The legendary musician and bandleader, Johnny Pacheco, co-founder of Fania Records.
Interview: A Visit with Maestro Johnny Pacheco
by David Carp
Considering Johnny Pacheco’s multi-instrumental talents, energy, and the joie de vivre he projects, it’s pretty safe to assume that he’s got a lot of fans out there. What most of his fans don’t realize is how hard he’s worked to get to where he is, how well he knows the music of his own and related cultures, and how articulate he is when talking about these and other topics. One thing he never gets tired of discussing is Cuban music, of which he’s one of the biggest fans on Planet Earth. Recently Maestro Pacheco found time for a private performance in the double role of celebrity interviewee and historian. The audience consisted of David Carp and Bruce Polin.
David Carp: When you were growing up in the Dominican Republic, which artists and which bands from Cuba did you hear and how?
Johnny Pacheco: Well, we used to have a short-wave radio. My mother used to listen to the Cuban soap operas and after that they used to have a musical program and the first band I heard was Arcaño y sus Maravillas. I started to get the hang of the radio. I started listening to Chapottin and Orquesta Ideal was another charanga that influenced me. And then, when I came to New York I used to have the short-wave radio and I still could get Cuba. That’s when I started listening to Fajardo and América and Aragón. I started to listen to all the groups.
DC: Did Cuban bands come to the Dominican Republic or was everything through radio?
JP: No, everything was through radio. But my father had an orchestra called La Lira del Yaque and they used to play danzones, the standard was “Almendra."
Bruce Polin: What was your father’s name?
JP: Azarías Pacheco. He had another band called Santa Cecilia, which was named for the patron saint of musicians. La Lira del Yaque eventually became La Orquesta Generalíssimo Trujillo. That’s why my father had to leave the country, because he (Trujillo) wanted to change the name and my father refused to change it. So he left the Dominican Republic, came to New York and left the band with José Alberti, who was the piano player. My father was very shy, he wasn’t a name-monger. He didn’t want to go put his name on it, the Azarías Pacheco Orchestra ‘cause my two uncles César and Octavio also played with the band.
DC: What is the first instrument you got your hands on and when and where?
JP: In Santiago, the Dominican Republic. I believe I was about seven--the first instrument I got was a harmonica.
DC: And what kind of music could you play?
JP: I used to play merengues. The first merengue I played was Compadre Pedro Juan which was then converted to Peter John Merengue (laughs).
DC: Really, they played it under an English name like that?
JP: Yeah, people used to request Peter John Merengue. We had no idea what the hell they were talkin’ about. In the early ‘50s the merengue was the hottest thing around and they were looking for merengue groups and I could play the accordion. We first started a group with my family. We used to play private dances with my brothers and myself and my father to raise funds for charities and to help Dominicans during the Trujillo Era. That’s where I got involved with the merengue thing, really heavy into it, and then I started playing tambora with other groups.
DC: This is while you were going to public school in New York?
JP: I was going to public school, P.S. 124 and then P.S. 51.
DC: You had mentioned that your father’s bands played danzones. How typically Cuban was their interpretation of danzón?
JP: Ah, more or less the same. ‘Cause they used to get the arrangements, like Orquesta Riverside from Cuba and some of the big bands, and they often had clarinet instead of flute playing the lead. My father used to play the lead being that he played clarinet. When I used to play percussion with Dioris Valladares they used the clarinet lead for the danzones.
DC: But they would use timbales and play in the traditional Cuban way?
JP: Yeah, it was the traditional Cuban rhythm, with the güiro and everything.
DC: If the group was gonna play danzas for their Puerto Rican clientele, would they use a snare drum?
JP: The snare drum. And if you didn’t have the snare drum you used to take the keys and throw ‘em on top of the timbales. What I used to do was... when I used to play timbales we had to play danzas and paso dobles and you need the snare drum ‘cause you had to play everything, even waltzes, in those days. I used to put the snare on the timbales from underneath to get like a snare sound. ‘Cause it was a pain in the neck to carry a bass drum and a snare just to play one or two paso dobles, a lot of stuff to carry. Unless you were playing in a club steady, then you leave everything there.
DC: The different percussion instruments that you played, where and how did you get them?
JP: Well, some of them I made myself. I made my bongos and I made the congas. What I did was, I used to get the conga drums that were made in Mexico which were hardwood and I used to glue them together and put the iron on them with the keys and the whole thing to make them tunable. ‘Cause they had the skin with nails on it and in the wintertime, you know, you needed a sterno to heat ‘em up and it was a pain in the neck.
