Veteran salsa bandleader and composer Larry Harlow is profiled, in detail, in this candid interview. He's one guy who can truly say "been there, done that" and here talks frankly about his colorful past and offers his views of the current salsa scene. This is one Fania All Star who holds no punches.
Profile: Larry Harlow: Salsero Maravilloso by David Carp
One of Larry Harlow's favorite stories for journalistic consumption is how his piano solo in La cartera was ignited with a bandmember yelling out "Ya viene Larry Harlow, el judio maravilloso!" The name stuck; its allusion to the blindness of one of his idols, Arsenio Rodriguez (known as "el ciego maravilloso" - the marvelous blindman), provides a kind of shock value through its conjoining of "judio" and "maravilloso" in the context of classic New York salsa. Or does it really - there's ample evidence of connections on various levels between Latino and Jewish cultures and Larry Harlow is Exhibit A. The supposed novelty of a Jewish man leading a Latin band obscures many facets of Larry Harlow's talent and professional activity from the mid 1950's to the present. Harlow discussed these topics at length with writer David M. Carp in December 1997; the occasion was the imminent release of Larry Harlow's Latin Legends Band 1998, his first new album in a number of years. He presented his observations and anecdotes with the candor, humor, and total lack of false modesty familiar to all that know him.
David Carp: Can you give us a little family history?
Larry Harlow: My father's name was Nathan Kahn and he was born here in Brownsville, Brooklyn of Austrian-Jewish descent. My mother's name was Rose Sherman, also of Russian-Jewish descent and also from Brownsville. But then I found out my real name wasn't Kahn in the old country either, it was Koescher - not kosher but Koescher, with the two dots. And when they came here I guess they became
Kahn - you know, it was probably Kahan or Cohen and then it went from C-O-H-N to K-A-H-N. Lewie Kahn is also from Austria, another Galitzianer, so I figured maybe way back we might have been related. My great-great-grandfather had 14 or 15 brothers and sisters, so who knows. And my real name is Lawrence Ira Kahn.
DC: How does the name Harlow fit into this?
LH: My father's professional name was Buddy Harlowe and the way he got that name - he was originally a saxophone player and he was on tour with a band when he was about 20 years old. He got in a car crash and this Dr. Harlowe saved his life, collapsed a lung on him and took out a couple of ribs. I guess when he played saxophone he was more jazzy but then he became a singing bass player, 'cause when his lung got collapsed he couldn't play saxophone any more. Anyway, my father took the doctor's name and it had an E on the end, H-A-R-L-O-W-E. So I just knocked off the E (laughs) and used the name Harlow. My father was a bandleader first at the Tavern on the Green, then at Bill Miller's Riviera in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Then he went to the Latin Quarter, he was there almost 20 years. He worked for Lew Walters, Barbara Walters's father.
DC: Were there any other people of his generation who were in show business?
LH: He had two brothers that were both in show business and they played in his band. One became a comedian and they all worked up in the Borscht Belt, in the Catskills and that was the connection. My father's father was the theater critic for the Daily Forward, the Forverts, which was the Jewish newspaper in New York. He was also a prompter, in other words when you had those plays with Menasha Skulnik and all these people there was a little shell in front of the stage and he'd be down there, when the actors forgot their lines he'd prompt the lines for them. That's what he did, and he was a piano player for silent movies before that.
DC: How aware were you of your father's music?
LH: I have several recordings of my father - I transferred them to tape before they broke, they were on acetate. And I played with him when I was about 13 or 14 after I was in High School of Music and Art already and I started playing club dates and stuff like that. But that was like wedding and Bar Mitzvah music and I really didn't want to do that - although my father did sing in Spanish and he had a continental band. So if somebody came from Italy, he'd play an Italian song, somebody came from Spain, he'd play a pasodoble, you want a waltz, they'll play a waltz, whatever. And he was the one that played Deep in the Heart of Texas and worked on those tips (laughs).
