16 February 2006

The Tico Records Story, Parts Three and Four

Joe Cuba Bang Bang

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

Part Three:
George Goldner's life took a fateful turn on the day he discovered that many of his Black and ethnic customers were turning their attention to a new kind of dance music called Rhythm and Blues. With backing from Morris Levy, he formed the Rama label specifically to market the R & B vocal groups which had begun to proliferate on the East Coast. He recorded The Crows on a song called "Gee", and Levy used his considerable promotional savvy to help make it one of the first major R & B crossover hits.

In the days when Black singers were all but banned from Pop radio, this Top Five R & B platter shocked the music industry by placing Top Twenty on the national hit parade. Goldner later had Joe Loco record a cover of "Gee" on Tico; in the '60s, future Tico artist Joe Cuba would also take a crack at it. Its success permanently shifted his focus to Rhythm and Blues, or Rock'n'Roll, as these records were increasingly being labelled.

In 1954, he débuted Rama's sister label, naturally called Gee, and signed The Cleftones. With singles like "Little Girl Of Mine", they also became successful crossover recording artists. That same year, he hired gifted singer/songwriter Ritchie Barrett away from another Gee group called The Valentines to assist him in A & R. This lay the groundwork for the million-selling 1956 Gee single "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, a group Barrett would later bring to his attention. Hot on their heels was a new Rama group named The Heartbeats, who scored big with "A Thousand Miles Away."

1956 was also the year Goldner partnered with Joe Kolsky and Kolsky's brother Phil Kahl in founding the Roulette label(the allusion to his gambling habit was sharp enough to be painful). Roulette was to be a vehicle for straight-ahead Pop releases. Goldner's heart wasn't in this venture, though, and according to some sources, he was never an active partner in the company. It wasn't long before Morris Levy had bought out his share, and installed himself as Roulette's chief executive officer. Kolsky and Kahl would sell out in 1961.

The Roulette label went on to be one of the most important and longest-running independent record companies in the business; hits by Buddy Knox, Jimmie Rodgers, The Playmates, Joey Dee and The Starlighters and Tommy James and The Shondells kept its coffers full-to-overflowing. Roulette proved most important to Goldner as the distributor for Gone and End Records, his two newest imprints. They were initially meant as Jazz outlets, but the temptation to sign hot young Rock'n'Roll talent proved too strong. Soon, Gone and End singles by acts like The Flamingos, The Dubs, Little Anthony and The Imperials and The Chantels were shipping out of record plants, and smashes like "Could This Be Magic", "Tears On My Pillow", and "I Only Have Eyes For You" were climbing the charts.

Hoping to simultaneously appeal to both mambo and R & B fans, Goldner attempted some fusion experiments on vinyl; artists like The Crows, Jimmy Wright and The Larke Sisters found themselves cutting such unlikely titles as "Mambo-Shevitz" and "The Lily Mae Belle Mambo". Predictably, these clumsy stabs at Latin rock went nowhere. Unadulterated Rhythm and Blues is what paid the bills and kept his bookie happy.

Within a very short time, George Goldner began to understand that Rock'n' Roll was where the really big money could be made. Suburban White teenagers with disposable income were embracing this new sound, and generating huge profits for independent label owners like himself. There was just no comparison between the fairly modest returns he got from a regional Latin hit, and the monster-sized checks he pocketed after one of his vocal groups took off nationally. Goldner released a Rock novelty single on a one-off label called Luniverse, and was astonished when Buchanan and Goodman's "Flying Saucer" zoomed up the charts, selling millions.

However, the profits his Rock records pulled in were quickly eaten up by massive gambling debts; it seemed the more money he made, the more slipped through his fingers. "He liked horses", Morris Levy explained to author Fredric Dannen decades later. "He always needed money! It's a shame, because George knew music, and knew what could be a hit. But if he was worried about the fifth race at Delaware, and working (a) record at the same time, he had a problem!" In April of 1957, Goldner was forced to sell his interests in Tico, Rama and Gee to Levy. As would all of his early labels over time, it became a subsidiary of Roulette Records. Yet, Goldner didn't wash his hands of Tico; he still loved Latin music, and it was his first successful company, after all. He kept an active hand in its creative operations, and would occasionally supervise recording dates for the label until the end of his life.