DC: And then the pitch would drop during the tune...
JP: Yeah, you couldn’t play.
DC: When did you first start making cowbells?
JP: Oh my God, it had to be in the ‘50s, I don’t remember when. I used to play timbales and drums and I used to play at the Chateau Madrid. We had a trio there with this guy Eddie Chéveres and Manolin Martínez. He used to sing and I used to play drums. I needed a “kock, kock” kind of a sound for the montunos and I wanted a “kan, kin, ke-ke-ke-kin” for the beginning of the tune. So I met this guy with an ironworks on 52nd street and he had a special metal which I will never tell what it is. Well, I can tell now because it was a metal that was used for airplanes that he used to get and that gave me the greatest sound for the Pacheco bells.
BP: The secret is out.
JP: The secret is out for the first time. But I didn’t tell you what type of planes (all laugh).
DC: The way that you built the bell, was there anything unique about it that enabled you to get different sounds for the different sections of the tune you were describing?
JP: Well, the bell was flat on the stand and in order to get the “kock” I put a crease in the center of it to make it stand out so that when you hit it with the stick you got the double sound.
DC: Can you think of any of your early customers?
JP: Most of the guys were Jewish, believe it or not. They were Jewish guys playing timbales, and I used to teach them. Because in those days you had to play samba and I used to play samba with a brush and a mallet, like a batucada kind of a thing. And then I used to have a tympani skin on the bass drum ‘cause we didn’t have bass. It was piano, guitar, singer with a bass and then I used to get like a bass sound with the low timbal and the bass drum to make a whole racket, man. And the guys wanted to learn what I was doing so I used to charge five bucks an hour.
DC: I learned from some RCA Victor log sheets that you were a percussionist on some Pérez Prado sessions.
JP: He called me to play with him. I did a whole bunch of his sessions. I used to book the band. And what I did was, being that I used to do so many recordings and jingles and stuff like that, I used to hang around with all the best musicians. I took the NBC Orchestra over, I used to bring all those guys over.
DC: You mean the staff orchestra.
JP: Yeah. Ernie Royal, Bernie Glow, all the heavy cats.
DC: What was your entree to that whole world?
JP: The first guy who got me into that was Willie Rodríguez who became my compadre--yeah, he baptized my daughter. This guy used to do all the Latin percussion for almost all the jingles. It got to a point where he couldn’t handle everything and he wanted guys who could play the other instruments. He used to play bongos but then they started adding timbales and conga. So he needed guys who could read and I was one of the few who could. Monchito Muñoz was another guy. I was reading music because I played saxophone and clarinet before, I was the only conga player that doubled on clarinet. Most of the percussionists like Louie Ramírez and Pete Terrace, we used to go to Juilliard and study with Moe Goldenberg. ‘Cause I had to play the shows at the Chateau Madrid on 58th Street and they used to have Carmen Amaya and those taconeos--you had to do it with the paper, reading it, and the only guy that could teach that to me was Moe Goldenberg. We all went to him, he was incredible. And through him I started playing a lot of big shows, like the Steve Allen Show with Bob Rosengarden. He got me involved in playing Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen. I did all the shows, Milton Delugg.
DC: I want to go back to your transition from student to full-time professional musician. Where did you go to high school?
JP: I went to Bronx Vocational and then I was gonna go to Brooklyn College. I passed the test and everything ‘cause I wanted to take electrical engineering. What happened was that when I went in for the first test they start you off at the second year of high school level and I said to myself, “I’m gonna waste two years doing this?” So I got a private tutor who used to teach me electrical engineering and I spent almost two years with him. He said I was gonna get an equivalent to a diploma. But then I started looking for work in the electrical field and the pay was like 35 dollars a week for eight hours a day. And then I got a call from Luis Quintero to play accordion, ‘cause before that we were doing recordings of merengue for Ansonia and I was playing accordion.
DC: So you worked with Ralph Pérez?
JP: One of the sweetest guys I ever met in my life. He helped me a lot mentally, how to prepare for the business. He said, “don’t think small," ‘cause he said he saw a lot of potential in me. So Quintero called me to do a weekend at the Villa Pérez for 90 dollars, room and board, so I was taking home 90 dollars clean for three days of work. And I hung up my pliers, screwdrivers and everything and that was the end of my career as an engineer.
DC: One of the great underrecognized Cuban musicians, Gilberto Valdés, was playing in the Bronx in the early 1950s. Did you get to hear him?
