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Elías Lopés:
Remembranzas y Anectodas (Remembrances and Anecdotes)

A conversation with John Child and Ray Rosado

Maybe he is not a household name, but trumpeter, arranger, composer, producer and bandleader Elías Lopés is an important figure in the Puerto Rican salsa and merengue industry, having been a member of the Mario Ortiz band and El Gran Combo in the 1960s, co-leader, musical director and arranger of Roberto Roena's Apollo Sound and leader of his own band and director of Combo de Ayer. He acted as a mentor to the young Gilberto Santa Rosa and has worked with the Puerto Rico All Stars, Fania All Stars, CBS Jazz All Stars, MP All Stars, Puerto Rican Masters and directed the exciting Viva La Salsa - A Tribute To Latin Music, Live From The Tito Puente Amphitheatre In San Juan, PR 2-CD and Bonus DVD set released before Christmas 2004. A prolific arranger and session musician, Elías says that he has participated in a staggering 1,766 productions to date. Here he willingly and candidly shares memories and stories about his 48-year career with John Child and Ray Rosado:

John Child (JIC): Is it so that you were born Elías Lopés García on February 7th 1945 in Guayama, Puerto Rico?

Elías Lopés (EL): Yes.

JIC: Tell us about your early upbringing and musical experiences.

EL: Well, I was raised in Guayama, Puerto Rico, till I was nine years old. My family then moved to San Juan, where I had the opportunity to study at the Free School of Music of San Juan from the age of nine. First with solfeo, then at eleven years old they handed me the trumpet, which was my instrument, and well… I was in the Free School of Music until I was sixteen years old. Then I enrolled in the Conservatory. There I graduated high school and continued studying and playing at the Conservatory.

JIC: What music were you exposed to as a kid?

EL: At the Free School of Music the curriculum was one of classical music. The base is classical music. I studied the roots - the fundamentals of classical music - technique, sound.

JIC: Why were you attracted to the trumpet and who were your key influences?

EL: The trumpet is an instrument that always filled me with passion whenever I heard its sound. But in Guayama we didn't have the same facilities or opportunities. So when I got to San Juan, my first cousin and I began attending programmes that featured César Concepción, a big band, Moncho Usera's Orchestra, another big band, and Cortijo y su Combo, a very important group of that era.

Ray Rosado (RR): Did you play trumpet before moving to San Juan?

EL: I began studying the trumpet at the Free School of Music of San Juan at age eleven, because you were first required to study theory, solfeo, without an instrument. "They" would decide when you were ready to play your instrument.

JIC: We understand that you had your earliest professional experience in 1958 with Chacón y su Combo, and went on to work with the orchestras of Luis Morales, Charles Miner and Moncho Usera. Please could you share your memories of this period in your life?

EL: I played with Luis Morales at the Esquise. The Esquise was a restaurant / nightclub in Villa Palmera. Luis Morales was the brother of Noro Morales. Charles Miner was an American from a military family stationed here in Puerto Rico. He stayed in Puerto Rico and formed a band, one that played the circuit of private parties, the Rotary Club, Lions Club, Casino de Puerto Rico, Casa España, that type of activity, for the high society community.

JIC: You got a major break when you became a member of the Mario Ortiz orchestra. When and how did that opportunity arise?

EL: In 1961 I played with Moncho Usera. In 1962 is when I began playing with Mario Ortiz. Mario had heard commentary about a kid from Guayama who played the trumpet well and showed a lot of promise. He contacted me, gave me an audition at a rehearsal, and made me first trumpet.

JIC: We understand that you wrote some of your earliest arrangements for Mario's band. How did you start arranging and which arrangers influenced you?

EL: I began by doing transcriptions from records, familiarising myself. I listened to Mario's, which were in the vanguard. Moncho Usera was also an incredible arranger. I became interested and enthusiastic and did my thing as an arranger, but without any formal knowledge, or training in harmony and orchestration.

Mario was one of my first influences. Also Moncho Usera. And I listened to arrangers from New York, like René Hernández, who arranged for Machito, Tito Rodríguez. Tito Puente and Ray Santos, both great arrangers, also influenced me.

JIC: Roberto Roena did a brief stint with Mario Ortiz after leaving Cortijo y su Combo. Were you and Roberto in Mario's band at the same time?

EL: Yes, and it was he who later recommended me to El Gran Combo.

JIC: You played on two of Mario's albums from this period, On The Road (1963, Rico Vox) and Swinging With Mario Ortiz All Star Band (1964, Remo), which was recorded at the Mastertone Studio in New York with Willie Torres, Jimmy Sabater and Cheo Feliciano on coro. Please share your memories of these projects?

EL: This was a project for René Moret's Remo label. We were contracted to play at New York's Palladium ballroom by Catalino Rolón. We were there for three weeks as the house band, alternating with Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Machito, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and Willie Rosario. I was very much nourished by that experience, listening to these impressive bands and incredible musicians. It was then that we were contracted to record. It was a good experience, everyone playing at the same time, except the singer. I was nineteen.

JIC: Are any of your charts on On The Road and Swinging With Mario Ortiz All Star Band?

EL: No.

JIC: What are your memories of gigging with Mario's band?

