To The Best of His Knowledge
A conversation with John Child
Louie Cruz was one of the most prolific arrangers for the Fania label during its heyday. In this in-depth interview conducted by John Child, Louie shares his memories of arranging for Willie Rosario, Ray Barretto, La Lupe, Larry Harlow, Johnny Pacheco, Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez, Ismael Miranda, Ismael Quintana, Angel Canales, Willie Colón, Rubén Blades, Adalberto Santiago, Tito Puente, Héctor Lavoe, Típica 73, Conjunto Clásico, Libre and La Sonora Matancera, among others. He also talks intimately about his stints as a pianist with Willie Rosario (1963 to 1967), Ray Barretto (1967 to 1974), Libre (circa 1980) and La Sonora Matancera (1987 to the present day) and his experiences as a leader of four bands accompanying the likes of Ismael Miranda, Raúl Marrero, Vitín Avilés and Ismael Quintana. Particularly poignant are Louie's reflections about Ray Barretto, who fell ill and died during the period when the interview was in progress. He is still very active and itching to receive commissions to write charts.
John Ian Child (JIC): Let's begin at the beginning. When and where were you born?
Louie Cruz (LC): February 27, 1939, in Barrio Obrero, Santurce, Puerto Rico - on the second floor of the house where my parents lived - the street name is Calle Williams.
Mr. Child, before I go any further, I would like to give an extra little insight on my lifestyle.
As a rule I consider myself a shy person and pretty much keep to myself, especially in public places. I follow conversations but hardly ever start them. I'm lousy with dates unless they're very important (my birthday) or repetitious (Mothers Day, etc). I do remember many faces and names of people and musicians I've met throughout my musical career but separate from each other. In other words, I can see a face in a photo or see someone in a club that I recognise but not remember the name. Or, you can mention someone's name in a conversation and I'll recognize it but not the face. I guess this is because of my not mingling much with people long enough to "stamp" them and their names in my mind. I've never been in the habit of buying LPs or CDs and what I do have, have been given as gifts. The reason I mention all this is because there are many questions that people may feel I should know the answer to but I can't answer simply because I don't or can't recollect. I don't keep records of anything. I've arranged so many charts since 1963 that it's impossible for me to match the performer with the tune, or remember what took place in the studio the day it was done. To this day there are many tunes I've done for artists and bands that I still haven't heard or seen performed. I'm working on making a collection of all or as many tunes arranged by me to put them on CD.
This is probably all useless information, but I just don't want people to think I'm a dummy or suffer from Alzheimer's
JIC: Tell me about your upbringing and early musical experiences and education?
LC: My father went as high as he could and graduated from the 8th grade. His mother died when he was very young, so his oldest brother and wife, whom I referred to as grandmother, raised him. He and his brothers were self-taught masons and carpenters and I guess this made him a stickler for education.
When we arrived in New York from Puerto Rico, I knew no English and was put back a year in school, which highly upset him. He would buy the Daily News and El Diario / La Prensa and would make me translate both with a Spanish-English dictionary and then we would arrange the words so they would make sense. After a couple of months I was put back in the second grade. His other pet peeve was penmanship. I would have to write out some of the news stories and if all the written letters weren't the same size, I would have to do swirl exercises between two lines over and over.
He was also very strict with behaviour - especially in public. All he had to do was look at me a certain way and I'd get the message. I was an only child until my sister Adriana (we call her Dee Dee) was born 18 years after me and just as I was about to join the Navy.
With Conjunto Alfarona-X he took me to many rehearsals and functions involving the band. He would include me in the promotional photos of the band.
In Puerto Rico there was a club two houses down from our house called El Park Plaza. We lived on the second floor and from my bed I could see and hear the bands playing. My dad played there sometimes and after the dance he and some of the musicians would walk over to serenade my mother in front of the balcony. By the way, the house between our house and that club belonged to Tite Curet Alonso's mom and his three sisters. She was my mom's best friend and his sisters called my parents' uncle and aunt. Whenever the girls got out of hand, their mom would tell my dad to bring his belt and they would quickly straighten up.
JIC: Tell me how the piano playing began and your key influences?
LC: The first Christmas present I remember getting from my parents in New York was a red, one octave, plastic piano from a Woolworths store that cost them $1.00 in 1945. It is the only gift I remember getting. At the time we were living with his sister and he was unemployed. I played that piano so much that by New Year's Day I could play simple songs like "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night," "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," and my favourite, "Chopsticks," all by ear.
My dad spent a lot of time composing songs with his guitar and I spent my time watching and listening to him (there was no TV). He didn't know how to read music, so he invented his own system using the alphabet and numbers. As he would play each note, I would try to do the same on the little red piano. He had an uncanny ear for music and I guess I inherited that from him. I got to love music, and especially the piano, because from the earliest time I can remember, I was surrounded by music, be it bands, clubs, musicians, dances, rehearsals etc, etc.
I didn't care for Catholic school lunch, so my father used to pay $1.00 per day to a friend of his that owned a restaurant across the street from the school. That was great because I would listen to Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodríguez and all the other top bands playing on the jukebox.
In 1947 my mom decided she was homesick and let my dad know about it, so he left Alfarona-X to Pucho Marquez, the trumpet player, and we went back to Puerto Rico. There my dad formed a new band and named it Marianaxi after my mom Mariana and it too became pretty well known. Around '49 my parents decided to move back to New York and he was asked to rejoin Alfarona-X, which had three trumpets by that time.
Then he got the bug again to have his own band and he reformed Marianaxi.
My dad knew I loved the piano and wanted to learn to play but he couldn't afford one. However, he was a very well-liked person and had a lot of friends. One of these friends was a lady pianist called Joséfina La Yambó who played with a big dance band and gave piano lessons at her house. Another friend who had a piano was willing to let me practice at their house. I went to Cmdr. Shea Catholic School on 111th Street and Lexington Avenue. The instructor was on 112th Street and Madison Avenue and the friend with the piano was on 116th Street and Madison, all well within walking distance of each other.
I was 12 years old when I officially started my first piano lesson but it wasn't all that great. It wasn't one on one. I wasn't taught theory, proper fingering of scales, arpeggios, solfegio or rhythm other than 4/4, 3/4 and 2/4. I was merely given an assignment from one of the books and told to learn it for the following week.
Once on my way to a lesson I was held up for money. When I told them I had none, they ripped up my books and my dad had to buy new ones. After that I took a different route.
Unfortunately, like all good things, my musical career came to an abrupt end about eight months later when the lady with the piano had to move and I had no place to practice and my dad still had no money for a piano. I was sort of disappointed but not to a great degree because I felt that what and how I was being taught wasn't anything I couldn't do myself. Needless to say, anytime I got to a place where there was a piano handy I would sit and play.
By the time I was 15 we had moved to the Bronx and my parents were in better shape financially. My mom and dad were working and his gigs had picked up dramatically.
One Saturday my dad's piano player, Ortelio, came to our house and took my dad, my mom and myself to downtown New York to a piano warehouse. I got the biggest surprise of my life - a genuine Chickering Upright. After it was delivered, Ortelio took it all apart and rebuilt it for me. Shortly afterwards, a man from Wally Jackson's Studios on 47th Street and Broadway came to the house and talked my dad into signing with them. They had two instructors, one for singing and one for piano.
The piano instructor was one on one but the voice instructor was a group class. On my first lesson I learned that there was a proper way to run the scales. He was shocked that I didn't know anything about theory, reading and whatever else I was supposed to know. I only had two lessons with him and was then put in the voice class because the instructor died of cancer.
The voice instructor was a Mr. Hal Sykes. He was a pianist but not a piano teacher. We ended up doing what I did with my very first piano teacher. I would go to The Colony music store, pick out a song sheet, buy it, learn it, and that would be my next lesson. Again I told my dad it was a waste of money but I guess to justify my having a piano, he told me to stick with it. At one point he almost took me out because I was practicing the song "Carmen" from the opera and there are some dissonant notes that sounded wrong to him. We argued back and forth because I told him that it was written that way, but he kept on saying I was playing it wrong. Mr. Sykes had to write him a letter explaining dissonance. I did play in their Christmas show and in front of an audience for the first time. I played "White Christmas" to close the show with audience participation. But I still didn't know theory and the rest of the basics so I stopped going for lessons. I graduated from high school and joined the Navy for four years and never got to touch a piano in all that time.
JIC: What were the circumstances of you moving to New York and when did that occur?
LC: Life in Puerto Rico became rough because of the Second World War. Ships would not go there for fear of the German subs that patrolled the coasts in the Atlantic Ocean. Food and many other necessary staples were scarce and whatever little there was was overpriced or hard to come by. A friend of my dad who was a Merchant Marine and promoter convinced him to take his group to New York because life there was much better and music was the best pastime. He convinced most of his musicians to take the gamble. This took place in the spring of 1945. Alfarona-X was a big hit and in December of that year he sent for my mom and me.
JIC: Tell me about the important contribution your father Luis Cruz and his group Alfarona-X made to the history of Latin music?
LC: The main thing people remember first off is the name Alfarona-X, I guess because there was no other word like it. I believe the fact that my father's repertoire was always so versatile made people like him, and his band. He was always composing all types of songs but was best known for his boleros, mainly because of his way with romantic words. Then came the danzones, son montunos, guarachas, guaguancos, etc, etc. He would also play popular hits by other bands and oblige with requests for danzas, waltzes and paso dobles.
On the bandstand the band would stand out because it was a very disciplined, neat and serious group of professionals. He was very serious about discipline and anyone getting to a gig or rehearsal late would be fined and the money used for uniforms because neatness was also enforced.
I used to call him the Hispanic Arthur Godfrey. If you recall, Godfrey would bring performers to his TV show and many of them would be "discovered" and become famous and make it big shortly thereafter, such as Julius La Rosa and the McGuire Sisters. Some of my father's contributions were Carlos Pizarro, Joe Cuba, Cheo Feliciano and Heny "Hommy" Alvarez.
In the '50s, the reporter Bobby Quintero of the Spanish newspaper La Prensa gave yearly awards. Ballots were printed daily and the people would vote through the mail. My dad won just about every year along with other artists like Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Vicentico Valdés, Machito and many others.
His Conjunto Marianaxi became just as popular as Alfarona-X because he got a lot of exposure in the best of clubs. It was also featured various times on New York's TV WOR channel 9 in a Spanish weekly variety show which the emcee, Don Passante, made very popular. But I think what stood out most about him was his simple yet strict persona. He had such a way with words that he could convince you about anything or make you cry.
JIC: Who were the very earliest bands you played with?
LC: Professionally I would have to say the first was my father's third band, Conjunto Marianaxi, when I came out of the Navy in 1961 because that was one of his dreams. (His first group was called Son De Borinquen before I was born.)
I didn't last long in Marianaxi because he played for a much older crowd and I felt bored and out of place during the breaks, so I hooked up with Angel Nater (trumpet player Pete Nater's father). That didn't last long either. Then came Louie Barcelo's Septet, also in 1961. But it was only a septet for a short time because Louie kept on adding and changing musicians. Louie Barcelo played flute and sang for Joe Quijano off and on. This was a fun group with good musicians that lasted a couple of years. Out of there came René López (trumpet), Joe Grajales (percussionist), Ralph "Cookie" Cabret (started as a trumpet player with pianist Pete Rodríguez of "Micaela" fame, and then became a virtuoso bass player), Dave Montañez (vibraphonist and brother of Monty Rock), "Candido" (famous timbal player of the '60s and '70s), Fernando Oquendo (sax player who passed away early in life) and myself. From there I went to Willie Rosario.