JP: I had the pleasure of playing with Gilberto Valdés and he was responsible for me being a flute player because he gave me my first flute as a gift, it was an antique flute. Mongo Santamaría used to play timbales with him and when Mongo left the group they opened the Puerto Rico Casino which was on 138th Street and Willis Avenue. I used to live on 141st and Willis so I was very close to the place. He said, “I need a timbal player, if the kid is Dominican he should know how to play danzones." And it turned out that being that I loved the charanga, I started playing with him in the club. At one point he was the house band at the Tropicana Club. I used to go there when I was very young to listen to the group, it was the only charanga in New York.
DC: How close was that group to the instrumentation of a typical Cuban charanga?
JP: It was about the same thing. The only thing is, he used to do all the arrangements and he was a very wild arranger, he was ahead of his time arranging. He used to like a more Afro-Cuban style of music than anything else and he had a lot of Afro-Cuban influences. Sometimes when he did the solo he used to do riffs, very high riffs.
DC: Just like Jack Teagarden wasn’t black but had a very deep blues feeling. Cubans have told me that Gilberto was a white man with a black soul.
JP: That was it, that was him. Afro-Cuban completely. He had a knowledge of all the batás and how to play them and everything. Oh, I learned a lot from Gilberto Valdés.
DC: I found an article in La Prensa written at the height of the pachanga fever. They talked about you and Fajardo. In the article they were saying that there were certain club owners who didn’t like the flute, that they would never hire what they referred to as a pito, a whistle, to play in their clubs. Were you ever aware of any resistance in the ‘50s to flute playing and charanga?
JP: The first guy to have the experience was myself. There was a club called the Jack Silverman International, it used to be La Bamba. Very nice place, beautiful place, ‘cause they wanted to compete with the Latin Quarter. So they used to have this radio show coming in from the bar, Bea Kalmus, I think, was the name of the host. And what happened was, when I used to play people used to call in and say, “What’s that sound? I hear a flute when you’re talking,” and she used to get pissed off. She went over to the owner and said, “Listen, who’s the flute player?” I said “I am." He said, “From now on you don’t use a microphone." So they told Charlie and he said, “Well, what can we do?” He said, “I don’t know, put him back a little further.” And it still was piercing. And what they did was, they made a booth, but she said the booth was too small. Then they enclosed the whole thing in glass and the flute--they still could hear it on the air. So she gave up!
DC: That’s wild.
JP: But it was such a piercing sound and I wasn’t using a microphone.
DC: Of course, that’s a lot of why they used that kind of flute in Cuba, because you could play in a big dance hall without a mike and be heard.
JP: You can be heard. The trick to that was taught to me by Richard Egues. He told me the size of the hole, the embouchure, had to be a little big in order to project. You had to blow harder but the sound would be bigger, and to me he had the biggest sound of all the flute players.
DC: How did you get to meet Richard Egues and where was that?
JP: When they first came to New York. As a matter of fact, it was a hell of an experience for me because I was working and they were in New York and I was looking for a chance to go see the band. And it turns out that on their day off he was sitting next to the stage while I’m playing. I had no idea he was there and when I found out he was there I got petrified (laughs) and couldn’t play after that. And then he said he wanted to play piano with me. He was also a good piano player.
DC: The late 1950s brought an explosion of Cuban music to New York. We know that Catalino Rolón brought Orquesta Aragón, Roberto Faz, Melodías del 40, Orquesta Ernesto Duarte to the Palladium Ballroom. It’s an era that’s obviously etched in your memory.
JP: It was beautiful because we were dying to hear them play and they were dying to see us live. I had the opportunity to play with my favorite bands which were Fajardo and Orquesta Aragón. And for the two of us to be on the same stage and play together was fantastic!
DC: Did the coro singers in any of those Cuban bands have steps that they did, did they do much dancing?
JP: They did a lot of dancing! Especially Orquesta Aragón with Bacallao. He was something else. And then the guys with Fajardo...he had Felo Brito who was a helluva dancer.
DC: Did Felo Brito dance with a female partner?
JP: No, no, no. It was two guys, they had a routine--like I did afterward, after I saw them do that.
DC: Tell me about the dance routines that you used in your charanga.
JP: I had the guys doing certain steps in front of what I was playing there. Because the idea that I had was that a lot of people loved the music, but some of them couldn’t dance. So I said, “Let’s put on a show for them." We had the two singers and myself in the front on the stage and then the second tier was the violin players with the bass. They used to do a simple pachanga step and then I had the timbales going like a double time. It was a simple thing but when you had everybody going it was like an incredible movement on the stage. I started doing that and I made it more unique because I had everybody, even the rhythm section, dancing.
