09 February 2011

Seeco Records (Part One)


Sidney Siegel's
House Of Gold
The Seeco Records Story
by Donny Jacobs

¡Hey, señor!
Come this way
If I may be so bold
You will find treasure here
In my house of gold*

Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and other legendary bandleaders plied the beat that set Americans Lindy Hopping in the 1930s and '40s. However, the popularity of big bands waned during the years immediately after the end of World War II. The end of the Swing era saw the rise of superstar balladeers like Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Nat "King" Cole and Rosemary Clooney. However, people still wanted to dance as much as ever! To satisfy this demand, Rhythm and Blues and Western swing came into their own on the West Coast and in the southern and midwestern United States, respectively. Meanwhile on the East Coast, swingin' mambo sounds fit the bill.

Jeweler Sidney Siegel noticed the growing popularity of Latin dance music during the height of the war. It was reportedly in 1943 that he poured the assets of his Casa Siegel jewelry store into the founding of a record label. Wartime vinyl rationing meant that record companies were terminating the contracts of all but their best-selling acts. A large number of Latin bands found themselves cut loose from the major labels. "All these recording stars in the Spanish (music) world were out of work," Howie Roseff told blogger Mark Schwartz. Roseff, Sidney Siegel's young cousin, worked at Casa Siegel and followed him into the record business. "Sidney knew who these popular artists were because he used to sell their records."

In addition to jewelry, Siegel's store also carried housewares and 78 RPM singles. His store was located in Spanish Harlem, and his clientele mostly Latino, so naturally he stocked Spanish-language music. "The next thing you know," Roseff remembered, "he gave up the jewelry business . . . and stuck with records." Seeco's first signing was the popular Cuarteto Marcano. The label's earliest releases were marketed in Canada due to the rationing problem; by the late '40s, Sidney Siegel had launched a full-fledged American operation.

Alberto Beltran

Latin music historian Max Salazar has interviewed Howie Roseff extensively about Seeco's operations. Roseff revealed to him that "the recordings took place at the Joe Smith studios at 57th Street . . . the recording scale was $25.00 for a four-hour session. Salesmen of jewelry and music . . . came to Casa Siegel and bought the records to re-sell. We never paid a cent for promotion! Program directors of radio stations dropped by the store to pick up free copies of the latest releases to air on their programs . . . in the late '40s, Art "Pancho" Raymond, Dick Sugar and Bob Harris aired our releases."

Seeco was selling to Puerto Ricans in New York, so Sidney Siegel began by recording lots of guitar trios from the island. However, his customers increasingly preferred music by Cuban groups. "Between 1943 and 1945, we recorded mostly Puerto Rican artists (but) eventually, Seeco catered more to the Afro-Cuban sound (because) it sold the most," Roseff confirmed. "The Seeco label (became) the most popular seller of Latin recordings until the early 1950s."

Seeco Records was devoted to the kind of Latin music that Siegel loved. Rival labels would spring up in later years (most notably, Tico Records in 1948) which tended to specialize in the "New York Latin" sound of the most popular mambo bands. Seeco and its sister label Tropical created a niche for themselves by seeking out (no pun intended) and recording only the most authentic sounds. If that meant Siegel had to travel to some far-flung locale to record an act, so be it! Unfortunately, primitive recording equipment was used, and the sound quality on many early Seeco releases leaves much to be desired. That mattered little, though, to Spanish Harlemites hungry for new releases by their favorite groups.


Seeco's catalogue included not only Afro-Cuban music (the foundation of mambo), but also native music from the French Antilles, South America, Western Europe, the Caribbean and all over the Latin diaspora. Over the next 25 years, Sidney Siegel would aggressively pursue distribution deals and fresh talent in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Haiti, The Dominican Republic, México, Spain and Argentina. His upstart independent label became famous both inside and outside the United States due to the pedigree of its product. The sleeve of each new release proclaimed in bold letters: "The Finest In Latin-American Recordings." While a fair amount of dross was issued by his label, Siegel did his best to make the claim ring true.

A "world music" label long before the term had been coined, Seeco was the direct forerunner of present-day companies like Putumayo and Island Records. Reportedly, it was the first Latin label to convert from the 10-inch album format to the 12-inch LP (in 1954). Although originally intended as strictly a Latin music label, by the late 1950s, its artist roster had diversified to include Jazz, music hall and cabaret artists such as Cy Coleman, Elsa Maxwell, Billy Maxted, Tony Scott, continental sex kitten Eartha Kitt, and cocktail pianist Hildegarde.

