John Child talks in depth to veteran salsa siinger and band leader.
A Luminous Ray
From Spanish Harlem...
A conversation with
Ray de la Paz
by John Child
John Child spoke to Ray de la Paz backstage at London's Royal Festival Hall on Saturday
April 26th 2003 immediately after the distinguished sonero, composer and bandleader
had taken part in the Spanish Harlem Orchestra's acclaimed UK debut performance.
Ray missed out on the post show party to tell John about his accomplished career in Latin
music, which has included stints with Chino y su Conjunto Melao, Ray Barretto, Guararé
and Jorge Dalto, as well as co-leading the Louie Ramírez - Ray de la Paz Orchestra and his own band.
During the interview, Ray expresses the hope that the Spanish Harlem Orchestra's award
winning debut CD, Un Gran Dia En El Barrio
on Ryko/Ropeadope Records, will bring them back to the UK. This ambition was realised
later in 2003, as the band did a further two gigs at London's Barbican Hall and UK
Salsa Congress at Bognor Regis on September 27th and 28th respectively.
The Ray de la Paz piece is followed by a post script in which the Spanish Harlem Orchestra's
producer, Aaron Luis Levinson, gives John a taste of the band's follow-up album.
John I Child (JIC):
This is going to be like your life flashing in front of you. To start with the usual
cliché: Please tell me about your early childhood musical experiences and influences?
Ray de la Paz (RDLP):
My musical experiences as a child came from my middle sister, Gloria, who loved to
sing. She used to sing rock 'n' roll music, rancheras, Mexican music and things like
that. At the time, when I was coming up, I used to hear all that music, and it influenced me, as far as wanting to mimic what was going on in the recordings I was listening
to. My sister used to sing with the Chantels in high school, when they started their
group back in the Bronx. She used to sing with them when they used to rehearse. Eventually the Chantels went on to be very famous. When I was maybe eight or nine years
old, I used to come from school; and when my sister was at home, I used to take the
victrola and listen to the records.
Music of the '50s is really what influenced me. I used to listen to music like Elvis
Presley and Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, who were a big influence on me, because
I used to have doo-wop groups of my own called Oldies But Goodies. I used to listen
to other music like rancheras, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, and the like, who were
very popular at the time, because the radio stations for the Hispanic community in
New York City at the time played mostly Mexican influenced music. We didn't have
the kind of variety in music we have now. I would come home, listen to the music, learn it,
and mimic, and look in the mirror, and make believe that it was me singing.
How old was Gloria in relation to you?
She was about 19 years old.
And you were?
I was about eight/nine years old.
When and where were you born?
I was born and raised in New York City. I was born in Harlem Hospital on 125th Street.
We lived on 127th Street and Lenox in El Barrio Latino. I stayed living there until
I was about five years old. Then we moved to the Bronx, where I've lived ever since.
Roughly what era was that?
Early '50s. I would say about '56/'57.
I understand that you made your debut with Conjunto de Don Juan.
How old were you at the time, and what repertoire and type of dates did you play
with the band?
Don Juan was a little group I happened to fall in with. I'd just come out of the
service. That was back in, I think 1970, or maybe it was a little earlier than that.
A friend of mine played trumpet with Don Juan.
What was his name?
I think it was Isaias Rivera. He passed away a while back. He came to my house one
night, and he says: "Ray, listen. The singer for the band is sick, and we're doing
a gig up in Colgate Gardens in the Bronx. Eddie Palmieri's playing there tonight
with La Perfecta and Ismael Quintana; and Joe Cuba with Cheo Feliciano and Jimmy Sabater;
and Ricardo Ray and Bobby Cruz." I had no idea who those people were.
Because I had no idea what salsa was then. My influences were non-Latin. I was doing
a lot of the modern things, the Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, so I did all that
stuff. I had a lot of influences from American music. Apart from doing the Elvis
Presleys, I did some Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra. My background is very diverse.
Was your Spanish fluent?
Yes, my Spanish was fluent. In my house, Spanish was all that was spoken. In school
I spoke all English. So I was very fortunate to pick them both up, and speak them
well. And it opened a lot of doors for me.
You were talking about this mega gig with all these people appearing you hadn't heard
of at the time.
So after Isaias said Don Juan's singer was sick, I said: "I don't really know what
I'm going to do. You've gotta let me know what I'm gonna do, because I've never done
salsa before." At the time, we didn't call it salsa yet. He said: "Look. What I'll
do: I'll start the song and you do the ad libs." So I said: "OK. I'll do it." I went
down that night. I was as nervous as hell. We did the gig. He did the beginning of
the songs, the intros, and then I would ad lib. But I didn't know what the heck I
would say, because at the time I didn't have the salsa education, the mambo education, to really
get into it. So I just started making up stuff - but the things I kept making up
were the same things over and over again.
So that mega gig was like your debut with the band, was it?
It was my debut in Latin music.
Were you the first band on?
Yes, we were the first band. We opened up. What really hit me, and influenced me
a lot, was the fact that after we finished, and got off the stage, Joe Cuba came
on to play. And it walloped me, man, I'm telling you. It really threw me. Because
I had never seen anything like that. I had never seen a group live with that intensity and that
drive, play like those cats did. They got on stage and they played their buns off.
I was just mesmerised. I was just in front of that stage. I did not move. I didn't
dance with anybody. I was just there. Then came Bobby Cruz and Ricardo Ray, and they blew
me away. I couldn't believe that such a small group could have such a great big sound.
And after, for the finale, Eddie Palmieri came on with La Perfecta, with all his
original guys, and he had Ismael Quintana singing. They did their big hit "Muñeca." The
piano solos Eddie took were unbelievable.
And this was about 1970, you say?
So what sort of line-up did Conjunto de Don Juan have?
He started with a trumpet and two trombones. Then he cut it down to just two trombones
because he was very influenced by the Willie Colón sound. As a matter of fact, we
recorded one 45. It was on the Mucho record label, and it was called "Gran Señora,"
which was a take-off on the Willie Colón sound. There were two great tunes we recorded
back-to-back. But nothing ever happened.
They were original numbers?
Well, one tune was originally written by Don Juan, and the other was written by a Cuban
But you can't remember the name of it?