DC: So the steps are simple enough that even non-dancers can do them but at the same time the rhythm is fast enough to give excitement.
JP: To give excitement and then you had like a counter thing. When the violin was going one way the timbales were going another way, the rhythm was going this way and the singer was going forward.
DC: Now, when you started doing that did any other leaders copy it?
JP: Some of them tried, but they never measured up to what I was doing.
DC: At what club did you start this routine?
JP: At the Tritons. I started from the beginning doing that and doing the pachanga step.
DC: So that’s all happening around the same time?
JP: The same time, that started in 1960.
DC: So the bands had the effect of helping to teach people how to dance.
JP: They used to watch, as a matter of fact we had people in front of the stage looking and before you know it like the whole place is doing the same thing. And it was funny because we’re still doing it and it happens that the last time I went to Japan the Japanese were doing the same step. You had about forty to fifty people doing the same thing we were doing on the stage.
DC: Your Alegre debut album, Pacheco y su Charanga, was one of the biggest contributors to the pachanga craze of the early 1960’s. Can you think of any other factors?
JP: One of the main guys responsible was a promoter named Federico Pagani. He was pretty big. He came up with the idea with the charangas, bein’ that there was such a demand, to do the “Four for One,” which was four bands for one dollar. So we used to have four bands, advertise four bands, but the dollar was only up to 9 o’clock. After that people used to pay ten bucks to get in just to see Pacheco and Charlie Palmieri, the two who were playing there against each other. It was phenomenal, they were running out of bands. We used to run into each other and say, “Where’re you going?" “I’m going to the Caborrojeño." “I just left there, it’s packed!” And the guy you're talking to is going to the Caravana Club, and it was amazing. And then the newspapers used to have the contests, pachanga contests, and that helped a lot.
DC: I’ve seen newspaper ads listing your charanga as playing variety theaters like the Teatro Boricua, Teatro Puerto Rico. When your band went into those places were you just doing your specialty numbers or did you ever back singers?
JP: No, no, we used to do a show. Like for instance when I did the Apollo Theatre there was a newspaper strike and the guy was pulling his hair out. He says, “How are we gonna advertise?” But they already had advertised and then there was the big strike. So I took that and I started doin’ all the American commercials with the orchestra. Like one of the violin players would say, “If you need a car go to Hertz.” He used to come out with that little car across the stage with this makeup on his face, like real stupid! We used to do all the products. I used to have to go. “Baila mi carro, nene, baila la” (drum roll) ... “and, now, ladies and gentleman, if you want to hear this...” and then “bam” and then the last thing mentioned was one of the coffees. And the violin players used to dress like Hitler, you know, with the little mustaches. They used to go, “Hot toom vot!”, that was on the end, everybody used to go bananas. Then we used to do Espiritu Burlón in the Boricua Theatre and Puerto Rico Theatre. In that number Rudy Calzado and Julián Cabrera used to do a bit, they would dress like Napoleon Bonaparte and they used to do a whole bunch of shit and it was very entertaining. And then there was the dancing and everything.
DC: So they worked their personalities into the show.
BP: That must have been fun.
JP: It was a lot of fun.
DC: You worked with Charlie Palmieri before you guys had a charanga. What was your first group with Charlie and where did you work?
JP: We used to have the best quintet ever. We used to play all Latin stuff with two tremendous trumpet players. Juancito Torres and Luis Café together were incredible. We had Guito on bass, Charlie on piano and I was playing drums. And what we did, we were playing at the Evans Hotel in the Catskills. I believe we started in ‘56. They used to have midnight shows and the people used to bring the music and you had to sightread. And they loved the group because we could sightread and do it with swing.
DC: But you could also play dance sets.
JP: Yeah! We used to do one dance set, then the show and then another short set and that was it.
DC: Now the kind of music that you played at the Evans Hotel, did you have to change your repertoire at all from what you would play in New York, in the Bronx, and, if so, how did you have to change it?
JP: Well, it was for the Jewish crowd. There were more cha cha chas than anything else and maybe a little rhumba, but the rhumba was an up tempo bolero in those days. But we had Quizás, quizás, quizás, Me lo dijo Adela - all those tunes were what we had to play at that tempo.
BP: The big hit cha chas of the time.
JP: The cha chas, that was the thing we had to play and everybody was playing the same music.
DC: But in their own style.
JP: In their own style. That’s one thing that I love about what Charlie did, when we did the first album we did for United Artists. We did American tunes in cha cha cha, Domino.