EL: Incredible! He was my mentor. He gave me confidence, him being one of the all-time great trumpet players. I was the first trumpeter of his band at sixteen. That was, for me, a significant accomplishment, in that Mario, who played the same instrument as me, recognized my value as a trumpet player.

JIC: What songs did Mario's band feature in their live shows at the time?

EL: In Puerto Rico Mario was a "vanguardista," because what was played was guaracha, bolero, merengue, guaguancó, guajira and traditional son montuno. But we never played what we played in New York. In New York the style was mambo-jazz during that era, '62, '63, '64. Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez and Machito were already doing that.

RR: No songs from On The Road or Swinging with Mario Ortiz All Star Band?

EL: Yes, some. We played all that before we recorded. Because of that, we were well prepared when we went into the studio.

JIC: Around this time, you also occasionally worked with Sonora Boricua accompanying Myrta Silva on Puerto Rican TV. Tell us more?

EL: I played on Myrta Silva's show on Channel 4 of Puerto Rican television. Myrta Silva was the leader of Sonora Boricua. The musical director of that program was Rafael Elvira, the pianist.

JIC: What is the story behind your departure from Mario Ortiz's band to replace Kito Vélez (first trumpeter and arranger) in El Gran Combo in 1964?

EL: That was a big thing for me in that Kito Vélez was synonymous with "sabor." He was the arranger for Cortijo y su Combo and for El Gran Combo. And then he was an incredible trumpet player, who had a gift for improvisation and who dominated the high register. He had good ideas, and when he hit the high register he was very impressive. And looking at the challenge of stepping in for the glory that was Kito Vélez was what attracted me to make the transition from Mario Ortiz to El Gran Combo.

JIC: Kito Vélez subsequently recorded a tune called "Traidores" (Traitors; which was probably included in his mid-'60s album Kito Vélez y sus Estrellas on Ansonia). Would you like to comment on this?

EL: "Traidores." That was not for me. That was dedicated to my companions in El Gran Combo. He had said to me: "I'm going to form a group and I'm doing a song called 'Traidores,' but it has nothing to do with you."

JIC: You appeared on at least 12 of Gran Combo albums for the Gema label between 1964 and 1969: El Caballo Pelotero, El Swing del Gran Combo, El Gran Combo en Navidad, Maldito Callo, Esos Ojitos Negros, Fiesta con El Gran Combo, Boleros Románticos con El Gran Combo, Boogaloos con El Gran Combo, Tu Querias Boogaloo?, Pata Pata Jala Jala Boogaloo, Tangos Por El Gran Combo and Los Nenes Sicodelicos. Have we omitted any or added any you don't appear on?

EL: No.

JIC: Although Gran Combo's leader and pianist Rafael Ithier is generally credited as the arranger, did you write any of the charts? And if so, which ones?

EL: The first boogaloo we did, "Gran Combo's Boogaloo" (from Boogaloos con El Gran Combo 1967, Gema), was mine but appears as composed by Pellín Rodríguez and Andy Montañez. What Pellín contributed was omitted, but they kept my coros. Andy sneaked in there, but had nothing to do with it. I also did "Shake It Baby" (also from Boogaloos con El Gran Combo).

RR: Are you talking about composing or arranging?

EL: I'm talking about composing.

RR: What about the arrangements?

EL: The arrangements are mine, though I am not credited, because Ithier always put "Arrangements and Direction: Rafael Ithier" on the back cover.

RR: I was always under the impression that you did the arrangements.

EL: I did some arrangements, not all. The majority were Ithier's. Before I joined the group, Kito Vélez did the arrangements. Once I joined the group, Ithier began doing the arrangements. But the first two boogaloos were mine, because Ithier didn't want to play boogaloos.

RR: That was something the record companies insisted on?

EL: Exactly.

JIC: To reach a wider audience?

EL: At the Palladium in New York we alternated with Pete Rodríguez, with whom Tony Pabón sang a song called "I Like It Like That." I noticed that whenever he or Ricardo Ray performed, there were a lot of young people present who followed these groups. I said to the guys: "Notice that when Pete Rodríguez is here the crowd is different from when Machito, Puente or Rodríguez is here. We should go that way." But Ithier refused. Machito didn't want to go that way either.

JIC: You were a member of Gran Combo during the heady days when Pellín Rodríguez and Andy Montañez were the lead singers and sidemen included Eddie Pérez and Héctor Santos on saxes, conguero Martin Quiñones and bongo player / dancer Roberto Roena. Please could you share some anecdotes about your stint with the band?

EL: There are thousands of anecdotes. In this group we were always laughing because there were many personalities. Martin Quiñones was a natural comic who had us laughing from the moment we got on the bus till we arrived at our destination. Pellín Rodríguez was another character who had us dying of laughter. It was a lot of fun.

RR: Eddie Pérez's distinctive falsetto coro was a trademark of Cortijo y su Combo and of early Gran Combo. However, on El Swing del Gran Combo (1966, Gema), the falsetto coro on half the songs is obviously done by someone else. Who was the other falsetto and why was he used?

EL: Eddie Pérez was ill. Charlie Vásquez, the lead voice of the quartet Los Hispanos, did the falsetto in Eddie's place. Let me expand on this. That gentleman was something special because he was really a baritone. Most singers of note are tenors, Placido Domingo, Pavarotti, etc. His register was up to a D or E-flat on the scale. From that point on his voice was falsetto. His falsetto was so impressive people would go crazy. And you could not tell when he made the transition from his natural voice to the falsetto. There was never anything like it.