I can't remember it
What was the rest of the band's repertoire?
We did stuff like standards that were being played on the radio at the time. We did
some old tunes, and did new arrangements for them. We had Mon Rivera tunes we did.
So typical trombone band tunes?
Yes, yes. And we did some great ballads like Lucho Gatica's "Tú Me Acostumbraste"
by Frank Domínguez. Fantastic. We worked together for a while until he eventually
decided to dissolve the band.
So you stayed up until the end?
I stayed with Don Juan for almost two years.
Were you working with any other bands at the same time?
No, I wasn't.
Were there any members of Conjunto de Don Juan that went on to become prominent names
in the Latin world?
Yes. Eddie Resto. Great bass player, used to play with Don Juan. He is a great friend
of mine. I just saw him recently in LA with Johnny Polanco, who's another great friend
of mine. Yeah, Eddie did great for himself. He played with so many different bands. He's done American music, jazz and salsa. I'm very proud that he went on to do so
many great things.
So was it right that after Don Juan, you hooked-up with Chino y su Conjunto Melao?
Yes, it was.
Were you the lead singer with that band?
Yes, I was the lead singer. But there were two other lead singers. There was Eddie
Temporal and Pablo Canti, who passed away a few years back. Eddie Temporal is living
in Connecticut. He's doing very well. He became a corrections officer. We stay in
contact. We are like compadres. The band was a good band. We had a great sound. We got
a lot of gigs. We were working a lot. At that time there were a lot of clubs in New
York City. I mean A LOT! We used to gig five/six nights a week, sometimes seven,
depending on the situation.
You sang on their first album (Conjunto Melao
'75 on TR)?
Yes, I did.
Did you sing lead vocals on the album?
Yes. There was a song I did on there that had some pretty good airplay. It was called
"Que Bien Te Vez," which was written by Chino Cruz De Jesús.
Lead vocals on the album were shared with the other lead vocalists?
How many songs did you sing?
I sang four tunes. The other guys divided the other songs that were left between
How did you linkup with Ray Barretto?
I was playing with Conjunto Melao at an outdoor place called Campo del Sol. It was
a big festival, and there were a lot of bands playing. We came in and did a fast
uptempo tune. I saw Ray Barretto standing there on the side, but figured that he
was looking at the band, Chino, or something like that. I had no idea that he was really looking
at me and checking me out. So, I did my best. I went out there and did my 100%. Then
we took a break, and as I was sitting there, Barretto comes over and says: "Listen.
You know Rubén Blades is just about to leave the band. I want to know whether you'd
be interested in singing with my band? You think you could do the job?" I say: "Well,
given the opportunity, I'll do my utmost. It's up to you to decide, you know." He
said: "All right, we have a rehearsal such and such a day. Come on down." So I did!
By my reckoning, you made your recording debut with Ray Barretto, singing coro on
Barretto Live: Tomorrow
'76 on Atlantic. But at the time you joined Barretto's band, his career was in a
process of transition. He was just starting to go off and do something else in pursuit
of his crossover dream, wasn't he?
You came on the scene just as it looked likely to the outsider that a bit of turmoil
and change was going on. Can you tell me what it was like during that period in Barretto's
Yes, there was, which I found out about after a period of time in the band. There
was some turmoil in the band before I came into the band. The musicians all left
and decided to make their own band. And they left him alone. So he went on and came
out with something fresh with new musicians.
But the band he had on Barretto Live
wasn't the same band he had on Indestructible
(1973 on Fania) and Barretto
(1975 on Fania)?
There were a few of the same musicians there.
Yes. There were a few people. Then we had a lot of guys come and sit in. Like Barry
Finnerty, and so on. And his own son playing drums. We recorded that at the Beacon
Theater. One thing is that he never let himself lay down and die. He kept going.
He's a fighter, struggler. I learned that from him a lot. So he'll never give up. At his age
now (74 years old), he's still doing it. God bless him.
And he just doesn't look his age, does he?
Just to touch base with the present. Barretto Live
must have been your earliest recording date with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra's musical
director/pianist Oscar Hernández.
Let me see. We had done some previous work together. Studio work and things like
Had you already started doing coro work on other albums?
Oh yes, yes, yes.
Can you remember some of your earliest coro dates?
I guess I'm going to go a little ahead of you here. Louie Ramírez was my partner
for many years. I met Louie back in 1973. We weren't working on a steady basis, but
on and off we did things. Louie did a lot of productions for Alegre and Tico. And
he would call me to come in to do chorus here and there. When I really started getting noticed
was when Louie called me to do a production with Sonora Ponceña. We did an album
called Musical Conquest/Conquista Musical
(1976 on Inca) with the tune "La Pollera Colora." That's where everything started
to take off for me. A lot of people started calling me.
So even though your name is nestling down there amongst the coro credits, that really
helps you get the dates?
Yes, absolutely. People started noticing. They listen to the recordings and say:
"Who's this?" They look at the liner notes and give me a call.
So while Ray Barretto went off in pursuit of this crossover dream, resulting in two
unsuccessful albums for Atlantic: Eye Of The Beholder
'77 and Can You Feel It
'78, you remained with the residue of his sidemen from his progressive típico salsa
band, renamed Guararé. How did this happen?
I said: "I'm going to go on from here and do something else; because my ideas might
not be your ideas. I don't want no conflict of interest. So I'm going to pursue something
on my own and see what happens." So he says: "Fine, no problem. You're always welcome here." So I left, and I got a call from Tony Fuentes and Papy Román, who were
the co-leaders of Guararé. And they asked me: "Ray, you want to sing with us?" And
they had the same sound as Barretto. They had the three trumpets and flute. So I
say: "Why not." So we went and recorded an album on TR Records (Guararé
You did two albums with Guararé. As you've said, you did the first one on TR in 1977.
Then you did another album called Guararé
in 1979 on Inca, which Fania subsequently reissued under your name (Ray de la Paz
'95). And Ray Barretto came in and produced it.
Yes, he produced that album. Really, the album didn't do what we were expecting it
to do. Because we had a lot of similarities to the Ray Barretto sound.