JIC: I understand that Adalberto Santiago played a key role in the early part of your career. How did you meet Adalberto?
LC: While I most certainly give my dad all the credit for getting me involved in music as I grew up, I also have to give Adalberto a huge amount of credit for my being where I am today professionally. He was instrumental in getting me into Willie Rosario's and Ray Barretto's bands. He also throws my name around whenever someone is looking for an arranger. Anytime we meet in concerts or festivities he makes it a point of introducing me to new performers I haven't met and it's never a short introduction. He's a great friend and I wish him and his wife the best always.
Adalberto used to have a band where he played bass and sang just like Oscar D'León used to years back. I don't know how he heard about me but he called me to play a gig with him at the Happy Hills Casino. Most of his charts were stock arrangements so it wasn't hard. He also sang and played bass with Chuíto Vélez' orchestra, the house band at the Club Caborrojeño on Broadway and 145th Street. Chuíto was the pianist, but was very limited because his instrument was actually the accordion and he could only play what he knew, mainly his charts. The club used to do a Sunday show at 11:00 pm with special attractions but then the owner decided to start transmitting live on Sundays over the radio. Adalberto asked me if I would be interested in doing that hour for $50.00 whenever Chuíto couldn't and I agreed because I wasn't doing much anyway. Chuíto OK'd the deal and whenever I was needed, we would have a rehearsal and I would show up to do the job.
JIC: So how and when did you hook-up with Willie Rosario?
LC: Adalberto is like the late vocalist Yayo el Indio. He'll most likely sing with anyone that calls him, be it for lead, coro, club date or recording. He's very versatile, talented, and smart and quickly adapts to whatever comes his way.
After Willie recorded El Bravo Soy Yo in '63 (for Alegre Records), his pianist was relocating to upstate New York and the singer, Frankie Figueroa, was also leaving.
One day Adalberto called me and invited me to one of Willie's gigs and I accepted. At the gig he introduced me to Willie and the rest of the band. During one of the tunes I was called up to take a solo and when the band took their break, Willie and Adalberto invited me for a beer. They asked me how I liked the band and I told them it felt very good. This was a tight, swinging, disciplined and very professional group of musicians. Willie then asked me if I would be interested in joining the group after his pianist left at the end of the month, and I told him I would give him an answer before then. I really wanted the job but was reluctant because I wasn't sure I could do the job. I didn't have much confidence in myself or my playing skills. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to read the charts well enough to keep up with the rest of the guys or if they would accept or reject me. Rejection would have been a big blow because it would have been what I felt was a step backwards for me. I also felt a little insecure because Adalberto wasn't in the band and I had no one to confide in. Frankie Figueroa was still the vocalist.
I called Willie a couple of days later and explained it all to him. He was great about it. He told me there were still a couple of weeks left, and for me to take the piano book home to go over the tunes with the LP. Many of the tunes were from Tito Rodríguez' book.
As time passed, the more I played, the more confident I felt and the more I felt accepted. I lasted with Willie until 1967.
JIC: Evidence of your involvement in Rosario's recordings include writing credits for the bolero "Se Que Volveras" on Boogaloo and Guaguancó (1968 on Atco), with Adalberto on vocals, and "Babalu's Boogaloo" on Two Too Much (1968 on Musicor) and arranger credits on De Donde Nace El Ritmo (1971 on Inca) and Gracias Mundo (1977 on Inca). Can you reveal more detail about your input to Willie's early albums?
LC: The original title for the bolero "Se Que Volveras" was "Esta Navidad." Willie needed one more tune to complete his album and he asked me if I had anything new. I told him I had this one and he liked it, but the LP wasn't about Christmas, so I changed the name.
My first recordings with Willie were for a label called BMC, maybe around 1964 or 1965. I believe there were three of them and they were in colour. One of them was Fabuloso y Fantastico (1963; reissued on Neliz), another was Latin Jazz Go Go Go (1964; reissued on Neliz). I don't recall the title of the other one.
I wrote the tune "Yayi's Instant Mambo" in Fabuloso and Fantastico one afternoon waiting for my wife to get dressed and ready to go out. It's an instrumental I named after my oldest son Luis, whom we used to call Yayi. The other tune I arranged was "Triunfó El Amor" composed by Tony Fuentes, Willie's bongo player.
I believe the other recording had a few boogaloos such as "A Taste Of Honey,"* "Corcovado" and "How Insensitive" which I arranged.
I don't remember the LP cover for Boogaloo and Guaguancó but I remember the recording for Atco. I would have to listen to it to remember.
I think that "De Barrio Obrero A La Quince" (from De Donde Nace El Ritmo) was the last chart I did for Willie before he left for Puerto Rico and it turned out to be his big hit.
I don't recognise a chart arranged by me in Gracias Mundo, which doesn't necessarily mean I didn't do any of them.
I've arranged so many tunes for so many people within the last 43 years or so, that it's sometimes very hard to remember them or who they were for.
(*NOTE: In fact, "A Taste Of Honey" is on Boogaloo and Guaguancó.)
JIC: How did the arranging start?
LC: After my discharge from the Navy in January 1961 as an aircraft electrician, I decided to take time off to rest and relax for a while and collected $41.00 a week from unemployment. It got to be boring just hanging out so I filed with Republic Aviation in Farmingdale, Long Island, which built jets for the Air Force. I got a telegram from them and decided to take the job.
The following year we got married and two weeks later Republic went on strike for 13 days. My next setback came a few months later when Republic's contract was cancelled. Then one of the guys came in with applications for employment with the NYC Transit Authority who were looking for electricians. He offered me one and I said no because I didn't know anything about trains, but he insisted. So I took it, filed, took the test, passed and after going down for an interview, I was hired on December 12, 1962. I took two weeks leave of absence from Republic to try out the Transit job. And after checking out all the benefits and the security aspects, I decided to stay. The one thing my dad continuously pounded into my head over and over was that I should never depend on music to support my family and look for security.
For a couple of months it was like a regular job, 8:00 to 4:00 Monday to Friday and weekends off. However, life being the way it is, to get to the good part you sometimes have to go through the rough parts.
I was then put on rotating shifts in a substation next to the CBS TV studios on West 53rd Street and across from Roseland Ballroom. I was off only one four-day weekend every 13 weeks.
Needless to say, this largely curtailed my musical dream. I had to turn down many gigs because I wasn't always available and could only do spot gigs, but those few gigs were good gigs with Mon Rivera (he used to copy some of his charts with red ink and if the bandstand was lit with red lights, it was very hard to see what was written), Joe Quijano, Kako, Joe Cotto, Chivirico Dávila. These were great musicians but, except for Joe Quijano, they gigged sporadically so they pretty much had pick-up bands. After a while, I started getting less and less calls to play.
I would leave for work early, and then kill time walking up and down West 48th Street where all the music stores were. My favourites were Sam Ash and Manny's, and it was in one of these stores that I was attracted to a book called First Arrangement by Van Alexander. I browsed through it and bought it. I had a lot of free time in the substation, so I read the book during the off hours. Although it was written in a very simple way, it was still somewhat of a challenge for me due to my lack of musical theory knowledge and not having anyone to ask questions when I didn't understand something. Therefore, I could only understand it my way, if that makes any sense, which means I've been doing many things the "wrong" way all these years, but apparently they have paid off. I've been my own teacher and learned all my arranging through books and using the gift of my ears. I used to buy books every week after getting paid and still have and use many of them for reference. I've actually gone out of my way to contradict certain rules to see and hear why they're taboo. My thinking was that the fewer instruments you wrote for, like two trumpets, the easier it was to harmonise, but I found the reverse to be true. Willie used four trumpets for recording but we always used three for the gigs so they had to be written in a way that sounded good either way.
After about seven months I was put back on regular work hours with weekends off and not too long afterwards I hooked up with Willie. I asked Bobby Valentín if he could suggest a good book for arranging and he suggested Russell Garcia's book on arranging which turned out to be great. I started to compose instrumental charts and arrange them for trumpets since they were the only instruments I was familiar with. I was anxious to hear my "masterpieces" played by pros so I told Willie there would be no charge and that he could put them in the book. He recorded "Yayi's Instant Mambo," "Mambo Nuevo" (on Latin Jazz Go Go Go) and "Up And Down Mambo," all instrumentals.
I guess it was while in Willie's band that I got some of my best training in basic arranging. Being around guys like Bobby Valentín, bassist Humberto Del Valle, trumpeter Eliezer Rodríguez, and many others that came and went, was like having a personal instructor. I constantly asked questions about their instruments so I could understand them better. I felt so relaxed in this band that I ended up with a lot of confidence in my writing and, although very basic, my playing and most of all, myself. So I thank all these Maestros and special thanks to Adalberto and Willie.
JIC: Which arrangers influenced you and how did you incorporate the ingredients of their work into your charts?
LC: In my earlier years I really didn't have aspirations of being an arranger. I never even gave thought to the fact that someone had actually sat down and sort of "invented" what I was listening to. I always felt that the bandleader did all the music. My father told me that with Alafarona-X, after he composed a tune, he would have a rehearsal where they would all come up with ideas that would eventually become the "arrangement." All I thought about was becoming a piano player, so I didn't pay much attention to who arranged what. As I mentioned before, arranging came to me sort of by accident to fill a void. However, as I got more and more into arranging, I would always search to know who the arranger was if I liked a tune.
I guess the first arranger that turned my head was Chico O'Farrill and his Machito arrangements. I was always fascinated by that band and could listen to them all day and night. I loved whenever we alternated with them because I would get a beer, sit down at a table and just take in their music. That was another school of discipline. Then there was the late pianist René Hernández. I first saw him in Machito's band and then he went with Tito Rodríguez. He arranged a few LPs for Vicentico Valdés and every tune in every LP was a hit. It was because of him that I started learning all I could about voicing and all the other instruments in the music world. He had a beautiful, flowing and soothing way of voicing his instruments. I used to see him a lot because he lived close to where my then fiancée and now wife lived. I once asked him if he could give me lessons on arranging, but he said his playing and writing took all his time. He was the best. Then of course the king Tito Puente whose Dance Mania LP (RCA, 1958) should be sent to the Smithsonian Institute. Those were the old timers whose arrangements really vied for my undivided attention.
As time went by and I started getting more exposure with my arranging and in recordings and meeting many other musicians and arrangers, I got more interested in the arrangers and their styles. After a while you get to know or feel who arranged what. Having worked many times with Louie Ramírez, José Febles (a genius), Marty Sheller and Eddie Martínez, I'd have to say I picked up some great tidbits from each but never tried to actually imitate them. I try to get the sound or style of the band I'm arranging for in my arrangements. Sometimes I would be given charts to do with the instructions to put a little Palmieri, Pacheco and Ray in them.
Other fine arrangers were Barry Rogers, Jorge Millet, Mario Ortiz, Rafael Ithier and Gil López.
JIC: Who were Willie's sidemen during your stint with the band?
LC: When I started it was Humberto Del Valle, bass; Papo Pepín, congas; Tony Fuentes, bongos; Junior Vega, trumpet; Eliezer Rodríguez, trumpet; Bobby Valentín, trumpet; Frankie Figueroa, singer. Bassist Del Valle, who developed cancer and passed away early in life, was replaced by Bobby Valentín for a while, who was then replaced by Joe Trapaneze on trumpet. George Maysonet replaced Papo Pepín. Frankie Figueroa was replaced by Frankie Rodríguez, who was then replaced by Paquito De Jesús. De Jesus was more of a balladeer and didn't really have the ability to improvise on the fast tunes. He would memorise the tunes and ad-libs exactly as they were recorded and then repeat them. On very important gigs or trips Willie would use Adalberto for the fast tunes and Paquito for the ballads.