There was nothing middle-of-the-road about Morris Levy . . . people either loved him or hated him! Reputed to be in the employ of the Genovese crime family, he wasn't shy about throwing his weight around. Depending on the situation, Levy could reportedly come across as either hail-fellow-well-met or very much a bully. 1n 1975, he beat up a plainclothes police officer, causing serious injury. His connections were such that the matter never came to trial!

During the thirty-plus years he spent selling music, allegations flew in his direction from all quarters: That he threatened to ruin artists' careers if they didn't do as he wished; that he short-changed artists on royalties; that he never wrote a song in his life, yet put his name to numerous hits; that he bootlegged records on the side. He was implicated in the "payola" scandal of 1959-60 and narrowly escaped indictment by a grand jury. Levy's most high-profile dispute occurred in 1978; he tangled in court with John Lennon over unreleased material he believed he had the right to market(mistakenly, as it turned out). The feds were constantly after him for one thing or another(and in 1988, they finally convicted him of extortion). Still, Morris Levy had his defenders, and not all of them were Mafiosi. "I might not have received every cent of my royalties due", '60s superstar Tommy James told Discoveries Magazine after Levy's death, "but when (I) had a record out, I knew that it would always get priority treatment because of Morris."

He was born in Harlem in 1927 to a family that was half-Jewish and half-Hispanic. During the 1920s and '30s, Harlem was the Jazz capitol of the United States, and Levy grew up loving the music. He worked on the fringes of the Jazz world for years, eventually becoming manager and then owner of several New York nightclubs. In 1949, he hit the big-time after opening Birdland. It became a Mecca for the cream of Jazz talent: Count Basie, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, and the club's namesake, Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, all headlined there. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn Monroe flocked to Birdland, too. The atmosphere was very exciting, very glamorous, and (allegedly) very mob-connected.

Levy got involved in the manufacturing side of the music business in order to record his Birdland acts, as well as claim a hefty chunk of their song income via Patricia Music, his publishing company. The standard "Lullaby of Birdland", written by George Shearing, was one of his earliest and most lucrative copyrights. After the Roulette takeover, several Tico artists suddenly "decided" to record it. Such conflicts-of-interest were typical of the way he did business: In addition to running Roulette and its sister labels, and publishing the songs his artists wrote, he had a hand in jukebox distribution!

Ethical lapses notwithstanding, Levy did know how to package and move inventory, and Tico Records definitely benefited from his knowledge. Everything about Tico started looking more professional after the company relocated to Roulette's office suite at 1631 Broadway. Photography for album sleeves looked sharper, informative liner notes (usually in both English and Spanish) replaced the catalogue list printed on the backs of early releases, and songwriter and publishing credits started appearing on albums for the first time. Many Tico albums got a second lease on life in the form of budget reissues on Roulette's Forum subsidiary. In subsequent years, some of the more Jazz-oriented Tico sessions would appear on Roulette proper, for example, Tito Puente's Bossa Nova and My Fair Lady albums, and Machito's critically-acclaimed set Kenya. To his credit, Morris Levy preserved Tico's Latin orientation, and didn't try to hedge his bets by making it a Jazz label. As always, Jazz was a major influence, but danceable Latin sounds remained the order of the day.

Bandleader Rafael "Ralph" Seijo became Tico's new head of A & R. During his brief tenure, Tico signed and released albums by venerable Latin pianist Noro Morales, Argentinean tango king Astor Piazzola, café society bandleader Fernando "Caney" Storch, future "Mission Impossible" theme composer Lalo Shifrin, and Marco Rizo, music director for the "I Love Lucy" TV show. More aggressively than George Goldner, Seijo tried to diversify the catalogue beyond mambos and cha-chas, recording artists from Argentina, México and Spain who performed in their traditional styles. Marco Rizo, Machito and Pete Terrace each contributed an album to a Seijo-conceived series that put a Latin-American spin on great North American standards by the likes of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Tico artists kept Bell Sound buzzing with activity, and in the years just prior to Fidel Castro's takeover, a few recording sessions were also held in Cuba. Albums were issued in "dynamic stereo" for the first time. Pete Terrace expanded his quintet into a full orchestra, and arguably cut some of his finest dance tracks under Ralph Seijo's supervision, among them "Chanchulló," "Broadway Mambo" and "Cha-Cha-Chá In New York".