We're talking about the one on Inca? The one that Ray produced.
Exactly. There was a conflict of interest. Between hearsay and there, they put it
in a draw because we sounded too much like Ray. I guess Fania didn't want us to take
anything away from Ray. So they just put it on the shelf, and forgot all about it.
And that was the end of that Guararé album. As a matter of fact, it's still selling today.
Collectors like it and they buy it. People always ask for it.
How did the first Guararé album do?
The first one did pretty well, did pretty good. It didn't do a really great thing,
but it did pretty well. It held its own for a while.
Did the band get a lot of live work?
Yeah, we worked a lot. Definitely.
Can you remember what tunes you featured at the gigs?
A lot of the tunes were originals written by Tony Fuentes, the bongosero. We did
some of the stuff Ray used to do: "Quitate La Mascara" (from Power
'70 on Fania), "Vive Y Vacila" (from Together
'69 on Fania), "Testigo Fui" (from Barretto
'75 on Fania). Because, they all knew Ray's charts, and they had copies of the charts.
So while he was off doing his fusion thing, they were keeping the Barretto sound
It seemed to me that when Ray made the decision to return to the salsa fold, he produced
the Guararé album on Inca. The one you said didn't do so well. Presumably he produced
that before Rican/Struction
(1979 on Fania)?
Yes, he did that before Rican/Struction
. Then Rican/Struction
came in, and I happened to be on the coro on that album.
When Ray Barretto came back from his fusion experiment, what were the mechanics of
you getting on board with his new band?
I participated by doing coro on that Rican/Struction
album, then after Adalberto Santiago left, I went on to record Giant Force/Fuerza Gigante
(1980 on Fania) and Rhythm Of Life/Ritmo de la Vida
(1982 on Fania) with Ray.
Did Adalberto actually come back from his solo career to work live with Ray for a
time or just to record Rican/Struction
Just to record that album. Because Adalberto already had his own band.
So as far as the deal between you and Ray was concerned, you'd got the job as the
And you went on and did the two subsequent albums?
Around that time, when the London salsa scene was just beginning to get off the ground,
Ray Barretto and his band were scheduled to appear in 1982 at London's now defunct
Venue. Salsa aficionados were expecting you to be there. BUT YOU WEREN'T! Cali Aleman came.
Cali Aleman, exactly.
Were you still with the band at the time?
No, no. I had just left the band, and went on to do other things.
What made you leave what appeared to be the relative security of Ray's band?
I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to try something else on my own. I knew that
Ray was a guy who was always looking for new horizons, and experimenting with different
things and different music. And Ray's not really a singer/leader, he's a BANDLEADER, not a singer, as much as he looks out for the band.
In the old school sense.
Did you sort of think: "Maybe my days are numbered here, because he's always moving
Yeah, he's going to move on and do things, and I don't want to be caught in the shuffle.
So that's exactly what I did. I said: "Look Ray, I'm going to move on and try something
on my own." He'll always find somebody, that's for sure.
Following your departure from Ray Barretto's band, I understand you led your own
band for a while?
Yes, I did.
But you didn't record with them?
No, I had my own band for a while. We definitely did a lot of gigging.
You did that on the strength of the name you developed with Ray?
What sort of book did you have for the band?
I had a lot of original things. Some were mine and others were composed by guys I
used to use. I had two trumpets and two saxophones.
Were there any named sidemen?
Well, there was Willie Martínez, who's a great timbalero and corista. Then I had
Papy Román, who played with Barretto and Guararé. Then I also had Lionel Sánchez,
who played with Típica 73. I had Roberto Rodríguez Jr., who played with Pacheco and
many different bands. Piano, I had Martín Arroyo, who passed away a few years ago.
I knew Martín, and did an extensive, but yet to be published, interview with him
shortly before he died.
A great, great guy. So unfortunate.
That's interesting that he played with you.
I understand that after Ray and Guararé, you also did some work with Jorge Dalto
(1948 - 1987).
Yes, with Jorge Dalto.
But you didn't record with him.
No, I didn't record with Jorge Dalto. Jorge was a sweetheart. He was such a great
musician and such a great person. I was fortunate to be part of his group, and we
travelled a lot to Europe. We did a lot of work in France, especially in Paris in
the Chapelle Des Lombards, La Scala, and a lot of different places out there. They loved us.
It was a small group. He was an amazing individual. One night, we had just gotten
to Paris, we were going to do a sound check. There was a tune that Quincy Jones had
on his album The Dude
(1981 on A&M). It's called "Velas," a tune by Ivan Lins. I love that tune. I was
whistling it. And he so happened to say: "We need another tune to give just a little
added attraction to what we got." So I started whistling this tune. And he said:
"What's that?" I said: "It's a tune called "Velas" by Ivan Lins on the Quincy Jones album."
He said: "Keep on whistling." I whistled the whole tune and he wrote the music out!
With just me whistling. Unbelievable.
I associate Jorge Dalto's work as a leader as being in the Latin jazz vein.
Yeah, we did Latin jazz. We did some Afro-Cuban things. Jorge did a great classical
piece. He was a great classical musician.
What sort of line-up did the group have?
We had a drummer; we had Artie Webb on flute; we had Nicky Marrero on timbales; we
had Jorge on Fender and upright; and on bass we had Sergio Brandão, a Brazilian guy.
He was great bass player. We also had Patato Valdez on conga; myself singing and
playing some small percussion. That's it, that was the group. We had a great time.
Do you remember the years and how long you were with Jorge?
Oh my goodness. That was some time in the '80s.
Mid-'80s I would say.
Meanwhile, your old chum Louie Ramírez hired you to sing on his 1982 production Noche Caliente
on K-Tel, which spawned the monster hits "Estar Enamorado" and "Todo Se Derrumbó."
Please tell me about the impact this recording had on the future course of salsa?
Wow. Back in '83, I guess, we were baptised in Venezuela as the pioneers of salsa
romántica. It was a concept of Johnny Figuerras, who worked for K-Tel Records at
the time. He came up with the idea, along with José Silva, to take the hit ballads
on the radio at the time by the likes of Julio Iglesias, José Luis Rodríguez, Napoleon and
Emmanuel, and do salsa arrangements, and see what would happen. So they took the
idea to Louie. And Louie said: "Anything I can put in clave, I can make an arrangement
for - even Chopin! If I can put Chopin in clave; I'll make an arrangement."