JIC: You co-wrote the jala-jala "La Jarana" with Roberto Roena on El Swing del Gran Combo, which suggests that you and Roberto were close at that stage, because in the mid-'60s you worked with him on Se Pone Bueno / It Gets Better (1966, Alegre), his first album as a leader. The personnel included Azuquita on lead vocals, the recently deceased reeds player Jesús Caunedo, Mario Ortiz on trumpet and Pellín and Andy in the coro. Tell us about this project and how it came about?

EL: That's right! That's my arrangement ("La Jarana"). On Se Pone Bueno we were called Los Megatones. There I did two arrangements. I did "Take Five", a mambo-jazz by…

RR: Dave Brubeck.

EL: Dave Brubeck, right.

RR: Actually, Paul Desmond wrote the tune.

EL: Right, Paul Desmond. I also arranged a Beny Moré tune called "Maracaibo Oriental".

JIC: Why didn't Roberto continue with the band at that stage?

EL: We were part of El Gran Combo. Notice that the coro singers appear as Pedro Rodríguez and Andres Montañez (Pellín and Andy). That brought us a lot of problems with Gema Records. We were sued and reprimanded. And it died there.

JIC: In 1969 you and Roberto left Gran Combo to form his groundbreaking band Apollo Sound, for whom you were the musical director and arranger. Why did you make your move then?

EL: September 1969. I was musical director and first trumpet for El Gran Combo, which was also Kito Vélez's role. With Apollo Sound I was more like co-leader as well as musical director and arranger. I put together a revue that we performed every night for three months at what today is the Condado Plaza Hotel. At that time it was called the Ponce De León Hotel. Midway through the performance we would do a show where Roberto would dance along with his late brother Cúqui, Licélia and also his uncle, the late Aníbal Vázquez.

JIC: What was the concept behind Apollo Sound?

EL: Aggressive, modern salsa, very modern. It revolutionised salsa in Puerto Rico.

JIC: You played on the first four Roberto Roena y su Apollo Sound albums between 1969 and 1972 on Fania International and International Records. Did you arrange all the tracks on these albums, and if not, which notable songs did you arrange?

EL: The great majority. For example, on the first album I did seven out of ten.

RR: Which ones did you not arrange?

EL: "Consolación," which Ray Santos did and two that Bobby Valentín did, "El Sordo" and "El Barrio Sin Guapo." I arranged "Tú Loco Loco, Y Yo Tranquilo," "El Escapulario," "Soñando Con Puerto Rico," the big hits from this album.

JIC: What are your memories of working with the early Apollo Sound and what songs did the band feature in their live shows during that period?

EL: I have great memories of Apollo Sound same as El Gran Combo. They helped with my development, especially Apollo, as an arranger, and as a creator of a new non-traditional sound. Before, the trombone was not used. The trombone was an instrument, like, for municipal bands. By the '70s it was popularised by Willie Colón, but in the '60s all the groups used trumpets and saxes.

RR: I remember looking forward to El Gran Combo's New York appearances every Easter, Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Every Easter Eve, they were at the Riverside Plaza Hotel. On Easter 1970, instead of El Gran Combo at the Riverside, it was Apollo. The place was packed. Subsequently, in the song "Te Lo Voy a Jurar" (from Roberto Roena y su Apollo Sound 2, '70 on Fania International), Piro Montilla exclaims in one of his soneos: "You can ask at the Riverside, back in March I packed them in, how I triumphed." Was there a rivalry?

EL: No, we weren't rivals. What happened, though, was that after we left El Gran Combo, Ithier added a clause in his contract that El Gran Combo would not share a bill with Apollo. But that was just a question of business. And as long as I was with the group we never played alongside El Gran Combo.

JIC: Band members included Ray Coen and trumpeter Mario Cora. Tell us about these guys?

EL: Ray Coen was a pianist who played the hotel circuit here. He also played piano for Tito Puente in the '50s.

RR: And for Arsenio.

EL: Exactly! He was a very modern pianist. Mario Cora was a veteran, very musical. He also sang. He did great coro, a very valuable asset to the band. He took over as musical director after I left.

JIC: Although you continued to write charts for Apollo Sound albums, you left the band after 1972's Roberto Roena y su Apollo Sound 4 (International). Why did you decide to leave an apparently happening band like Apollo Sound and join the hotel orchestra of Quique Talavera featuring Ray Coen?

EL: A few of us left Apollo. Talavera was the drummer for Apollo. Also leaving the band at that time was Vitito Rivera, the bassist, and Ray Coen and myself. We had a steady six-month gig at the Hotel Conquistador in Fajardo.

JIC: In 1976 you played on the Puerto Rico All Stars' self titled first album on PRAS and their second album Los Profesionales (Fama, 1977), on which you arranged the track "No Volvere" sung by Luigui Texidor. Tell us about your experience of working with the Puerto Rico All Stars.

EL: I was musical director for that. Incredible! All the major stars, like the Fania All Stars of Puerto Rico. Believe me, it was an incredible sensation playing with so many excellent musicians. Directing all these people was beautiful. And not to mention the singers: Andy Montañez, Luigi Texidor and Marvin Santiago. On the second album we had Lalo Rodríguez, Paquito Guzmán, Yayo El Indio.