Seijo could also pull together a mean cha-cha compilation; you'd be hard-pressed to find better collections than his 1959 releases, In The Land Of Cha-Cha-Chá and I Dreamt I Danced The Cha-Cha-Chá. He made it awfully hard to believe that Tito Puente was no longer a Tico artist, because he did such a good job of compiling new Puente albums from old tracks! Ralph Seijo departed Tico around 1960 for the chance to record his own orchestra on the Somerset label, just as the pachanga craze was beginning to take Latin music by storm. It was left for Teddy Rieg, Roulette's head of Jazz A & R, to shepherd the label's artists into the swinging '60s. Despite the fact that Rock'n' Roll's growing popularity was taking an ever-larger bite out of Latin music's consumer base, it would prove to be Tico's most successful decade.

Part Four:
The pachanga dance craze had a tremendous impact on the sound of Latin New York, as evidenced by the large number of pachanga albums released during the early '60s, both on major and independent labels. The dance was a high-energy mix of merengue and cha-cha-chá rhythms. Flute-and-violin charanga bands dominated the scene, and none were more popular than those led by pianist Charlie Palmieri and percussionist-turned-flautist Johnny Pacheco. Both Palmieri and Pacheco recorded for Al Santiago's Alegre label, which would later be bought out by Roulette.

However, for the time being, Alegre's artists were competition, and Teddy Reig had to keep his artists viable in the marketplace. Soon, he had signed charangas led by Rosendo Rosell, Pupi Legarreta, and Alfredito Valdés, Jr. Though Alfredito chose to abandon his solo career in order to join Machito's Afro-Cubans, his George Goldner-supervised album was so popular, it rated a reissue in 1969. Reig also revamped the orchestras of Machito, Pete Terrace, and Arsenio Rodríguez to fit the pachanga mold. The playing of flautist Mauricio Smith was prominent on most if not all of the recordings Tico cut during this period. He got to strut his stuff under his own name in 1963 on an album called Machito Presents Fluta Nova. Even Tito Puente, returning to Tico after a frustrating five years at RCA Victor, got a charanga-style makeover. His biggest contribution to the pachanga craze was a song that would outlive it: "Oye Cómo Va", introduced on his 1962 Tico album El Rey Tito: Bravo Puente! It would become his most lucrative copyright after Carlos Santana remade it as a Latin Rock song in 1971. Despite Puente's later statements to the contrary, it was also a sizable hit in its original version. That said, another of Teddy Reig's new signings, Ray Barretto, cut the only hit single on Tico that most people remember from 1962.

While New York's Latino population was twisting hips and waving red handkerchiefs to the rhythms of pachanga, the rest of America was caught up in teenage dance crazes like the Twist, the Monkey, the Mashed Potatoes and the Watusi. During this time, the Pop charts were bursting with dance records by artists like Little Eva, Chubby Checker, Major Lance and Joey Dee and The Starlighters. Latin music was dance music, after all, so it made sense for Tico to try and cash in on the trend. However, Ray Barretto was the last person you would've expected to cut a Pop record; he wasn't oriented in that direction at all. Like Joe Loco, he had as much Jazz background as Latin, if not more. In the '50s, he'd played on dates with Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Cannonball Adderly, Herbie Mann and a host of other Jazz greats. His conga playing was one of the major attractions on Tito Puente's final recordings for RCA Victor. He emerged as a bandleader in his own right in 1961, cutting pachanga music for the Riverside label.

