Al remembers Machito and Tito Rodriguez
Column: The Other Side Of The CD
by Al Santiago
While a student in CCNY in the early 1950s, I took the downtown bus on Amsterdam Avenue and West 139th Street to go to my Uncle Bartolo’s record shop, Casa Latina, on East 110th Street. He was both a retailer and a wholesaler. I was picking up some stock for my store on Brook Avenue and East 137th Street which was around the corner from the well-known Teatro Puerto Rico. With my uncle’s approval I had named my first record shop Casa Latina del Bronx.
As I entered the aforementioned bus, I was very pleased to see one of my idols sitting next to an empty seat. I sat down and said, “Hello, Machito, my name is so and so and I’m one of your biggest fans.” We spoke for about twenty minutes. I mostly listened. Macho was humble, interesting, anecdotal and made me feel as if we had known each other for years. Before this conversation, we had only said hello at a few dance halls. He told me funny stories about the band’s experiences which included many summers playing at the Concord Hotel in the New York Catskills. The Afro-Cubans eventually played there for twenty years or so. The athletic director there was Buster Crabbe, one of the early movie Tarzans before Johnny Weissmuller.
I could not at that time project mentally into the future and guess that we would become close friends and that I would even produce his “Tribute to Miguelito” 45 with the Gaucho twenty-two piece studio band.
Eddie Forrestier and I co-arranged a Latin be-bop instrumental in the late 1940s called “Demasiado” that we took to the Latin Doll Nite Club where Macho was rehearsing. He gave the parts to his five saxophones, three trumpets, piano and bass and they played it to perfection. Eddie and I were pleased as hell. When they finished running it down, another of my idols, Mario Bauza, collected the parts, gave them to me and commented “too much bop.” I took that as a compliment, although I knew it was not.
Macho was quite a character! He loved to sing, cook, talk and help everyone he could. He was a family man, a good husband and a good father. Macho’s wife Hilda told my wife, Louise, the following story. In addition to working with his band, Macho was also working days for “Project Return” as a counselor to senior citizens although he was older than most of them. After work, he would often volunteer to pack groceries at a nearby supermarket. He collected the tips in a large bottle for a year and then gave them to the neighborhood candy store with the annual instruction, “today the candies are free to the kids.”
After Macho passed away, Hilda gave us a pair of his maracas which we, of course, treasure very much.
As Machito said to Miguelito at the Coda of the tribute 45, “Miguelito, we will never forget you.” With Machito’s celestial permission I will paraphrase it and say, “Macho, we’ll never forget you either.”
Tito and I never broke bread together but we did bend elbows a few times. To me, Tito had a wall around him and he kept his own counsel. He was suspicious of everyone and the only one that I saw get into his inner circle was Angel Rene. Angel was the band captain from the mid-sixties and was salesman for TR Records until Tito’s death in 1971.
Tito and I had a few confrontations. In 1960 many of the bands were donating a set to play for a fundraiser for Los Ninos Liciados de P.R. in El Teatro Puerto Rico on East 138th Street in the Bronx. It was a Tuesday night, the night the Alegre All-Stars played at the Tritons on Southern Boulevard. At the theater all the bands had played except Tito and the Alegre All-Stars. It was getting late, so I asked Tito if we could go first and thereby be able to start at the Tritons on time. He had a mini-tantrum and told me, “Are you crazy, do you think I’m going to let you guys go on first and cause me to lose my impact?” He was adamant. “No, no, no...we are going on first and I don’t care what time you get to the Tritons.” I was disillusioned that he did not want cooperate, but I also realized that this was a tremendous compliment. He was afraid that the Alegre All-Stars would be a difficult act to follow.
On another occasion I was in his hotel suite in Puerto Rico with a few other musicians. Angel Rene was there and we were talking about music and the topic of genius came up. I, without thinking, stated that Tito Puente was a genius. Rodriguez blew his top, “Al, por favor, Stravinsky es un genius, Paderoski es un genius, pero no Tito Puente.” He then left us and went to his bedroom and, before slamming the door, called for Angel. Angel returned and told me, “Al, I’m sorry, but Tito wants you to leave.” I did.
In 1967 Tito moved to Puerto Rico and purchased a beautiful house in Ocean Park near Old San Juan. His move caused the position of Director of Artist and Repertoire (A&R) at Musicor Records to be vacant. I filled the position and recorded, among others, Tito Puente, Bobby Capo, Orquesta Broadway, Kako, Dioris Valladares and Mark Weinstein. While researching some tapes, I found a Tito Rodriguez twelve minute segment that had not been released. I was very excited about it because I had quickly recognized it as a verbatim translation of Stan Kenton’s “This is an Orchestra.” The leader introducing members of his band and the band members taking a short solo was borrowed from Kenton. I finally concluded that it had not been released because publishing agreements had not been made with the Kenton estate. Tito got wind that I was going to release it (which I did) and he called me and threatened to sue, but never did.
He was also not too happy when I killed the vocal track on an LP and a half of material and had Victor Paz play the melody. The new LP was entitled, Instrumentals a là Tito.
In 1962 Tito came to my Alegre office on Southern Boulevard with his internationally famous older brother, Johnny Rodriguez. Johnny was a terrific singer and had an excellent trio. Johnny was also well known for his unbelievable imitation of Carmen Miranda. Johnny was in between recording contracts and I signed him to Alegre. I think Tito thanked me. Johnny later opened a restaurant in Santurce called El Cotorito? He did the cooking himself. He invited me there on various occasions, but not for freebies.
Around 1964 I planned a recording session with Eduardo “Mr. Pachanga” Davidson. He was to introduce his new rhythm “El Bimbi.” Fred Reiter of Morro Music Publishing organized the session which included Graciela and most of the Rodriguez band. Tito was to supervise the recording if I did not get back on time. I was back on time so Tito sang coro. After the session we went to Tito’s house for booze or coffee. I remember sitting in Tito’s beautiful basement and asking timbalero Mike Collazo to explain the then new bossa nova rhythm to me.