So it was these guys, Johnny Figuerras and José Silva, who actually came up with
the concept of salsifying hit ballads?
Exactly. So Louie happened to call myself, Tito Allen's brother Piro and José Alberto
"Canario". He said: "Look, I have these tunes. You guys pick the tunes you wanna
do, and I'll do the arrangements." So I picked "Estar Enamorado&,quot; "Todo Se Derrumbó,"
"Simple Magica" and "O Me Quieres O Me Dejas," which were big hits at the time in ballad
form. So Louie gave "Todo Se Derrumbó" to Marty Sheller. I think Louie did the arrangement
for "Estar Enamorado." Isidro Infante did "Simple Magica" and "O Me Quieres O Me Dejas." Nobody expected the kind of impact that album was going to have.
That's great, because I was going to ask you the names of the musicians involved
in the session, as there are insufficient credits on the sleeve to my copy of Noche Caliente
. Am I right in thinking that Eddie Drennon played the violin solo on "Estar Enamorado"?
Yes, the Eddie Drennon ensemble was there to do "Estar Enamorado." They had also
Tony Barrero (trumpet); Louie Ramírez on timbales, of course; Isidro played piano;
Papo Pepin on conga...
A lot of the guys that went on to do the Caimán albums with you and Louie.
We'll get on to those later. Ironically, the Noche Caliente
prototype was far more robust than the salsa romántica style it inspired. Agree or
What I'm saying is that the sound on that original album, which set the ball rolling,
swung and was more solid than the blander, more saccharine sound that was to come
Yes, absolutely. And I'm glad you said that. A lot of people have this misconception
that we started that bland type of salsa romántica. On the contrary, what we did
was that we came out with salsa romántica, but it was ballads and the arrangements
were tasty. They were swinging tunes. I'll tell you the truth. The mixing was not up to
par; to what it should have been. Louie himself said: "We did the master here (New
York). They took it to California, and who knows who did it up there; and where they
did it; and under what conditions." Louie was very disappointed with the mixing. But he
said: "Being that it was done that way, and it sounds like that. Still it put us
on the map." It changed the whole thing of Latin music altogether, because of a lot
of the people who came behind us, as you were just saying. I don't want to mention names or
step on anybody's toes. They started coming out with their style, but their style
was more like a ballad. It sounded like a ballad, instead of the more tasty stuff
we did. Our stuff was really uptempo. Nice to dance to. But the people that came behind us,
started slowing it up, and really made it drag; and changed the whole thing around.
But then, rather than go on a roll with the Noche Caliente
sound, the following year, you and Louie did an album on the Gigi label, which was
típico salsa with Melcochita in the coro...
...and José Mangual Jr..
Yeah, yeah. Could you comment on that album?
That album was a fly-by-night idea. This guy had some money he wanted to spend. He
says: "You know, I like you guys, I want to record something. I'll get the tunes,
and you record it." We said: "OK, we'll get paid for it. So what the heck, we'll
do it." It was a job, you know. So we went ahead and did it. The album was called Super Cañonalos con Louie Ramírez
(released 1983; reissued as Mi Fruto
on Caimán in 1998). And it did great in Colombia, because still today, I have to
play some of those tunes.
Was it a Colombian guy that put the money up?
It was a Colombian guy: George A. García.
The only other Gigi album I know is El Congo De Oro
(1983) by Cuco Valoy, and he's very popular in Colombia.
Yes, very, very popular. No, that was it. The guy recorded two albums for his pleasure
or whatever. Unfortunately, the guy passed away when things really started to pop
for those albums.
You were saying earlier that Louie was a long-standing friend. How did you originally
get to know him?
I met Louie in 1972 at the first Latin NY
awards ceremony. He was directing the orchestra there. Myself and my compadre, Eddie
Temporal, who sang with me in Conjunto Melao, were doing coros at the time. We hit
it off. Louie was always a great comedian. I'm telling you. He was some character.
He would come up with these funny anecdotes and whatever. We were fortunate to hit it
off the way we did. A lot of doors opened because Louie was in the recording industry.
At the time he was the vice president of Tico Records, and so on and so forth. So
he got me in there, and I did a lot of recordings with different people: Puente, Celia,
Sonora Matancera, Sonora Ponceña and Fania All Stars. It was a great school.
After the success of Noche Caliente
, at what stage did the concept of you and Louie recording together for Caimán come
On the strength of the success of Noche Caliente,
we did a tour of Venezuela, South America. We were hit with an injunction from the
people at K-Tel Records, because they had the trademark for Noche Caliente. They
thought we were going to tour South America under the name of Noche Caliente, which
was wrong. So, we said: "Look, we're not going there as Noche Caliente. We're going there
as Louie Ramírez and Ray de la Paz, formerly with Noche Caliente." They said: "No,
you can't use the name Noche Caliente. That's out." So we said: "OK." To show how
smart they were. When we went to Venezuela, some guy over there had registered the name before
they did. And he had the name Noche Caliente over there. So he had a group over there
called Noche Caliente, and there was nothing K-Tel could do about it. It was too
late. That's how smart they were. We went to a great lawyer, who took care of the case.
He said: "Look, go to Venezuela. Go on tour as Louie Ramírez and Ray de la Paz. Forget
about this Noche Caliente thing. Don't touch it; leave it alone." So we did. We did the whole tour; everything was great. When we came back, our road manager Héctor
Maisonave said: "You know what man? Why don't you just leave it like that? Louie
Ramírez and Ray de la Paz. It sounds great. It's a good chemistry; works good. People
So you'd already got the working band, then Sergio Bofil and Humberto Corredor of
Caimán Records come along and say...
...let's record. Yeah. And let's follow in the same pattern as Noche Caliente. The
same ideas, same concept, but under the name of Louie Ramírez and Ray de la Paz.
And of course it was massively successful. You did three albums together on Caimán
in that format: ¡Con Caché!
'84, Alegres y Romanticos
'85 and Sabor con Clase!
