The man who gets the weird songs
A conversation with John Child
Leni Prieto, a.k.a. José A. Prieto, is maybe not the most immediately recognisable name in salsa, but this accomplished pianist, arranger and composer has been an integral part of the Puerto Rican salsa industry for over three decades, recording with star names like Roberto Angleró, Marvin Santiago, Roberto Roena, Rafael Cortijo, Frankie Ruiz, Andy Montañez, El Gran Combo, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, and many more. At the time of this conversation with John Child, Leni's composition "Asi Gordito Me Quieren" sung by Tito Nieves and Pedro Brull for Pedro's solo debut Pronósticos on Caminaldo Discos was enjoying considerable airplay. His eloquent and comprehensive account gives an invaluable insight into an important period in the history of Puerto Rican salsa.
A self-confessed upholder of traditional salsa values, Leni was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, in August 1957. He started studying piano at the age of nine in the town of Cataño. In 1974 he entered Puerto Rico's Conservatory of Music where he studied classical piano with the Dominican teacher Josefina Peña. Meanwhile he began working as a pianist and arranger with various local bands and solo artists. In 1979 he entered the Music Department of Temple University in Philadelphia, from which he graduated with honours in 1983. He completed a Masters in Piano Education in 1985. He returned to Puerto Rico in 1988 and resumed working in the salsa industry as well as other genres.
John Ian Child (JIC): Tell me about some of the very earliest salsa bands you worked with, which I understand included those of future Mulenze leader Edwin Morales and celebrated composer Roberto Angleró?
Leni Prieto (LP): This Edwin Morales is someone else, a conga player from my neighbourhood, who heard me practicing the piano at home and recruited me for this combo he was starting. My first gigs were with this band, which Luis Samó, future leader of La Criolla directed. I did get to meet Mulenze (the better known Edwin Morales), and play with him in various neighbourhood jams. There was a lot of music being played on the corners then, rumbas, and in a local cafeteria/bar, which even put together an Amelia all-star getting together the barrio's players and singers (none of us a real star anyway) to perform on a stage in front of this place. With this band I played in a community centre a few times, el Centro Comunal de Las Vegas (a residential development in Cataño) and started getting to know more about salsa. I even heard Palmieri with Chucky López (bongosero extraordinaire), and a few other real tight local bands there.
Angleró heard about me later on and stopped by one day, talked to my parents and got me their authorisation to start playing with him. He had just finished a recording. So when I told him that I could not read chord charts (I could read notes, and those not so well either), he said: "Don't worry, just take the charts, pick up the tunes by ear and figure out the rest." And that was the beginning of my formal training in playing Afro-Caribbean music. I sat down, listened to a song on the record, which was I believe mostly arranged by Jorge Millet, and wrote up this list of chords. I realise now that it took me forever to learn this way, but at that time I did not know anyone who could read chord symbols. So I picked up this chord from the record, saw the chart and it read CMaj or Gmin7, and I just started figuring out and jotting down what the symbols meant. Along the way, as I kept playing with Roberto, I would ask other musicians I met about this or that and fill in the blanks. This was an intense training, because Roberto has always been very talkative and opinionated, and he took to me like another son of his, to teach. He would pick me up at home for a rehearsal or gig and turn on the radio and say: "Leni, listen to that! The clave is off," or "That trumpet is playing a line from an old standard," or "This song is a rip-off from another." Or he would bring over a jazz recording by George Shearing or an old Cuban record. I remember Angleró gave me this album by André Previn playing Ellington's tunes, "Sophisticated Lady", gorgeous record. And he would talk and talk and talk so much that he often lost his voice and could not sing when the time came!!!
With Roberto I got to meet a lot of the top players then, like Bobby Valentín, Marvin Santiago. He took me once to this joint where Luisito Benjamin was playing and this amazing pianist blew my mind away! And he had me improvise on some tunes (he threw me into the water, so to speak, so I had to learn by doing it). Roberto also sang a lot of his compositions to me well before they were recorded. I would get in his car and listen to "La Salsa De Hoy," "Las Hojas Blancas" and "La Soledad" (El Gran Combo), "La Boda De Ella" (Bobby Valentín), "Vas Por Ahi" (Sonora Ponceña), and a lot others, which I would then hear on the radio a few months later. I owe a lot to Roberto, he was my mentor those two or three years, and I learned a lot from him, about this music, about dealing with musicians, even about composition, because I learned to appreciate the quality of his compositions, which may appear to be very simple, but carry a heavy baggage. Roberto's songs are very strong, because they are very sincere, very heartfelt, and very pure, without fluff.
