08 February 2011

Seeco Records (Part Two)


Sidney Siegel's
House Of Gold
The Seeco Records Story
by Donny Jacobs
By the late 1930s, Havana orchestras began to reflect the instrumentation of carnival parade bands. These ensembles included guitar, trumpets, piano, bass and conga drums, and were called conjuntos. The most influential of the Cuban conjuntos was led by blind guitarist Arsenio Rodríguez, another future Seeco recording artist. Songs with false endings, like the hilarious "Dolorcito de Mi China", were his specialty. When Rodríguez emigrated to the USA, he formed a band that, along with that of Machito, set the stage for the mambo craze of the late '40s and '50s. Seeco producers captured his musicians at their best on the album Clasicas de Un Sonero. Rodríguez's lead singer, Miguelito Scull, had a distinctive sandpapery sound to his vocals that nobody who heard it ever forgot.

By the mid-1940s, the great rhumba bands of Rodríguez, Machito, Noro Morales and Pupi Campo were holding forth at various New York nightspots, as was Xavier Cugat's orchestra, ensconced at the Waldorf Astoria Ballroom. A stylistic division was becoming apparent. "Uptown" bands like those of Machito and Rodríguez stressed rhythm more forcefully than did aggregations like Cugat's, which specialized in elaborate floor shows heavy on romantic ambiance. Strings were verboten with the new bands. Pianos and brass functioned as de facto rhythm instruments even while they carried the melody. Also, there was considerable Jazz influence.

Noro Morales, who emerged as Cugat's primary rival during this time, fell between the two camps. Known as "the Fats Waller of Latin music", the portly Morales courted society patrons with catchy piano-based melodies like "Bim Bam Boom" and "Walter Winchell Rhumba" (both of which were featured in wartime movie musicals), but he could also lay down some deadly rhythms, as evidenced by his Seeco recordings "Stop 21" and "Serenata Rítmica" from the excellent album Bailemos con Noro Morales.  Morales holds the distinction of being Seeco's very first album artist. A handful of his sides feature a young Tito Rodríguez as vocalist; predictably, Sidney Siegel later reissued them under Rodríguez's name after he became famous.

Pupi Campo

When Siegel got the chance to record Pupi Campo's group in 1948, he couldn't believe his good luck; luring such a popular "Downtown" band to his label was a rare coup. Like Noro Morales, Campo split the difference between "sweet" and "hot" songs, but the sides he cut for Seeco were overwhelmingly "hot." Years later, they were compiled on a now rare Tropical album called Bailemos con Pupi Campo y Su Orchestra.

While there wasn't much original about Campo's music (his sound was copied from Stan Kenton's band, and his stage persona was modeled after Desi Arnáz), he swung his musicians hard on great dance tracks like "Son de la Loma", "¿Qué Te Parece, Cholito?", "Capullito de Aleli" and the risible novelty tune "Wha'Happen?". In Latin music circles, his band is best remembered for the stellar sidemen it boasted: Tito Puente, who arranged and played timbales; Joe Loco, who played piano; trombone player Johnny Mandel; and everybody's favorite Latin vocalist of the 1950s, Vitín Aviles. Today, Campo himself is remembered as the brother-in-law of singer Rosemary Clooney, when he's remembered at all.

As rhumba evolved into the mambo, the cream of Latin dance bands could be found playing several nights a week at New York's famed Palladium ballroom, which at the height of its popularity billed itself as "Home of The Mambo." As did other labels, Seeco capitalized on the dance hall's name with an album called Baile en El Palladium. The Machito band alternated with those of two talented young Puerto Ricans, Tito Puente and the aforementioned Tito Rodríguez to provide red-hot dance music for the Palladium's patrons.

In 1951, Pérez Prado traveled from his base in México City to the US West Coast and wowed audiences with his bubbly, comedic personality and avant-garde mambo/Jazz experiments. The numbers of talented Latinos visiting the United States to perform swelled. These included Beny Moré, Daniel Santos ("the Puerto Rican Sinatra"), the exciting Orquesta Riverside, and La Sonora Matancera, the celebrated conjunto of Cuban radio fame which featured no less than three superstar vocalists: Celio González, Bienvenido Granda and the magnificent Celia Cruz.

