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Obituary of Steve Berrios, Sr. (1925-1996), percussionist

Profile: Stephen Berrios Gelly

by David Carp

Stephen Berrios Gelly

born Guayama, Puerto Rico 4/12/25
died New York, New York 11/18/96

At that time in the Barrio there would be a lot of weddings and the weddings were in the homes. There was no such thing as catering a wedding, this was the Depression and they didn’t have the money to go to a catering house. My parents would take me and they would usually have a little group in the corner of the room, and I just automatically pranced over to the musicians. I’d just watch and stare and these guys thought, “Oh, this kid, what’s wrong with him?” Everybody’s dancing and whatever and here I’m watching the drummer and how he does it. And I think I learned more from that than from my teachers because they taught me the rudiments of drumming, but I already had a basic knowledge of what rhythm was supposed to be like and I knew what it was supposed to sound like.

What’s dearest to most musicians is what moves them most deeply in their early adolescence. The turbulence of the years of puberty is often matched, and sometimes surpassed, by the tumult and richness of environment. All of this was true for Steve Berrios. His family left the shaky economic climate of Guayama in the late 1920s to encounter comparable poverty in the East Harlem of the 1930s. Nevertheless, there were cultural resources available to all as a result of the tight-knit, music-loving and continuously expanding Puerto Rican community. Near the Berrios apartment on 109th Street was the Park Plaza. The Apollo Theatre was a twenty minute walk away. Spanish language variety theaters were beginning to flourish. Singers from all over Latin American were booked at the San José and Hispano Theatres. New York Puerto Rican music of the 1930s was Janus-like. A golden age of Puerto Rican song was flourishing here thanks to the presence of Rafael Hernández, Pedro Flores, Tití Amadeo and other great composers. At the same time, the seeds of 1940s Afro-Cuban jazz and 1950s mambo were being sown.

It’s no surprise that Steve Berrios was musically bilingual. For him, there was no contradiction between the boleros his uncle’s friends played at home and the four-to-the-bar swing Count Basie played at the Apollo. Working as the batboy for the Club Mutualistas Obreros Puertorriqueños gave him opportunities to hear Alberto Iznaga, the Happy Boys and Machito’s first band for free. This was a heroic period for New York Latin music. Styles were being defined and dancers, musicians and community were perfectly in synch. Making the transition from fan to professional drummer was a natural process for Steve Berrios. His formal teachers were Cozy Cole and Willie Kessler; his real teachers were his peers, his elders and his own ears. Steve was inspired as much by the powerhouse big band drumming of Dave Tough, Cliff Leeman and Shadow Wilson as by the baqueteo mastery and sabor of Generoso Montesino. His own manner of keeping time and executing breaks was one of the earliest meldings of these two styles. This is acknowledged by Manny Oquendo, Johnny “La Vaca” Rodriguez, Moncho Leña and other veteran drummers. Arranger and trumpeter Joe Cain played in the Ralph Font Orchestra at the Raleigh Hotel during the early 1950s. He remembers, “Steve had a heavy foot and I mean that in a great, complimentary way. He could have driven an American big band like you wanted to hear. Ralph used to play Latin things but he used to have one foot in the Spanish society thing. It was light, two trumpets...and rhythm, how much can you get? But with Steve there, boy, it felt great!” Collectors lucky enough to own Verne 78s of the Marcelino Guerra Orchestra can hear Steve’s integration of cymbal “bomb crashes,” bass drum accents and timbale fills in a more typical setting.

Steve’s professional career began in 1941 with José “Pepe” LaSalle. He was selected by Mario Bauza to play drums for Luis Varona and his Second Afro-Cubans. In addition to playing on Marcelino Guerra’s first big band sides, he recorded with Noro Morales, Miguelito Valdés, Facundo Rivero, Al Castellanos and Aldemaro Romero. Steve also worked with Esy Morales, Catalino Rolón, Bobby Woodlen (aka Bobby Madera), Jack López, Rene Touzet and Fausto Curbelo at nightspots such as Club Ebony and Ben Miller’s Riviera and in the teatros of the 1950s. He was also a veteran of society and hotel bands and toured both with Latin revues and the Emmett Kelly Circus.

Like many of his generation, he was faced with a steadily dwindling supply of work, a reflection of changes in the industry and audience. By the late 1980s Steve Berrios had retired from professional music. His long term involvement in the midtown commercial scene kept many younger musicians from realizing how hip he really was. Steve was unusually honest and outspoken (qualities that could show as hot headedness in his youth). His warmth, openness and vitality were treasured by all who knew him. His keen memory and depth of experience made him a superb informant from the oral history standpoint. Steve Berrios’s death from cancer at the age of 71 deprived us of a major source of Latin New York history and one hell of a nice man.

He’s survived by his wife Nicole and by his son, Stephen Ramón Berrios, also a highly respected drummer.

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