JIC: You worked with one of those rare things in Puerto Rico, a charanga, namely Orquesta La Criolla. You played piano, composed two songs and arranged four tracks on their mid-'70s debut album Orquesta Criolla on Bronco; also appearing "topless" on the rear cover! I am aware of two more albums by La Criolla, Dos (1978 on Bronco) and Siempre La Criolla on (2002 on Space International), please tell me more about the band?
LP: Yes, we were young and topless! I did not like that concept at all for an album cover, but I guess we were too young to have an opinion on that. Mariano Morales, the violinist, was 14, I think. I was like 16. And also, since the bass player was absent for the session, I decided to hold the bass, for the sake of the cover.
La Criolla was very rare indeed. Luis Samó had gotten these charts by Pupi Legarreta and since he was playing flute, he wanted to put together a charanga. I thought it was a weird sound, but we both started listening to Aragón and got hooked immediately. Soon afterwards I seriously believed that la Aragón was the best popular music ensemble in the world!! And we started copying their singers, their songs. Too bad we did not have any videos then, we would have probably been even more influenced by them. We also listened a lot to other charangas: Pacheco, La Duboney, Barretto, Típica Novel, Broadway.
Musicians, especially, always appreciated the band, even if initially the sound of it was a shock to the general public. Also, even though we were very young, we could swing, and sometimes we kicked some ass back then! I remember Mariano being quite a show on the violin, and Carlos Rodríguez on timbales, Papo Castro on congas were just spectacular. La Criolla always had a strong rhythm section, and I was singing initially with David George, an excellent güiro player with the best charanguero voice colour in the island, who is retired from music now. We knew the charanga routine, changing coros frequently to build up the momentum.
JIC: Was Orquesta Criolla your debut recording?
LP: I think so. We were just approached by Bobby Valentín, went into the studio, had a good time there, and had the recording messed up by a careless engineer, who kept playing pranks on us while recording, like playing very weird sounds on our headphones as we played. Anyway, we were young, and even though I never listen to this recording because I find it kind of silly and crude, considering pretty young guys with very little previous experience and knowledge made it, it was OK. It was OK for a start back then.
JIC: Did La Criolla perform much and what songs did the band feature in their live shows?
LP: Yes, we started playing a lot, all over the island. At one point, this promoter in San Germán advertised us as: "La Criolla, directamente desde New York." So, John Martín the violinist and I played along and spoke mostly English on stage that night! We usually had a great time and got along very well. We played like five or six Aragón charts, including some pretty and sophisticated danzones and boleros like "Un Real De Hielo," "Envidia," "Arrimate Pa' Cá,;" "Si Sabes Bailar Mi Son," "Cachita," "Pare Cochero," and others by Pacheco: "El Chivo," and a few originals.
JIC: Jorge Millet, whose work I admire, also wrote charts for Orquesta Criolla. Can you tell me something about his life and passing?
LP: I saw Millet about two or three times, hardly spoke to him, but I heard that he was quite a character, using a very florid language. Before I played with La Criolla, I played about 8-12 months with Johnny El Bravo's band and Jorge preceded me there. And with Angleró, he had also played before me, and later on I played with someone after Jorge, but we never talked much. He is remembered as a brilliant musician and arranger. And Samó always said that Millet wrote him charts for free. Never charged Samó anything, and helped him several times.
JIC: Someone Jorge Millet was associated with was the late lamented Marvin Santiago. You were involved with Marvin's solo debut De Los Soneros (1977 on TH) and El Filo Del Pantalón (1990 on TH-Rodven). Please could you share your memories of working with Marvin?
LP: I saw Marvin many times, because he was a friend of Roberto and he sang with Roberto's band several times. In fact, Roberto always says that he taught Marvin a few things, even about improvising about the subject of a song; and I believe him, because they both sang with Valentín's band, and Marvin did quite a number of Roberto's tunes.
I remember once on a beach, Punta Salinas, I was hanging around a rumba and Marvin got there, started singing and would not stop improvising. He was awesome!! He was extremely creative and people just loved him, he was very charismatic. The things he did with Bobby were outstanding. I also played many times opposite Valentín's band, with Johnny El Bravo, Angleró and later on with Apollo Sound. The last night Marvin sang with Valentín we did this gig together. The following morning Valentín called me to cover for his pianist (Tito Valentín), whom he had fired, along with Marvin Santiago, Oscar Colón (timbalero; who would later on record with Cortijo; he is long deceased) and I believe Tito Fabergé too. We played this gig in Patillas, and who was the singer? Apollo's singer Sammy González, who had also finished with Roena the night before! It was quite a shake up, and it took some time for both bands to settle down with a steady lead singer again. Later on Marvin did his thing and Tito Valentín, his producer, called me to play accordion in one plena and I also did coros with Sammy and Miguelito Ortiz (from Ponceña) on two tracks, something about Mexico and - I just can't remember the title of it - but the coro went something like: "Mala Yerba, mujer de cabaret", so it may be that the last few words are the actual title: "Mujer De Cabaret." Sorry, I do not have these albums.