Ralph Mercado and Ray Avilés took us to Madison Square Garden and put us on the same bill with the Fania All Stars. The place was filled, filled, filled. Pacheco and Masucci came to see us. The idea was for us to open and after the Fania All Stars performed we would do a mano-a-mano with them. But after Masucci and Pacheco heard us, they called it off.

The thing is that in the beginning the Fania All Stars would just do coros and montunos where the singers would improvise. But there were no arrangements. The Puerto Rico All Stars had arrangements, including the one I did for the theme "Introduction Puerto Rico All Stars" (from Puerto Rico All Stars '76 on PRAS), which became the arrangement of the year.

JIC: Jorge Millet, whose work is largely overlooked these days, also wrote charts for the Puerto Rico All Stars. Can you tell us something about his life, career and passing?

EL: Jorge Millet was a self-taught musician who never had any formal training in any school, as was Juancito Torres. No formal training whatsoever. He just picked up the trumpet and began to blow. Institutions sought after Jorge Millet for transcriptions. He had access to many texts, and this is how he taught himself. His musical calligraphy was very beautiful. Many times he would not voice all the instruments, like first trumpet, second trumpet, in an arrangement. He would do sketches, and he would know what to do with that. But he was very talented and had incredible ideas. He would write incredibly difficult stuff. One had to be a virtuoso to play those arrangements when he "squeezed the pen." I would say to him after playing some of his charts: "Sorry, but no one is going to be able to play this." One time I could not make a concert and he could not find a replacement. He would "squeeze the pen" a lot. But they were very good ideas.

RR: Define "squeeze the pen"?

EL: Squeeze the pen. Rather than writing simple lines he would write extremely difficult passages, technically speaking. It was a challenge for us. When I, or Juancito, or Mario Ortiz wasn't there, those charts could not be played. They were for first-rate musicians.

His death was lamentable. He died too young. He still had a lot of work to do. Sadly, he died during his best moments.

JIC: It is on record that Gilberto Santa Rosa met you while making his recording debut with the Mario Ortiz band on the album Borinquen Flame (1977, Borinquen). Tell us about Borinquen Flame and your early impressions of the young Gilberto?

EL: Yes, that's where we met. He was only fourteen or fifteen years old. That was a project Mario did that was out of the norm. Instead of the usual trumpets and saxes, he used trumpets and trombones. I did two or three arrangements there, one called "Bugles Holiday" by Leroy Anderson, a bolero and, I think, a plena or something.

JIC: Gilberto went on to make his first trip to New York to record We Love N.Y. (1978, Solo) with José Canales' Orquesta La Grande, for whom you were the musical director, trumpeter and arranger. Jorge Millet also wrote a couple of charts for We Love N.Y. Tell us more?

EL: That's when Gilberto's father and I became close. He would accompany Gilberto to all activities. All activities: rehearsals, dances, all the gigs. He grew to trust me. Just before the trip to New York he approached me and confided that he could not make the trip. He asked me to watch over Gilberto for him, to look out for him, protect him, share the same hotel room, etc. He said he trusted me and put Gilberto in my charge. That's a responsibility beyond the call of duty. But Gilberto had the blessing of being disciplined, obedient, super-intelligent and talented, so much so he would learn everything that was asked of him. Gilberto was slated to sing one song. The principal singer, someone called Héctor "Tito Bey" Rivera, was to do the bulk of the tunes, and Edgar Zalduondo was to sing a bolero.

The first thing I did was replace the leader, a guitarist, who I felt was not prepared, and replaced him with a guitarist from Fania…can't remember his name.

RR: Charlie Rodríguez?

EL: No, not Charlie. This guy was Italian.

RR: Oh! Harry Vigiano!

EL: That's the one. Harry Vigiano. I explained to José Canales, in front of Ralphy Cartagena, the producer, that it would be in everyone's best interest to use someone who could really play those charts. So Harry did the session. I brought Gilberto with me to every session. He would sing the songs as a reference for the rest of the band to follow. The principal singer was always promenading on Broadway, watching movies, and was never present. When Ralph Cartagena hears Gilberto he decides right there and then: "You're going to do the session." The principal singer balked, reminding everyone that he was the composer, and all that. But Ralphy Cartagena was adamant. Gilberto did most of the session and the legend of Gilberto Santa Rosa was born.

RR: Gilberto Santa Rosa is one of my favourite singers of all time. His intelligence is evident in his selection of material and in his soneos, and everything you said about his character and discipline is evident in his demeanor. He really is "El Caballero de la Salsa" (The Gentleman of Salsa). That is not an act.

EL: No, it's not. The sobriquet is well put. He is super-intelligent. He'll sing anything you ask him to. One time I had a series of gigs with my band and I gave him a list of twenty-eight songs. I said to him: "Learn what you can, and at the gig we'll play the songs you know." When we got to the gig, I asked: "Which songs do you know?" He replied: "All of them." In two weeks he learned twenty-eight songs!

JIC: You wrote the chart for the title track of El Progreso (1978, International), Roberto Roena's first album with the regrouped Apollo Sound after trombonist and arranger Julio "Gunda" Merced took six members with him into his new band Salsa Fever. Can you give us some insight into this phase in the history of Roena's career?