DC: Were there musical differences that were clearly felt between you and Charlie, your visions of what the group was supposed to be?
JP: Yeah, that’s what did it. Because Charlie arranged the same way he played piano--he was, you know, the best -- and to me it was too busy. The violins, the string section was too much. I liked more of a rhythm kind of a pattern. He said, “Well, we can’t have two sounds.” We were sitting down in his house drinkin’ rum, we used to drink Bacardí, and he said, “You know, what you do is — you do your own thing." Then we sat everybody down and said, “Listen, we’re gonna split. There’s no fighting, we’re gonna be friends forever. But whoever wants to go with this idea....” So the timbal player came with me and maybe three guys, and the rest went with Charlie.
BP: Were you friendly after that?
JP: Very! After we’d finish working we used to sit for hours and bullshit and go to a diner and have breakfast. We were very close and we lived two blocks away from each other.
DC: What do you remember about how the Alegre All Stars got started?
JP: I used to play the Tritons on the weekend and then they wanted to do an extra day, but I said I didn’t want to come back an extra day. And Charlie was playing the Tritons, I was playing the Tritons and Eddie was playing the Tritons. So I said, “Let’s get a little group together." We got Barry Rogers, Chombo Silva and myself on horns and then Charlie, Kako and Bobby Rodríguez and they said, “Let’s just jam." We went upstairs and we were improvising all the time, and that’s how it started. And the people were going crazy because a lot of people didn’t go to dance, they wanted to listen, and it became more of a concert than anything else.
DC: So did you have a lot of people kind of crowding around the bandstand?
JP: Yeah, and getting chairs together.
DC: Now in a Latin dance club of that time, was it considered unusual to have a crowd around the bandstand?
JP: Yeah, that was one of a kind.
BP: Did the club owners give you any flak about that because their idea is keep people dancing, get ‘em thirsty and drink the drinks?
JP: No, instead of buying a drink they used to buy a bottle ‘cause they were sitting down so they’d drink the whole bottle. As a matter of fact, I had to loan the guy--he never paid me --four hundred dollars to buy liquor because he was running out. That’s how the Village Gate started, because of that concept. But the first place it worked like that was the Tritons.
DC: When did you get the idea to go from a charanga to a two trumpet group?
JP: Well, there was a time in late ‘63, my cousin Carlos Piantini was too busy with his job at the New York Philharmonic, and most of the good violin players wanted to play classical. I was getting very desperate and very discouraged ‘cause I had such a good band but the violins that were around, they couldn’t handle it. I remember one time I was playing the Hollywood Terrace and I had two gringos playing violins and they were so off beat that they went out of clave, every tune they were going out of clave. I said, “Go home." I paid them off and I sent them home. Then I get a call to do the World’s Fair. I said bein’ that I don’t have any violin players I’m gonna switch the groove over. I mean I had the opportunity to grow up with Arsenio Rodríguez, Chapottin and La Sonora Matancera. So I started copying Sonora Matancera and then I added the tres and the bongo because of the Chapottin influence. And I did it because of the World’s Fair, which was like the whole year, a contract for a whole year and the pay was excellent.
BP: Were there any other Latin groups playing at the World’s Fair?
JP: Joe Cuba, we alternated.
DC: Which pavilion did you work at?
JP: It was the Caribbean Pavilion, right in front of the Unisphere. The funny bit about that is that that was supposed to be a loss for some corporation. I think it was a little Mafia influence in there.
DC: Like a tax writeoff?
JP: A writeoff. It happens that we were next to the Mexican Pavilion and they had an Indian who used to climb a pole and play a flute and then used to hang by a rope and continue playing the flute while he came down. And when he hit the floor it was 8 o’clock right on the dot and I used to play. I had to start playing at 8 o’clock. We used to start with “Besita De Coco," and as soon as the people heard the music everybody went crazy. They were makin’ a fortune and they didn’t know what to do with the money. It was unbelievable, we were gettin’ bonuses and everything.
DC: How much American television did you do?
JP: With the charanga we did the Ed Sullivan Show, Ted Steele, and the Clay Cole Show with Merv Griffin. This reminds me of something that bugs the hell out of me because it shows you how Latinos were thinking very small. Pachanga was a monster and I was getting a call from Art Ford who was one of the biggest guys in broadcasting when Suavito was big in the American market. He said, “Let’s do a film with a charanga, like a show group, and show this film all over the United States and then we’ll travel." I said, “Fine." He said, “All we need is about 50 grand or maybe 75 grand,” which was a lot of money for those days. So I went around to all the guys, the record companies, and I said, “Why don’t we chip in and put this project on together?” “No, Johnny, it’s not gonna work." You know, “American people are gonna rob your money,” and that was the mentality. I said, “Come on, this guy’s really gonna do something for us, for the record industry." They refused to do it and all of a sudden when I was gonna do it myself here comes Chubby Checker with the Twist and killed the whole shit! But we had the chance to do it, and that’s when I said, “I gotta get my own company going.”