With his band, Charanga Moderna, he came to Tico the following year and scored big with his very first album. Noting the word "Watusi" in the title of one of the twelve tracks he'd cut, Teddy Reig chose it as the single, hoping that teenagers would take notice. They did, and it's not hard to figure out why. The record begins with the crack of handclappings at six-beat intervals while Alfredito Valdés, Jr. plays a wicked piano vamp. Then, like a couple of hip Puerto Rican guys rapping on a street corner, Wito Kortwright (on lead) and Willie Torres make with some groovy Spanglish dialogue over a sizzling pachanga beat. That beat proved so irresistible, English-only speakers had no trouble being seduced by it. Clearly a precursor of Rap music, but far more danceable than most Rap records, "El Watusi" helped change its namesake from a line dance into a booty-wagging showpiece for go-go girls and beach bunnies. It broke Top Twenty on both the Pop and R & B charts, sending Morris Levy and Teddy Reig into fits of sheer ecstasy!

Unfortunately, it sent Ray Barretto into a state of confusion regarding his musical direction . . . so much so that he later expressed regret at having cut the song. He felt pressured to duplicate its success, and spent the rest of his time at Tico unsuccessfully trying to do so. However, over the course of four albums, Barretto made an important discovery: He didn't really like the sound of charanga bands! He added a brass section to his 1964 album Guajira y Guaguancó, setting the stage for harder-edged recordings he'd begin making for Fania Records three years later.

In 1963, Tico marketed twenty-two albums. Graciela got a long-overdue showcase as a featured artist on Está Es Graciela, an LP that exploits her twin talents for passionate bolero singing and spicy double entendre. Lest anyone fear she was leaving the Afro-Cubans for a solo career, Machito and Mario Bauzá were on hand to provide high-profile musical backing. Puerto Rican songstress and politician Ruth Fernández, Spanish show band Los Chavales de España and former Tito Puente sideman Willie Bobo joined the Tico family that year. Back from an extended gig in California where he and Mongo Santamaría had helped vibraphonist Cal Tjader tighten up his Latin chops, Bobo was already showing strong signs of evolving into the fusion artist he'd ultimately become. He and his Jazz-oriented orchestra cut just one Tico album session (Bobo! Do That Thing/Guajira was reportedly his first as a bandleader) before moving on to Roulette, and then, Verve Records. There, Bobo waxed cult favorites like "Spanish Grease" and the original version of Santana's 1971 million-seller "Evil Ways."

Motion picture and singing star Miguelito Valdés stayed a little longer. Signing him to Tico was certainly a coup for Morris Levy and Teddy Reig; one of the most successful and respected stars of Latin music, his career dated back to the late 1930s when he'd co-founded the influential Casino de la Playa Orchestra in Cuba. That group also gave the world Pérez Prado, the self-proclaimed Mambo King. After migrating to the United States, Valdés was a featured singer with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra and Machito's Afro-Cubans. During the heyday of American movie musicals, he had electrified the screen in films like Pan-Americana with his exotic Cuban/Mexican looks, open-shirted sexuality and bombastic conga drumming. Yet he was certainly more than a Hollywood pretty boy; his rapid-fire vocal improvisations were amazing, and when it came to the art of Afro-Cuban chanting, he had few equals. In fact, Valdés had introduced the form to American popular music in the '40s via Cugat waxings like "Babalú" (the original!) and "Ana Boroco Tinde". The opportunity to cut a reunion album with Machito brought him to Tico. He completed that LP, a solo album recorded in México with El Mariachi Tenochtitlán, and another special project (which will be discussed later) before resuming his international touring and acting career.

Pianist Eddie Palmieri came to Tico in 1964, just as Beatlemania began spreading through the land. The younger brother of Charlie Palmieri, he worked with Pete Terrace and Tito Rodríguez prior to forming his Orquesta La Perfecta and signing to Al Santiago's Alegre label. He rode the crest of the pachanga craze until Alegre went bankrupt. Then Morris Levy bought his contract, and his next scheduled Alegre album, Echando pa'Lante, was issued on Tico Records. He remained at Tico until the early '70s, scoring his biggest hit with "Azúcar". At eight-and-a-half minutes, it was the longest Latin dance tune ever released as a 45 RPM single at that time. "It was a hit before I recorded it", Palmieri told writer David Carp in 1998. "I was already playing it all over town, in Brooklyn, at The Palladium, (so) when I recorded it, I had to record it the way we did it!"