EL: "El Progreso." That was the first time that a string section was used in salsa.

RR: I thought "Periodico de Ayer" (from Héctor Lavoe's De Ti Depende / It's Up To You '76 on Fania; composed by Tite Curet Alonso and arranged by Willie Colón).

EL: No, no. This was years before. But I wasn't in Roberto's band during the time Gunda was there so I really have no insight into that phase.

JIC: On March 3rd 1979 you performed with the Fania All Stars at an historic concert recorded at Havana's Karl Marx Theatre. Material from this event was issued on Habana Jam (1979, Fania) and one track was included on the various artists double album Havana Jam (1979) on Columbia. Please share your memories of this important trip to Cuba?

EL: That was a good experience, and I'll tell you why. Jerry Masucci approached me here in Puerto Rico. He said I had a large fan base in Cuba and musicians there were familiar with my trajectory. We rehearsed in New York where we were approached by an official of Columbia Records who informed us that as part of the CBS Jazz All Stars they had recruited Maynard Ferguson, who recently passed away, may he rest in peace, and Freddie Hubbard. There were clauses imposed, restrictions and guidelines on dressing, drug use, etc. Because of these clauses Maynard Ferguson and Freddie Hubbard chose not to go. I was then invited to play first trumpet for the CBS Jazz All Stars at the recommendation of Sal Cuevas. It was an incredible experience playing with that plethora of American musicians, the true stars: Dexter Gordon, Willie Bobo, John McLaughlin, Jaco Pastorius, Billy Joel, Kris Kristoferson and his wife Rita Coolidge.

JIC: Luigi Texidor was a member of the Fania All Stars for the 1979 Cuba visit, and the same year you arranged material for his solo debut album El Negrito del Sabor on Nuestra Records. Do you have any remarks about this recording?

EL: With the Fania All Stars, we did a version of "Naci Moreno," not the Bobby Valentín version, but the Ponceña version, arranged by Papo Lucca. For El Negrito del Sabor I arranged "Reina Negra," "Adios Don Gabino" by Felix Castrillon, a few tunes.

JIC: In 1979 you and Gilberto Santa Rosa participated in the album Borinquen All Stars (1979, Borinquen). Please could you share your recollections of this project and the musicians involved?

EL: That was a project for Dario González of Borinquen Records. The vocalists were Gilberto Santa Rosa and Kenny Cruz. Kenny Cruz, after singing with my group, sang with La Mulenze. That was a really cool album of Cuban music. It was called Comparsas y Congas Carnavalesca. There all the arrangements are mine.

JIC: You worked with Papo Lucca and Sonora Ponceña on two albums, co-directing La Ceiba with Celia Cruz (1979, Vaya) and co-arranging New Heights (1980, Inca). Tell us about these projects?

EL: Yes, yes, yes. That was a very interesting project. Actually, the arrangements I did were not used. I did three arrangements of Tite Curet Alonso tunes. But later, in the selection of material, Masucci used others done by Papo. Regardless, I directed the horn section, and the basic tracks of everyone there. In New Heights, I don't remember what I did. The Dizzy Gillespie tune, "Night In Tunisia," that's mine. I did that arrangement.

JIC: According to Leni Prieto you have the best society band in Puerto Rico, possibly in the Caribbean, with over 1,000 charts. Tell us… (He interrupts)

EL: Not over 1,000. Three thousand, seven hundred and ten!

RR: Three thousand, seven hundred and ten?!!! Coño!!!

EL: Whatever song you want, I have.

JIC: Tell us about the formation and debut of your orchestra in 1979?

EL: The orchestra was born November 1, 1979 on El Show de las 12 on Channel 2, where I made my debut. I never had any luck getting my records played on the radio, for whatever reason, but the orchestra worked a lot because it had a lot of quality. Then, enter an ex-vocalist of Willie Rosario named Junior Toledo, the best orchestra singer ever. He had great experience because before singing with Willie Rosario he did five years in the hotel circuit with César Concepción. He knew pasodobles, boleros, how to do second voice, plenas, the style of plena that César did, which was different from Cortijo's. Not the usual…Tun-Tun Pin Tun-Tun Pin Tun, but instead…Tun-Tun Tun-Ka Ta Ka Tun Tun.

RR: Like Cortijo's "Calypso, Bomba y Plena" (included in Invites You To Dance / Los Invita A Bailar '58 on Seeco)?

EL: Exactly! He was familiar with all those plenas, that style, and in private activities he was a titan. I would play an opening tune and then take requests, as with a menu. When we finished the gig, because I complied with all requests, ten gigs would appear.

From every gig I would receive many more, thanks to our ability to please any taste. If we did a wedding I would ask for requests in advance. I would ask if they preferred a danza or a waltz, because many people here do not want to hear a waltz. I have 37 danzas. I play to please everyone! That's my business.

JIC: Who are some of the musicians who have worked with you over the years?

EL: Luis "Perico" Ortiz works with me and he is a glory. I also have a conguero who does most of the sessions here, William Thompson. He is marvelous, and he reads music. My son, Elías, plays timbales, congas, bongos, and does coro. Jorge Díaz, trombonist, who also does most of the sessions here plays with me. Just about every musician of note on the island has played with my band.