JIC: I believe Marvin's De Los Soneros did contain a song called "Mujer De Cabaret." How and when did you hook-up with Roberto Roena's band Apollo Sound?
LP: I was studying at the Conservatorio and met Apollo's pianist at the time, César Concepción (the grandchild of the legendary big band leader and composer). César was an incredible pianist, even though you cannot tell from the recordings he made, but I had a few chances to hear him play both classical piano and salsa, and Latin jazz. The guy was amazing, fuera de liga, like Luis Quevedo. Anyway, César was getting ready to move to Boston and asked me if I would be interested in the gig. I was apprehensive at first, I felt that the job was too big for me, but a couple of friends told me to take the job (the band was gigging a lot, and paying good money). So I went, spoke to Roberto one evening, and then visited his bass player, Pucho Souffront, and went over the charts once. But they did a lot of things that were not written down, and I pretty much learned the routines later on, while playing. And we played almost nightly. That band had some very great performances. Roberto was a very good leader then, musically speaking. He was very astute, and very creative, and he knew very well how to play an audience, and use his resources (us), by giving us solos and chances to take the spotlight. It was almost like a jazz band in salsa rhythm. You never knew what to expect from us, because Roberto would change the course of a song on the spot. He just turned around and yelled: "Stop the rhythm (section)," or "All the brass come to the front," or he would suggest a riff to any of us. Or he would start a song with a piano solo, before the lyrics, weird stuff sometimes, but very effective with the public. So the band was oftentimes hypnotic. Of course, sometimes it also fell apart, because Roberto would be erratic, or the general chemistry was not there. But when we were focused, it was a mean band. And the songs were very well chosen, of course.
JIC: You performed on Roberto Roena y su Apollo Sound 9 (1977 on International), pictured with the band next to a giant nine, and El Progreso (1978 on International), one of Apollo Sound's best. This period coincided with the departure of trombonist and innovative arranger Julio "Gunda" Merced, who took six other Apollo Sound members with him into his new band Salsa Fever. Can you give us some insight into this phase in the history of Roena's career?
LP: A few days after I started playing with Apollo, I did one song of the previous album (La 8va. Maravilla '77 on International), which also featured a sort of samba rhythm towards the end. Then maybe 8-10 months later we recorded Apollo's 9th in New York.
This was before Gunda left. Gunda had been writing charts for Roberto for a while now, and I guess he wanted to try it on his own. I was a newcomer and this band had been together for a while, with Mario Cora, Gunda, Miguel Rodríguez, Papo Clemente, Fernando Mercano and Darío Moralez, Papo Sánchez, so some of them may have had other reasons for leaving eventually. But at this time we were playing a lot, and as far as I could tell, we were getting along OK.
I left the band before they split. I wanted to concentrate on my studies at the Conservatorio, but kept freelancing anyway. Then I heard that Gunda and the others left, among them Roberto's most recent pianist, José Lantigua. So Roberto called me again, and he was in the middle of recording number 10 (El Progreso). Papo Lucca had already played five tracks, I believe, and I did the others. Needless to say, I was thrilled to be on the same recording as Papo, who's always been my favourite salsa pianist.
JIC: You receive a special thanks credit on Salsa Fever's Que Vivan Los Estudiantes (1980 on Combo). What was your involvement with this album?
LP: I did a couple of tracks there. The title track and maybe one or two others. Gunda called me. I don't know if Lantigua had left the band or what, but I also did a few gigs with them. That was a big, heavy (as in loud, and even noisy for my taste) band, relying often on gimmicks borrowed from rock bands, like whipping the electric guitar with a belt, or playing the trombone with the foot (something Gunda had begun doing with Roberto before). There was a desire to experiment with a more visual performance, but I believe the swing, the musical quality, was sometimes lost.
JIC: You were a member of the orchestra that accompanied Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades, Ismael Miranda and Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez for the Concierto Mayor in homage to Ismael Rivera in 1978. This was included in the DVD Concierto Mayor De Los Soneros - Puerto Rico 1978 issued on Tierrazo in 2003. Please could you share your memories of this historical event?
LP: I did not know that this event was released! Gotta get me a copy of it. This was quite an experience. Gilberto Santa Rosa did coros then, and I guess we never met then, even during the many long rehearsals, which took place in a Condado hotel. I was thrilled to be in such good company, and I remember that Rubén was very kind to the musicians. He was the first singer, after a long parade of them, who began his rehearsal by asking all the people present (a lot of reporters, fans and the usual "presentaos") to "acknowledge the great work of this group of musicians," something like that he said. Man, that felt good.