'86. Your albums charted in upper reaches of the Billboard
Latin chart. In 1985 you were a headline name at the New York Salsa Festival. Everything
was going well for you.
We got gold albums for everything. Every album was a great album. The chemistry was
What stands out in your mind about that particular period in your career?
We were fortunate that these people came up with this idea, and we jumped on the
bandwagon to keep it going. The chemistry worked. As Rafael Ithier from Gran Combo
always says: "When people stop buying our CDs, then I will change my chemistry. But
if it's not broken, I won't fix it." I said: "You know, that's a great idea." So that's
what me and Louie Ramírez did. We stayed on it, and stayed with the chemistry. And
kept bringing out tunes people could relate to, and know it was our sound. Because
we had an established sound. And everybody knew it.
Last year, Caimán's successor Cobo released Exitos,
a collection of your hits with Louie. Was that an accurate reflection of the tunes
you frequently performed live?
Yes, absolutely. "Mentirosa," "Labron De Tu Amor," "Desahogo" (all originally from
Alegres y Romanticos
), those tunes. As a matter of fact, I was just recently in Colombia, and they had
a tune there called "Todavia" (also originally from Alegres y Romanticos
), which is on that CD. The guy told me: "This record is a hit over here." I said: "AGAIN!
But I recorded that back in 1985." He aid: "Yeah, but it's a hit here now. The new
generation hadn't heard it."
"Mentirosa" is a perennial hit in Colombia.
That's like the Ray de la Paz anthem.
Then in 1987, separate albums appeared from you and Louie. I walked into London's
specialist Latin music shop, Hitman Records, and there was your solo album Estoy Como Nunca
on BC Records (reissued in 1999 on Caimán). For me, I somehow felt the magic had
gone. I know that it's a highly rated album, and it did well commercially, didn't
Yes it did.
I suppose I felt: good things have to come to an end. Why did you and Louie part
Well, Louie was a creative guy. He had ideas, and I had my own ideas that didn't go
with his ideas. So I guess that, instead of parting with any kind of animosity, we
decided to part as friends. I said: "Look, if you need me, I'm here. If I need you,
I know I can contact you." He said: "OK, go on and do your thing. No problem. If you need
arrangements from me, whatever. Hey, you give me a call." And that's the way it was.
We parted as good friends with good attitudes.
After your split with Louie, did you organise your own band?
Yes, right away. I started getting my band together and we started gigging. Because
my name, Ray de la Paz, was already out there, so people knew who I was. Thank god
I didn't have to start from scratch and come out like a newcomer.
What sort of horn combination did you have?
There I had four trumpets.
A bit like a...
Apart from the tunes that were recorded on Estoy Como Nunca
, what other numbers did you feature in your set?
We did a lot of the stuff I did with Louie, because I had copies of the music. So
as I was the one who sang them, people identified with them right away.
Your last outing with Louie at that juncture was providing lead vocals to "El Titere"
on his Latin jazz set Tribute To Cal Tjader
(1987 on Caimán).
Yes, Tribute To Cal Tjader
Which was the third time Louie had recorded that track.
Then there was a gap of about three years, during which time, Ralph Mercado's RMM
label began to get off the ground. And in 1990 you recorded an album for that label:
Como Tu Quieras
. I was New York that year and I saw you at the New York Salsa Festival in Madison
Square Garden. To my mind, that album deserved to do better than it did.
Yes, absolutely. That album, without promotion, did about 45,000. Without promotion.
Yeah, I know, with promotion, that album would have easily gone gold. Unfortunately
the powers that be didn't want to do it that way. They wanted to go some other way.
I get you. We'll touch on that sort of area later on. As with Estoy Como Nunca
, Como Tu Quieras
was produced by Isidro Infante, who wrote a number of the charts on both albums.
So, up to that point you'd worked on seven albums together. I'd be interested to
hear your comments about Isidro and about your experience of working with him?
Isidro is a great musician. A very talented individual. He's done a lot of productions
for a lot of people. He's worked with a lot of great names, like Myrta Silva. He
was the pianist with Myrta Silva for many years in Puerto Rico.
Before he moved to New York?
Before he moved to New York, yes. The guy who really gave him the opportunity to
get his talents known in New York was Louie Ramírez. Because Louie had heard about
him, and things like that.
He did some early albums with Raúl Marrero.
Most of the promotions Raúl Marrero did, as a salsa singer, were done by Isidro Infante.
In which I also had the opportunity of doing coro. He always called me.
How did the reunion album with Louie, Otra Noche Caliente
(1992 on RMM), come about?
OK. I was up to record my second CD with RMM. Ralph called me into his office and
said: "Ray, let's put the cards on the table, and all the animosities, and whatever
the heck. You guys, you know, let's be professional. What do you think about getting
back together with Louie Ramírez?" To tell you the truth, I said I didn't really want
to, because, first of all, I had the utmost respect for Louie. What happened was
that I was doing well with my band. I was gigging a lot. I was doing very well. But
I heard that he wasn't doing so well with his band. He was constantly playing at the Copa,
where a very good friend of his used to work and always got him a lot of work there.
But, other than that, he wasn't doing that great for himself. I was fortunate that
my band was gigging every weekend. I had places I was doing. So, I guess that maybe Louie
spoke to Ralph and told him: "Listen Ralph, things aren't happening all that well
for me. Maybe if we can come back, and do that chemistry again: Louie Ramírez and
Ray de la Paz."
Is that speculation on your part?
Yeah, I'm speculating. 85 per cent I'm saying that I'm sure that's what happened.
But hey, I'm being realistic.
Did Otra Noche Caliente
lead to a resumption of gigging with Louie?
Yes it did. We started gigging again. We did our debut at the Supper Club. The Reunion
of Louie Ramírez and Ray de la Paz at the Supper Club, and it was a jumping joint.
I mean the place was packed. The band was swinging. The chemistry and all that came
back from Noche Caliente
days. Then we started gigging a lot. We went to the Copa; we started travelling,
and doing different things. And from there on, we just stayed together.
And you and he began working on another collaboration for RMM. Please could you tell
me why Preparate Bailador
was released under only your name in late 1993?