JIC: You have made a number of albums with your orchestra, including El Más Delicioso Manjar (1979; singers: Kenny Cruz and Elvira Franco), Homenaje A Los Soneros (1981; singers: Junior Toledo, Pole Ortiz and Lefty Pérez), Elías Lopés & Co. (1982; singer: Lefty Pérez), Bailable & Variado (1983; singers: Junior Toledo and Rafael "Pole" Ortiz) and three volumes of Trompeta con Trovadores (1986-89). Please could you highlight some of these productions for comment?

EL: Of Trompeta con Trovadores I have a few more, six or seven altogether. The greatest satisfaction for me is the Trompeta con Trovadores project, which completed twenty years in March of 2006.

JIC: On Homenaje A Los Soneros you recorded two wonderful versions of hits by Cuba's Son 14, "Son Para Un Sonero" and "Si Yo Siempre He Sido Son," from their 1981 album Son Como Son on Egrem. Please could you give us the background into your decision to cover this material?

EL: I have a Panamanian friend named Rubén García, a collector, who had access to all that Cuban music and he would always send me a cassette from a Panama label called Cubaneria. So I begin listening to all these Son 14 tunes by Adalberto Alvarez. The thing is, I had the opportunity to record these tunes, and since I did a lot of television, the tunes would hit, but not because the radio played them, because they never did. "Son Para Un Sonero" is a Mario Ortiz arrangement. The other, "Si Yo Siempre He Sido Son," that is my arrangement, where I take a pretty interesting solo on the bridge. Later on, I had an encounter with a band from Cuba here in Puerto Rico, I can't remember the name, and someone tells me: "Such and such producer wants to meet you, because you did two of his band's numbers." Maybe it was Adalberto Alvarez?

JIC: Tell us more about your Trompeta con Trovadores concept and the shows you have performed with this theme?

EL: That was a concept that occurred to me on a program I used to do that was called La Feria del Canal 7 (The Channel 7 Fair) hosted by Edgardo Huerta and Maria Falcón. The thing is, we would go through all the towns on the island, with my band as the base. We would play orchestral numbers, accompany different artists, and within the concept of the programme there was a section of traditional music, "música campesina" (country or mountain music)," música jibara". There the immortal cuatro player, Maso Rivera, did the accompaniment. He had three other musicians, a güiro, a bongo and a guitarist. I began to notice that as the program progressed there wasn't too much attention being paid to this, because it was the same timbre, that of the cuatro, which was the lead voice, and after accompanying an artist it would go back to that same timbre. I said, "Wait a minute. If we interject the different colors of the orchestra: the trumpet, the flugelhorn, trombone, sax and flute, then it will give it a richness that will be more interesting to the public." One of my vocalists, Rafael "Pole" Ortiz, from Naranjito, was a great troubadour and was friends with all the troubadours in the area. His brother was a troubadour. Well, at a Christmas party at his home he had invited all these troubadour friends of his. It was phenomenal. I thought: this is great. What's needed here is to unite the best of these, a guy from Caguas named Luis Miranda, known as El Pico de Oro (pico meaning one with the gift of the gab, hence, the golden gabber?), and the ones from Naranjito, Félix Morales and Mariano Cotto. That was the trio of singers that was used in Trompetas con Trovadores. When that was broadcast on a program called Sabado En Grande on WAPA television it caused such an impact, that at our following gig, which was the debut of the live presentation of Trompetas con Trovadores at the Xanadu Club in Naranjito, the place was packed. So packed, that over 1,000 people were left outside and could not get in. We ended up having to coordinate these activities ourselves. It was such that at the Fiesta Patronales, the plazas would be filled. That was 1986. The first record was done in March of 1986. By 1989 and 1990 during one of those Christmas seasons, my band performed at eighty-two gigs, four and five gigs a day. We lived in our cars. In March of this year we completed twenty years.

JIC: What is the story behind the El Gran Combo reunion band El Combo Del Ayer that you directed and with whom you made the albums El Combo Del Ayer (1982, Top Ten Hits) and Aquel Gran Encuentro (1983, Combo Ayer) featuring Roberto Roena, Pellín Rodríguez, Martín Quiñones, Milton Correa, Héctor Santos and Victor Pérez?

EL: That was the brainchild of Johnny El Bravo. He called Roberto Roena, Andy and myself and invited us to lunch. He explained that in one week the distributors at the Parada 15 (Santurce) had sold over 14,000 copies of the hits of El Gran Combo (Historia Musical de El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico: 20 Años - 20 Exitos '82 on Combo). Since Andy and Pellín were the original vocalists in all that material, he presented the idea, but without Pellín. I insisted. I said: "We need Pellín as he was a fundamental part of this." When this began taking shape I began selecting the material and doing the transcriptions from the records so it would sound exactly the same. And it was so successful that we spent two years travelling and working a lot. Many times we played at gigs alongside my band, or Roberto's band, or Andy's band. But it was a hit and brought us a lot of work. And that's how it was for two years until 1984, when, while returning from a trip to Venezuela, Pellín Rodríguez suffered a heart attack. When he died we all decided there was no reason to continue.

JIC: El Combo Del Ayer made another album with Pellín on lead vocals that was reissued on Disco Hit featuring the songs "Verdadero Aniversario," "Combo Del Ayer" and "Siempre Estuvimos Aquí." Can you shed some light on this recording?