Throughout these years I have worked several times with Rubén or played concerts on the same stage and he has always been the same, very approachable, and quite pleasant. He always takes time to say hello to all the musicians present. I suppose Ismael Rivera wanted to make it clear that he was in good health, and several times he started doing push-ups on stage. I had a good time. I got to meet Ismael in producer Frank Ferrer's apartment. But other than this concert, I never saw him perform with his band or any other group. As to the concert itself, it took place in this coliseum, and the vibes were great, the audience was wild.
JIC: You are credited with arrangements and piano on Roberto Angleró's third album Tierra Negra released in 1979 on SB Records, which included his award winning bomba "Si Dios Fuera Negro." Tell me about this project?
LP: I don't think I wrote any charts there. And I believe I only did one song at the piano: "Eternamente." Roberto had become very vocal at this point about the "negritud," the race issues in Puerto Rico, and I guess he also drew from some personal experiences to write these songs - well, he always does - but he was now emphasising the black (Afrocentric) perspective on our society. He was quite successful, and even to this day some of those very catchy tunes are heard in many countries. I think he touched a nerve. But at this time, before his huge hit "Si Dios Fuera Negro," he was not playing a lot, and I was mostly freelancing.
JIC: Before you left for the States to study, you played keyboards on Tierra, Música y Sentimiento '79 on Nuestra with Tito Valentín and Tito Gómez, and arranged the track "Que No Se Acabe El Bongó" on Cortijo's album El Sueño Del Maestro '80 on Tierrazo Records. I would like to hear your reminiscences about these projects?
LP: Tito Valentín was a close friend of mine at the time, we were both students at the Conservatorio and he had been working with Luigi Texidor and Marvin. Now he wanted to start his own project (something different, not salsa, but more like nueva trova) with Tito Gómez, and he asked me to join them. He was going to do a recording first, and then put together this group. But we just did the recording and soon after Tito Gómez left Puerto Rico.
My experience with Cortijo was certainly transcendental in my career. It helped define my attitude, my perception of what playing dance music is about. He called me one afternoon and asked me to play with his group at this awful dive in Isla Verde, El Quijote night club. It was awful because they did not have a smoke extractor and you played there and could hardly breathe, with all the smoke that stuck to your clothing. And the band itself was not great, but the feeling, the groove, was something else. Cortijo was playing this set of timbales which he tuned very low. Actually, he un-tuned them, they sounded very weird. But the way he led the band, and the fun they were all having, all smiles and the "sandunga" that these tunes were given. The tempi he established for each, that was something I had rarely experienced. So, I did my best and applied a couple of nice, syncopated montunos that I had picked from Rumbavana, which I had been listening to, thanks to Roena. Rafa liked my playing and kept calling me to play. Shortly thereafter we travelled to Caracas and played in La Pelota, this disco place owned by an ex-baseball player.
When we returned to P.R., Cortijo started rehearsing for a recording, which Louis García would conduct. We did long rehearsals, and I was in awe of this guy, who I believe never had formal training in music. But he spoke with such authority because he knew exactly what he wanted. He would come over to the bass player and hum a line he wanted played, then to me and suggest a montuno, then to the brass players and so on. So he ended up transforming a chart into a living, breathing organism. Something Roena also did. Except that Roena would do it on the spot, and if you were not paying attention, or did not get it right, the tune could fall apart right there. Later on I saw Barretto do the same thing in a rehearsal in New York. I learned right then and there that when you lead a band you can't leave things unattended to, or be satisfied with the first things that a chart suggests. A chart oftentimes is like the first draft of the package of a tune, the rest, the colours, the rhythms, even the structure you have to come up with. You have a duty to imprint your personality on a chart. It is the bandleader or musical director's responsibility to develop it, enrichen it.
Finally, we went into the studio and did the album (El Sueño Del Maestro). I did the piano, Paquito Corselles is on bass, Rafi Torres, trombone, Oscar Colón did the drums. We did it all under Louis García's direction. I recorded until the night before I left for Philadelphia, June 14, 1979. About the chart for "Que No Se Acabe El Bongó", Cortijo had heard something I wrote for Roena, "Yo Soy De Ley" (from Que Suerte He Tenido De Nacer '80 on Fania), and asked me to arrange this song. I really struggled with it, because I have always needed time to think ideas over and over, and at some point I felt bad that Louis had done all these wonderful charts and mine was sort of added there. I remember sort of apologising to Louis, although it was not my idea to write the chart, but Cortijo's to invite me (maybe he had run out of money and needed a cheap arranger, ha!!). Cortijo did another album later on, also with García, and Ray Coen on piano.
JIC: Can you recall any more details of the album you say Cortijo did after El Sueño Del Maestro?