Younger musicians like Joe Cuba and Charlie Palmieri followed the lead of upstarts Puente and Rodríguez, and established their own popular bands.  Significantly, every one of the aforementioned artists is represented in the Seeco catalogue. La Sonora Matancera arguably became the label's most important signing, providing studio accompaniment for Daniel Santos, Miguelito Valdés and many other vocal stars as well as recording its own extremely popular releases. Of particular note is Seeco's Desfile De Estrellas album, on which Sonora members Lino, Elpidio, Angel, Manteca, Caito, Calixto, Pedro and leader Rogelio Martínez back twelve different Latin stars on superb sides like "Eso Se Hincha", "Piel Canela", "Todo Me Gusta de Tí" and "Rítmo, Tambó y Flores".

Felix Caballero

In the mid-1950s, mambo gave way to a new rhythm, the cha-cha-chá. Like the rhumba and the mambo, this rhythm also came from Cuba, and grew out of the musical experiments of bandleaders like Antonio Arcaño, Enrique Jorrín and Rosendo Ruiz, Jr. They led traditional dance orchestras known as charangas, whose violin and flute-dominated sound hearkened back to Xavier Cugat's tango-playing Gigolos from the 1920s. Cha-cha-chá rhythms inspired a sexy hip-swiveling dance that proved much easier to learn than the mambo. By the late '50s, cha-cha-chá was the only Latin rhythm that mattered, and charanga orchestras multiplied in New York City.

Seeco's cha-cha-chá specialists included the Orquesta Cosmopolita, César Concepción, Chiquitín Socarrás and Luis Barretto, all of whom appear on the Tropical compilation Baile El Cha-Cha-Chá. One the most famous charanga bandleaders was Charlie Palmieri, and his version of "Lullaby Of Broadway" is one of the brightest gems in the catalogue. Ditto for La Plata Sextette Swings At The Raleigh Hotel, one of the first Seeco albums recorded in stereo; it holds forth with a wicked Rock/cha-cha fusion sound.


Around 1960, a fast cha-cha-chá style was invented by Dominican-born bandleader Johnny Pacheco. Dubbed pachanga by openly Gay Cuban songwriter Eduardo Davidson, it launched a brief but frantic dance craze which saw couples waving brightly colored scarves in the air as they twisted their hips. On Seeco, such artists as The Cuban All-Stars, The Joe Cuba Sextette, Conjunto Sensación (featuring future salsa star Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez) and the aforementioned La Plata Sextette became known as exponents of pachanga music.

Among New York's Puerto Rican population, a native form of dance music called plena became popular in the 1960s. Played on flat hand-held drums called panderetas, it was developed by 19th century Afro-Puerto Rican laborers. Puerto-Rican Americans considered the orchestra of César Concepción foremost among the importers of plena music, with Rafael Cortijo and his Combo running a close second. Ismael Rivera, who frequently appeared with Cortijo, was hailed as the best plena singer of all-time, and Joe Valle, who recorded with Concepción, was a perennial Puerto Rican favorite. Naturally, all of these artists recorded for Seeco. Rivera's "Alegría y Bomba" and Valle's "Para Salinas" were two of the biggest sellers in the catalogue.

From the Dominican Republic came a piquant mix of Spanish melody and African rhythm called the merengue, and an accompanying dance with distinctive hip-swaying steps. Cuban conjuntos added the popular merengue to their repertoires in the early '50s, sometimes adding an accordion to make the sound more authentic. Simón Damirón, teamed for years with singer José Ernesto "El Negrito" Chapuseaux, was probably the most famous of the many merengue artists signed to Seeco, which also included bandleaders René Grand and Mario Hernández, and composer Luis Kalaff. Some of the finest big band merengue ever recorded appears on an obscure Seeco album titled Programa Bailable, recorded by Chucho Sanoja and featuring the incredibly rich vocals of Alberto Beltrán on "Ritmo Del Amor" and the fabulous "Ven Acá Mi Amor". ¡Sabroso!

Since its début in the 1930s, the romantic bolero has been the most popular Latin music form. It remains so today, albeit in a severely watered-down version. In the 1950s, boleros became a staple of Mexican cinema, as well as a vehicle for countless male crooners south-of-the-border. Two men competed for the title of most commercial bolero singer at Seeco Records: The aforementioned Vicentico Valdés and Daniel Santos. When I spoke to him several years ago, veteran Latin music sideman and producer Richard Marín assured me: "Valdés and Santos were the artists who made Seeco."

Valdés was the first vocalist to become popular fronting Tito Puente's Orchestra, and his repertoire at that time consisted almost entirely of fiery mambos. He was so excellent at singing them, it was quite a surprise when he later emerged as a prime interpreter of the bolero. Vicentico Valdés scored massive Latin-American hits on Seeco: "Derroche de Felicidad", "Plazos Traicioneros", "Añoro" and "La Montaña", just to name a few. He got almost as much mileage out of the sizzling bedroom ballad "¿Cómo Fué?" as Beny Moré, who originated the song. He cut dozens of Seeco albums, a result of the dependable sales figures he always generated.

No less dependable, though, was Puerto Rican heartthrob Daniel Santos, whose name was legend from México City to Medellín, Columbia. (Reportedly, his string of illegitimate children stretched almost as far!) Santos's smoky, strangulated voice set hundreds of feminine hearts a-flutter with such melancholy fare as "Despedida", "Perdón" and "Dos Gardenias", but he could also light a fire under the mambo with funky hits like "Anacobero" and "Cómo Me Da La Gana". The majority of his 300+ albums were recorded for labels other than Seeco (every Latin label of any significance seems to have a Daniel Santos LP or two in its catalogue), but Sidney Siegel benefited from Santos's popularity long after he departed the label. So many of his recordings were reissued, it was like he'd never left!

Other bolero specialists who spun coin for Seeco's coffers included actor/operatic tenor Carlos Ramírez (his Tropical LP Este Es Carlos Ramírez is absolutely superb), former Chavales de España lead vocalist Félix Caballero, the great Bobby Capó, Tony Pizarro, Roberto Cantoral, and Joe Cuba Sextette sideman Jimmy Sabater, whose silky vocal on the English-language "To Be With You" launched his long solo career.


Dating back to the 19th century, the guaracha is known for its rapid tempo and spicy Spanish lyrics. This chameleon call-and-response rhythm is arguably the most typical of Cuban dance forms, but only one Latin star's name is synonymous with it: Celia Cruz! When Doña Celia became featured vocalist with La Sonora Matancera in 1950, Cuban audiences booed her performances; they resented her for trying to replace their longtime favorite, saucy Puerto Rican songstress Myrta Silva. Sidney Siegel wasn't crazy about the new girl, either; reportedly, he resisted signing her to a contract. Before long, though, the satiny-skinned señorita overcame everyone's doubts with her rich and robust singing style.

Best-selling Seeco 78s like "Cao Cao Mani Picao", "Burundanga", "Me Voy A Pinar del Rio", "Caramelos" and "Mango Mangüe", which she performed on La Sonora's frequent South American tours, made Celia Cruz wildly popular. However, her most important recordings for Seeco were three albums of folkloric songs: Homenaje A Los Santos, Volumes One and Two, and Homenaje a Yemaya. These LPs, which feature La Doña singing praises to Afro-Cuban orishas (saints) are highly revered among devotees of the religion known as Santería. Their enduring popularity partially explains the intensity of the following she maintained until she died.

Another part of her appeal was the total absence of pretension in her personality, and the rest was pure star quality! With her elaborate hairdos and earrings and her churning hips sheathed in skintight fishtail gowns, Cruz was the visual template for Latin female vocalists in the '50s; by the 1970s, when her waxings for the Fania label made her an international superstar, she was also setting the standard for them vocally. There were girl singers on Seeco who were more dynamic (Celeste Mendoza and Lola Flores immediately spring to mind), but none of them had her knack for mixing salsa (sauciness) with azúcar (sweetness). You'll be hard pressed to find Celia Cruz performances sweeter than those found on the Yuletide album Navidades con La Sonora Matancera, on which she shares the vocal spotlight with Carlos Argentino and Celio González.

Near the end of Seeco's time as an active label, a new sound called Latin boogaloo burst onto the scene. It melded Rhythm and Blues stylings with Latin rhythms (as well as English with Spanish lyrics), and was so danceable that it showed great potential for crossover. Latin boogaloo was one of the precursors of '70s Disco music (along with rhumba, mambo and the cha-cha-chá).

By 1966, the Palladium ballroom had closed, and Big Apple dancers were flocking to the Cheetah Discothèque. There they could enjoy such boogaloo purveyors as Johnny Colón, Willie Colón, Pete Rodríguez, Pete Terrace and former Seeco recording stars The Joe Cuba Sextette (who by then were scoring massive Pop hits on the Tico label). With his preference for "pure" Latin music, Sidney Siegel couldn't have been too happy with this development! Even so, several boogaloo recordings found their way into Seeco's catalogue, most notably "El Matón" and other cuts by Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz.

