03 March 2006

Habanera Rock, Part Three

Terry Stafford

South Of Spanish Harlem
The 1960s Habanera Rock Revolution
by Donny Jacobs

For your listening pleasure, here are nine more long-playing male vocalist gems released during the heyday of Habanera Rock:

One-Two-Three
Len Barry
This debut LP by the former lead singer of The Dovells is considered one of the great pseudo-Motown recordings, and not without good reason. Producers Johnny Madara and Dave White probably had copies of the latest Supremes and Four Tops singles stashed in the studio control room for quick reference! However, listen closely and you'll hear the Latin boogaloo hammering away underneath that imitation Holland-Dozier-Holland brass section. This 1965 album and the aforementioned one by Dobie Gray feature some of the earliest appearances of boogaloo, predating by a year the Joe Cuba Sextet's million-selling "Bang, Bang." If you doubt the Latin connection, just listen to those bongó-laden breaks on the title track and "Like A Baby," rock to Lenny's rave-up rhumba interpretation of "Treat Her Right," and dig the smokin' samba groove of "Happiness Is."
A Madara-White Production
Arranged and Conducted by Jimmy "Wiz" Wisner
released in 1965

Dance 'Til Quarter To Three
Gary US Bonds
Over the years, numerous critics have remarked on how Gary US Bonds' early '60s singles tend to convey a rather . . . inebriated sensibility. That's no surprise, since Gary has admitted that he and his backing musicians The Church Street Five were often drunker than country skunks when they hit the recording studio! Regardless of how friendly they may have been with Jack Daniels, Frank Guida's crackerjack sessionmen never had any trouble pounding out the Habanera Rock numbers he gave them to play. A former Calypso musician, Guida adored Caribbean/Latin music, and the songs he wrote reflected his tastes. Gary's début album, recorded in Norfolk, Virginia, sounds like it was cut in New Orleans' Latin Quarter. The Big Easy has always been a main port of entry for Latin music, so it's fitting that the Rock 'n' Roll classic which bears the city's name is a rhumba. "One Million Tears," "Cecelia" and "That's All Right" are also rhumbas, the old-fashioned swingin' kind that New Orleans Jazz bands have been playing for decades. "Quarter To Three," "School Is Out," "Not Me" and "Trip To The Moon" all have a cha-cha-chá rhythm foundation (and in fact, they have enough backbeat to be called primitive Latin boogaloos). The 1984 stereo reissue of Dance 'Til Quarter To Three features a pair of bonus tracks that also rock the cha-cha, "What A Dream" and "Time Old Story."
A Frank Guida Production
Arranged and Conducted by Gene Barge
released in 1961

Takin' Care Of Business
Ral Donner
Ral sports a bolero jacket on the sleeve of this album, but he's not just making a fashion statement. It's a danger sign that means "beware of concealed Latin Music influence"! There are deadly habaneras coiled and ready to strike in almost every groove. The deadliest by far is "She's My Baby," a track distinguished by its stark background and intense Jazz drumming. "I Didn't Figure On Him To Come Back" and "For Love Nor Money" are also fairly potent examples. Both of Ral's best-known hits, "You Don't Know What You've Got" and his cover of Elvis Presley's "Girl Of My Best Friend" appear on this deluxe fourteen-track LP, and both feature the tango beat. The remainder of the album is taken up by Rock ballads, but just to prove that Ral isn't a one-trick pony when it comes to Latin influences, a song called "With You Now" gives him a chance to show off his pasodoble technique. He moves confidently in the bullfighter's ring, and that red matador's cape sure does look hot with his bolero jacket and skintight pants! Steve Alaimo bagged one of his first A & R credits producing this set, which was cut at the legendary Criterion Studios in Miami, Florida.
Arranged and Conducted by Alan Lorber
Produced by Steve Alaimo and Artie Ripp
under the supervision of George Goldner
released in 1961

Solitary Man
The Feel Of Neil Diamond
He may or may not be a big Latin music fan, but during the 1960s, Neil Diamond definitely had a knack for writing catchy tangos, bossa novas and cha-cha-chás. (Jay + The Americans got hold of one called "Sunday And Me" and rode it into Billboard's Top Twenty.) With the encouragement of Bang Records CEO Bert Berns, he filled the better part of an album with them, and for his trouble he was rewarded with four hit singles: The brooding "Solitary Man," its flipside "Do It!" (which charted belatedly four years after its initial release), "Oh, No No", and the fabulous "Cherry, Cherry." With its wicked Cuban guajeos (vamps) played on piano, organ and guitar, handclappings by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich that explode like firecrackers, and exuberant backing vocals from Jeff and Ellie, this record proved impossible to resist. Neil's undeservedly obscure début LP also features the exquisite "Love To Love," later covered by The Monkees, his sizzling cover of "New Orleans", and a great, Gospelly remake of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba," one of the first and most important Habanera Rock hits.
Arranged and Conducted by Artie Butler
Produced by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich
released in 1966

