitable couldn't be delayed any longer; Morris Levy had a tax liability he desperately wanted to unload. Making what, in retrospect, was a shortsighted move, he split off Tico Records and the Alegre catalogue from his other holdings and sold them to attorney Jerry Masucci in 1975. Seemingly apprehensive about the pending change of ownership, Joe Cain hastily compiled several "Best Of" artist packages. He had reason to worry; once Tico operations had shifted to Masucci's office complex at 888 Seventh Avenue, the lawyer dispensed with his services.

Bandleader Louie Ramírez subsequently took over A & R duties for Tico and Alegre. Almost immediately, though, those duties began to diminish. Writer David Carp has opined that Jerry Masucci "scuttled the label to eliminate competition with (his own record company) Fania." Most historians agree with this assessment. Literally founded out of the back of a truck in 1964 by Masucci and Johnny Pacheco, Fania Records in the '70s was on the cutting edge of the burgeoning salsa explosion. Ballsy, streetwise releases by young Fania artists like Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades and Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez were leading the way.

Masucci bagged Celia Cruz just prior to the takeover. Between 1975 and 1985, Tito Puente, Ismael Rivera, Jimmy Sabater, Ritchie Ray and Bobby Cruz joined her at Fania's Vaya subsidiary, where Cheo Feliciano was already thriving. Ray Barretto had been in the Fania stable since 1967, Santitos Colón followed his example in 1970, and Eddie Palmieri came on board in 1980. They all became bigger stars than they'd ever been as Tico artists, and their contributions helped turn Fania into the most successful Latin music label ever.

However, some Tico artists didn't fit into Masucci's vision of a salsa empire, and weren't able to make the transition. La Lupe, unfortunately, was one of them. This is puzzling, because in her heyday she was certainly Tico's most cutting-edge act. Nevertheless, Masucci seemed to prefer marketing compilations of her older recordings to promoting her new ones. He liked Celia Cruz better as a singer, and focused his energies on making her the salsa queen she deserved to be. At the same time, a series of personal misfortunes (illness, fire loss, bankruptcy) caused La Lupe to lose her momentum. She'd always insisted on acting as her own booking agent, and by 1977, her career was in shambles due to poor management.

She gave one of her last great performances that year, wowing a crowd of worshipful fans at the South Bronx's Teatro Puerto Rico. Her repertoire that evening included powerhouse renditions of "Qué Te Pedí" from Tito Puente Swings/The Exciting Lupe Sings, and "Oriente," her emotional tribute to the region of Cuba in which she was born. In one of the great tragedies of Latin music, Lupe lost her fortune, then her health, and finally, her life. The Queen of Latin Soul died of heart failure in 1992 at the relatively young age of 53. Thousands of Latin New Yorkers, many of them hysterical with grief, gathered at La Iglesia de Díos in the Bronx to pay their final respects. La Lupe's death coincided with the last gasp of Tico Records. Its final release is believed to be a posthumous 1992 compact disc compilation of her hits.

Tico had ceased functioning as an active label long before that. Though it was unable to survive the salsa era, that era would have been inconceivable without its many contributions to Latin music. Over its forty-year lifespan, Tico recorded Dominican merengues, Mexican rancheras, Argentinean tangos, Colombian cumbias, Spanish pasodobles and other styles, but judging by the way artists like Trío Los Bandidos and Pepe Rico's Tango Orchestra failed to renew their contracts, diversity of sound wasn't the label's strength. What it did better than almost anyone else was sell Afro-Cuban dance music with a Nuyorican (New York/Puerto Rican) flavor . . . the foundation of salsa. And indeed, all of Tico's major artists are respected as role models by today's salsa stars.

Disco and Hip-Hop music also have roots in the sound of Latin New York; listening to Tico sides like "Mambo Mona (Mama Guela)," "Chanchulló", "Oye Cómo Va," "El Watusi," "Azúcar" and "Bang! Bang!" leaves little room for doubt about that. Selected original albums can sell for hundreds of dollars at auction, and reissue labels are eager to mine the catalogue for new compilations of vintage Latin music. For a long time, though, Tico's master tapes were a b*tch to license!

When Jerry Masucci died in 1997, those tapes, reportedly stored at Abbey Road Studios in England, fell into legal limbo for the better part of a decade. Finally in 2005, business partners Stuart Livingston and Giora Briel purchased them for their Miami-based Emusica Entertainment Group; they launched a major reissue campaign which has been continued by Michael Rucker, CEO of Emusica's successor, the Codigo Music Group. In May 2009, Codigo became the official archive of America's Latin music heritage; in addition to the Tico/Alegre masters, Rucker has purchased the catalogues of Seeco, Discuba and UA Latino Records. He now controls over 20,000 historic Spanish-language recordings! Those originally released on the Tico label are arguably the most valuable. For its high standard of musicianship, the high calibre of its artists(nearly every major Latin star), and the historical significance of many of its releases, Tico Records rates as one of the most important music labels of the 20th century. But of course, that can be said about several of the labels George Goldner founded.

And what of George Goldner? He was in the process of starting yet another new record company when he died of a massive heart attack on 15 April 1970. According to Al Santiago, the circumstances of his death were particularly tragic: "(He) died at a friend's house after complaining about heart pains during his last recording session. He refused to go (to the emergency room) because he lacked medical insurance!" What a sad irony, if true. One of the music industry's most respected executives could bet $1,000 or more on a long shot, yet he couldn't afford to pay for his own health care!

In a time period that spanned less than twenty-five years, George Goldner founded over a dozen labels. In the process, he helped bring acts like Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, The Shangri Las, Johnny Rivers and The Isley Brothers to the public's attention. His most famous and successful label was arguably Red-Bird Records, headquartered in the famous Brill Building, which he operated from 1964 to 1966 in partnership with Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Among Red-Bird's releases were monster hits like "Chapel Of Love", "Leader Of The Pack" and "The Boy From New York City." Yet the very first Red-Bird single was a number called "Mambito", performed by a Latin Rock band; Goldner never abandoned his first love! In late 1965, he and new partner Stan Lewis launched Cotique Records, another venture into Latin music that capitalized on the boogaloo sound. Both Cotique and Tico outlived him, carrying his belief in the commercial potential of Latin music into the '70s and beyond.

Not unlike Morris Levy, who died of cancer in 1990, Goldner left behind some enemies, but also many friends. "He was a wonderful person", Red-Bird staff producer George "Shadow" Morton has said. "He was a creative man, and a businessman. He did more for the foundation of Rock than anyone!" Red-Bird co-founder Jeff Barry states that "George Goldner was one of the few people in the music industry with genuine passion for the product." The late Al Santiago praised him as "an excellent record producer". Rock critic Bruce Eder noted that he "discovered more talent, both in front of the microphone and behind the scenes, than most producers get to record in a lifetime!" Because of his pioneering success with R & B vocal groups, George Goldner earned the right to be called the King of Doo-Wop music. However, to lovers of vintage Latin sounds, he is more accurately known by the name he inscribed on early Tico album releases: King of the Cha-Cha Mambo!


Dedicated to the memory of Jamie LePage.
Special thanks to Dave Conn, Bill Osment, Charlie Stout and the staff of the late lamented Music Exchange in Kansas City, Missouri, Chuck Haddix and his staff at Marr Sound Archives/University of Missouri at 
Kansas City, Mike Callahan, Juan Ignacio Cortiñas, David Edwards, 
Zeno Okeanos and Jeff Barry.

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