Al remembers Charlie Palmieri
Column: The Other Side Of The CD
by Al Santiago
I hadn’t seen Esther Palmieri for about four years when within the last two months I kept bumping into her at the wakes of the superstars. I saw Esther at Louie Ramirez’ wake and, of course, we hugged and kissed. A short time later I met Esther again at Mario Bauza’s wake. At Louie’s wake I confessed to Esther that it was certainly wrong of me not to have kept in contact with her since Charlie’s death. My vanity and ego also caused me to unashamedly ask, “Did Charlie consider me one of his best friends?” Esther looked me straight in the eye and told me, “yes, of course he did, how could you think otherwise?” This pleased me very much because Charlie Palmieri and I go back to before our births. Our parents knew each other in Ponce, Puerto Rico before Charlie or Eddie or I were born.
In the late 40’s, Charlie’s father had a radio and T.V. repair shop on Westchester Ave., in the Bronx, a half a block away from where my Casalegre Record Shop would open in November 1955. In the late 40’s, Charlie played piano with my uncle Bartolo Alvarez and his Orchestra. I was playing conga in my uncle’s band when I met Charlie at a rehearsal and, of course, his charisma, personality and talent engulfed me. Pete Terrace was also in the band at that time playing timbales. Pete very frankly told me that I was the worst conga player in the world, and, of course, he was right. Charlie had just come back from a two year stint playing in Chicago with his quartet which included Johnny Pacheco on conga, Tony Costello on timbales and Guito Gonzalez on bass.
Charlie played with my uncle’s band intermittently, as he was also playing with other bands including Tito Puente's. In the late 50’s Charlie formed the Charanga Duboney with Johnny Pacheco. They recorded a great LP for UA which included the tune “Mack the Knife.” Shortly after Charlie and Johnny had musical differences and they decided to go their separate ways. I understand they did it in such a gentlemanly fashion that they divided the arrangements and the musicians in a fair manner.
I happened to have heard Pacheco’s Charanga in Nov. ‘59 and signed him to Alegre Records and a few months later I heard Charlie’s Charanga and signed him up also. The peak of my Alegre years was from 1960 to 1966. Charlie and I were inseparable. We ate together, went to the movies together, and our wives and children became very close. During that period Charlie recorded four albums with his orchestra for Alegre. We were working together very frequently because I usually asked Charlie to play piano on most of my studio projects; i.e. Mon Rivera, Cesar Concepcion and, of course, the Alegre All Star albums.
I sold Alegre to Branston Music, the umbrella corporation that also owned Tico and Roulette. The sale took place in 1966. I went with Tico-Roulette as Staff Producer and continued calling Charlie to fill the piano chair on most of my projects, including Celia Cruz’s Són Con Guaguanco.
In 1967 I went with Musicor Records as Staff Producer and Charlie contributed many arrangements to my Musicor productions. In the 70’s Charlie sticks out in my mind for his great piano work on the Orlando Marin Saxofobia recording and later in the Tribute to Miguelito LP which has not as of yet been released. Besides the 45 title tune from that album, only the jazz instrumental "Don Alfredo" has been released. Charlie’s solo on "Don Alfredo" is a great example of his rapidity, technique, dynamics, chord knowledge, creativity, and, more than anything else, his improvisational talents. By the way, Charlie was one of the best sight readers in the business. He went to many recordings without any rehearsal and sight read the music as if he had been playing it for a long time. Charlie was not just a salsero or a mambonick. Charlie played the classics and all the indigenous rhythms of the various Latin American countries, i.e. Porro (So. Amer.), Pasillo (S.A.), Vallenato (S.A.), Gaita (S.A.), Valse (Peruvian Waltz), Samba (Brazil), Tango (Argentina), Joropo in 6/8 time (Venezuela), Ranchero (Mexico), Pasodoble in 2/4 time (Spain), Mapelle (P.R.), Mazurca (P.R.), Cumbias (Colombia), and Pambiche (Dom. Rep.). Charlie was also at ease playing jazz. In fact, his first 5 LPs in the late 50’s for George Goldner’s “Gone” label, were closer to Jazz than Latin Jazz. The album Take it Easy included a Jazz version of Noro Morales’ famous “Ponce.”
Of course all competent Latin piano players can play the Cuban tempos: Danzón, Danzonette, Cha Cha, Mambo, Guajira, Guaguancó, and Bolero. The Rican tempos: Danza, Plena and Bomba. The merengue (Dom. Rep) and the Samba (Brazil) and the Pachanga from the Bronx. There are those who will argue that the Pachanga is from Cuba. They don’t know what they’re talking about. The truth is that the word Pachanga comes from Cuban composer Eduardo Davidson’s song “La Pachanga” with somewhat of a Merengue beat. The dance tempo was created by Johnny Pacheco in ‘59 in Beco’s Triton Club on Southern Blvd. in the Bronx.
In the late 70’s I was working for Fania as Director of Special Projects and prepared 39 “Best of.....” packages. Louie Ramirez had his office next to mine and Charlie had resigned with Alegre which was being administered by Fania. So Charlie, Louie and I saw much of each other and supported each other in our separate projects.
One day I had just finished writing the backliner notes to Charlie’s “Best of....” titled Gigante Hits when Charlie showed up at La Tierra Studios for a session and dropped into my office to say hello. I took advantage of his being there and gave him the notes to approve. He was reading the notes when all of a sudden he looked at me with watery eyes and asked me, “is this true?” Charlie had just read, “Charlie is the most liked individual in our industry. His family, friends, musicians, promoters, D.J.’s, record company execs etc. adore him. Piano players literally idolize him.” Tears came to his eyes and as I told Charlie "yes, this is true". I realized then that Charlie was so humble that he did not know of his own stature and this was a GIANT.
I have not mentioned Charlie’s arranging talents because of lack of space. He was a great arranger and arranged for hundreds of recording sessions.
Charlie loved his family and his philosophy was to share knowledge and help everyone. Charlie was like a brother to me. He passed away Sept. 12, 1988 and at the wake I was devastated. I remember Esther mentioned that my father had been waked there in ‘76. I also remember that Eddie told me, “we don’t have to say anything” meaning that we knew how we both felt. I also remember that Fordham University’s radio DJ George Quintano wanted me to appear on his “Latin Voyage” radio show to reminisce about Charlie, but I was too distraught to do so. In fact, I had a heart attack and was hospitalized for a week.
Charlie meant a lot to me, I’m proud to be able to say that we were best of friends. Rest in peace, bro’. You were quite a guy and, as Machito said to Miguelito in our Luz a Babalu release, we’ll never forget you.