DC: How did you meet Gerry Masucci and how did Fania start?
JP: Well, Gerry’s been a friend of mine and a fan. He used to go to the Taft to listen to my band and he used to travel to Cuba a lot. So he’s always been going to Cuba. Before Fidel, as a matter of fact he used to bring me rum and music and records and stuff like that. He was my lawyer and I said, “I’m gonna need somebody to handle the paperwork ‘cause I can’t do everything myself and I’ll handle the music." We shook hands and that was it. We did the first album, we started putting money back into the company. He was the lawyer and I was the bandleader. So whatever came in, we put it back.
DC: Where was your first office?
JP: We didn’t have an office! I used to have a Mercedes and my brother had an electronics factory and we used to put all the records there. But Gerry used to work for a lawyer downtown and that was like the main office, that’s where we used to get the phone calls for the deliveries. And then we used to get together in the Bronx, he used to get in my car and I used to make the deliveries on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and he used to take Tuesday and Thursday. Because somebody had to stay in the car, otherwise they’d steal the records. I ran that Mercedes into the ground, man. We did that for about two and a half, three years until we moved into 850 Seventh Avenue, right by the Carnegie Deli, and then we moved to 888 when we went big.
BP: How did you find Willie? What was your first exposure to his music and what were your first impressions of what he was all about?
JP: Weird! Because the one who discovered Willie was Al Santiago and he started the album but he was broke. So Gerry finagled some kind of a deal and we got Willie. But it happens that the kid that was gonna sing with Willie passed away, I think it was leukemia or something. And then Hector (Lavoe) wanted to sing with my group but I had Pete “Conde” and in those days we only had one singer. So I used to get him on the stage and he did some gigs with me, Hector, at the beginning when he started. I said, “Listen, I got a singer, man, and these two kids together!” But “Che che colé” actually was gonna be a bomba and that was the one I did the sound with the percussion, to give it that kind of feel - like a calypso kind of a bomba feeling. And the rest was history, man. Then we did a whole bunch of tunes like that.
DC: How did you find Pete “El Conde,” what was the connection there?
JP: I was looking for a singer because Elliott Romero and Rudy Calzado wanted to go on their own. Besides, I loaned them to Tito Rodríguez to do his recordings and Tito wanted to cop them. So I said, “The hell with this, I want to get two new guys. I want to get a younger looking group." Thin, ‘cause we were all thin. So they told me about Pete Rodríguez. I went to a bar in the Bronx and he was playing conga and singing. And I loved the way he sang and I asked him, “You want to play with my band?” It was funny ‘cause he says “I got another friend that can sing," and that was Vitín López. So I said, “Well, can you guys rehearse ‘cause I’m going to London to do Broadway Goes Latin with Edmundo Ros and I’m gonna be playing against Tito Rodríguez, Vicentico Valdés at the Embassy Club and I want that time to rehearse." I left them the records and everything and I came back and the first tune we played was "Cachita." And when they started to sing and started to dance the people went crazy. Those two guys were incredible.
DC: I was just listening to a record you made with Pete “El Conde” of Blanca, that old Pedro Flores number and that reminded me of the record Polito Galindez made of that song. Polito had a very dark voice but he could sing both boleros and up-tempo things - did you make a connection in your mind between those two singers?
JP: Definitely, yeah, ‘cause I worked with Polito. I used to love the way he sang "Señora María." It was very dramatic (laughs.)
DC: That was a big hit, wasn’t it?
JP: Yeah, that was his hit. But he used to get down on his knees and take off his beret and throw it on the floor and used to cry and the whole bit! And people were crying in the theater, man, and then he used to go backstage and say, “Hey, I killed them!” But he always had a good group, good rhythm section.
DC: There’s an album of yours I have where Monguito sings the boleros and Chivirico Dávila sings the up-tempo stuff. Is that how it went down at the gigs?