The Polyphonics, a trio of eclectic harmonica wizards, recorded for Seeco. A Celebrity Series was launched which featured comedian Alan King and Broadway star Chita Rivera, among others. At the height of its success, Seeco's A & R department was run by Jazz-based arranger/producers such as Joe Cain, Morty Hillman and Jerry Shifrin. Nevertheless, Latin music in its most exotic varieties, be it Spanish, French or Portuguese in origin, remained the bread and butter of Seeco/Tropical. Sidney Siegel surely wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Anyone in the mood to take a musical trip around the world had to look no further than the international section of their nearest record outlet. There they'd find the latest Seeco product by indigenous singers such as Argentineans Lydia Scotty and Leo Marini, Haitian Nemours Jean-Baptiste, and Spanish flamenco queen Lola Flores; travelogue recordings by Arturo Chaite covering various European locales; romantic French and Italian ballads as played by pianist Pierre Dorsey, accordion wizard Aimable and The Aldo Bruschi Ensemble; and tropical Jazz from talented José Melis, a Seeco mainstay who moonlighted as music director for TV's "Jack Paar" talk show. The label's two top-selling artists both hailed from Havana, Cuba: Vicentico Valdés, formerly the featured singer with Tito Puente's orchestra, thrilled millions of female hearts with his smooth ballad style, while Celia Cruz delivered world-famous guarachas, rhumbas and cha-cha-chás with her unique brand of industrial strength vocalizing.

latin momentos

Housing the exotic treasures that Seeco marketed were eye-catching album sleeves that, in true Latin style, often depicted busty beauties dressed in costumes that barely concealed their feminine charms. Much like those bulging bodices, the Seeco/Tropical tape library is full-to-overflowing with a wealth of Latin music styles. What follows is a brief look at those styles which were favored in the United States, and the Seeco artists who specialized in them.

The early part of the 20th century found wealthy Americans mesmerized by the tango, an Argentinean import with links to a Cuban rhythm called the habanera. (If you've been reading this blog for a while, that rhythm will be quite familiar to you!) Played on violin, guitar and accordion, tango music inspired a sensuous dance among the lower classes of Buenos Aires; but it quickly acquired a bad reputation because prostitutes danced to it in slit skirts while wearing no underwear! ¡Escándoloso!

The famed professional dance team of Irene and Vernon Castle cleaned up the tango, imported it to the United States during World War I, and promoted it to such an extent that its popularity swept the nation during the 1920s. Superstar Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat got his start playing tango accompaniment for early Hollywood movies, as well as for high society parties on the West Coast. Edmundo Rivero and Hugo Del Carril were perhaps the best known of several tango specialists who cut sides for Seeco, and authentic tango artistry can readily be found on Rivero's Tropical album El Gran Cantante Argentino.

Tito Guizar

Mexican music is a combination of Native-American and European elements. Emigrants from the north of Spain brought their folk ballad tradition to México, and the French (who briefly controlled the country during the 19th century) brought the waltz and the polka. These forms can still be heard in the Tejano music popular among Spanish-speaking Americans in the southern United States. Ultimately, México became world-famous for its beautiful and melancholy corridos and ranchera ballads, as performed by guitar, trumpet, violin and accordion ensembles known as mariachis.

Mariachi music and artists were always welcome at Seeco, as were the compositions of famed Mexican composers like María Grever, Agustín Lara and José Alfredo Jiménez. In fact, the great Jiménez was briefly part of Seeco's artist roster. The label's other Mexican music exponents included Tony Pizarro, the Johnny Rodríguez Trio, Mariachi México, the celebrated Trío Los Panchos, and popular 1940s film stars Tito Guízar and Chucho Martínez Gil. Most of the aforementioned may be sampled on the Tropical anthology Canciónes de México. Guízar's Gay Ranchero album boasts a colorful, very collectible sleeve and delightfully spirited peformances of such numbers as "Yo No Me Caso, Compadre" and "¡Uy Uy Uy! Mariposa".