LP: Well, I was already living in Philly. I know he did another record and he did some carnival songs in it, as well as a nicely grooved song which went like: "La mala gente". Other than that, I don't know much about it. I know Ray Coen played piano on it.
JIC: Interesting but lesser known names you performed with during the 1970s include Roberto y su Nuevo Montuno, Latin Tempo and Rubby Haddock. Please could tell me more about these acts?
LP: Latin Tempo was Louis García's band. He was writing these very modern-sounding charts and had a nice, swinging combo, with Luis Quevedo on piano, Louis playing tres and trombone, and some very good singers. Very nice band. And these arrangements got him the well deserved attention of Roena, then later on from other Fania artists and producers. I believe Louis is the most recorded arranger in the salsa business. Rubby Haddock used to play trombone, now I think he just produces. Back then he had a band and had made a couple of recordings with this funny sounding singer (like Angel Canales is peculiar, so was Sergio Cariño). Papo Lucca recorded with them on elecric piano, one of very few salsa recordings that used electric piano at the time. Roberto Berrios, bass player, and singer Papo Cocote were at that time enjoying some local popularity thanks to their recording of a few Palmieri songs, "Estamos Chao," "La Margarita," "Muñeca." Their "band" was very loose, the few times I played with them they sounded underrehearsed and with that laid back, psychedelic approach to jamming.
JIC: After your academic achievements in the USA, you returned to a Puerto Rico that was in the thick of the salsa romántica explosion. How did you react to this softer, solo singer oriented trend compared to what had gone before?
LP: The first shock for me was that the soundmen had taken over! When I left, a band like Roena's would have used maybe two mics in the front, and two or three mics for the brass. Now I was dumbfounded at seeing congas with mics, timbales, even the cowbell being played on a mic! What the hell is going on here? I had also returned from studying classical music, and my ears could not stand the volume. So right away I bought my earplugs and to this day I call them my life-savers. I am convinced that the abuse of technology has led to the rise of a generation of musicians who cannot play softly, they cannot handle dynamics. While I was away, I listened occasionally to salsa on the radio and really did not like much of what I heard coming from Puerto Rico. I was more in tune with what was happening in New York, with Barretto and Libre, and Pacheco. But generally, I was disconnected from the whole scene, and listened mostly to jazz. Once I came back I started playing with Elías Lopés. Again a very loud band for my taste, but a very tight band, with an amazing repertoire of over 600 charts at the time! We played salsa, but also danzas, boleros, merengues, everything.
JIC: You soon got hired by the TH-Rodven label to play piano on albums by some of the biggest young salsa romántica stars at the time, such as Frankie Ruiz's chart topping Más Grande Que Nunca (1989), Eddie Santiago's New Wave Salsa (1990), and Héctor Tricoche's Clase Aparte and Motorizame (respectively 1990 and 1991), as well as Todo Nuevo! (1990) by the veteran Andy Montañez. Please could you share your memories of this era?
LP: I was called by Julio César Delgado to record for TH Rodven. He had this "team" with Jimmie Morales (conga), Pedro Pérez (bass), Chago Martínez (timbales), Tommy Villariny (trumpeter and arranger), and they were doing most of the records for TH those days. I remember telling Julio in the studio that I did not like these overtly sexual themes ("Ven Devórame Otra Vez," "No Te Quites La Ropa," etc), and he made fun of me. He told me: "Ah! forget it! You are just a paid labourer here, what do you care if we want to be crude or nasty?"
These were studio sessions when we never saw the singer; we just went in and played our parts. At times we did not even know how the song went. I started making it a point to ask for the melody while recording. I asked the arrangers or the producer to sing the lyrics, so that I could fill in behind the singer and not get in his way in advance; I did this because I heard some songs where the pianist was filling in, obviously not knowing what the melody was and it sounded lousy. Things had changed a lot from the '70s, when you usually rehearsed the entire band before recording. And I was glad that already the salsa romántica was passing; most of these records you mention were less "mongos," and a little bit more swinging. We did get along, in the studio, and every now and then we tried to spice things up a little.
JIC: You went on to write charts for Andy's albums El Catedrático de la Salsa (1991 on TH-Rodven), El Swing de Siempre (1992 on TH-Rodven), Vengo A Decir (1995 on Rodven) and Soy Como Soy (1998 on Jun-Jun Records). Tell me about these.
LP: Again, these were more traditional tunes, and Julio César, and later on Vinny Urrutia, knew that I preferred the more rhythmic stuff, and could work it better than the more pop oriented charts. I considered myself a traditionalist then, and I was proud of it. Still am.
JIC: In layman's terms, what distinguishes a salsa romántica arrangement from a salsa dura arrangement?