JP: On the gigs it was funny because, now that you mention it, I had Monguito singin’ the son montunos but he did also like "La Rebelión de Mayo" which was up. He did a couple of up-tempo things. But then this guy had so many tunes in his repertoire and Chivirico had so many, too, so I figured, "Yeah, half and half." But then, you know, I’m the type that I look at the crowd and see what they’re looking for so I say, “No, let’s play this tune." But I didn’t realize that Monguito just sang, so after that he’d sing three tunes and Chivirico would say, “Hey, what’s gonna happen with me?” I said “No, you sing that Monte peso, ‘cause that was the mood. But then they started complaining that they were not singing enough. I said “Yeah." So one day I said, “You’re gonna sing tonight.” “I can’t handle that.” “Then you’re fired.” So they said, “OK, let’s compromise, let’s see if we can do two and one and maybe two and one like that." I said “OK, fine. But I play according to the crowd and if they request a tune and it happens that it’s yours--well, Monguito, I’ve got to go with it." But at the beginning there was a lot of friction.
DC: Let’s talk about your involvement with Celia Cruz in the 1970s. What was she doing in 1974 when you signed her?
JP: Gerry approached her ‘cause she wasn’t doing anything, she wasn’t selling any records or anything. He wanted her to come to Fania and then we started the Vaya label for Celia. And she said, “If I go with you the only guy that I want to back me up is Johnny Pacheco." So for me it was a dream come true because I had always wanted to record with Celia. I had every album she recorded with Sonora and everything. That’s why I wrote "Tumbao y Celia" and that’s how it happened. We got together and started writing material and getting the right stuff. As a matter of fact, the kid that wrote "Químbara Cumbara" came here and he got shot. A 22-year-old kid, Junior Cepeda, he got involved with this chick. But you know, it’s funny, that’s why I listen to everything they send me. Because I was in a meeting in Puerto Rico and he says “I got some compositions." I said “Well, wait for me until after the meeting." When I came down I forgot about it. He was having a sandwich. I paid for the sandwich and I said, “What are you having?” and he sings “Quimbara Cumbara Cumbaquim Bam Bam.” I said, “Come on!” I grab him and I went upstairs and then I recorded about ten tunes that he had, put it on the cassette. And from there we did about five of them.
DC: Do you find that some singers need more direction in the studio than others? Do you take a pretty laid back role once the tape is rolling or do you get very involved?
JP: I get involved when they get stuck, but it’s better to get them to develop their own style. What I can do is help them with some lyrics, you know, the soneos and stuff like that. That’s the way I develop everybody because I don’t want everybody to sound like Pacheco. Everybody has to have their own sound which I did, which I think was fair. But sometimes they get stuck with the lyric or the guajeo. If I wanted to change the melody I used to sing it to them and they used to follow my instruction. But thank God I had the stable that I had, man. Those were great singers, especially Hector Lavoe. He could do fifteen inspiraciones and all different. You didn’t have to tell him to do anything, just open up the mike.
BP: How did the fad for boogaloo and Latin soul affect what you were doing at Fania?
JP: For me it was great. When the boogaloo was around people were getting tired of listening to the bands playing the same backbeat and the same boogaloo thing. The piano always had more or less the same riff. So the dancers, in order to break up the boredom, they used to get me because I was playing tipico and dancing. Eddie Palmieri never changed to boogaloo and neither did I. We did maybe one tune called the Boogaloo Something. So we had gigs, more gigs than anybody else because of that, just to break up the monotony of the boogaloo.
DC: Eddie had a boogaloo called the "African Twist" on the Champagne album. I don’t know how much he played it live.
JP: No, he hardly played it. He would do "Negra Bon Bon" and use a tambourine. I have a saying that if anybody makes a mistake I’ll cover it with a tambourine. Seriously, I feel that less is more, because sometimes you put in less notes and you can get more of a riff. I like rhythm things, licks and stuff like that. You don’t need too many notes in order to make the tune swing. And the other thing is there’s nothing like swing--the best swing is a slow tempo but played right. Like a real son montuno, guaguancó, that music’ll wake up the dead.
DC: People from Cuba have said that that was a big difference in New York when they first came here. The tempos were more frenetic. In Cuba it was more of a laid back groove that you can dance to all night.
JP: Oh, it’s true, and as a matter of fact, to make a long story short, that happened with Roberto Faz. When he came here all the musicians went around the bandstand just to hear the Conjunto de Roberto Faz. And here he comes with a cymbal (sings jazz ride cymbal beat) and they said, “What the hell is this shit, man?” He said, “No, don’t you guys do it like this here?” They said, “No, we want to hear who you sound like!”