El son, an infectious music based on a five-beat rhythm pattern, was developed in the Cuban countryside during the late 19th century. By the 1920s, it had migrated to Havana and formed the basis of rumba (spelled "rhumba" north of the border), a style of music and dance that grew out of neighborhood street festivals. While initially taken up by impoverished Cuban city dwellers, the rhumba gradually became popular in polite society.

Seven-piece musical ensembles formed to play this new music; one of the most popular was Septeto Nacional, led by composer and guitarist Ignacio Pineiro. Pineiro and his group cut a critically acclaimed album for Seeco in 1958. Americans vacationing in Cuba acquired a taste for this exotic new sound and brought it home with them. Rhumba also reached the United States via the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, in songs such as "Say Sí Sí" (known in Spanish as "Para Vigo Me Voy") and "Malagueña."

Among those principally responsible for the introduction and popularity of rhumba music in the USA were Noro Morales, Trío Matamoros, Miguelito Valdés, Machito and especially Xavier Cugat, the Rhumba King. More than any other Latin bandleader, Cugat, who first recorded for RCA Victor and later for Columbia, understood the importance of image and marketing. His shows featured beautiful girl singers in Spanish mantillas, flashy tango and flamenco dancers, virile and handsome conga drummers, musicians in ruffled pink sleeves, stage sets decorated with potted palms, and more often than not. . . miniature Chihuahuas! The colorful and flamboyant image he created for himself and his music captured the American public's fancy, and opened the door for other Latin artists to follow in his wake. Follow they did: Just as Cugat's popularity was peaking in the late '40s, Morales, Valdés and Trío Matamoros began laying down their classic Seeco sides. Machito waited just a little longer, signing with the label in the early '50s.

Miguel Matamoros founded his Trío in 1925 with Rafael Cueto and Siro Rodríguez. Trío Matamoros was one of the earliest Cuban groups to record in the United States (1927), and also one of the earliest to join the Seeco roster (1945). The Trío's touring band included the legendary Beny Moré on guitar; in the late '40s, Moré left the group to begin a much celebrated singing career. Practically all of Trío Matamoros' songs are considered standards today, and their Seeco sides include the much-recorded "Coco Seco," about as primitive an example of rhumba as you could ever hope to hear.

The product of a Cuban/Mexican cross-cultural marriage, Miguelito Valdés was arguably the Ricky Martin of his day. His impassioned conga-drumming and handsome Latin looks brought him many ladies' telephone numbers scrawled on cocktail napkins, not to mention numerous offers to appear in Hollywood films. He helped himself to both the women and the movie exposure, starring with the likes of Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire. The 1945 film Pan-Americana was an excellent showcase for his hip-swiveling, hair-tossing bombast. Valdés' fame was consolidated in the 1950's when he toured the world with his own band. Ironically, though, he was eclipsed in popularity by Desi Arnáz, who admittedly copied his stage persona and much of his repertoire.

Miguelito Valdés recorded the hit single version of Arnáz's signature tune "Babalú" in 1944, backed by Xavier Cugat's orchestra. One year later, he was in the studio with Noro Morales cutting tracks for Miguelito Valdés Sings, one of the finest and most collectible Seeco albums. With excellent selections like "Se Formo El Rhumbón" and "Amor Sagrado", this is an essential record for connoisseurs of vintage rhumba and bolero music.

The undulating "Zambia" (mistitled "Tremendo Cumban" on the Seeco album with the same title) is probably the most frequently licensed track in the Seeco catalogue. It was a signature tune of Machito and His Afro-Cubans. Machito, whose true name was Francisco Pérez Grillo, came to New York from Cuba in 1937 to seek his fortune as a singer. He worked briefly with the Xavier Cugat orchestra before joining brother-in-law Mario Bauzá to form his own band in 1940. The Afro-Cubans quickly became the most popular Latin dance music ensemble in New York City.

In 1943, Machito was drafted for service in World War II, and Bauzá sent to Cuba for his talented sister, Graciela Pérez, who fronted the band in his absence. She remained with the group following her brother's return, and their wry duet vocal style became a hit with both audiences and record buyers. Graciela became famous throughout Latin-America for her quivering performances of ballads like "Novio Mio", but she was no slouch in the rhythm department, as her energetic Seeco recording of "Adivinanza" clearly demonstrates. The siblings joined forces on sizzling tracks like "Mambo Infierno" and other successful marriages of hot Jazz and raw rhumba captured at Seeco recording sessions.

Lola Flores

No comments: