09 February 2011

Seeco Records (Part One)

SEECO SAMPLER

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
SEECO RECORDING STAR
ALBERTO BELTRÁN

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.

JOE CUBA SEXTETTE
SEECO RECORDING STARS
THE JOE CUBA SEXTETTE

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.

TANGO
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

MARIACHI
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".

RHUMBA
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

08 February 2011

Seeco Records (Part Two)

SEECO SAMPLER

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.

MAMBO
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
SEECO RECORDING STAR
FÉLIX CABALLERO

CHA-CHA-CHÁ and PACHANGA
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.

LA PLATA SEXTETTE

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.

PLENA and MERENGUE
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!

BOLERO
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.

BAILE CON LA SONORA MATANCERA

GUARACHA
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.

LATIN BOOGALOO
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)

RIVERENOS

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.