Sadly, Siegel didn't live to see the resurgence of traditional rhumba in the form of "salsa" music. Starting in the '50s, Seeco was rocked by dozens of lawsuits from Famous Music and other song publishers, alleging non-payment of royalties. Also during that decade, Rock 'n' Roll's rise knocked the wind out of the mambo/cha-cha-chá craze, negatively affecting the sales of all Latin music labels. More than one of Seeco's best producers and promotion men quit, complaining of low pay.

However, nobody ever made much money working for Sidney Siegel! To Max Salazar, the late Joe Cuba confirmed the famous line Siegel reportedly gave every potential signee: "I hear you didn't make money with your (previous) recordings. Well, you aren't going to make any money here, either. However, I'm going to put you on the map, I promise you!" More often than not, he kept that promise, and also gave his acts lots of creative freedom; for example, Machito and La Sonora Matancera were allowed to produce their own sides. However, musicians were known to complain about the "rinky-dink" studios Siegel booked where the whole band was obliged to record "with one microphone." Mainstays like Noro Morales and La Sonora Matancera notwithstanding, most artists didn't linger on the Seeco roster.

Siegel's biggest setback came in 1965 when his top female star, Celia Cruz, defected to Tico Records. (Cruz later revealed that he cried bitterly when she told him she was leaving.) These stress factors may have contributed to his early death sometime in the late 1960s, after which Seeco's world headquarters at 39 West 60th Street closed its doors forever. Fortunately, Met-Richmond Record Sales purchased the Seeco catalogue in 1969, and kept albums by the likes of Cruz, Ignacio Pineiro, Machito and Miguelito Valdés in print through the '70s and '80s. By listening to these classic recordings, salsa enthusiasts were able to trace the roots of their preferred sound. Many of those reissues can now be found for sale on eBay at quite reasonable prices.

In addition, reissue labels in England, Germany, Portugal, Spain and other European countries regularly mine the Seeco tape library for compilation material. Now that Gloria Estefan, Jon Secada, Jennifer López and Ricky Martin have crossed over to English-speaking Pop audiences in a big way, and other Latin artists are poised to duplicate their success, these vintage recordings will likely be more in demand than ever. Miami-based Codigo Music, which purchased the catalog in 2006, will presumably satisfy that demand; at the moment, though, the company seems preoccupied with reissuing tracks from Tico Records and other Latin labels it currently owns. With so much good stuff by the likes of La Sonora Matancera, Daniel Santos, Vicentico Valdés, The Joe Cuba Sextette and other Seeco stars begging to be rediscovered, let's hope Codigo won't tarry much longer.

Plucking Spanish melodies on a harp up in Heaven, Sidney Siegel is no doubt tickled pink to see that his faith in the longevity of Latin music has been vindicated. If you're curious about how well the music he recorded has held up, The Pop Culture Cantina recommends these vintage Seeco/Tropical compilatons: Seeco Sampler Of Latin Rhythms; Around The World In One Night; Una Noche en La Habana (A Night In Havana); The Most Spectacular Latin Dance Rhythms; Album Aniversario de La Sonora Matancera (Anniversary Album); Tributo a España (Tribute to Spain); 50 Años de la Musica Más Amada de la América Latina (Fifty Years of Beloved Latin Music); El Disco de Oro (The Golden Record), Volumes One and Two; and Grandes Exitos con Grandes Artistas (Great Hits By Great Artists), Volumes One and Two. Most of these collections were compiled by Howie Roseff, who ran the Tropical label for Sidney Siegel and became known as the uncrowned "King of Latin Music Compilations."

¡Hey, señor!
Now you smile
You like what you've been told
So, señor
Come right into my house of gold*

*"House of Gold", words and music by Mark Barkan and Terry Phillips, copyright 1966 Patlene Music Products, Incorporated(BMI)


A shorter version of this article appeared in 
Cool and Strange Music! Magazine #21.

Thanks to Borders' Books and Music in Shawnee Mission, Kansas; the late Ron Rooks and his wife Nancy, Dave Conn, Charlie Stout, "El Mexicano" Darrell Edwards and Mark "Twelve-Inch" Reynolds who lived la vida loca at the late, lamented Music Exchange in Kansas City, Missouri. Special thanks to Chuck Haddix and the staff of Marr Sound Archives at UMKC.

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