For the recordings everyone in the band would do the recording with the exception of the trumpet section. The musical director was always Victor Paz and he would usually bring in Tito Rodríguez' horn section. Eventually musicians came and went but the ones that came were just as good or better as the ones they replaced.
JIC: What are your memories of gigging with Willie's band?
LC: Not only did I learn a great deal musically from Willie's very talented personnel but I also really liked Willie's way of treating us. If anyone made a mistake while playing, he would smile but never turn around to look at the person or embarrass them on the bandstand. I remember once making a goof and when I went to apologise to him, all he said was that if a goof was imminent, to make it loud and try to ad-lib around it so no one could tell the difference. I've kept that in mind and have applied it many times.
Willie is a cool, suave and friendly yet stern disciplinarian. My first trip outside the US to a foreign country was with Willie. We went to Sabana Grande, Venezuela, in January 1967 to play in a club called Barnum's. Adalberto and Paquito were the singers.
JIC: What songs did Willie's band feature in their live shows at the time?
LC: For the most part we played most of the tunes from El Bravo Soy Yo and a lot of the tunes that I had arranged; also many of Tito Rodríguez' charts.
JIC: How and when did the tie-up with Ray Barretto occur?
LC: The trip to Venezuela in January 1967 with Willie was the last gig he had booked until the end of May in Puerto Rico. One Saturday night in April I decided to go to the Bronx Casino to hang out and to my surprise Ray was playing. I was standing at the bar and learned that Adalberto was singing steady in Ray's band.
After their set Adalberto came over to the bar with Ray and Eddie Martínez, his pianist at the time, and formally introduced us. Then my self-proclaimed PR man Adalberto proceeded to tell Ray about me playing in Willie's band, but mostly about my arranging.
The following afternoon, I was watching TV and decided to go out. Almost out the door, the phone rang and when I picked it up, it was Adalberto asking me if I could go down to The Roundtable right away because Eddie Martínez couldn't be found and Ray was due to start in a short while. I told him I didn't think I could do the job and that Ray would be disappointed. But he said it didn't matter because Ray was desperate and no one else was around. So I went. As I walked in Ray was soloing to a C7 on the piano and when he saw me, he got up and I took over.
Looking back now, this was a moment that would change the rest of my musical life, although it definitely wasn't the best day of my life, but we got through it. He still had the violins, but a couple of weeks later they were let go. I figured it was the shortest time I would spend in a band but, to my surprise, Ray called me the following day to play the following weekend. He brought me the piano book and some LPs to familiarise myself with the music. I crammed it all in my head and did much better at the gigs. He told me to take the book home again and that he would get back to me. Monday he came to my house and told me he wanted to be honest with me. He was waiting for another pianist's reply, who was in Florida, to join the band and if I would mind staying until then. Since I was still with Willie, I told him OK until Willie got another gig.
By the end of the week he called to tell me the other pianist was Sonny Bravo and that he had turned him down. Then he asked if I would consider staying and I said yes, but on the condition that I would play the gig in May with Willie in Puerto Rico, because I had already given him my word, and he agreed. The rest, as they say, is history. I stayed with the group until '73 or '74.
JIC: Who was with Ray's band at the time?
LC: Roberto Rodríguez, trumpet; Joe Wohletz, valve trombone; Orestes Vilató, timbales; Tony Fuentes, bongos; Pete Bonét, coro; and Adalberto Santiago, vocal.
JIC: Was Latino Con Soul (1966 on United Artists) your debut album with Ray?
LC: No, Acid (Fania, 1967) was the first.
JIC: There is no doubt that you play on Barretto's Fania albums Hard Hands (1968), Together (1969), Power (1970), The Message (1971) and Que Viva La Musica (1972), though specific arranger credits were scarce in those days. You receive arranger credits for "Mirame De Frente," penned by Hugo González, and your composition "Love Beads" on Hard Hands and it was disclosed on the Grammy nominated Barretto Live: Tomorrow (1976 on Atlantic) that you arranged "Que Viva La Musica" and co-arranged "Cocinando" on Que Viva La Musica, your last album with Ray. Can you fill-in more detail about charts you wrote for Ray during your tenure with his band?
LC: Hugo González was a Cuban composer who, like Tite Curet Alonso, wrote many tunes recorded by many of Fania's stars. For Ray he also wrote "Quitate La Mascara" (from Power) and "Adiviname Y Olvidate" (from Together). I say for Ray because when he sent the tunes to Fania, he would specify whom they were for. I was given many of his tunes to arrange because they were very long and totally out of clave. I would take the time to edit them so they would make sense musically, but sometimes a tune was so loaded with lyrics that I would call him and have him sing it so I could understand the body of the tune.
In the six or seven years I was with Ray, I arranged quite a lot of charts just for him and to name them all here would take up a lot of space, so I'll name some of the more popular ones: "Ahora Si" from Hard Hands; "De Donde Vengo" and "Vive Y Vacila" from Together; "Y Dicen" and "Se Que Volveras" from Power; "Se Traba," "Con El Cimarrón," "Flor De Los Lindos Campos," "Arrepientete" and "Seguire Sin Soñar" from The Message; and "Bruca Maniguá," "La Pelota," "El Tiempo Lo Dirá" and "Alafia Cumayé" from Que Viva La Musica.
JIC: Of course "Cocinando" was used as the theme of the hit Fania movie Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa) in 1972 and along with Eddie Palmieri's "Puerto Rico" it was voted the most popular recording of the 1970s in a 1980 Latin NY poll.
LC: Before electric pianos were used in Latin music, we had to use whatever pianos and in whatever condition the clubs and hotels provided them. Of course there were some exceptions, clubs like the Corso, Palladium, the original Copacabana and hotels like the Taft, Diplomat and St. George. The lucky one was Larry Harlow because he used a clavinet but it didn't have that "piano" sound.
One day Ray called me and told me to go by Manny's on West 48th Street to check out a new Univox electric piano they had just gotten. I did, I liked it, he bought it and I took it home and played around with it until I got the best sound and I was a happy camper because I knew now I would always have a tuned piano.
Not too long after that I bought a Wah-Wah pedal on my own and without letting anyone know, I brought it to a gig. I hooked it up and I started using it in one of my solos. Everyone loved it and it sort of became my trademark because I was the only one using one.
Once in a while, if it was early and the place was "empty," we would play by ear a C7 cha cha called "Chanchullón," that sounded like "Oye Como V&a,acute;" to save the regular tunes for the "full" crowd. Then one day we were to play in a club in East New York, Brooklyn. Ray got caught in traffic and we were told to start playing because the natives were getting restless. We got on stage and Roberto Rodríguez, the trumpet player, who pretty much took charge when Ray wasn't there, said to play "Chanchullón." But instead I started a different vamp, which eventually became "Cocinando." Ray walked in and joined in the jam. Not too long after that we got together and laid out a format that I put on paper so it would always sound organized.
When "Cocinando" got mentioned in Billboard magazine, Jerry Masucci mailed me the clipping and that gave me a big feeling of accomplishment.
JIC: Tell me about the life gigging with Ray's band?
LC: Way back then when you became a member of a band, you went in with a feeling of permanence. I think one of the things that kept bands together was the fact that just about everyone had a day job. So if a weekend went by without a gig, which was rare with Ray, you were still getting income from your job. Ray's band was like that. With the exception of one or two, we all had day jobs. It was almost like a family. The wives knew each other and would sit together and chat at the gigs. Sometimes we visited each other. One time Orestes Vilató, his wife, my wife and I went to Montreal, Canada, during a World's Fair for the weekend, and trumpeter José "Papy" Román and his wife met us there.
Anytime we travelled we would, on our off time, go venturing around either as a group or in small cliques depending on where we were headed. If it was some place that interested everyone, we all went, otherwise the young guys (Andy González, René López, "Papy" Román) would go different ways and the older more "serious" guys would venture other places. Ray for the most part would be doing interviews or catching a nap and resting before the gig. We would meet many people who would invite us to their homes for dinner and drinks. We were always kept laughing by the most "serious" guy in the band: Roberto Rodríguez, and "Papy" Román, the band's jester. Papy was the prankster and clown. He had no shame. He thought nothing of starting a fake argument - usually with Tony Fuentes - in public places. He would curse at him and grapple with him to the floor while people stared in awe and not understanding why Tony was responding by laughing hysterically. I really enjoyed and looked forward to our trips because I knew each one was going to be a totally different experience than the previous one.
But it wasn't always funning around, at least for me, because while Ray was resting his body, his mind was going full blast with ideas - some simple, some heavy duty. Ray would either call me or send for me with instructions to bring a pencil and music paper, then he would proceed to tell me about whatever idea he had in mind. Ray wasn't just another percussionist, he was a fully-fledged musician who read and understood music in its true form.
I think Ray spent more time with me than the other guys because we worked together a lot and mostly at my place. The sideman we would replace most often was the bass player and every time a new one was to try for the job, Ray would drop him off at my place with the bass book and leave. I was left to do the audition and give Ray a report as to whether I felt he could cut the book. After about an hour Ray would pick him up.
On one occasion we came to Miami to play a New Year's dance. We were to leave early in the morning for New York but the plane was delayed due to mechanical problems. "It will only be a short while," we were told. We saw a lot of other performers getting on their planes and leaving while our plane was still out on the tarmac being worked on. As the day passed, Ray started to get restless and very annoyed pacing up and down. We were just lounging around in a far corner and I pulled out a new chart that I had done - I think the name is "My Ting" - named after Jerry Masucci's dog. Ray saw us, came over and said: "Let's rehearse it now." And the trumpet players put mutes on their horns. Vilató grabbed his sticks and a big metal ashtray. Adalberto grabbed a chair to use as a conga and I broke out my Univox. We didn't get out of there until later on that night. All in all it was a lot of fun being a part of this band.
JIC: What songs did Ray's band feature in their live shows?
LC: We would choose the tunes according to the amount of people present at the time we went on. If few were present, we would play old tunes from previous LPs or, if we had rehearsed a new tune that week, we would play it as the first tune. If it was just a deejay and us, we might play it at the beginning of every set stating that someone had requested it. Once the place got full, we would for the most part play new or favourite tunes from our latest LPs. Ray made sure everyone got to solo at some point. Most times the last tune of the night was a jam tune where Ray would get on the piano, I would get on the timbales, Adalberto on the bass, "Papy" Román on the congas, Vilató on the bongos, Roberto would sing and the rest would do coro. Then Ray would get up to get paid so I would get back on the piano and Tony would take the timbales. If there were any musicians in the crowd, we would let them join in.
JIC: Tell me about the experience of working on La Lupe's Stop! I'm Free Again (1972 on Tico), which you arranged and Joe Cain produced?
LC: Joe Cain called me and asked if I would be interested in doing some charts for La Lupe for a recording. I asked him what instrumentation was involved and when he told me, I was a little scared because I hadn't done anything like that before. I asked him if I could give him an answer the following day and he said OK.
That night I read some of my arranging books to see if I felt I had enough information to accomplish the task, and decided I could do it.
I called Joe Cain the next day and accepted. He set up a meeting with La Lupe, him and me and we came to an accord. The majority of the work fell on me. Joe was to do all the ballads and I would do the rest, including making up the band and setting up all rehearsals. She told me she didn't want anyone in the band that smoked pot or showed up high or drunk. I also had to go to her house in Jersey to get the tunes and the keys. One of the things that irked me about her was that she would ask me what key the tunes were in and, whatever the key, she wanted it raised half or a whole tone higher which made the high notes sound a little off. She had her little quirks also. She was cool and courteous to me but didn't hesitate to yell at the band members and Joe had warned me about this and suggested I get guys who had worked or didn't mind working for her. She also had to have a gallon of a cheap wine she loved. At one point she called me to tell me that a musician friend had just come from Cuba and wasn't working and needed money, so I was to include him in the recording. He played conga and I already had gotten a conga player, but she told me to put him in anyway and let them split the tunes. I told her the other guy wasn't going to split the money and she said they would both get the same pay, so I put him in.
Before all this I had never conversed with La Lupe except to say hello. I had been introduced to her by her then husband Willie García, who had been the singer in Ray's charanga band La Moderna.
I don't know and never asked the circumstances leading to my being asked to do the LP, but I'm glad I did because it boosted my confidence in accepting work for big bands with many different instruments.
JIC: What is your take on the departure of Adalberto Santiago and four other members of Ray's band in late 1972 to found Típica 73?
LC: One Sunday night, while playing at the Honka Monka in Queens, New York, a band meeting was held in the kitchen during one of our breaks and the subject was finances. In the end, not everyone walked out happy. I think from that moment on is when things started to change.
It was no secret that the guys were playing at a club called And Vinny's on Monday nights with Sonny Bravo on piano. At first, I believe, it was to cover the days we weren't playing. But they got so tight and popular that the place would fill up. They started getting other private party gigs and eventually decided to go on their own. When they made that decision, Johnny Rodríguez approached me and he "apologetically" told me that, because Sonny was part of the band, they couldn't ask me to go along with them and I told him I understood. They were and still are my friends but frankly, I don't think I would have gone with them anyway because I was content in Ray's band.
JIC: Even though you didn't get the pianist's chair with Típica 73, you arranged for their debut album Típica 73 (1973 on Inca). Tell me more?
LC: At the same time Johnny Rodríguez told me about Sonny Bravo being the pianist on their new venture, he also promised that I would get to arrange their first tune. He kept his word, of which I had no doubt, and gave me "Mañoñó" to do which, I'm happy to say, became their first hit.
JIC: Though Eddie Martínez replaced you as pianist on Ray's Indestructible (1973 on Fania) you arranged four charts, "El Hijo De Obatala," "El Diablo," "Llanto De Cocodrilo" and "Ay No." Tell me about this project?
LC: Back then, unlike today, tunes were brought into the bands for the purpose of building up the repertoire and not necessarily for recordings. Most, if not all, were eventually recorded but only if a record date showed up. All those tunes you mention I arranged while I was still in the band and I played them with Adalberto singing them. Tito Allen was not in the band while I was there. There might have been a project made of this after I left the band.
JIC: I understand that after leaving Barretto, you had a number of bands. For instance, Chino Nuñez recently told me that you directed a band at the Red Plum club in Brooklyn that used to back big attractions like Celia Cruz and Ismael Miranda. Please tell me more?
LC: I never backed up Celia with any of my bands, only with La Sonora Matancera. However, I did back up Ismael Miranda, Raúl Marrero, Vitín Avilés and Ismael Quintana. I backed up Miranda a couple of times when he came to New York with my second band.
One night, while backing him up in New Jersey at Roosevelt Stadium, in the middle of a hot tune someone kicked an extension strip for the lights on the bandstand and all the lights went out. We couldn't see the music so I asked some of the cops behind us if they could help with their flashlights. They did and we were able to finish the song. As the saying goes: the show must go on.
I also backed up Ismael Quintana with my third band for about a year and a half. I had a 10-piece band that wasn't doing much and Ismael had just finished his first LP after leaving Eddie Palmieri. His LP (Ismael Quintana '74 on Vaya) was such a success that people were asking for him, but he didn't have a band and didn't want to make one. So promoter Ralphy Mercado called me to his office with the idea that, since I wasn't gigging much, and Ismael was in such a heavy demand, why not hook-up so we could help each other and make some money. We did, with Richie Bonilla as our agent.
I also backed up Raúl Marrero at the Club Hipocampo in the Bronx. That was an embarrassment because he showed up a little tipsy for his performance and proceeded to tell the patrons that it was the band's fault.
My first band, which was the one I recorded Coming Out (1974 on Inca) with, was one trumpet, one trombone and a baritone sax who also played flute. My second one was two trumpets, two trombones. My third was two trumpets, one trombone. My fourth and last, Somos Musica, was two trumpets, one trombone, one alto sax and one baritone sax.
JIC: How did your solo project Coming Out, which you 50 percent composed and completely arranged, come about?
LC: One of the reasons for me leaving Ray's band was to try my luck as a bandleader. I went around asking for advice from other piano player bandleaders like Eddie and Charlie Palmieri. They were somehow related to my wife Hilda through her uncle. The first thing Eddie told me was that my most important sideman would be the bass player and then build the band around us two. Charlie told me to try to create a unique sound so that as soon as the band was heard, it would be recognised. Charlie was also the first person to enlighten me about the importance of the clave in Latin music and also said that as a bandleader, all kinds of people would come up to me to talk about everything and not to ignore them because it meant that they noticed me and the band, thereby becoming a potential fan. My father was like Charlie in that respect and of course my most influential teacher.
After I let Ray know that I was going on my own, I went to see Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco and asked them if they would record a 45 for me once I made my band. They said, "no problem" and I went on my merry way to compose and arrange a couple of tunes. About a week later Jerry called me to meet with him the following day at his office. Jerry was there with Pacheco and Ray and proceeded to tell me that after talking it over, they decided to do a whole LP for me and Ray would be the producer. It was bittersweet for me because it wasn't that easy to be recorded so I was glad but at the same time I wasn't ready with material for a full LP.
So my idea of recording all original tunes went down the drain because I wouldn't have enough time to compose so many tunes. I even called Tite Curet for tunes and he said yes, but knowing him I knew he would take his time or forget I asked. So I did the next best thing. I got a couple of Arsenio Rodríguez tunes, one of my dad's, "El Tirabúzón," and whatever I had of mine. Ray kept calling to see if I was ready and I kept stalling as much as I could.
When I was ready, I set up studio time and let Ray know. Then the night before the recording Ray called to tell me he couldn't make it and to do the best I could with Irving Greenbaum the engineer. That bothered me so much that I went in with no real desire but, since I had no choice, I went for it and the guys really helped me a lot.
Everyone was happy about how it turned out, but I was never satisfied with it that much. I feel I could've done a much better job overall had they only done a 45 because I could have prepared better for an LP. It didn't do much then but now that it's out on CD, it's selling more, especially down here in Florida.
JIC: One of my favourite singers, Luis "El Tirano" Rodríguez, who has sung with Bobby Quesada, Conjunto Candela and Johnny Pacheco, among others, was the lead vocalist on Coming Out. Please tell me more about Luisito?
LC: I met Luisito while playing at the Club Caborrojeño in New York. He was playing with Bobby Quesada, and after listening to him a few times, I took his name. Eventually I told him about my plans and he told me he would be interested. He stayed with Bobby and when I got my act together, I called him to tell him about the recording, which made him very happy.
He came to my house and took all the lyrics and a cassette with the melodies, and in no time he had learned all the tunes. He is a very quiet and responsible person who would seldom smile and never joked around but he was always there for whatever reason.
JIC: Sidemen on Coming Out included Eddie Montalvo (conga), Victor Cruz (bongo), Johnny Castro (timbales), Eddie "Guagua" Rivera (bass), Lewis Kahn (trombone), Héctor Zarzuela (trumpet), Mario Rivera (baritone sax), and Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez and Ray Castro (coro). Did you gig with this unit off the back of Coming Out?
LC: As I got closer to making my band, I would take names of musicians I liked while playing our gigs. I didn't want "stars" or to take musicians from other bands if possible, which is something I learned from my father. This, however, also backfired on me because I couldn't write the way I really wanted to due to their limitations. My sax player was a waiter named José Serrano who worked at a club on 14th Street and looks like the New York Congressman's twin brother. My timbalero was a friend of Eddie Montalvo who, I believe, never played in a band before. I could never find a trumpet or trombone player willing to stick it out with me. Many would help me with rehearsals because they liked my charts but would not commit.
"Papy" Román would help me if I couldn't find anyone but he wasn't a lead horn. The late trombonist Steve Pulliam, who played with Mon Rivera and became a very good friend, would also help me at times. I even had the help of flautist Dave Valentín, who was still in school and was playing also with pianist Ricky Marrero. He had no baritone sax but had an electronic device that could make any sax sound like another sax. So when it came time to record, the only originals I could use were the rhythm section. I never got to use Eddie "Guagua," Mario Rivera, Lewis Kahn or Héctor "Bomberito" Zarzuela as part of the band in any gig.
After the recording I was able to get a few gigs in small clubs but it didn't last long. I decided that it was the wrong type of instrumentation to experiment with so I changed the format and added new and stronger arrangements.
My "cousin," singer Deborah Resto, who lived across the street from me, learned that I was looking for a bass player and came over to tell me she had a friend who played bass very good but he was still in school and lived in Paterson, New Jersey. It looked bleak but I told her to ask him if he could come down and we would talk. He came down and said he wanted to try out because he had heard of me and wanted to play in a band. The only problem was he couldn't sight read very well but had a very good memory and could learn the charts at home. Since I had gone through that, I told him we would try it out.
The following week I held a rehearsal and the kid was amazing. He was a natural with tremendous swing, which brought me back to Eddie Palmieri's advice that my first job would be to find a reliable and compatible bass player. He was it, and his name: Sal Cuevas! As time went by I suggested to him that he should study his instrument and learn to sight read with a good teacher like Victor Venegas, he did, and the rest is history.
JIC: Larry Harlow started commissioning arrangements from you for his own albums on Fania, including Hommy - A Latin Opera (1973), Salsa (1974), Live In Quad (1974), El Judio Maravilloso (1975), Con Mi Viejo Amigo (1976; with Ismael Miranda), El Albino Divino (1978), Rumbambola (1979) and La Responsabilidad (1979; with Fausto Rey), as well as his productions for others, such as Marty Calagarza and La Conquistadora, Santos Colón and Meñique and Wuelfo. Larry's '73 and '74 albums didn't specify which charts you wrote. Can you help out by identifying which tracks you arranged?
LC: Hommy '73: I did Celia Cruz' "Gracia Divina," "Es Un Varón" and "Quirimbomboro." In Salsa '74 I did at least "Silencio."
JIC: Around this time you began an association with Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez, arranging for his solo albums on Fania: El Conde (1974), including the track "Babaila," Este Negro Si Es Sabroso (1976), A Touch Of Class (1978), Soy La Ley (1979) and El Rey (1990). Please tell me more?
LC: Pete and his wife Frances were good friends of mine for many years. I'd known Frances and her family (six girls and two brothers) since she was a little girl. Her dad and my dad were like brothers while growing up as kids in Puerto Rico.
I guess when Pete played with Johnny Pacheco; Johnny picked the tunes and arrangers. Bandleaders tend to keep the work in-house if possible and since José Febles, whom I considered a sort of genius, and trumpeter "Chiripa" played in Johnny's band, they got to do many of the charts. I arranged for most of the Fania artists but for some reason Johnny didn't use me for a long time. According to Pete, he said he would mention my name to him but I would never get the call. I think one of the reasons is because I write very syncopated and Johnny likes his music with a lot of downbeats. If I'm not mistaken, I believe the first chart I did for Johnny was "Flor De Barra" (from Salsobita '87 on Fania).