OK. Midway through the finishing of the recording, Louie passed away. And Ralph said:
"Well, look, in memory of Louie, let's just put the picture of the timbales at the
back of the CD, and just make this your album." So I said: "Well, whatever you want.
You're the boss." But we talked about Louie Ramírez; dedicated the album to him. And
in one of the songs I also speak of Louie Ramírez. Just to make sure that people
know what's going on. But we say that it was the last album, and in memory of Louie
Ramírez, we dedicated it to him.
And the same year, you were teamed-up with Cheo Feliciano for the tribute "Recordando
A Louie" for the Combinación Perfecta
album (1993 on RMM).
Could you share your recollections about that project?
Yeah. I was working to write a tune in memory of Louie Ramírez, and Cheo Feliciano
had already started something up in Puerto Rico, because Ralph had told him. So Ralph
asked Cheo: "It would be appropriate to do it with Ray, because Ray knew Louie. I
think it would be the right thing to do." So I was very honoured and flattered that Cheo
would choose me to do a duet with him. Such a classy guy, and such an experienced
veteran in this genre of music. I was thrilled. You know that album, Combinación Perfecta
, went platinum. It was unbelievable.
It was very popular in London. I was working in Mr Bongo, a specialist Latin music
shop, and that used to go off the shelves like hot cakes.
Your parting shot for RMM was 1994's Familia RMM en Vivo,
on which you performed "Otra Noche Caliente." Please could you give me your views
why there has been so little opportunity for salsa soneros of your generation to
record solo projects during the last decade?
It's all commercial. The answer in one lump sum: it's all commercialisation. If it's
not commercial enough for them, they don't want to touch it. If you don't have that
pretty face, the young kid look, they don't want to touch you. So they'd rather go
with the mediocrity, instead of the experience and the talent, because of the money situation.
It's all money. If it's not in their best interests as far as money is concerned,
they don't want to touch it. That's the way that goes.
In 1996 you joined Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez, Junior González, Melcochita, José Mangual
Jr., Carlos Santos and Darvel García on Gozando!
on Asefra by Mascara Salsera's Gold Stars.
Did this project generate any live work?
Yes, yes, it did. It generated a lot of live work. Not that much as a group. But as
individuals, we all had copies of the music, so sometimes I would make a guest appearance
with Mangual Jr.. Or Pete would guest with Melcochita somewhere.
That was a very positive response you gave when I mentioned that album.
That album did very well. That was a one-shot deal. The guy who put up the money
for that project, a Colombian guy, a friend of ours, he just phased out. He did such
a great project. Then we were looking for the next one, and he just phased out.
It was odd, because the Mascara Salsera CDs prior to Gozando!
were actual compilations.
Yes, that's all he did. Exactly.
And then this appeared...
And it was beautiful!
Initially people thought: this is a compilation. But then you looked a bit closer,
and you realised that it was a fresh, newly recorded album.
It was great. But I don't know why he just stopped. It was the same thing as happened
The following year you participated in Paul Simon's Songs From The Capeman
'97 on Warner Brothers. Were you involved in the ill fated Broadway show?
Yes, I was an actor in the play with Marc Anthony and Rubén Blades. We did Capeman
on Broadway. Oscar Hernández was the orchestra director there. It was a great experience.
It was the first time I had ever done that, and it was an unforgettable moment in
my life; a period in my life that I'll never forget.
How did you feel about the fact it got such negative reviews?
They really clobbered us, because the story was so controversial about these two
boys that got killed in Hell's Kitchen by a Puerto Rican gang called the Vampires.
So we were getting clobbered by The Mothers of Murdered Children, and all these groups.
They were saying by Paul doing this kind of play, he was favouring the criminal as opposed
to glorifying the victims. They were putting so much pressure on the media, and then
the media got on it, and this is where things really started going downhill. But
we started off with packed houses, every night.
Then in 2001, you sang lead vocals on three tracks on Pa'l Bailador
on Morrowland by the West Coast based Johnny Polanco y su Conjunto Amistad. How did
this come about?
Yeah. Well, I've known Johnny about 30 years. Johnny lived in New York for many years.
I knew his family, and he also played trombone. Johnny is a very gifted musician.
He's credited with violin on Guararé's album on Inca.
Right, exactly. He plays violin; he plays trombone; now he plays vibes. He plays
conga; he plays timbales; he plays piano.
We saw him here in London last year.
Yeah, yeah, he was here last year. So, he calls me all the time, and we knew this
salsa festival was out there (on the West Coast). So I went out there with his band.
We did a few dates out there, and it so happens he said: "Ray, I'm doing this album.
I've got three tunes I want to do, and I want them to be for you. Can you do this?" I
said: "Well, today is Friday. Let's do Saturday morning," So I went into the studio
that Saturday, and in one hour, I did the three tunes. And he just fell back: "I
can't believe it, you just came in here. My singer takes two days to do one tune. You came
here and you did three tunes in one hour." And it's doing very well. As a matter
of fact, now he's working on his next CD. And I'm going to be in there. Azuquita,
Cachao, did you say?
Yes, he's also going to be participating.
Also in 2001, you participated in Ray Barretto's Live 50th Anniversary In Puerto Rico
on Sony recorded at the Tito Puente Amphitheatre. Please could you share your recollections
of this event?
Yeah, that was a lot of fun. It was Ray Barretto's 50th anniversary, and he called
me, and said: "Ray, I'm having my 50th anniversary in Puerto Rico, and I want you
to come down and be part of it." I said: "Hey, why not. Of course. Sure." So I went
down, and we did "Amor Artificial" and "Fuerza Gigante." Adalberto came in and did a few
tunes. Tito Allen did a couple of tunes. Yolanda Rivera did, I think, one tune with
Adalberto. Tito Nieves came in as a guest doing some ad libbing. Victor Manuelle
came in and did a couple of things. He wasn't credited on the album. He just came in to do
the concert. Luis "Perico" Ortiz did the production; he did the recording over there.
It's an exciting album.
In 2002 you got the opportunity to indulge your passion for bolero via your involvement
with Papo Lucca Presente: Festival De Boleros
for VI Music? Please tell me about this project?