This presented Morris Levy with a challenge. Here was a hit waiting to happen, but it was far too lengthy by 1964 standards. However, he had an ace up his sleeve. One of the most influential Jazz deejays in New York was "Symphony Sid" Torin, who hosted a Latin music show on WABC Radio. During the '50s, Torin had emceed numerous live broadcasts from Birdland; Levy knew him from those days. He called in a favor from Torin, and the deejay promptly put Palmieiri's song in heavy rotation. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and other radio stations soon followed WABC's example. "'Symphony Sid' took it to the hilt", Palmieri confirmed, "and I can never thank him enough for that, (him and) Morris Levy". Foremost among other jocks who pushed the record was Dick "Ricardo" Sugar, still loyally waving the Tico banner after fifteen years. Also popular in some R & B markets, "Azúcar" was the centerpiece of Palmieri's 1965 album Azúcar pa' Tí (Sugar For You).

His other Tico albums of note include the R & B-flavored Justicia produced by George Goldner, Champagne featuring the funky "African Twist", Vamanos pa'l Monte with his brother Charlie as a musical guest, and a critically-acclaimed concert disc, 1972's Live At Sing Sing, recorded on site at the infamous prison with vocal accompaniment by the Harlem River Drive Singers. 1967's Bamboleate, recorded with Cal Tjader, was part of a special two album deal arranged by Morris Levy and producer Creed Taylor in which Palmieri was loaned to Tjader's label, Verve, so that the two could record another set, El Sonido Nuevo. Both LPs are highly regarded. Palmieri, who later became the first artist to win a Latin Grammy award, is noted for his tendency toward musical innovation. Over time, he became one of Latin Jazz's chief exponents. His band included flautist George Castro, ace timbalero Manny Oquendo, singer Ismael Quintana and trombonist Barry Rogers, who, in the '70s, would earn a reputation as one of salsa's greatest arrangers.

Morris Levy acquired the brightest jewel in Tico's crown when he succeeded in luring the great Celia Cruz to Tico in 1965. Famous since the early '50s as lead singer of Cuba's highly regarded brass ensemble La Sonora Matancera, she had defected with the band in 1960 in order to escape the Castro regime. After five years recording with La Sonora for New York's Seeco label, she decided it was time to pursue a solo career. However, after leaving La Sonora, her recordings lacked the consistently strong musical backing she was accustomed to. At Tico, she got just the sonic boost she needed: Tito Puente and His Orchestra! Their first collaboration, Cuba y Puerto Rico Son . . . (a reference to Cruz and Puente's respective ethnicities) won critical acclaim in New York and across Latin America, as did a dozen subsequent albums recorded with Puente, and with Mexican bandleader Memo Salamanca.

The music was solid, but sales were not, and Cruz's time with Tico proved to be a bittersweet experience for her. "I made eight albums (for Tico) that went nowhere", she complained to Latin Beat Magazine years later. "Nobody was promoting them!" That's unlikely. Morris Levy was known as one of the best record promoters in the business. For some reason, New York Latinos weren't yet ready for what Cruz had to offer. Although she'd be proclaimed Queen of Salsa in the 1970s, she was not the most popular female act on the Tico roster during the '60s. That distinction belonged to La Lupe!

A Cuban native who is barely remembered today in her homeland, La Lupe is also unknown to most North Americans. However, her name still inspires awe among a generation of Latin music lovers. La Lupe's approach to singing, and to life in general, was passionate in the extreme. "(She) was no ordinary singer", stresses John Ramos, a long-time fan. "Her performances, including shouts of ahí na má (loosely translated, it means 'come closer to me, baby'), the kicking off of her shoes, the ripping of her clothes, pulling her hair, biting her hands and arms, beating herself and, at times, her musicians(!), laughing and crying while dancing onstage, were unforgettable!" Lupe herself was known to say, "In Cuba, they called me crazy!" Many people in New York thought she was insane, too, but many others considered her an artiste par excellence who gave the most electrifying performances they'd ever seen. "(They) were always awesome", Ramos confirms. "She was described as a sado-masochist with a sense of rhythm."