Once Pete went on his own, everything changed. He gave me a lot of work and they were all good tunes. Some of the tunes I arranged for Pete are: "Un Toque Pa' Yambao" "Babaila" and "Sombras Que Pasó" from El Conde; "Pueblo Latino" and "Guaguancó De Amor" from Este Negro Si Es Sabroso; "Mi Bongó Antillano" and "El Instrumento" from A Touch Of Class; "Reliquias" and "Gandules" from El Rey; and there are more. He was another one of my good "customers."
He was a great singer, musician and friend. An all around performer and I honestly think that the best thing that happened to him was Frances. Not many people cared too much for her because she tells you like it is, but I believe if it weren't for her always being on his case about his medicines and such, we probably would have lost him earlier.
JIC: You wrote charts for several albums on Fania by Harlow's former vocalist Ismael Miranda, including En Fa Menor (1974), Este Es
Ismael Miranda (1975) and La Clave del Sabor (1981). Do you have any comments about working on these projects?
LC: Since most of my charts were for Fania's artists, I was treated as if I was one of their employees. I used to get calls from José Flores telling me that he had a cassette with tunes for whomever and whether I wanted it mailed home or held for pick up. All the information I needed was usually put down on paper: whom it was for, the singer's key, the instrumentation and when it had to be ready. I didn't always know who the singer was going to be unless it was for a band with a known steady singer. With a very few exceptions, I didn't consider myself part of any project because all I did was arrange the tunes, deliver them to Fania and try to collect my money. The next time I would hear from them was for the recording session, which I insisted upon so I could conduct my charts the way I felt they should be.
Once Ismael Miranda left Larry's band he was, of course, in charge of all his moves and decisions like, picking his tunes, etc, etc. After he moved to Puerto Rico, he would call me to set up a meeting at the hotel he was staying at to go over tunes he wanted me to do. He would tell me the story behind every song he wrote. Then we would go over each tune with whatever format we came up with. He would give me his ideas and I would then tell him mine. I liked working with and for him because he pretty much trusted my ways. The first arrangement Ismael sang that I wrote was "Señor Sereno" (from La Oportunidad '72 on Fania) recorded with Larry Harlow and that opened the door for me with Larry.
JIC: Pianist / arranger Jorge Millet was the recording director of Este Es
Ismael Miranda. I would like to learn more about Millet?
LC: I'm afraid I don't have much to say about Jorge Millet because I only met and spoke with him a couple of times at recording sessions for Fania.
One of the times I dealt with him we were doing a session and Papo Lucca was also present. I believe Marty Sheller was going through one of his tunes and Jorge, Papo and I were sitting in the lounge waiting our turn. Papo asked him about writing for the harp because it seems like such a complicated instrument to deal with, at least to me. You can spend all day reading books on arranging and understanding all instruments like I've done all my life, but there's nothing like hearing the same explanations "live," where you can ask questions.
He gave us a lesson in such a simple manner, that even I understood most of it. When I got home I read my books and found that I really had learned quite a bit. I still haven't had to write for the harp and don't know if I really could do a good job with it, but if it'll ever be requested, I will try thanks to Jorge Millet.
JIC: You contributed charts to most of Ismael Quintana's solo albums on Fania's sister label Vaya Records, including Ismael Quintana (1974), Lo Que Estoy Viviendo (1976), Amor, Vida y Sentimiento / Love, Life And Feelings (1977) and Mucho Talento (1983; with Papo Lucca). Could you share your reminiscences of these projects?
LC: If you look in the dictionary under "meticulous' or "perfectionist," I think you'll find a photo of Ismael Quintana. When he contacted me for "Mai Biandita" (from 1974's Ismael Quintana on Vaya), he lived in Brooklyn and I worked in Brooklyn, so we met at his place. He's one of the few that makes you feel you're part of his projects. He's so precise and direct in what he wants that you feel you have to keep touching base with him at all times, thereby making you part of his projects. The next time we met for tunes, he drove all the way from his home in upstate New York to my house all the way in Long Island with his wife Yolanda. (Yolanda and my wife worked together for American Airlines while she was my fiancée.) The third time we met for charts I went to his house upstate. All our first talks about the projects were done face to face so everything would be understood correctly. By the time we said goodbye, everything was on cassettes and paper very professionally. There are certain charts I write that I really like once I hear them recorded and "Quien Dijo" (from Mucho Talento) is one of them.
JIC: Pianist Mark Dimond played on "Mai Biandita." Do you have any memories of Dimond you could share?
LC: Mark was another person I didn't deal with much. I found him to be a very hyper person and always on the move. Anytime we worked together, be it at a club or recording session, as soon as a break would come, he would run out and return just in time to continue working. I don't recollect seeing him hang out like the other guys and the most we probably said to each other was "hello" but I did hear him play many times and he was well worth watching and listening to.
JIC: Rubén Blades provided lead vocals to your chart of the Tite Curet Alonso composition "Vale Más Un Guaguancó" on Barretto (1975 on Fania), Ray's biggest seller up to that point. Do have anything to add about this?
LC: Actually I was surprised Ray gave me the tune to do because I had been out of the group for a while and Oscar Hernandez, Gilberto López and Eddie Martínez were doing most of the charts. When I met with him to get the information for the chart at his house, he told me that the only reason I wasn't given charts to do was because he felt it fair to keep the work in-house. And I knew that to be true because while I was in the group, the only other arranger he used sometimes was Gilbert López. I was a rookie in the art of arranging and even though there were many top guys out there like Louie Ramírez, Marty Sheller and even Eddie Martínez, whom I replaced due to an act of God, he still trusted and stuck by me. Flautist Artie Webb was still in the group and Ray felt I would do a good job because he liked the way I voiced the flute with the horns. I never knew who was going to sing it, and didn't even find out until very long after it was recorded, because we rehearsed it at the Corso and it wasn't Rubén who sang it.
JIC: I understand that Fania invited you to sign with them as an exclusive arranger. Why did you turn this down?
LC: Although I knew I wasn't the greatest thing at Fania, I felt at times I was being exploited. When in public I'm a person that doesn't talk much, very low key, a little shy and definitely not forward. I put over 33 years in the NYC Transit Authority working in very heavy and dangerous traffic that forced me to be very observant of everything around me in order to stay alive. When I started doing charts for Fania, I used to get paid $50.00 per arrangement, regardless of how many instruments were involved, and that included the copying, rehearsal and recording. Jerry Masucci would tell me: "You're just adding another couple of notes on the same score page." And to get paid for the work was another hassle. The only one that came to my rescue was their accountant Gertrude Ferd. She was my guardian angel because she would tell me right away if I had royalties or the funds were available to pay me for my work. She would say: "Don't leave until they OK your cheque." This went on for a long time and one day I asked Jerry for a raise and was told I already was the highest paid arranger there. I didn't believe him, so I asked Gertrude who verified it by showing me the book. I went back to Jerry who was now with Victor Gallo, the man who signed the cheques, and asked again if I was getting the raise. He asked Victor what he thought about it and after a short while he told Jerry that I was a good person and my work was good so I got a $25.00 raise per arrangement along with Gilbert López. But one of the main reasons I didn't want to sign was that a very good friend of mine that worked there told me the reason was to keep me from writing charts for the competition and I didn't want that to happen because I was being called to do charts for other bands.
JIC: During this period you arranged half of Maldades (1975 on Alegre) produced by Joe Cain, the solo debut by Barretto's ex-lead singer Tito Allen. Tell me more about this venture?
LC: Tito has always liked the way I write and I believe that he, as well as Adalberto Santiago, has not been given his due. He said that Alegre was going to cut an LP for him and he wanted Louie Ramírez and myself to do the charts and put a band together with Louie on timbales and me on the piano. He also asked me if I wanted to listen to the charts and pick the ones I wanted, but I told him to pick for me. I then heard from Joe Cain who told me it was low budget and what was available for the sidemen's session, the arrangements and some extra for Louie and myself. I enjoyed it because I liked all the tunes given to me, along with everyone that was part of the band and working with Louie, Tito and Joe Cain. I was also pleased with the final product. They are good tunes and Tito still plays them to this day in his concerts. I wish him the best of luck.
JIC: Maldades must be one of the last recordings Joe Cain produced for Alegre before Fania absorbed the label?
LC: I believe so but I'm not sure.
JIC: Another Joe Cain production for Alegre you arranged for was Sabor (1975) by Sabor con Angel Canales. You continued the association with Canales by writing charts for his albums Angel Canales At Roseland (1978 on TR), and El Sentimiento del Latino en Nueva York (1979), El Diferente (c. 1981), Different Shades Of Thought (1982) and Ya Es Tiempo (It's Time) (1985) all on Canales' own Selanac label. This includes your magnificent arrangement of "Bomba Carambomba" from El Diferente. Please could you share your memories of working with Angel?
LC: "El Diferente." I don't know if he gave himself that title or someone else, but it did sort of fit him. Many people used to laugh at him because of his antics and his style of singing, but there's nothing wrong with being the centre of attraction in the entertainment field. When a new band comes on the scene, the main object is to establish its own identity, style or sound or all of the above. After all, you don't want people to say: "They are good but they sound just like so and so." That's no real accomplishment, but just an imitation.
Angel's singing style and showmanship made people turn around to listen and watch him perform rather than dance. He had a very good band that played the tunes the same way he sang - with lots of dynamics. They succeeded in establishing a sound and style like him: "different."
Every time we met, his conversations always veered into his wanting me to take over his band as musical director. He would tell me I wouldn't have to play if I didn't want to, just direct the band. And he was very serious about this. He made me promise that I would play with his band when the Roseland gig came up and I did.
After my declining his bid so many times for me to take over his band, he decided that I should arrange a whole LP for him. I reluctantly accepted but it turned out to be the wrong thing to do. Angel set up this project where he wrote all the tunes I was to arrange and, after I started, I found myself getting confused with the tunes because they all sounded pretty much alike. No matter how much I tried to differentiate one from the others in my mind, I would end up thinking of a similar one. I called him to explain my predicament and suggested that I could pick two or three and for him to distribute the rest among other arrangers, but that didn't go good with him and after that he stopped being as friendly as before. Sometimes if I was in the area of Canal Street, I would drop by his store to chat. I know he lives here in Florida and somewhere in Miami, but he is supposedly very sick and his wife doesn't allow visitors.
JIC: Other outstanding arrangements you did for Angel were "Panama Soberana" (on Angel Canales At Roseland and El Sentimiento del Latino en Nueva York) and a haunting version of the Beny Moré tune "Guantánamo" (on El Diferente). Do you have any comments about these pieces?
LC: I guess at my age I could try to get away with me saying that I don't remember and blame it on a "senior moment," but the truth of the matter is that I never paid much attention to titles or lyrics. I would read or listen to the lyrics a couple of times to get the feeling of the song and to see if there was anything in it that could be enhanced or accented with the horns. After that, I would just familiarise myself with the tunes melodically over and over just to get the right chords. I would try to always make the first rehearsal to make sure everything would fall and fit in the right place, but I would hear the tune some time later after it was recorded. I know I did the Angel Canales tunes you mention but only because I recognise the names after hearing people ask me about them quite a few times. If I had to sing or play them for you right now, I'd be lost because I don't remember the melodies or the arrangements. I would have to hear them to remember.