Yes, oh, yes. Let me tell you the story about that real quick. I was in town, because
I'd just come back from Japan, and Papo calls me. He says: "Ray, do you have Ismael
Quintana's number?" I said: "Look, I don't have his number." I had a couple of numbers, but they had changed, or whatever. He says: "I'm trying to get in touch with him.
I've got to have this recording done by tonight, because I've got to send it out
to the island to do the whole mixing." So I said: "I don't know. Maybe I'll give
you a couple of numbers, and maybe somebody may have it." So he says: "Well I'm going to call-up
a few people. If I can't get him, then I'm going to call you back to come in and
do this tune." So I said: "OK, what is it?" He says: "It's a ballad called "Que Falta
Tu Me Haces,"" which is one of my favourite tunes that Gilberto Monroig sings. And I
love that tune. And I know it, so it's a piece of cake for me. So, he called me about
an hour later. He says: "Look, I'm in Jersey. Get up here however you can. I want
you to do the tune." It was four trumpets like Sonora. I had no idea that it was going
to be that kind of production. So I went down, and he played a track for me, and
it was a big band. I love big bands. The sound just knocked me out. So I did it.
He tells afterwards: "No offence intended Ismael, nothing on you, baby. But you know what Ray?
In a way I'm pleased we didn't find Ismael." Because it gave him an opportunity to
listen to what I had.
That's a massive compliment.
Yes, absolutely. I was very, very flattered.
Although it was recorded in 2001, 2002 also saw the release of the Grammy nominated
Un Gran Dia En El Barrio
on Ryko/Ropeadope Records by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, on which you sing "Aprende
A Querer," "Vale Más Un Guaguancó" and "Obsesion." Please could you share your reflections
about this project?
Wow, this little project is an idea that a gentlemen by the name of Aaron Levinson
came up with. He came up with the idea of taking tunes that were recorded back in
the '60s, '70s and '80s. And bring them back with new arrangements, and see what
could happen to that. Oscar Hernández called me aboard, and called Frankie Vázquez and Hermán
Olivera, my brother. We came out with all these great musicians and did this project.
We had no idea that it was going to be the talk of the town. And thank God - knock
on wood - it's doing very well. We were nominated for a Grammy. Right now, we are nominated
for two Billboard
awards. I think they come out in July (Un Gran Dia En El Barrio
garnered a Billboard
Latin Music Award in the Tropical/Salsa Album Of The Year, New Artist, category).
And, we've been travelling around the world, thank God.
I've been following the project, and I actually did an interview with Aaron Levinson for Descarga.com (which also appears on the Spanish Harlem Orchestra website: http://www.spanishharlemorchestra.com). I was in there from the
beginning, pitching for you guys. It's great to hear that there's going to be a follow-up
album. And we heard two of the numbers that are going to be on the follow-up tonight,
assuming that "Ariñañara" will be included?
No, we have that as a fill-in tune.
Right. Is that the arrangement of "Ariñañara" that Oscar did for the Eddie Torres
album Dance City
(1994 on E&E)? (Dance City
was produced and directed by Oscar Hernández, and featured an earlier version of
his composition "Pa' Gozar," which the Spanish Harlem Orchestra remade for Un Gran Dia En El Barrio
I think so, yes it is.
And that other new number, the one that Frankie sang...
That's a tune that Frankie wants; that's going to be recorded for the next CD. So
we've already started to do it.
"Maestro De Rumberos."
Do you know who did it originally?
Ismael Quintana did that (from Lo Que Estoy Viviendo
'76 on Vaya).
Can you give any sneak previews of other tunes that will be on the new album?
Well, there's a tune that I wrote called "Solo Vive Por Ti". It's a romantic salsa,
but with a nice, tasty uptempo arrangement. Oscar's doing that now. And Chino Nuñez
is doing another one for me, called "Te Cantare". It was a tune done many years ago
by Impacto Crea (on their 1978 album Impacto Crea
The drug rehabilitation project.
Exactly. They did that back in the '60s. So we're gonna bring that back.
Is the trio of singers going to be the same as last time?
No, we're going to be Ray Sepulveda, myself and Frankie Vázquez.
Well, Hermán decided to stay with Eddie.
Or maybe Eddie decided that he was going to stay with Eddie?
Yeah, man, I ain't sayin' nothing. I guess it's in his best interests to keep Hermán
there, you know.
You have to learn in life, what side your bread is buttered.
Absolutely. We just did that concert in San Francisco, and Hermán was with Eddie.
And we had to get someone to cover for Hermán, because he couldn't be doing two.
And ironically, you bring Ray Sepulveda in, who sings the tune he originally did
with Johnny Zamot.
Yes, "La Musica Es Mi Vida" (originally from El Hulk De La Salsa
'80 on Fania). I changed the coro as a matter of fact, because the coro it had was
kinda bland. So I changed it around. Instead, it's more exciting.
Anything else you can reveal about the forthcoming album?
I hope Oscar's not too pissed-off that I'm not asking him all about this.
No. We're getting more tunes. Frankie already has two that he wants to do. That one
you heard ("Maestro De Rumberos") and another one he's getting now. And Ray's going
to get a couple of his own tunes he wants to do. And from there we'll go to the studio. It's all up to Aaron right now. It's in his court; so whatever he says. I know he
has first choice. I know he's going to pick tunes that he would like to hear us do.
So it would be nice to all sit round the table and listen to everything one time,
and see what happens.
So who would have thought that 20 odd years after expecting to see you in London
in 1982, you'd be playing the Royal Festival Hall?
I'm really honoured. To me, it's a great, great moment. I never expected in my life
to be in Istanbul. Never.
Earlier on, we were talking about your coro work. And you've worked with names like
Tito Puente; and you were telling me that a milestone was Sonora Ponceña; and also
Johnny Ray. In addition to Sonora Ponceña's Musical Conquest
, which you've already mentioned, are there any particular albums you would like to
single out for comment?
Well, everyone I've done chorus with. We've done other things besides the coro. We've
done live things together. I've always had a good rapport with whoever I've worked
with. I've never had any kinda falling out with anyone, because I'm a people person.