BP: Well, I think what really exemplifies what you’re talking about, that slow, incredibly tasty riff, would be the classic Live at the Cheetah, the Fania theme, where your band is being introduced and you got that (JP sings)....oh, man!
JP: I wrote that shit in five minutes.
BP: That should be bronzed and put on the mantel--I mean that ten, twelve minute riff I think really exemplifies the best salsa of the ‘70s.
JP: And there’s only a simple piano, bass thing with a nice rhythm. It’s so simple and so danceable.
BP: It’s amazing, that’s what really turned me on to the salsa of that era.
JP: That’s beautiful.
DC: What do you remember about the Fania All Stars’ 1968 concert at the Red Garter?
JP: Well, a lot of things happened that night. Actually, it wasn’t supposed to be a recorded concert, the filming of the concert and recording the music. This was told to me about four weeks before the thing and there was no music. So I went with Bobby Valentin, we locked ourselves up for three days in a hotel room and we came up with it. I wrote most of the stuff. But one of the things that happened that was not expected was that Symphony Sid said, “Here’s the maestro,” and he wanted me to introduce the guys. All of a sudden I introduce the guys and each guy, I started giving them a nickname. “El Niño bonito” was Miranda, “El Malo” was Willie Colón, and I kept introducing the guys, giving them these names which have stuck till this day. Especially Ismael Miranda. He said, “You called me ‘El Niño bonito’ and to keep that image has cost me a bunch of money! Because not even with surgery--which is bullshit anyway--but I gotta be dressed well and I gotta do this." And it was something that just happened that night. It was unreal!
DC: These nicknames, were they spur of the moment?
JP: The spur of the moment, when I saw them something flashed and I came up with the thing. “El Niño mimado," which was the baby of Puerto Rico, was José Feliciano. “Manos duros," Ray Barretto. And I kept talking and I don’t know how many I named. But when we went like this (gestures) and we did the first chord I just stood like this and I said, “Wow!" And we started playing. And as it went on and the public was--you couldn’t even hear the band--they were just yelling and excited.
DC: How much did you rehearse?
JP: We just went through the numbers. One thing I do when it’s like that--if you have quality musicians--what you do is you go over the tune and make sure the notes and the phrasing are right. We run it down and say, “Put it away." Don’t rehearse it to death ‘cause then when you play it live it’s stale. Then the other thing that I realized is \that when the show starts everybody’s aware that he has to play his best. He doesn’t take his eyes away from the music and he’s there, man, you get 110 per cent. I don’t like rehearsals that come out perfect. Then I get scared. ‘Cause they take it for granted it’s gonna be great.
DC: So the concert can be an anticlimax after the rehearsal.
JP: I’ve always avoided it and I always give that advice.
DC: How much were you involved in editing Leon Gast’s film about the All Stars?
JP: About a year, man. As a matter of fact they used to call me and I had to make sure that everything was in synch. And then, one time I remember, I went in and I said, “You gotta change the whole shot." He said, “Why?” I said, “Because the film is backwards." They had Barretto playing left handed. I said, “No way!” There’s a lot of stuff where you’ve gotta cheat. You know, you want to show this guy and you’ll show him with the trumpet and they had to make sure that the fingers were moving according to what he was playing and the expression on the face. ‘Cause a high note, you can hear it but if a guy’s like this (makes overly relaxed face) and he’s going “Beeee!” it doesn’t make sense. So you know, I did quite a bit, we spent like a year doing that.
DC: How long was there an active period where the Fania All Stars were giving concerts in South America, the Caribbean, the United States and at what point did you start having fewer concerts?
JP: Ah, I think we went from the ‘70’s. We got real busy between South America and in Europe all to about ‘78, ‘79. After that the soloists that we had were already too busy with their own groups and it was very difficult to put everybody together and the costs went up because these guys were making money already. The only way for us to get together, we gotta lower our prices. It costs us a lot of money to bring the Fania All Stars together.
DC: So the Fania All Stars at this point is not a money making proposition for the individuals per se.
JP: Not for the artists, but for the promoters. Man, they make a ton! You know, like the guy in Colombia made a ton, tons of money. But we do it just because we have so much fun doing it, it’s like a get together. Like recently we just came back from a tour of Colombia and Venezuela that made me very, very happy. Let me tell you, in Bogotá we had about 80,000 people and 60 per cent were in the age bracket of from 20 to 30. We were playing things like "Quítate Tú," all this stuff that we did at the Cheetah, they were going crazy. It was a young crowd and they said, “I grew up with your music, my father has all your records.” When they tell me that it’s unbelievable, they want to hear the true thing.