JIC: Willie Colón took you on board for Metiendo Mano! (1977 on Fania), his first collaboration with Rubén Blades, on which you arranged "Pueblo" and "Lluvia De Tu Cielo." I would be interested for your views about this album?
LC: After Ray Barretto, I believe Willie Colón and Rubén Blades were my best customers. The first time I met Rubén was on a trip I made with Ray to Panama in 1971. He sang a tune called "Don Goyo" with a group that alternated with us and when I heard his voice, it blew my mind. I told Ray: "If the time ever comes that you need another singer, that's the guy you need to get."
I'm not a Speedy González when it comes to arranging or, as you can now attest, many other things. Willie and many other artists knew this, so they would give me plenty of time to do work for them. He would call me to let me know there was a package on its way to me with tunes and instructions. I would get the cassettes with the songs and written instructions with the instrumentation, the keys, what instruments were available and the date of rehearsal or recording, which sometimes was up to four months depending on how many tunes. For these songs, that was the way it was done and I didn't know Rubén was going to sing them until the rehearsal.
As Rubén and I got to know each other better, the routine was that I would meet with him at his house and really get to know how he wanted his tunes. He would break out his guitar and just start singing away while "Paula C" was in her room watching TV. Sometimes this took a few hours and once we started, it was all business with no interruptions. He wouldn't even answer the phone. I got the impression that Willie would give him the green light to pretty much do whatever and however he wanted. As for me, Willie never bothered me until the week before the scheduled date to verify all was working according to plan. He was great to work with.
Once Rubén and I got everything together, he would play other songs for me to hear and I have yet to hear one I didn't like. And he plays a mean guitar with beautiful chords. I told him once that he should record some boleros with a bass, conga, bongos and him on the acoustic guitar. I did work for Willie and Rubén until he decided to make movies and start Seis del Solar.
JIC: After Metiendo Mano! you contributed charts to Willie and Rubén's historic bestseller Siembra (1978 on Fania), arranging "Buscando Guayaba," "Ojos" and "Dime." Please share your thoughts about this project?
LC: First off, I'd like to make a correction. I did not arrange the tune "Ojos." that's a Marty Sheller chart and a great one at that. This project, like Maestra Vida (Fania, 1980) and Larry Harlow's Hommy, was another gem which I also enjoyed very much doing. The routine was the same with Rubén and me getting together again to put all the pieces in their right places. In projects like these, Willie would sometimes use more and different arrangers than he would in a "regular" project, and finding myself hanging out in a studio full of all these great maestros would make me feel like I had reached the top of the top because they treated me as their equal. Through the years I became "one of the boys" and the more I worked with them, the more confident I became. I felt that I could probably arrange for just about any instrumentation. This project was a lot of fun, and in the end, it gave me a great sense of accomplishment.
JIC: More arranging work with Willie followed, including Solo (1979), Doble Energia (with Ismael Miranda; 1980), Fantasmas (1981), the Grammy nominated Canciones del Solar de Los Aburridos (with Blades; 1981), Vigilante (with Héctor Lavoe; 1983), the Grammy nominated Corazón Guerrero (1982) and Tiempo Pa' Matar (1984), all on Fania, and the Grammy nominated Criollo (1984 on RCA International). Did you find the lavish string arrangement of "Tú Eres Tú" on Solo challenging?
LC: My first dealings with strings, I believe was for Larry Harlow's Hommy in '73 when I did Celia Cruz' "Gracia Divina," so that by the time I got to "Tú Eres Tú," I was already somewhat "familiar" with it but that's not to say that I was a pro at it. Strings for me are always a big challenge and I treat them as such. Willie has given me the most charts to do with strings including a project with singer Soledad Bravo.
My biggest hang-up when I write for strings is that I tend to overwrite a little. That was another problem when I started writing for trumpets, but trumpeter Victor Paz enlightened me on that subject. He said that pianists tend to overwrite because they don't have to control their breathing. On my first recording with Willie Rosario he started crossing off horn lines before he even heard the charts. That was my first lesson in "more is less," but sometimes I still get carried away with the strings.
JIC: Can you identify which tracks on Fantasmas and Canciones del Solar de Los Aburridos you arranged?
LC: "Amor Verdadero," "Toma Mis Manos" in Fantasma, and "El Telefonito" in Solar de Los Aburridos.
JIC: When Ray Barretto went off to do his crossover thing, his band continued under the name Guararé and released three albums: Guararé (1977 on TR), Guararé (1979 on Inca) and Onda Típica (1981 on Inca). You contributed arrangements to each album. Can you provide some deeper insights into this aspect of New York salsa history?
LC: Mr. Child, I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I don't recollect having done charts for those three LPs but if I did, I'll have to hear them to pick them out. I didn't even know that Tony Fuentes and "Papy" Román had taken the group over with the name of Guararé. I've never seen these albums.
JIC: Adalberto Santiago split from Típica 73 to go with Los Kimbos, and you wrote a couple of charts on the band's second album The Big Kimbos With Adalberto Santiago (1977 on Cotique). Adalberto went solo and debuted with Adalberto (1977 on Fania), with two charts from you, then you acted as recording director and arranged two tracks on his follow-up Adalberto Featuring Popeye El Marino (1979 on Fania). Please share your memories about helping out your old friend with such a major step in his career?
LC: Adalberto, being the friend and person he is, has never told me "no" to anything I've asked of him and by the same token I would do the same for him. This, without either of us taking advantage of each other's friendship. He's got a good head on his shoulders when it comes to business and is happy with the decisions he makes (with a little help from his wife). As good friends as we are, we've never really hung out together or kept in constant touch. In New York he lives in Spanish Harlem and I used to live out in Long Island. My trips to the city were to go to my job in Brooklyn or to gigs. I never hung out just to hang out especially during the week. However, if he needed help at the studio during a recording, whether I had charts to direct or not, I would show up and stay to the end and I never got paid for it nor asked to be paid because it was for him. I now live in West Palm Beach, Florida, and whenever he comes to Fort Lauderdale to perform I usually meet up with him.
JIC: You were the musical director of Adalberto's third solo album Feliz Me Siento (1980 on Fania) and arranged three songs including the title track penned by Adalberto. You also arranged "Yo Soy Del Llano" sung by Adalberto on Louie Ramírez' album Salsero (1980 on Cotique). Do you have anything to add about these?
LC: Re: Feliz Me Siento, as I mentioned before I like to be present when my charts are going to be rehearsed for the first time or recorded. Being the producer, Ray would stay in the control room with the engineer and the arranger would direct the band. On this date Louie Ramírez had dropped off his scores but was not able to stay, so Ray asked if I would direct the session and I said OK. That's how I became the musical director. Another thing to note is the fact that Ray and I got along pretty good because we worked together a lot.
As far as "Yo Soy Del Llano," I love charanga music. I think it's one of the best rhythms to listen, dance and play to. It's so simple, yet it takes on such a swing that it makes even the musicians dance on the bandstand. I think this is the first and only charanga tune I've done and I really enjoyed doing. I was able to use the strings the way I wanted to because I knew the sound and feeling I was going to get was second nature to the violinists. This was their thing and it wasn't going to sound "Latin." Whenever I wrote strings for Willie Colón, the string players were from a symphonic orchestra. They were very, very good on their instruments but didn't have the feel necessary to make it swing. If I'm not mistaken, I believe for Celia's tune in Hommy, the strings were Pupi Legarreta, Eddie Drennon and I think trombonist Lewis Khan. You can hear the difference in the flow of the passages.
JIC: I imagine that you are proud that Tito Puente commissioned you to write charts for the Grammy winning Homenaje A Beny (1978 on Tico) and Homenaje A Beny Vol. 2 (1979 on Tico)? What are memories about this experience?
LC: I was totally scared. There is big, bigger and biggest and as far as I'm concerned, this was the biggest for me so far. Way, way back in the back of my mind I knew there was the possibility that Tito might some day give me a chart to do because, in an interview that Max Salazar did for Tito for Latin Times magazine in 1977, Max asked Tito what other arrangers he would permit to write for him and I'm proud to say that I was one of them.
I accepted this challenge when Tito called me because I already had some experience with big band arranging after having done La Lupe's LP for a big band. Also, if he had that much confidence in me, why shouldn't I, my biggest fan, feel the same way?
On the day of rehearsal when I entered that room, I felt like a mouse walking into St. Peter's Basilica with the Pope and all the Cardinals staring at me. Many of these people I had never met before and I knew they had to be very good to be in that room. My main worry was that Tito would give me back the chart and tell me to take it home and make it right, or not accept it at all. Had that happened, I would have been devastated to no end. But, the result was the opposite, with Tito thanking me for a good chart. His advice to me once when I asked him if he would teach me the proper way to arrange was: "Don't fix what ain't broken."
When he got the Grammy for this project, he called me to congratulate and thank me for my contribution.
JIC: You wrote charts for a few Héctor Lavoe albums on Fania, including Recordando A Felipe Pirela (1979), Que Sentimiento! (1981; Héctor's only self production) and his last, the Grammy nominated Strikes Back (1987). Do you have any memories of Héctor and these projects you could share?
LC: I don't recall being in the studio with Héctor for any of his recordings, simply because I never knew the tunes were for him. Willie would just call to tell me to do a chart in a particular key and that was that. I didn't necessarily ask who the singer was. The one time I was told Héctor was going to sing my charts was "Juanito Alimaña" and "Ublabladú" for the movie Vigilante (1983), but I wasn't there for the actual recording. I had forgotten all about my writing for the movie until a waitress at a club on 14th Street told me she had seen the movie and saw my name in the credits.
JIC: You got the opportunity to arrange for the Fania All Stars. For instance you arranged "Prepara," composed and sung by Rubén Blades on the Grammy nominated Crossover (1979), and " Ublabladú" sung by Héctor Lavoe on Commitment (1980). Do you have any observations to make?
LC: If I remember correctly "Prepara" was done in three parts. We recorded the bass, piano and rhythm section at the studio in New York and then I believe the horns and strings were done in Argentina because it was cheaper to do it there. Then the rest I believe was done back in the States but I was only present at the first session and, again, didn't know Rubén was the singer or that it was for the Fania All Stars until I heard it after it was done. It was hard to tell who the work was for because they used the Fania All Stars musicians for just about everyone. If you play some of the Fania recordings by different artists, the only difference you'll hear is the vocalist because the band sounds the same all the time. You can actually tell who the sidemen are by their styles of playing. But to each his own. This also is one of my favourite charts.
As for "Ublabladú," it was given to me at the same time as "Juanito Alimaña," so I thought it was going to be for the movie Vigilante. I actually thought it wasn't recorded until someone played it for me.
JIC: You arranged "Un Pedacito" and the Johnny Ortiz composition "Majestad Antillana" on Típica 73 en Cuba: Intercambio Cultural (1979 on Fania) recorded in Havana. Are you able to give any insights into this venture?
LC: The first time I saw, met and heard José Alberto was with Típica 73 when I delivered these charts at a rehearsal. He reminded me of Ismael Miranda when he started as a teenager with Harlow. A young skinny thin voiced kid. But when he started singing, everything changed. He came out strong and full of confidence, just like in the recording. Believe it or not, I've never seen Típica perform live, so the first time I heard these tunes was on the CD and it blew my mind when I heard Chappottín and El Niño perform in "Un Pedacito". I knew they had gone to Cuba but didn't know they went to record live.