LP: Generally speaking, the difference would be in the emphasis on swing and clave of the salsa dura. Most of the romantic salsa songs were originally conceived as ballads, or shared with ballads that lyrical, soft quality. So naturally, the musical arrangement has to be more subdued in order to let the singer express the words and melodies convincingly; with not many percussion breaks or brass shouts. Also, a lot of the romantic salsa singers were not vocally gifted, and that also had to be taken into account. The salsa romántica movement came in part, as I see it, precisely as a reaction against the harsh, percussion-laden, rhythmically complex salsa charts that preceded it. I remember some salsa charts from around 1978 to 1980, and the style was becoming too complicated, it sounded as if arrangers were competing against each other to demonstrate who could write more weird chords, or rhythm breaks. Also at this time, a lot more pop music was being promoted, music of Roberto Carlos, other Spanish and Mexican balladeers, so naturally, salsa evolved in Puerto Rico and New York to change the pace, to soften it and accommodate other lyrics, other messages. We should also remember the immense contribution of Rubén Blades to the genre. After his socially conscious lyrics became standards, how could you follow that up with a simple: "Baila mi guaguancó mamita" lyric? So the charts had to become simpler to allow the more elaborate words to be heard and understood. And also, a lot of these songs were not conceived under a clave feel. Many of them had to be "accommodated," or fit to the clave (a marronazos sometimes). That is why a lot of them do not incite the bailador; they are not rhythmic enough. Some were not even danceable, at all.
JIC: What part did you play on El Gran Combo's 1989 chart-topper Amame! on Combo, which marked the beginning of the band's flirtation with salsa romántica, introducing outside arrangers for the first time in over two decades?
LP: I was the pianist on that record. Rafa Ithier decided that he wanted to try this sound, with new arrangements, but he did not want to sweat the piano parts just yet, so he called me to do the piano. I got this call on a Sunday night around 10:00 p.m. and thought it was a prank. Play the piano with el Combo? Unheard of! Later on I learned that back in the sixties a young Papo Lucca also covered for Ithier sometimes.
JIC: In 1989 you performed on Trompeta Con Trovadores by Elías Lopés on his own label and can be seen wearing a tuxedo on the front cover. Tell me about the Elías and this project?
LP: Elías had the best society band in Puerto Rico, possibly in the Caribbean. The repertoire was endless, still is, at over 1,000 charts. And he made sure that everyone was playing correctly. We could play any style upon request. Elías put together this Trompeta con Trovadores concept to showcase the traditional troubadours of Puerto Rico, who would often improvise décimas with a cuatro and a big band behind. He played a lot of shows with this concept. When I was with him, one of the singers was Junior Toledo (formerly with Willie Rosario). Later, you could hire his band for a salsa gig and he would show up with Cano Estremera, Papo Sánchez and Pedro Brull and each would sing his own hits, with the original arrangements, and the band would play flawlessly.
JIC: You played piano on Frankie Hernández's 1991 album Te Transformas on Bronco. Do you have anything to share about this?
LP: Not much. I may have seen Frankie at the studio, but mostly just laid down the piano tracks with Bobby Valentín directing.
JIC: From the mid-'90s you began contributing to Gilberto Santa Rosa's Sony albums. You composed and arranged "Encuentro" and penned two other charts for his 1994 chart topper De Cara Al Viento; arranged and played piano on the hit "No Quiero Na' Regala'o" from Esencia (1996); wrote arrangements for De Corazón (1997), Expresion (1999), Intenso (2001) and Vice Versa (2002); and composed, arranged and played piano on Auténtico (2004). Tell me about this association with Gilberto and how it began?
LP: I do not remember exactly when we met. It was probably in a studio. Gilberto called me at some point for an arrangement, either a son montuno or a jala jala, but something more old school. (My wife complained to me once that I was being given the "weird" songs, but I did not mind, because this was the kind of salsa I liked.) With a little Cuban flavour, or a lot of Cuban flavour. When he did De Cara Al Viento, I offered this song which I must say I wrote with his interpretation in mind, just like the latest one: "Y Si No Te Vuelvo A Ver" (from Auténtico). We both share a great interest in Cuban music, music from the 1930s on. But of course, he has an endless collection, and I just borrow occasionally from him. Ha!
JIC: Please tell me more about "Y Si No Te Vuelvo A Ver"?
LP: It is based on a traditional form, the décima, because I was raised listening to décimas that my father still writes and sings. I did not arrange it, like I did with my previous song for Gilberto, "Encuentro." Then I had a terrible time arranging, because I had become so involved with creating the song that I was obsessed with trying to make a good chart. That was a painful experience. That chart took me weeks of agonising work. So, nowadays, I'd rather have someone else arrange my songs and I will arrange another composer's song. I am trying to write more often now, develop, grow as a composer.