I Must Be Seeing Things
Gene Pitney
Of all '60s Rock stars, Gene Pitney was Ben E. King's closest rival for Habanera Rock dominance. Time and again he offered up marvelous Latin rockers that were usually written by the best Brill Building scribes: "Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa" (Bacharach and David), "If I Didn't Have A Dime" (Bert Berns), "It Hurts To Be In Love" (Greenfield and Miller), "Princess In Rags" (Atkins and Miller), "That Girl Belongs To Yesterday" (a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards original that Gene Latinized himself). All of his Musicor albums have some degree of chili seasoning, but this 1965 platter is the spiciest of them all! Gene moves effortlessly from the dramatic pasodoble sweep of "If I Never Get To Love You" to the brisk bossa nova swing of "Down In The Subway" and the bubbly merengue mood of "Don't Take Candy From A Stranger." Moving into tango territory, he rips into the fierce "I Lost Tomorrow Yesterday," then slows down long enough to savor "If Mary's There," a melancholy canción ranchera. "She's Still There" and "There's No Livin' Without Your Lovin'" (later issued as the flipside of "Looking Through The Eyes Of Love") also make excellent use of the habanera rhythm. The title cut, arranged by Alan Lorber, is a classic Rock'n'Roll baião worthy of The Drifters. Much of this LP boasts the strong mariachi flavor that distinguishes so many Gene Pitney recordings.
A Past, Present and Future Production
Produced by Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold
Additional Production by Gary Geld, Pete Udell, Gene Pitney and Stan Kahan
released in 1965

Composer's Choice
Johnny Nash
Anybody who thinks of Johnny Nash as nothing more than "that Reggae singer who did 'I Can See Clearly Now'" should listen to his ABC-Paramount and Argo albums from the early '60s. He was a Pop balladeer par excellence, and beginning with his 1959 set I Got Rhythm, he demonstrated considerable skill at singing Latin Jazz. His fiery English-language version of "Bésame Mucho" (from the 1960 album Studio Time) simply cannot be bettered. In 1964, Johnny briefly left New York to cut sides in Chicago for Chess Records, but he took his Latin chops along with him. On this, the first of his many self-produced albums, all of the up tempo numbers feature Latin Jazz arrangements. Johnny's breezy tropical cover of Arlen and Mercer's "One For My Baby" is wonderful, but his funky tango treatment of Irving Berlin's "Always" is the real keeper for Rock'n'Roll fans.
Arranged and Conducted by King Fleming and Will Jackson
Produced by Johnny Nash
under the supervision of Esmond Edwards
released in 1964

Down In The Boondocks
Billy Joe Royal
This album, at least partially recorded in Atlanta, Georgia, is an excellent showcase for its superb title track. "Boondocks" is possibly the finest Rock 'n' Roll tango ever recorded. Joe South, conducting Billy Joe Royal's backing band, delivers a deep habanera that reverberates up from the bottom of a cavernous-sounding echo chamber. Most of the other tracks have a Merseybeat flavor, and there's a Country tune here, too (Willie Nelson's ominous "Funny How Time Slips Away"), but Billy Joe's cover of The Dells' "Oh! What A Night" and the original songs "Leanin' On You," "Pollyanna" and "Heartaches and Teardrops" also rock to a tango beat. In addition, South's productions of "I've Got To Be Somebody" (one of the follow-up hits to "Down In The Boondocks"), "Railroad Tracks Inbetween" and "King Of Fools" show how Leiber and Stoller's baião recordings were still exerting a strong influence.
A Joe South Production
under the supervision of Allen Stanton
released in 1965

That Stubborn Kind Of Fellow
Marvin Gaye
Marvelous Marvin Gaye . . . the king of sexy Soul . . . a Habanera rocker???!! Yes, since at this early stage in his career, Motown staff writers like Mickey Stevenson, Norman Whitfield and Marvin himself are filling up his songbook with cha-cha-chá and bossa nova numbers. This album is absolutely dominated by them: The title song, "Hitch Hike", "Hello There, Angel", "Get My Hands On Some Lovin'", "Wherever I Lay My Hat" and "It Hurt Me, Too" all have solid Latin underpinnings. Marvin's brand of salsa is so appealing, he could have gone over big performing these tunes at New York's Palladium Ballroom on a bill with Tito Rodríguez, Machito and Tito Puente! Yes, that's Martha Reeves + The Vandellas singing spiritedly in the background on the title track and a few other cuts.
A Mickey Stevenson Production
released in 1963