JIC: You arranged "Tumba Brava" on Mulenze's first album Desde El Principio (1979 on DC Records). How did that come about?
LC: I was reminded of having done that by Pedro Brull a couple of years ago in Puerto Rico, when I went to see Bobby Valentín perform a concert with Marvin Santiago, Raphy Leavitt and Oscar D'León. However I don't remember the particulars, although I remember the name of the tune but not the tune itself. I'm not even sure if I've seen the band perform.
JIC: Ray Castro sang coro on your album Coming Out, but by 1979 he had become executive producer, coro singer and percussionist with Conjunto Clásico. You were hired to write arrangements for the group's Los Rodríguez (1979), Felicitaciones (1980) and El Panadero (1985) as well as their productions Cantar (1981) by Tito Allen and El Encuentro (1983) by former Típica 73 co-leader Johnny "Dandy" Rodríguez, all on the Lo Mejor label. What are your recollections of these projects?
LC: I met with both Ray Castro and Ramón Rodríguez after they had called me to give me charts to do for them. We had agreed on the price because they were just starting and had a low budget. Tito Nieves was in the group at the time and he always seemed happy whenever I brought a new chart but, to this day, he has never called me to do one for him since he went solo.
With Los Rodríguez, the challenge here was not to make it sound like another Pacheco group, especially since they had no style of their own when they started. The others came easy because the sound was established. As far as Tito Allen and Johnny, I already knew their styles, likes and dislikes from prior dealings with them.
When Somos Musica was being formed, I was looking for coro singers who could also sing lead in a pinch and Ray Castro told me about his sister Ada Chabrier. I had never heard of her before but I tried her anyway and she ended staying all the way to the end. A couple of La Lupe's tunes were done for her and she portrayed them very well. Now we are good friends.
JIC: What tracks did you arrange on Los Rodríguez?
LC: I did at least "Somos Iguales."
JIC: You worked on Rubén Blades' ambitious two-disc concept album Maestra Vida (Maestra Vida I and Maestra Vida II). I would be interested in your views and recollections about this project?
LC: I loved this project. I felt surprised, happy and greatly honoured that Rubén chose me to do so many of the tunes. We spent a lot of time together shaping this up because I wanted Rubén to be very satisfied and happy that he made a good choice putting me in there with the best. The tunes were totally out of sight and when he sang them all to me, I couldn't help but think: how could someone remember so many lyrics? The more he sang and played, the bigger the smile on my face.
At the rehearsal you could tell that the musicians really enjoyed the task at hand. As for myself, I felt goose pimples all over when I heard them play my tunes. The best was when he came over to me, hugged me hard and told me how happy and satisfied he was with what I had done for him. It was great.
JIC: You contributed charts to Ray Barretto's Giant Force/Fuerza Gigante (1980 on Fania) his Grammy nominated Tremendo Trio! (1983 on Fania) with Celia Cruz and Adalberto Santiago. Can you identify which tracks you arranged on Tremendo Trio! as the credits do not distinguish your charts from those of Oscar Hernández?
LC: I did "La Caña Y La Plantación," "Debes Callar" and "Asi Empezó El Son Montuno," my composition sung by Celia.
JIC: You arranged "La Música Es Mi Vida" on Johnny Zamot y Sociedad 76's El Hulk De La Salsa (1980 on Fania), which the Spanish Harlem Orchestra covered on their first album Un Gran Dia En El Barrio (2002 on Ryko / Ropeadope Records) re-arranged by Angel Fernández. Do you have any observations?
LC: I'm not sure if I've heard the one by Zamot but I'm pretty sure I haven't heard the one by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Actually, I don't remember the tune itself.
JIC: You are listed as an arranger on Libre's Increible (1981 on Salsoul) and wrote the arrangement of the wonderful "Que Humanidad" on their Ritmo, Sonido y Estilo (1983 on Montuno). I would love to hear your remarks about this important New York institution?
LC: I had the pleasure of playing with Libre around 1980 for awhile when I lived in Long Island. Andy's and my association wasn't only with Ray's band, because my dad and his dad knew each other for many years and I knew his whole family. His father used to sing for Auggie y su Combo, which was a band similar to my father's Conjunto Marianaxi. They played the same type of music and for the same type of crowd. As a matter of fact, they used to exchange charts.
When I lived in the Bronx we lived not too far from each other. Other musicians that lived in the area were Nestor Sánchez, Nicky Marrero, Joe Quijano and Vicentico Valdés, to name a few.
When I played with Libre, the band boy used to pick me up first, then Manny Oquendo. I've always loved that band because it's always had a great typical swing, not to mention the personnel. We had Dave Valentín on flute, Steve Turre, Jimmy Bosch and Angel "Papo" Vásquez on trombone, "Pupy" Cantor and Hermán Olivera on vocals and of course Manny, Jerry and Andy. I don't know if you've ever seen Jimmy Bosch and Papo Vásquez playing together, but they never let a tune die. They're constantly inventing moñas and never get tired. I always looked forward to playing with them because they have great charts and always play with gusto. It's a shame they don't get more exposure so they could be more deservedly appreciated.
JIC: Tell me about the Brooklyn-based band Conjunto Realidad that you arranged a couple of tracks for on their excellent 1982 album Asi Es Mi Tierra on the Salsa label?
LC: I don't recollect what tunes I did nor am I sure I've heard the LP.
JIC: You wrote the chart for "Siembra" on Grupo Fascinación's first album Fascinating Sounds (1983 on Rico). What are your memories of this exciting young group?
LC: I believe I did two charts for Fascinación, but only one was recorded which, I guess, is "Siembra."
I heard this group perform live maybe twice and they sounded very good. They had quality musicians, especially in Pete Nater, but I never kept up with their progress.
JIC: Johnny Pacheco and El Conde's Grammy nominated Salsobita (1987 on Fania) features a couple of your charts. Did you write arrangements for other Pacheco albums?
LC: Yes, I also did "Primoroso Cantar" and "El Piro De Farra" in the LP Tres de Café y Dos de Azúcar (Fania, 1973).
JIC: The posthumously released The Master and The Protege (1993 on Fania), featuring Héctor Lavoe and Lavoe sound-alike Van Lester singing the vocal parts on unfinished tracks Héctor recorded with Willie Colón in 1986, contains two charts written by you. Would you like to comment on this CD?
LC: It was unfortunate that Héctor wasn't able to finish the CD. I did "Telefono" and "Contrato Barato" and they were recorded before Héctor's demise but, after such a long time passed, I thought they weren't going to be completed. "Telefono" was a Portuguese samba Willie had translated into Spanish, which I originally thought he was going to sing.
I got a call from Willie telling me he wanted to meet with Fania's recording engineer Jon Fausty, Javier Vázquez and myself because they were going to finish the project with Van Lester. I forgot the place where we met but it wasn't at the studio. It was a small room that we could hardly all fit into and he wanted us to sing the tunes we each had done, as best we could so Fausty could record them on a cassette for Van Lester to learn them. Someone eventually gave me a copy of the CD and I think it came out great, especially the very end when Héctor quips about Nicky Marrero.
JIC: What are your reflections on the New York salsa explosion of 1970s?
LC: I believe the fact that there were so many singers going solo and making their own bands, blew everything open. Then the fact that it had gotten easier to get recorded also gave the singers an incentive to cut loose. Many felt that they, not the bandleader, were the ones bringing the bands out front. They figured they were the stars so why not become a bandleader and capitalise on their popularity and get paid more without sharing it. But many of them found out later that they too were going to be exploited if they wanted gigs. You had to be very good at what you were doing and learn the business well to be able to keep on prospering. Many record companies also saw the opportunity of dealing with one person, so they got on the bandwagon and started putting out recording after recording. Then the deejays played all these favourite new tunes giving the singers more exposure and the club owners the choice of using one band instead of two. Now if they had to travel, there was no need to take a band along anymore, thereby saving even more money.
JIC: Your level of activity as an arranger for the Latin recording industry noticeably reduced after the mid-1980s. Would you like to shed some light on this?
LC: Around 1985 or '86 I disbanded my last band, Somos Musica, and decided to just do sideman work and whatever arrangements came my way. Since I didn't hang out at the clubs, I guess I unknowingly joined the "out of sight, out of mind club."
Also, there was a fresh wave of "new" arrangers like Oscar Hernández, Isidro Infante, Sergio George and Ricky González, to name a few.
Another factor was the fact that many of the New York bands, Willie Rosario, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Valentín, had moved to Puerto Rico, where they found many other good arrangers, which were now "local" to them. And then there was the sudden popularity of the merengue, which unlike the boogaloo, was performed mainly by Dominican bands and arranged by Dominicans for the most part. And please, I hope people don't misunderstand me, because it's not my intention to put down anyone. When the charanga bands were the rage, bands like Orquesta Broadway, Fajardo and Belisario López excelled because they were more authentic with their Cuban personnel and in particular the flute and strings dominated the sound and feeling. Johnny Pacheco (Dominican), Charlie Palmieri and Ray Barretto (Puerto Ricans) had very good charanga bands also but, as they say, there's nothing like the real thing.
I guess if you depended solely on music as your source of income, you had the freedom and advantage of being available at any moment's notice. Since I worked for the Transit Authority, it wasn't that easy for me to show up downtown for meetings or recordings (especially when there were no cell phones, like now), therefore I was put in the "last resort" file.
If by chance I got called for a gig, I would sometimes get to see people I hadn't seen in a while, and they would ask me for my card because they needed some charts done, but the work never came.
Maybe if I would have made myself more openly available?
When I got to Florida and told Roberto Blades that I lived in West Palm Beach, the first thing he told me was: "You have to move to Miami if you want to work and meet people in the music business."
JIC: In 1987 you became a member of the great Cuban musical institution, La Sonora Matancera. Please tell me the story behind this and update me on the history of the group? For instance, what is the current position on La Sonora's previous director Javier Vázquez?
LC: This is another one of those unforgettable chapters in my musical career.
On a couple of occasions Javier Vázquez had called me to sub for him with La Sonora. My style of playing was similar to his, very typical, and they liked it. Then Javier game me a tune to do for Celia. I think the album is called Feliz Encuentro (Barbaro, 1982), but I don't remember the name of the tune.
Then sometime near the end of 1987, Javier called and asked me if I would be able to make a trip for him with La Sonora for Christmas and New Year's to Guayaquil, Ecuador, for the opening of a soccer stadium, and I said OK.
La Sonora Matancera is full of stories: good, bad and otherwise, but mostly funny. This time I was part of one serious but funny escapade.
Every time a band makes a trip to another country, before they leave they have to play a freebie of the country's choice. This time we were to perform at a women's prison and we were to make sure we had the official document stating it was accomplished. That and the stadium opening went well. New Year's Eve we performed at a theatre but, unbeknownst to us, Rogelio had had an argument with the promoter.
Next morning at the airport, while checking in for the flight to New York, everything stopped. The promoter hadn't shown up with the release document and without it we couldn't leave. The flight was held up 45 minutes so, the decision was made that we weren't going and the next flight wasn't until the next day provided there was room. We went back to the hotel by cab to re-check in but the expense now belonged to La Sonora.
No one knew where to find the promoter, until somehow late that night, the band boy found out where he lived and went after him. First he was told he wasn't there but he pushed open the door and, under threat of bodily harm, made him open a safe and give him the document. In the meantime earlier, we had asked for long distance lines to call our wives to tell them we weren't arriving until the next day, but they couldn't connect to the US so we never got to call.