I like to keep people on the good side of me. I never want to get on people's bad side.
So, I keep the doors open. Why burn bridges? Why act like a damn fool, when it's
not proper. I thank god that I always get called.
Could you tell me about your musical work outside the salsa industry?
Outside of salsa, my daily work is that I do a lot of jingles and a lot of commercials
for many different advertising agencies. And I've been doing it for the last 17 years;
Nestor Sánchez and myself. Well, Nestor got me into it with a couple of girls named Doris and Jeanie Owen and Maris Cargo. They are the ones that really got me into
it. Nestor's been in the business, I think, about 27 years. I'm still a youngster:
17 years. And I've done work for Coca Cola, McDonald's, Burger King, you name it.
They know good voices when they hear them.
I'm very fortunate. And I'm a member of Actors Screen Guild. So, it's helped me a
It pays the bills.
Absolutely. The benefits are wonderful.
What does the rest of 2003 have in store for Ray de la Paz?
Well, in 2003, god willing, more doors will open. More adventures, more horizons
to discover. Hopefully, the new CD we're going to work on, will be even more successful
and have even more impact on people that this one.
The first one puts you on the map.
Yes, absolutely. Now we gotta get the map to open up more avenues. I hope it takes
us to other places, and brings us back here. And takes us back to Turkey, and takes
us to Germany, and takes us all over Europe. Because people love the music. It's
a matter of bringing it to them and letting them hear it.
Apart from the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, do you have any other salsa projects in
Well, I was talking to Isidro the other day. By now, he's in Puerto Rico. He told
me there's a new company that's coming out, and he asked me whether I'm interested
in doing my own solo album.
So he returned to Puerto Rico after the RMM thing pretty much folded-up?
Well, he comes and goes. He basically lives in New York, but comes and goes all the
time to Puerto Rico. He goes to Colombia for a little while, things like that. One
thing about the Spanish Harlem Orchestra is that we're all independent. We're a band,
but each of us is an individual. We all have our own groups, and our own things. One
thing good about this band is that we can do what we want, but with attitude. I have
my own band in New York.
Still. So when I have to do something with my band, I just do it. Not to step on
anybody's toes, I work around everyone's schedules. This way I know which gigs I
can do with my band; what's open for Spanish Harlem, and so on and so forth.
Do you tour with your band outside New York?
Yeah, I tour with my band. Sure.
What sort of places?
We go to LA, Miami, Colombia; things like that. Not Venezuela, unfortunately, because
of what's happening over there. That used to be such a great, great place for salsa.
So many radio stations, and so many bands used to go there to play.
Anyway, we're coming to the end. Is there anything you'd like to add?
Well, I've been very fortunate. I've travelled extensively around the world. Who
would have thought that this Puerto Rican, born and raised in New York City, would
get to see such wonderful places and cultures. There's people with millions of dollars
who have never travelled, because they are so busy making more money! I just want to keep
You've seen wonderful cultures, but you've taken a wonderful culture with you.
Yes, yes. I try to always keep the name of Puerto Rico, and the name of my culture,
up on a pedestal. So the people notice it in a very positive way through my music.
I always hope that, wherever I've been, I've left a positive impression on everyone
who has been around me.
Well, I think tonight proved that to be the case.
Well, thanks very much for talking to me.
The pleasure's mine. I really appreciate you giving me this time. Thank you so much.
Thanks to Henry Knowles of DME Inc. and Andy Wood of ¡Como No! for facilitating my
interview with Ray de la Paz.
At the beginning of September 2003, I asked the Spanish Harlem Orchestra's producer,
Aaron Luis Levinson, to give me a flavour of the band's follow-up CD:
Aaron Luis Levinson (ALL):
Well, John. The selection of the tracks really will not be as autocratic as Ray suggests!
I am very open to what the cats bring to the table, but I do want the album to feature
more original writing by the guys this time out. More Oscar. More Ray. More Frankie. Ray did not mention that he has written a dynamite "tema" for the Spanish Harlem
Orchestra, which Oscar says is "really cool". I am strongly suggesting that we do
a version of "La Hija De Lola" by Charlie Palmieri (the tune was composed by Raúl
Marrero, and originally appeared on Charlie's 1972 album El Gigante Del Teclado
on Alegre) and I can assure you that it will be on the record. Other than that, the
skinny is that we will be building on the template of the first album from a sonic
perspective, but having more original compositions come to the fore. Still keeping
the formula focused on hard-hitting Latin swing for dancers and listeners who like their
Is there anything else you are able to share about the forthcoming album?
I would like to share that I am thrilled by the reception the first album has received
around the world. It has re-instilled my faith that there is a wide, global audience
for salsa dura and that the Spanish Harlem Orchestra has been instrumental (no pun
intended) in bringing this form back into the public eye and ear, if you will. The
forthcoming album will, I hope, act more as a musical bridge which brings the great
and often unsung pioneers of salsa in New York City in the '60s and '70s into dialogue
with composers like Oscar, Frankie and Ray, who are writing truly captivating salsa
compositions in the 21st century.
I do not feel that we have a group in the salsa field today who has opened up the
international jazz/world audience, particularly on the Continent, to the virtues
of this form to quite the same degree. Likewise, I am hoping that this next album
cements the reputation of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra as not merely brilliant inheritors, as
well as dynamic performers, but also and most importantly as contributors to a living
and vibrant tradition. Today, in the painful wake of the passing of both the incomparable Celia Cruz and the Gershwin of Puerto Rico, Tite Curet Alonso, it is both heartening
and ironic that tropical Latin music finally seems to be achieving the kind of unprecedented
popularity and study that such a rich field demands. I'd like to urge new listeners and devoted fans of this music to be vigilant and discover some of the other
releases out there, like Los Soneros Del Barrio and Son Boricua, as well as guys
like my dear friends Jimmy Bosch and Jesús Alemañy, and support their work as well.
A rising tide raises all ships and I want to bring as much of this music to the world as
I possibly can before I shake off this mortal coil.
John, thanks again for your early and powerful support, I speak for all of us when
I sincerely thank you for the love and wisdom you've always shown this music.
No, THANK YOU! You are the guys that are producing such compelling work.