EL: Many of those tunes were Kito Vélez's. And "Verdadero Aniversario" is by Tite Curet Alonso if I'm not mistaken. Tite began providing material.

JIC: Luigi Texidor joined El Combo Del Ayer on Aquel Gran Encuentro and Gilberto Santa Rosa sang in the coro. It seemed odd that Luigi would join a El Gran Combo reunion band. Would you like to comment?

EL: Andy Montanez began to travel a lot with his band and was unavailable so Johnny El Bravo recruited Luigi.

JIC: Some members of El Combo Del Ayer continued as El Combo De Siempre with Héctor Santos as musical director and recorded the album El Combo De Siempre (1985, PDC). Can you tell us anything about this band and how they fared?

EL: Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. As if they never existed.

JIC: Tell us about the Grupo ABC albums La Historia Se Repite Con Jesús Cepeda y su Grupo ABC (Up Records, 1988), which you directed and played first trumpet, and Amor de Mascarada (1989, RMM), on which you played trumpet and were credited as a coordinator?

EL: That was Jesús Cepeda's idea. He had me transcribe Cortijo y su Combo's biggest hits. That's it. And it went well. It was well liked.

JIC: You have worked prolifically in the Puerto Rican recording industry, arranging for Sammy González, Andy Montañez, Conjunto Chaney, Willie González, Mickey Cora and others, and sessioning on albums by Mickey Cora, Bobby Valentín, Pedro Conga, Willie Rosario, La Salsa Mayor, Roberto Angleró, La Terrifica, Conjunto Chaney, Tito Nieves, Tito Allen, Primi Cruz, Luisito Carrion, Tito Rojas, Maelo Ruiz, Puerto Rican Power, Tito Gómez, Valentín Valdés, Pedro Jesús, Los Hijos De Los Celebres, Choco Orta, Nino Segarra and Isidro Infante, among others. Phew!! From the early '90s, much of this session work was for Tony Moreno's Musical Productions label. We would be interested in hearing about your experience of the developments and changes in the Puerto Rican recording industry over the last five decades?

EL: What's not evident here is that between 1964 and 1990 I did all the merengue sessions that were recorded here in Puerto Rico. I did all the albums recorded by Conjunto Quisqueya, all the albums recorded by Josie Estebans' Patrulla 15, Toño Rosario, etc. I played trumpet on all those albums. I began playing in 1958. In 1963, five years after, I began recording. To date, I have participated in 1,766 productions. Everyday since 1973 I would be in some studio at 10:00am. When Tony Moreno's people arrived, Musical Productions, they had 18 artists. There was Tito Rojas, Willie Rosario, La Mulenze, Puerto Rican Power, etc. I participated in all those recordings. It was all very fruitful, very fruitful until about five years ago. It has all declined because of pirating and the like. And now with reggaetón we are, as they say, "comiendonos un cable" (suffering economically).

RR: It pains me to say this, but New York is dead.

EL: Puerto Rico too! The last remaining nightclub, the San Juan Chateau, is no longer there. It's now a laundry.

RR: Makes you want to cry.

EL: It does make you want to cry. My God, where will we end up?

JIC: How did you react to the soft, solo singer dominated salsa romántica trend that emerged in the mid-'80s compared to what had gone before?

EL: I felt we were being displaced by music without swing, without rhythmic energy, much of it by pretty faces, and lacking that vital force necessary to make people dance. It was also an era that hit hard. It was well liked by the general public, but most musicians and the dancing public did not like it.

JIC: You have arranged for bands with varying instrumentations. Do you have any preferences?

EL: Yes. I prefer instrumentations that include all three: trumpets, trombones and saxophones.

JIC: In 1992 you guested on Gilberto Santa Rosa's A Dos Tiempos De Un Tiempo (Sony), a tribute to his idol Tito Rodríguez to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the death of the great sonero / bandleader. Six years later you guested on his Salsa Sinfónica: En Vivo Teatro Teresa Carreño Caracas (Sony, 1998). What are your memories of these projects?

EL: The first one was an incredible thing because I was reliving all those hits I listened to when playing at the Palladium with El Gran Combo and we alternated with Tito Rodríguez. Then when we did the recording we had Victor Paz playing with us as lead trumpet. For me, it was a re-encounter of friends with the legend that is Victor Paz. It was truly fun doing that album.

JIC: In 1994 you reunited with Apollo Sound for their first outing for Musical Productions, El Pueblo Pide Que Toque, followed by the wonderful double CD live set En Vivo Desde Bellas Artes (1995; issued on DVD in 2003), Mi Música 1997 (1997) and Los Hijos De Los Celebres (1998). What would you like to share about these productions?

EL: Very good. It really caused a sensation, the album El Pueblo Pide Que Toque as well as the one from Bellas Artes. It was "un palo"! (a hit, knockout). It really was. Los Hijos De Los Celebres didn't have much of an impact, but it was a job well done of hits of Ismael Rivera, Andy Montañez and Pellín Rodríguez.

JIC: In 1997 you performed in Cuba at the Varadero Amphitheatre and Tropicana in Havana with Cheo Felicano's orchestra, which resulted in the album Cheo Feliciano En Cuba (CDT Records, 1998; reissued as Cheo Feliciano Live At The Tropicana, Cuba on Sony Discos / AJ Records). What are your reminiscences of this venture?