As it turned out, they had gone to pick us up but returned home without knowing what happened or when we would return. Anyway, so as not to make a long story monotonous, we were able to leave on the next flight and since the plane was making a stop first in Miami; I explained our predicament to a flight attendant and asked her if someone could call our wives to let them know we were on our way. I gave her a list of the phone numbers and someone called and they were waiting for us.
I guess that was my initiation because next day Rogelio Martínez asked if I wanted to join the group. Javier Vázquez was making his own Sonora and I accepted. I've been with them ever since.
All the original members, with the exception of Pedro Knight, have since passed away, but I've had the honour of having performed with Caíto, Papaíto, Yayo El Indio, Alberto Beltrán, Celio González, Daniel Santos, Nelson Pinedo, Leo Marini, Wuelfo Gutiérrez and most amazingly, Celia Cruz. I've been all over Mexico, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Germany, France, London, Canada and many states.
Rogelio Martínez was the band director and Javier Vázquez was the musical director. Javier lives in Las Vegas and has a promotion and publishing agency. He and his brother, bass player Raymundo "Elpidio" Vázquez, are the only ones left with a musical link to the original band. They are the sons of the original bass player Carlos Vázquez Govín, affectionately named "Bubú." When we travel now we use two pianos.
JIC: Fill me in on what else Louie Cruz got up to since the demise of the New York salsa boom?
LC: I retired from The NYC Transit Authority in 1995 after having put in over 33 years there. The only meaningful gigs I did were travelling all over with La Sonora Matancera. Every year we would go to Mexico City from November to January doing two shows daily at a theatre called Blanquitas, and the last event was always a open air freebie with Celia in the Bellas Arte Park, for the people who weren't able to attend or afford the regular events. Eventually La Sonora's gigs were becoming far and few between and some of the members were dying. We lost Caíto, Mario "Papaíto" Muñoz died the same week as Puente, Yayo El Indio and later Rogelio Martínez, who had a bout with Alzheimer's, and the last one to die was Calixto Leicea.
Then in January 1998 my wife and I sold our home in Deer Park, Long Island, and moved to West Palm Beach where we had a house built. As soon as I hit town I hooked up with Sal Cuevas who took me around to meet some musicians. When the festivals of Calle Ocho in Miami came around in March, I went and saw a lot of friends from New York I hadn't seen in quite awhile. Within a couple of weeks I was getting calls to play. I hooked up with a swinging sextet called 5th Avenue Latin Jazz made up of a bunch of guys from the Bronx. We played every Friday and Saturday at a place called Pazzo's in Fort Lauderdale, but the place eventually closed up.
Then to my surprise, in April of 2004, I got a call from Javier Vázquez asking me if I could make a trip to the island of Bonaire with La Sonora because he wanted to use two pianos, and I jumped at the invitation. We were scattered all over and met in Jamaica to get to Bonaire. Since then we've made a few trips. The gigs here in Florida have died somewhat, so I'm more into arranging again.
I also have a seasonal part time job with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department where I work at the Palm Beach Airport six months from the end of October through the end of April and the summer off, to break up the monotony and keep my mind in shape.
JIC: You arranged three tracks on Los Soneros Del Barrio's Remembranzas Featuring Frankie Vázquez (2001 on Rumba Jams) and one track on Siguiendo La Tradición (2003 on Rumba Jams). On the latter they cover "Babaila" (re-arranged by Angel Fernández) which you originally arranged for Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez's El Conde in 1974. What are your feelings about the reviving and reworking of classic salsa tracks by Los Soneros Del Barrio and other bands like Sonora Carruseles, Quinto Mayor, La Son Charanga, Orquesta Tabaco y Ron and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra?
LC: I find nothing wrong because all they are doing is introducing music from the past to the new generations. If they don't do it, how are they going to know about it? Most of the young crowd of today doesn't look back to see what tunes were recorded prior to their being born or who did them. The media, for the most part, keeps moving forward with the new tunes and sounds that show up every day. A good example is "I Like It Like That" originally recorded by pianist Pete Rodríguez' band with Tony Pabón singing it. It was there for years, but ask a young person who Tony Pabón is and you'll draw a blank. Ask who sings it and Tito Nieves' name pops up.
And you'll probably get the same reaction with "Micaela." Los Soneros Del Barrio go a step beyond by doing the tunes of yesteryear but with new arrangements, thereby attracting not only the new crowd, but the crowd that's familiar with the older version. If it means keeping the older hits floating around fresh again, I'm all for it.
I was left a message on my phone sometime ago letting me know they were doing another CD for Los Soneros Del Barrio and I would be contacted to be part of it again, but nothing happened.
February of last year Ray Barretto came to Fort Lauderdale to play a concert and while we were talking about the '60s, he asked me how I felt about doing a new version of "Bruca Maniguá" all over again to record it. I thought it was a great idea.
When Ray and Larry Harlow told me they were hooking up together to start The Latin Legends I told myself it wasn't going to happen because I've worked extensively with both and their personalities are 180 degrees apart. But we met at Larry's place to talk about the tunes to be done and the instrumentation. I was told to do a different arrangement of "Seguiré Sin Soñar," which I still haven't heard, than the one I had done originally for Ray. The same with Larry and his tunes. Of the tunes I did, only "El Jamaiquino" and "Latin Legend Theme" were recorded (included in Larry Harlow's Latin Legends Band 1998 on Jerry Masucci Music / Sony).
JIC: Have you heard Chino Nuñez's transcription of your "El Hijo De Obatala" chart on George Delgado's Mi Ritmo Llego (2004 on Rumba Jams)? What do you think?
LC: I haven't heard it.
JIC: I note that you wrote a couple of charts on Baila Con Ella (2004 on Daynomar Productions) by ClaraSalsa. What can you tell me about this project?
LC: About ten years ago a Peruvian guy in Long Island who had a band but couldn't get it to sound Latin enough, asked me to come to one of his rehearsals to see if I could make any suggestions and I did. He did what he had to do, which was get rid of most of the band. For a while I rehearsed and played some gigs with them and was introduced to Jorge Laureano who was like their manager. He had heard some of my arrangements and asked me to do two for him. I did "No Puedo Olvidar" and "Pruebas" which are the ones in the CD. But I moved to Florida in January of 1998 and never heard anything else about them until now that I went to their website.
I had never heard of the names Daynomar or ClaraSalsa until you mentioned them, so it must have happened after I left New York. I must try to get a copy to hear what they sound like.
JIC: You have arranged for bands with varying instrumentations. Do you have any preferences?
LC: I've always liked to work with two and four trumpets. My father, and other singers of his time, while singing used to do second and third voice harmonising in many of his very early recordings with Alfarona-X, and the rules of 3rd's, 6th's and octaves weren't always followed. His harmonies came from within as he felt them. I have copies of many of those recordings, and sometimes I try to incorporate the same harmonic principle for two or three horns. It's like putting two songs together to make one. I find it gives me much flexibility and, if done right, it sounds pleasing and interesting. The last recording La Sonora Matancera made in 1993 (De Nuevo
Mexico on WEA Latina), which I arranged, recorded and co-produced with Rogelio Martínez, has these ideas in some of the arrangements. Particularly in the bolero "Maldita Vida," which my dad composed.
I also like to arrange for full ensembles of the same type of instruments such as saxes, trombones, flutes or strings.
I did two arrangements for Noche Caliente produced by Larry Harlow and sung by Lefty Pérez, which I think came out very nice. The tunes were two ballads made into salsa and I added two flutes to the horn section. I also did a four-trombone arrangement for trombonist David Rothschild whom I met in Guadalupe and lives in Amsterdam.
When arranging for salsa, I don't particularly care for awkward combinations of instruments of different colours, especially when their sounds are too far apart. Like one lead trumpet and two trombones. At one time Pete Conde was thinking of making a band with four flugelhorns but I talked him out of that. It might have been good in a recording where electronics controls the output, but in a dance hall they wouldn't be heard the same way.
However, at this stage of the game, I'll try anything once.
JIC: Would you like to tell me what projects you have been working on recently and what you have in the pipeline?
LC: For about a year and a half now, I've been sending some of my charts and mostly from Ray Barretto's repertoire, to percussionist Rolando Ramos in New York. He was my roommate with La Sonora the last few years we travelled with the old timers. He's been successful in making a band appropriately named Son Del Ayer, roughly translated it's "Sounds Of Yesteryear." I had the opportunity of watching them perform last October when they played for my son René's wedding. Of course I played a couple of tunes with them and to top it all the lead trumpet player is Roberto Rodríguez Jr., son of the late Roberto Rodríguez, lead trumpeter of Ray's band for many years. He composed many of the tunes for Ray and I arranged them all.
Lately there seems to be a demand for charts with the "old" flavour of the '60s and '70s.
I'm currently working on three arrangements for percussionists Tony Fuentes and his friend José Díaz. They have formed a band in Orlando Florida and plan to do a demo. The tunes are Tony's compositions that he will add to his repertoire of other hits like "Vive Y Vacila" and "Y Dicen" recorded by Ray and arranged by me. He also wrote "Triunfó El Amor" recorded by Willie Rosario and also arranged by me.
I also did two arrangements for Ray Viera and an arrangement of "El Caminante" for José Mangual Jr..
Plus I just received a call to do a project for a tribute to Ray Barretto.
JIC: Is there anything else that you would like to add that we have not talked about?
LC: I usually like to listen rather than talk, but if the subject is right, then the opposite becomes the rule. I could go on and on with many stories and experiences that I've gone through but then I would never finish, so I'll just add the following.
Before I started this interview I had been asked if I would be interested in doing a concert with Ray Barretto and whichever original musicians are left from the '60s band like Orestes Vilató, Adalberto, Tony Fuentes and Andy González. I said, definitely.
Then as the interview went on, Ray got very sick and had to have heart surgery done. He survived that surgery but complications set in which put him back in the hospital for more surgery. Somehow this affected his renal system forcing him to have dialysis treatments. I went to New York and was able to get to see and speak to him at the hospital in New Jersey, thanks to his wonderful wife Brandy and to percussionist Ralph Irizarry, who had also been a member of Ray's band and made it possible for me to get to the hospital. He had just finished a dialysis treatment when we got there and was semi sedated so he could not speak. However, he acknowledged with a thumbs up or down. We stayed a short while and before I left he was able to raise his hand to shake mine.
Little did I know then that we were saying goodbye for the last time, for on the following week on February 17th, I got the call early in the morning that he had passed away.
As I did a week before, I got on a plane again to New York to pay my last respects with my son René and even was able to join in a farewell jam session.
On February 13, 2005 I had the pleasure of once again, and after so many years, playing with him in a concert in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I played "El Hijo De Obatalá" with Tito Allen singing. I'm also happy to say that he was given a duly deserved send-off after his passing. We were very good friends on and off the stage and he will be missed dearly.
I would also like to let anyone looking for me that, I'm still able and available to arrange and am living in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Above all, I would also like to convey my most sincere thanks to Mr. John Child for this profound interview in Descarga.com. Through you I've learned a lot about me that I wasn't aware of. I'm very grateful sir.
JIC: What title would you choose for this interview?
LC: "To The Best Of My Knowledge" or "My Life In Music, As I've Lived It. Louie Cruz."
Very special thanks to Aaron Levinson for introducing me to Louie Cruz
© Descarga.com and John Child. John Child produces and selects the contents of the totallyradio show Aracataca. He is an editor and journalist for the Descarga.com Latin music website, and a contributor to the
MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music, and has prepared compilations for the Union Square and Nascente labels.