DC: For a show at the Latin Quarter how much quote unquote Latin music would his orchestra actually play?
LH: Well, there were two bands. There was the show band - that was a big band, maybe 17, 18 piece band that played for the shows and played (sings Can Can of Offenbach), you know, the Folies Bergeres kind of stuff.
DC: And this is all reading?
LH: Yeah, plus they played for the lead singers and the comedians, for the jugglers. My father was the dance orchestra, so when the show was off my father came up, it was what you called the relief band and he used to come up to play. And then when the show was on he'd go hang out at the Metropole with Charlie Shavers and Red Norvo and those guys and get drunk (laughs).
DC: What is the first instrument that you start on?
LH: Oh, I started on piano when I was about five years old. I hated to practice, I couldn't stand it. My mother used to stand over me with a ruler and if I made mistakes she'd just slap me on the back of the hand. I'd be looking out the windows, you know, my friends playing baseball and I wanted to go out and play and she used to make me practice and practice. But then I got pretty good at it and I took an entrance exam for Music and Art High School. I got recommended by my principal in my public school 'cause I was the kid who played in the auditorium and all that stuff. And I got accepted into Music and Art except it was an hour and 45 minutes from my house in Brownsville. So I had to take two buses to get to the train and two trains to get up to 137th Street and Convent Avenue (laughs). BUT - getting to 137th Street and Convent Avenue kind of changed my life. Because here I was hearing all this ethnic music coming out of all the bodegas that were there, it was a very Puerto Rican, Cuban and black mix in Harlem in those days. And I wanted to be a jazz player, all the guys at Music and Art wanted to be jazz players so we used to go jam in all the rooms. But I guess in the jazz scene if you weren't black, Number One, or if you weren't a junkie - I think Stan Getz became a junkie because he wasn't black, to get accepted by the blacks at that particular moment - and since I was neither at that particular time and place I said I have to go somewhere where I can play and still improvise and still get close. So I used to hear (sings "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom Time"), Pérez Prado. I used to hear (sings "One-two-three together, one-two-three"), Al Castellanos, Tito Puente, José Curbelo, Abaniquito. There was a jazz tenor player named Hugo Dickens, he had a band that used to rehearse in his house at 141st and Convent Avenue and they needed a piano player and they were mostly black guys. Pete La Roca was in the band, Phil Newsum was in the band, that's when I first met Phil Newsum. They were playing Cuban stocks that were printed on those little yellow papers, stock arrangements of Mambo Number 5. They said "Can you read?", I said "Yeah". So we went there and I didn't really know what Latin music was, I just opened the paper and read what was on the paper (sings piano vamp), I was playing a bass part with my left hand. And they threw me out of the band immediately (DC laughs), they said "You can't play, get the fuck out of here!" I felt really depressed so I ran to the nearest bodega and I bought two piano records. The first record I bought was a record by Joe Loco and the second album I bought, it was a Noro Morales album. And I went home and I memorized note by note the solos they took on certain chord progressions, if they were playing a C seven I memorized this C seven solo. And then I went back the next week for the rehearsal and I played somebody else's solo (laughs) but they thought I was great! But I didn't really know what the hell I was doing. And then one day this guy by the name of Dominick Lauria who's an Italian trumpet player who went to Music and Art who was playing with a Latin band explained what clave was to me. Since I was studying arranging and composition and conducting I immediately knew exactly what he was talking about, he explained it in musical terms so it was very easy. And then I started playing with a couple of local bands in the summers in the Catskills. My first time up there I played with a four piece band in a place called the Imperial Hotel in Monticello. I think we made 15 dollars a week and room and board and I had to sleep with the saxophone player, same bed (laughs), right? We were kids, I was about 14. And then I discovered the Palladium, I discovered Latin women and dancing and I used to stand under Tito Puente's timbales when I was 16 years old and collect his broken drumsticks and take 'em home, play timbales in my mother's basement, you know? (laughs) So I got kinda hooked early on, getting kind of involved, you know, these little four, five piece bands.