In order to experience the full impact of La Lupe, you had to see her in person, but one record comes close to capturing her dangerous sensuality: the malevolent rendition of Little Willie John's much-covered hit "Fever" that she waxed for the Discuba label while still a resident of Cuba. The track is like a volcano erupting, so . . . well, so feverish that it puts the Peggy Lee version to shame. Many believe it to be the definitive interpretation of the song. La Lupe re-cut "Fever" on her 1968 Tico album Queen of Latin Soul.

Most Latin musicians of her era had extensive training in their craft. Lupe Victoria Yoli had no musical training, just a teaching certificate that she never used. Singing was her obsession; she wanted to be like Olga Guillot, a Cuban grand diva whose personality came across on stage as powerfully as her vocals did. After completing her teacher training, Lupe gravitated immediately to the entertainment world. She joined a group called Los Tropicubanos but couldn't get along with the other members, and was soon asked to leave. Her talent and desire for a singing career were both so strong, she managed to find success on her own.

In 1959, she landed a nightclub gig singing Rock and Pop songs in Spanish. Her sets at Club La Red became the talk of Havana, and if they were even half as outrageous as they became in subsequent years, it's not hard to understand why. If legend is to be believed, La Lupe recorded an album for the Discuba label called Con el Diablo en El Cuerpo(With The Devil In My Body), and then proceeded to act as if it were so! Her stage performances became so scandalous that Fidel Castro is said to have personally had her deported from Cuba! Whatever the truth may be surrounding her departure from the island, it's known that she made her way to New York City in the early '60s and hooked up with fellow expatriate Mongo Santamaría. He and producer Orrin Keepnews were so taken with her raw vocal ability, they created an album to showcase her, calling it Mongo Introduces La Lupe. Released on the Riverside label in 1963, it caused quite a stir in the Latin music community, and led to bookings at such venues as The Apollo Theater and The Palladium.

Santamaría introduced her to Tito Puente, and much to his consternation, she began appearing exclusively with Puente's orchestra shortly thereafter. On the latter's recommendation and promise to join her in the studio, Morris Levy offered her a Tico recording contract in 1965. The first album release, Tito Puente Swings/The Exciting Lupe Sings, became one of the fastest-moving items in the catalogue, selling in excess of 500,000 copies, the equivalent of a platinum record in the Latin music world. The album's eclectic mix of pachanga, samba, pasodoble, merengue and bolero stylings showed off La Lupe's high-voltage vibrato to excellent effect. Three more Lupe/Puente collaborations followed and, for the next two years, polls declared her Latin music's most popular female vocalist.

Both the bandleader and his new star vocalist had volatile temperaments, and this eventually ended their association; one night, Lupe reportedly spat in Puente's face during a performance, and he bodily threw her off the stage.  By then, though, Lupe had enough of a fan base to sustain a solo career. Her Tico albums and singles were snatched up like twenty-dollar bills and, while the recordings had considerable merit, it was unquestionably her notorious reputation that initially made them sell. Her lifestyle, like her stage show, was extravagant; only the most ostentatious cars, jewelry, clothing and living quarters would satisfy her. La Lupe's flamboyance made her the first Latin singer to draw a large Gay following, many of them young Puerto Rican males. Consequently, she became a sensation in Puerto Rico, especially after she exposed herself during an appearance on Puerto Rican television and was banned.

She grew to be so famous in New York, she also was tapped to appear on North American variety shows like Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett where her performances were (somewhat) less revealing. In addition to her striptease act and fits of physical violence, audience members might see Lupe fall into deep trances onstage. A devout follower of the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santería, she claimed to be in constant communication with Changó, Ochún, Yemayá and other orishas(saints). This supernatural aspect only added to the mystique that mesmerized her fans. Yet, her religious convictions were perhaps a little too intense: The ritual candles she lit each night twice burned down her home!

Tico's most important male signing in 1965, certainly from a Puerto Rican point of view, may well have been Rafael Cortijo and His Combo, featuring the late, great salsa singer Ismael Rivera. The basis of Cortijo's sound was the bomba, a traditional form of Puerto Rican dance music. In the early '50s, he adapted the instrumentation of mambo bands for playing the bomba, but used traditional instruments like timbas and guïros to keep the sound as authentic as possible. Historian Frank Figueroa quotes Cortijo as having said at the time: "We try to play (music) honestly, with spontaneity and without any sophisticated variations that may alter its original form."