JIC: In 1995 you worked on Willie Colón's Y Vuelve Otra Vez! on Fonovisa. What was this experience like?
LP: This record was made in Cuco Peña's studio. I was thrilled to take part in it, but again, never saw Willie. I have never seen him perform either.
JIC: You wrote the chart for "Quién Dijo Miedo" sung by Darvel García on the Puerto Rico All Stars' fourth album De Regreso '95 on RMM. Tell me about this?
LP: That was my first chart ever for a big band, and I haven't done many since. My best recollection is to have seen Luis Quevedo sight read his part, which is in a difficult key and has some awkward rhythms, and he just nailed it right then and there, first sight and first take in the studio. He is something else. Also, I made up the coros, which is something I've done a lot.
JIC: Your recording activity with Ismael Miranda seems to have begun in 1995 when you arranged a track and played keyboards on Cantar O No Cantar with Junior González on Asefra. Then you played on his Con Buena Nota with Nano Cabrera (1997 on Jerry Masucci Music/Sony) followed by his Universal albums Live From San Juan Puerto Rico (2001), taking outstanding solos on "Asi De Compone Un Son" and "Mi Mami Me Quiere," Vengo Con Todo (2001), also arranging one track, and Tequila Y Ron (2003), again arranging one track. Tell me about this association with Ismael and how it started?
LP: I may have done something earlier with Ismael, a chart for "De Rumba Pa' Bolero" (from El Sabor De Puerto Rico '94 on BMG/Paradisc). And I travelled once to Texas with him, around 1990. The times I have recorded with him have been mostly under Louis García, who has called me many times for sessions with everybody and their mother. I am particularly fond of these jobs because they follow the salsa dura line. And Ismael has always been very kind and outspoken in his appraisal of my work. Also through Louis I got to work and know Mr. Cheo Feliciano, one of the nicest human beings anyone could ever meet. It is always great to get a call from Louis, because he is such a professional and at the same time you work relaxed and give it your best.
JIC: You played on Larry Harlow's production Roberto Clemente: Un Tributo Musical (1998 on RykoLatino) and composed and arranged "El Primero" sung by Adalberto Santiago Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez and Ismael Miranda on Harlow's Latin Legends Band 1998 on Jerry Masucci Music/Sony. What's the story here?
LP: It may have been around 1996 when this local producer, Dr. Fidel Estrada, put together this amazing concert in the Teatro de la Universidad de Puerto Rico. He had Johnny Pacheco and El Conde, Ray Barretto with Adalberto Santiago, and Larry Harlow with Ismael Miranda. Just the thought of it still excites me. So Fidel put together this core band to accompany the six stars, and I was the lucky pianist. Being so honoured, I made up this song, inspired by these Fania artists and my profound admiration for them. I even wrote the soneos, presented it to them and they liked it. We performed it that night, and a few months later Harlow asked me about the song and told me he wanted to record it. So I wrote up another arrangement and sent it to him. I spoke several times with Barretto while preparing for the University concert, and the next few occasions Ray came to Puerto Rico he asked for me. Playing for Pacheco and Barretto, just like playing with El Combo, or with Cheo, I tell you, who could ask for more?
JIC: In 1999 you played piano and keyboards on Cheo Feliciano's Una Voz...Mil Recuerdos on RMM. Tell me about that?
LP: I played with Cheo for the first time around 1982, during one Christmas vacation on the island. Louis was, and still is, his director, and ever since that first time, Cheo has been one of my most admired persons in the world; and as a singer, of course, he is still unsurpassed.
JIC: Also in 1999 you performed on Ray Sepulveda's ¡Salsabor! on RMM. What's the background to this?
LP: Another one of García's productions, I think I met Ray at a gig in New York later on.
JIC: Ray hasn't recorded another solo album since then. I trust this wasn't anything to do with you?
LP: I sure hope not!!
JIC: In 2003 you played on and arranged one track on Paquito Acosta's Implorando Tu Perdón on Envidia. How well did this do?
LP: I sincerely do not remember going into the studio to do that session, but if I did, I hope it came out well. I do not know where Paquito is now, or what he is doing.
JIC: Tell me about your involvement in Tony Vega's 2004 CD Cuestión De Fé on Universal.
LP: His producer was pianist Ceferino Caban. This was also strictly another recording session. When I went along, the rest of the band was already done and I just put in the piano parts.
JIC: In 2004 you participated in Victor Manuelle's smash hit CD Travesía on Sony Discos arranging "Si Me Preguntan." For me, this was the standout cut and the first I played on totallyradio.com, probably because of its old school feel. How did you become involved?