Fun In Acapulco
Original Soundtrack Album from the Paramount Motion Picture
starring Elvis Presley
Rock critics have long detested Elvis's '60s soundtrack recordings, but they really need to lighten up! If he'd only dressed in black leather and sang dirty Blues numbers like "One Night," he would've been awfully one-dimensional. The King of Rock'n'Roll, guest backing vocal group The Amigos and his regular Hollywood session musicians have a blast romping through these lively faux Latin tunes (though, believe it or not, a couple of them are authentic). A real rhumba band from Cuba couldn't make "México" swing any harder than it does. "Fun In Acapulco" is a grand 1920s-style tango that would've done Xavier Cugat proud. "You Can't Say No In Acapulco" shows that the King was no slouch when it came to singing bossa nova ballads. He indulges his well-known operatic leanings with impassioned treatments of "El Toro" and the mariachi anthem "Guadalajara." "Bossa Nova Baby" is more like a samba than a bossa nova, but who cares? It's a killer track that eats The Clover's original version for breakfast. "Vino, Diñero y Amor" sounds like a poor cousin to "Viva Las Vegas," but with The Amigos carousing like borrachitos behind a mugging Elvis, it's nothing if not a fun track to hear. There's not much you can say for awkward incidental numbers like "No Room To Rhumba In A Sports Car," though . . . they work far better on film than on wax!
Arranged and Conducted by Joseph Lilley
Produced by Joseph Lilley and Elvis Presley
released in 1963

Very few of Habanera Rock's writers and performers were Latinos, but the ascendancy of Latin Rock reversed that dynamic. Inspired by cultural initiatives like "Chicano" Pride, and spearheaded by Santana in the early 1970s, the Latin Rock movement was a logical and necessary evolution of earlier fusion efforts. However, once Soft Rock became a record industry catch word, Latin music's influence on Rock' n' Roll began to wane. It didn't disappear completely; you could still occasionally hear a Habanera Rock waxing like Bobby Bloom's "Montego Bay", RB Greaves's "Take A Letter, María", BW Stevenson's "My María," Mungo Jerry's "In The Summertime" or Tony Orlando + Dawn's "Candida"(penned by Brill Building vets Toni Wine and Irwin Levine). Compared to the high volume produced in the '60s, though, it was just a trickle.

Fortunately, the Latin strain remained quite active in Soul music. You can hear it in '70s releases by War, Earth, Wind And Fire, LaBelle, and the roster of artists signed to Holland-Dozier-Holland's Invictus and Hot Wax labels, among others. It also played a prominent role in the Disco explosion, judging from the evidence of hit singles like Santa Esmeralda's remake of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", Donna Summer's "Heaven Knows," Pattie Brooks' "After Dark," Debbie Jacobs' "Don't You Want My Love?", Ann-Margret's "Love Rush", La Flavour's "Mandolay", The Gibson Brothers' "Cuba", Patrick Hernandez's "Born To Be Alive," Barbara Law's "Take All Of Me", The Gibson Brothers' "Cuba" and just about anything by KC and The Sunshine Band . . . and there's a strong argument to be made that Disco music's successor, Hip-Hop, has as much Latin as African-American influence in it.

During the late 1990s, the United States saw numerous Latin music artists achieve mainstream popularity, and the fusion records they released brought the movement full circle. There can be little doubt that Ricky Martin's 1999 chart-topper "Livin' La Vida Loca" is Latin Rock; ditto for Carlos Santana's comeback hit "Smooth" from the same year. Periodic album releases from Los Super Seven (a shifting lineup of old-school Latin, Rock and Country performers) have featured a kind of New Wave Latin Rock that's heavily influenced by Mexican norteño music. With the San Angelo, Texas-based group Los Lonely Boys and genre-hopping Country singer Raul Malo carrying the fusion banner into the 21st Century, the future of Latin-influenced Rock'n'Roll seems secure . . . but what about its past?

Old records featuring the classic Habanera Rock sound still air regularly on a dwindling number of Oldies radio stations, and from time to time Rock historians write about them in a Brill Building Pop or Girl Group context. However, no one has ever really attempted to identify these records as a distinct Rock 'n' Roll subgenre until now. Music scholars need to recognize it as such! It's high time to acknowledge the profound importance of Spanish and Latin-American styles to our popular music tradition. Ritchie Valens and other early Latino rockers weren't cultural outsiders! They were insiders who contributed as much to the development of Rock'n'Roll as a Carl Perkins or a Chuck Berry did.

Many years ago, the great Jelly Roll Morton stated, "If you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish (music) in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning . . . for Jazz." At the Pop Culture Cantina, we believe those "Spanish tinges" he spoke of are just as essential when it comes to writing, playing and producing authentic Rock'n'Roll. Without Latin rhythms, or a reasonable substitute, a Rock record is bland and uninteresting. It's like Tequila without lime, paella without onions and garlic, tortilla chips without salsa. No tiene sabor . . . it lacks flavor!

Producers and songwriters in the 1960s knew what many of their counterparts today seem to have forgotten. Just like you need condiments at a cocktail bar, or a spice rack in the kitchen, you need Latin influences in American music. Otherwise, you end up with Rock that just doesn't have enough Roll! That winning combination of red with white and blue musical heritage makes all the difference.

Muchísimas gracias to Jeff Barry and Bobby Bloom for writing The Archies' hit "Sunshine", the first Habanera Rock song I ever fell in love with. Special thanks to Chuck Haddix, host of National Public Radio's "Saturday Night Fish Fry" for his invaluable assistance.
Dedicated to the memory of Jack Keller.

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