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Al discusses El Gran Combo and other matters

Column: The Other Side of the CD

by Al Santiago

Recording and hanging out with El Gran Combo was a lot of fun. Eddie Perez and Robertito Roena were my favorites. In fact, they were both on the Alegre payroll working out of our office in Miramar, P.R. The radio station was up the block and the Radio Bar, where we lunched, was across the street. I nearly always stayed at the Miramar Charterhouse nearby. When Felipe Rodriguez’ Alegre LP 828 was released (1963), we threw a wine and cheese party at the Charterhouse to publicize it. I remember a picture in a newspaper the following day showing Franklyn Hernandez (our radio promotion expert) with a cast on his foot. He was fixing a tire on the highway when another car plowed into him. The picture also included Tite Curet Alonso, who at that time was our publicity man. By the way, I remember that Curet Alonso was the first person I saw utilizing a cassette player as a tool in writing his compositions. This was way back in 1963. Later, he wrote many hit songs, especially those great boleros for La Lupe.

I met Rafael Ithier (leader of El Gran Combo, pictured here) at the noon radio show, which was broadcast every weekday. The audience got in free to a large auditorium and saw EGC and Felipe and Davilita. Afterwards, we would cross the street and lunch at the Radio Bar, where the owner insulted everyone and served good Rican food at very reasonable prices. Mickie Cruz, the bass player, always had the hots for my sunglasses. He was a big guy and I had to get stern. I don’t really know if he just wanted to bust my chops or what. Anyway, he eventually got my glasses.

I decided to record the P.R. All Stars, and had Kako and Chivirico fly in from New York. I used the EGC rhythm section, including Ithier and Eddie’s alto. For brass, I got topnotch guys. Cesar Concepcion, Miguelito Miranda and Mario Ortiz. What a trumpet section! For the trombone chair we got Fernandito Arvelo. Yet, there were no real charts, it was mostly improvising descarga style. The recording started at midnight at Ochoa Recording Studios. Johnny Rodriguez (Tito’s older brother), who had already recorded an LP for Alegre, showed up and said, “You’re not leaving me out of this, I’m singing one tune.” Johnny is another big guy I didn’t say no to. All this took place in 1963. We recorded through the night and had a great time. At 7:00 a.m. we left and all went to breakfast at a nearby restaurant.

Part 1

I hope it is not a conspiracy. I think it was done with good intentions, but I’m not sure. Sometimes I think it was done to keep Latinos from forming a political bloc and (God forbid!) hooking up with blacks. What am I talking about? I’m talking about so much bilingualism: the telephone bill, Con Ed, train stations, the airport. All have Spanish along with the English. The voting literacy test and driver’s tests are also available in Spanish. We have Channel 41 and 47, Radio WADO, etc., all in Spanish. There are local movies in Spanish and neighborhood record shops with Latino lyrics galore. Why should a Latino bother to learn English? You can live, work and find entertainment in New York without learning English. I don’t like it! My parents came from Puerto Rico in the late twenties and had to learn English...and they did. I wish my people would learn English so that they can better themselves...but it’s easy to not have to learn. Too bad, too too bad. I hope it is not a conspiracy—but, I’m not sure.

Part 2

Thought for the Week

I cannot understand it when I read about people getting arrested because antiquated gambling laws are on the books, while New York State is advertising and encouraging us to play Lotto. The blue laws regarding retail stores opening on Sundays are no longer in effect. Thanks to James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, we can now, if we wish, drink hard booze legally. Yet statistics show hard drinking is down, as is cigarette smoking. So, let the gamblers gamble. It’s not their lungs, liver or kidneys at stake. It’s their bucks.

Part 3

Don’t read this column for laughs, this issue is serious stuff. Prominent psychologists have stated their views on the stages of development in children. My contribution to this theme is “milestones in a man’s life.” My first notable respectability experience was when I was called “mister” by a pre-teenaged boy. I was fourteen. My second experience was when I was in my early fifties and a young corporate exec called me “Pop.” This was, of course, not a pleasant experience, but. . . that’s life. My third experience (July 1996) was complimentary, flattering and an honor. Benny Mendez, my auto mechanic, called me “Don Santiago.” “Don” not as in Ameche or Drysdale, but as in “Quijote.” It is a title of respect and why, as a tribute to my father, I titled a Latin jazz composition “Don Alfredo.” It is included on the CD by Orlando Marin called Saxophobia. The sweetest sound to one’s ear is the sound of one’s name. Titles aren’t bad either.

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