LP: Again, and thanks for the compliment, I like the old school feel. The song is definitely a son montuno, and asked for that treatment, like Ismael Miranda's "Te Solte La Rienda" (from Tequila Y Ron) and much earlier than those, Gilberto Santa Rosa's "Me Quiere Enamorar" (from De Cara Al Viento), which I arranged inspired by "Gracia Divina" from Hommy (Larry Harlow; 1973 on Fania).
JIC: Also in 2004 you played on the Protagonistas De La Salsa CD De Puerto Rico Al Barrio on Envidia. Though there is a strong array of talent, including one of my favourite singers, Roberto Lugo, much of the material had a 1980s salsa romántica feel that didn't really appeal to me. I would be interested in your view?
LP: I do not know this recording. Could it be perhaps a rehash of previous recordings? I recall doing a very '80s sounding, Noche Caliente-kind of album for Harlow some time ago.
JIC: That's interesting, because you are credited on the Protagonistas De La Salsa's 2005 follow-up Nuestra Salsa: Protagonistas De La Salsa 2 on Envidia!
LP: Sorry, I don't know this label, and do not know the recording. But you know?, every now and then, or I should say, CONSTANTLY, labels put out old stuff in new packages, and a lot of collectors buy the same stuff repeatedly. Also, speaking about recordings, I've heard a lot of live performances that weren't meant to be recorded, and shouldn't have been recorded in the first place, and they are being sold all over. A lot of terrible recordings out there. A lot of junk. And a lot of it is mislabeled on purpose. I recently saw a video called Giberto Santa Rosa in Carnegie Hall, and it was a gig in a Mexican dancehall!! And a live recording labeled as Cheo Feliciano in New York is really a gig we did with a small ensemble in a San Juan hotel.
JIC: I still remain curious about you (and possibly others?) not being aware of the Envidia recordings. Envidia are a Spanish based company who have been prolifically releasing Latin material, mainly new Cuban and Puerto Rican stuff, for over five years now. Just do a search on Descarga.com and see how many Envidia releases come up. Anyway, I heard some years ago that Roberto Lugo had a soap opera career. What became of him during his long absence from recording?
LP: I think he was involved in the restaurant business in Puerto Rico. But I don't remember ever talking to him.
JIC: 2005 began with the release of Johnny Pacheco's comeback album Entre Amigos on Bronco on which you played piano. You have also performed with Pacheco during his visits to Puerto Rico. What is the story behind your association with this giant of the salsa industry?
LP: We met when he came for that University concert. Then he returned a couple of times and I was more than happy to play those great charts with him, along with Pedrito Pérez, Sammy García, and the late Cusi Castillo. On Entre Amigos, I was again very lucky/blessed that Papo Lucca had to leave early for a gig overseas and he called me to do this song.
JIC: In mid-2005 two projects appeared that you had an input to. You composed "Aqui Estoy" for Hoy Como Ayer on WG Records by El Nuevo Septeto Puerto Rico.
LP: Haven't heard it finished yet. Yes, I am trying to write more. It is really very satisfying to hear one's compositions performed.
JIC: Even more significantly you wrote "Asi Gordito Me Quieren" sung by Tito Nieves and Pedro Brull for Pedro's solo debut Pronósticos produced by Gilberto Santa Rosa for his new Caminaldo Discos label. I adore Pedro's voice and a solo album is long overdue. What is the story behind this project and Gilberto's new label venture?
LP: Well, Gilberto is, aside from his enormous talent as a singer and improviser, a tireless producer. He is constantly, every single day, coming up with ideas for other singers, comedians, shows, plays, you name it. I never saw someone in the salsa business work so much, not only onstage, but off it as well. About the song? One night he asked me if I could come up with something about a gordito. (He knows I want to continue writing and every now and then I sing something to bounce it off him.) So he either liked it or couldn't find a better one. Ha! Now, Pedro's album is out and they are playing it. Everything seems OK. I also like the mean arrangement José Lugo made for the bolero. It could become a classic, like the now old bolero "Pronostico" from the late '70s.
JIC: What else do you have in the pipeline?
LP: I hope to, someday, before it is too late to do it well, organise some kind of recording where I call all the shots (or most of them), and write some songs, arrange a few, play on some and sing in others.
JIC: Is there anything else that you would like to add that we have not talked about?
LP: I can't think of anything except that I am very glad to have had the honour of playing with such extraordinary human beings, and I am not only referring to the few stars I have played for, but to many colleagues in Puerto Rico from whom I have learned so much about music and about being a professional, and being honest, and above all, to appreciate and respect and work hard to make good music, regardless of the style.
JIC: What title would you choose for this interview?
LP: Now, that's a toughie! I will leave that up to you.
© Descarga.com and John Child, producer and co-host of the the totallyradio show Aracataca , contributor to the Descarga.com Latin music website and
MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music