EL: That was a musical banquet. Notice, I had already been to Cuba with Havana Jam in 1979. Eighteen years later this was the fulfillment of a dream for Cheo. The public response was incredible. The Varadero was filled, filled, filled. It was sensational!

RR: Cheo is very much loved in Cuba.

EL: Yes! Yes! They wouldn't leave us alone, people calling us, petitioning and asking for autographs like we were major stars.

JIC: Over the last 14 Years you have performed on a number of all-star live recordings, including MP All Stars (Musical Productions, 1992), Ray Barretto's Live 50th Anniversary In Puerto Rico (AJ Records / Sony, 2001), Ismael Miranda's Live From San Juan Puerto Rico (Universal, 2001) and the Puerto Rican Masters' Los Maestros De La Salsa Presents La Historia De La Salsa, En Vivo San Juan Puerto Rico (AJ Records / Envidia, 2003) and Tributo Al Sonero Del Pueblo: Marvin Santiago (AJ Records / Universal, 2005). Please could you highlight some of these recordings for comment, which represent a return to the harder, swinging style of salsa?

EL: Really, all of those recordings were No. 1 whether they sold or not. But the truth is they were well done. The MP All Stars one was very good, although not much happened there. But the Ray Barretto one was filled. The Ismael Miranda one also. They were all good. In the Tributo Al Sonero, all those arrangements are mine, transcriptions of major salsa dura hits. There we had Oscar D'Leon, Andy Montañez, Luisito Carrion…

JIC: Tell us about the exiting Viva La Salsa - A Tribute To Latin Music, Live From The Tito Puente Amphitheatre In San Juan, PR: 2-CDs & Bonus DVD (Universal, 2004), a mega salsa concert held at Puerto Rico's Tito Puente Amphitheatre in December 2003 which you directed, featuring an all-star cast including the singers Adalberto Santiago, Tito Allen, Luigi Texidor, Papo Sánchez and Sammy González, Wichy Camacho, Primi Cruz and Darvel Garcia?

EL: That was a job well done also, doing the hits of all those people. The attendance wasn't good because that week we had a lot of rain and on that day what we got was a violent thunder and rainstorm - "un temporal." We made the best of it and it was well received and applauded.

JIC: Would you like to tell us what projects you have been working on recently and what you have in the pipeline?

EL: We're planning a few things, non-salsa. For example, one is a project with these same singers and a few new ones, an album of boleros, which should be very interesting, and a few other salsa dura projects.

JIC: Is there anything else that you would like to add that we have not talked about?

EL: No, I think we've talked enough (laughs).

JIC: What title would you choose for this interview?

EL: Ay! (after some thought) Remembranzas y Anecdotas (Remembrances and Anecdotes.)


EL: More or less, right?!

Ramón "Ray" Rosado, arranger, composer, percussionist, coro singer and pianist, is a longtime collaborator of Wayne Gorbea and leads his own band, Maña, co-founded in 2001 with timbalero Victor Maldonado. Six years later, after failing to secure a recording deal and going through no less than four vocalists and one or two personnel changes, Maña is about to launch its debut CD titled POR FIN... Maña scheduled for release February, 2007. Maña is:

Ramón "Ray" Rosado Leader, Piano, Composer / Arranger
Victor M. Maldonado Co-leader / Timbales
Carmelo Berrios Bongo
Marcos González Bass
Willie Andino Congas
Christian Kollar Trombone
Fernando Fernández Lead Vocal

Invited Artists on the CD:

Tomer Levy Trumpet
Carl Corwin Tenor Sax
Pete Nater Trumpet (3 tracks)
Carlos Orduz Tenor Sax (2 tracks)
Carmelo Rivera Tenor Sax (1 track)
Maribell Vocal (duo) (3 tracks)
Luis A. Cruz Güiro, Maracas

Fernando Fernández, Ada Chabrier, Nodál Hernádez & Alex Casanova

Jorge Maldonado, Ada Chabrier, Fernando Fernández, Cathy López, Frank Otero, Victor Maldonado & Ramón Rosado

Ramón Rosado (8 tracks) Louie Cruz (2 tracks) Héctor Rivera (1 track)

More on Maña to coincide with the release of the CD.

Many thanks to Leni Prieto for introducing us to Elías Lopés

Check out this related piece in The Descarga Journal Archives:

Leni Prieto: The Man Who Gets The Weird Songs

A conversation with John Child October 05, 2005
Leni Prieto, a.k.a. José A. Prieto, is maybe not the most immediately recognisable name in salsa, but this accomplished pianist, arranger and composer has been an integral part of the Puerto Rican salsa industry for over three decades, recording with star names like Roberto Angleró, Marvin Santiago, Roberto Roena, Rafael Cortijo, Frankie Ruiz, Andy Montañez, El Gran Combo, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Ismael Miranda, Cheo Feliciano, and many more. At the time of this conversation with John Child, Leni's composition "Asi Gordito Me Quieren" sung by Tito Nieves and Pedro Brull for Pedro's solo debut Pronósticos on Caminaldo Discos was enjoying considerable airplay. His eloquent and comprehensive account gives an invaluable insight into an important period in the history of Puerto Rican salsa...
Continues here

© and John Child. John Child produces and selects the contents of the totallyradio show Aracataca. He is an editor and journalist for the 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.

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