Rivera, a close friend of Cortijo's since childhood, joined his combo in 1955. His singing had a peculiar nasal quality that made listeners take notice, but it was his improvisational skill that made him the envy of other singers. After hearing one of his performances, Cuba's greatest popular singer Beny Moré reportedly called him el sonoro mayor: The best singer he'd ever heard. Many people agreed with this assessment. When Rivera sang live with Cortijo and His Combo, it was like a Brazilian carnival scene: The always-festive musicians would abandon the bandstand in order to dance and sing among audience members. They were the first all-Black group ever allowed to appear on Puerto Rican television, and after signing with New York-based Seeco Records, they cut hit singles such as "El Negro Bembón", "Alegría y Bomba", "Maquino Landera", "El Bonbón de Elena" and others. Ismael Rivera's mother, Margarita, wrote several hits for them.

As was true inside the mainland United States, the 1950s was an era of racial segregation in Puerto Rico. Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera are praised for having demanded better pay and working conditions for Black musicians. However, the praise came in later years; at the time, the music industry didn't look kindly on their endeavours. Nor did it care for both men's reputations for alcohol consumption and drug abuse. In 1962, Rivera was caught with cocaine in his possession. He was convicted and sent to Federal prison in the United States(Puerto Rico is a US commonwealth). Cortijo's combo suddenly found itself blacklisted and unable to work. The group broke up, and several of its musicians formed El Gran Combo, which went on to have its own hits. That might have been the end of the story, except for Morris Levy's intervention three years later.

In 1996, Alegre Records founder Al Santiago recalled the details of Rivera's release from prison; at the time, Santiago was negotiating to sell his label to Roulette. "I told (Morris) that one of (Puerto Rico's) best singers was in Lexington, Kentucky, in rehab, and that we should look forward to signing him," Santiago wrote. "After asking me Ismael Rivera's name, he picked up the phone and spoke to I-don't-know-whom. He then told me, 'I want you to go to Kentucky and pick him up!' I was to take along a letter stating that Tico was signing him to a recording contract . . ." Incredibly, Rivera was freed, and within days of Levy's telephone call, he was sitting in the label boss's New York City office! An astonished Al Santiago astutely concluded that Levy was "a man of connections."

Cortijo reunited with Ismael Rivera, and they recruited a new combo around themselves. Fully apprised by Al Santiago of their earlier triumphs in Puerto Rico, Morris Levy eagerly signed them to a Tico album deal. Their first LP, ¡Bienvenido! (Welcome) featured arrangements by Tito Puente. (Puente involvement with début albums soon became the preferred way to launch new acts.) However, Cortijo and Rivera would record only one more album together. For reasons that are not clear, Ismael Rivera parted ways with his old friend in 1968, and teamed with pianist Javier Vázquez to form his own band, Los Cachimbos. Cortijo then organized a new group, El Bonche Agua, and recorded two more albums for Tico using his daughter Fay and Panamanian singer Azuquita on lead vocals, among others. The second of these, Ahí Na Má, is held in particularly high regard by his fans.

Soon afterward, homesickness prompted Cortijo's return to his beloved island. He declined to renew his contract with Tico Records, an indication that the label's production techniques may have been too slick for his tastes. He may also have had doubts about Morris Levy's ability to market his kind of music; what subsequently happened to Ismael Rivera's career lent weight to such concerns. Despite studio assistance from Puerto Rican master percussionist Kako, Rivera and His Cachimbos did not move much vinyl for Tico, though they stayed with the label until the late '70s. Rivera achieved both the acclaim and the sales figures he deserved after switching to Fania Records, but his success was short-lived; renewed drug abuse and the tragic loss of his voice derailed his career. Tico may not have made as much money as it would have liked from either Rafael Cortijo or Ismael Rivera's music but, viewed from an historical perspective, the company was fortunate to have recorded such important artists at the peak of their powers.

Coming soon . . . Parts Five and Six of The Tico Records Story


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