DC: How typical was the music that you were playing with those groups?
LH: For a while what we were doing cover tunes. We would do old La Playa tunes, Tito Puente songs without lead vocals because we didn't have a singer in the band. That's because we didn't have a Latin guy in the band, we were all Italians and Jews. It's not like we didn't know about clave but the thing is we didn't have a singer, so we would play like four bars of trumpets or eight bars of trumpets and eight bars of coro with no lead vocals at all. Then Randy Carlos asked me to play with him and I went with him to the Windsor Hotel. I played the Shank's Paramount for a couple of years in the summertime, I mean I played almost every hotel. Young's Gap and Brown's I played for three summers, that was like going to school. The Jewish people knew how to cha cha - there were five or six dance instructors in each hotel, everybody took mambo lessons and cha cha lessons and tango lessons. I mean the Jews were really the affluent people that went to Havana and brought back these dances that they learned. Now the Catskills had a few hundred hotels and a lot of them had what they called quote unquote rumba bands. The rumba bands were made up of either college mamboniks or young Hispanics. It was like we were hot, 19, 18 years old and here were all these beautiful Jewish women whose husbands went back to the city during the week and all alone in the Catskills. So who was there every day but these wonderful young Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Jewish musicians (laughs), you know?
DC: Tell us about your first time in Cuba.
LH: After the first semester out of high school in 1956, my first semester at Brooklyn College, I went with a whole bunch of Jewish guys for eight days, ten days to Havana. I had never been out of the States, I went there, just fell in love with everything. I had been to the Palladium, I would see Beny Moré and I would see all the bands that were coming up from Cuba. It got pretty cold in New York and I went back again and I stayed a couple of months more. Dropped out of school, went back to school, dropped out, went back, dah dah dah dah. I would bring tape recorders following the bands around, they used to ask me to sit in, I used to say "No, I ain't ready yet" (laughs). And I was there when Fidel marched into Havana, then I just went back to Miami that night, New Year's Eve 1959.
DC: I remember you telling me that you first heard
Arsenio play at a Havana radio station. How about the first time you actually met him?
LH: The first time I really met him and shook his hand and talked with him was at a place called the Bat Cave which is in Washington Heights, Broadway in the 180's. It was a little place that had music on Friday nights and we used to play and he came in with his brother one night and sat down and I got introduced to him, and we talked and et cetera, et cetera. And then one night at the Corso about a year after that I was playing and he came in and he sat in with my band, I think we were playing one of his songs. That was just about the biggest thrill in my life, you know, to play with him on tres and his brothers. They came up and sat in and all the younger guys in the band looked around and we said "OK, either you're a man or you're a mouse" (laughs), I mean you're either gonna play now or you're not gonna play. And right away it was (sings son montuno intro) and it got very heavy and it was quite an experience. I just dug his funk and, credit where credit's due, he started the first conjunto. The first mambo, mambo diablo, the first moving away from a sextet and a septet, you know, adding piano and a conga, he made it a conjunto. His songs always had double meanings - (sings "La tintorera ya llegó"), you know, the shark is coming. He ain't talking about a shark, he's talking about the trumpet player's wife who's just walked into the dance hall, it's time for his girlfriend to split! So they all had these double meanings and until you really knew what the fuck they meant, you know, inside the band, you really couldn't catch the whole thing.
DC: Thinking of people like Lilí Martínez and Lino Frias, were these pianists who influenced your own style, listening to earlier Arsenio records?
LH: Oh, most certainly, especially Lilí. Even listening to Arsenio himself, you know, play the tres. It was Lilí, Noro Morales, Joe Loco, , those were the guys I really listened to a lot. And then later of course mixed with the jazz influence also, the Art Tatums and the Red Garlands and guys like that.
DC: When I'm listening to a piano solo, say of René Hernández from the late '40's or of Lilí when he was with Arsenio, sometimes I'll hear a chain of half-diminished chords, chromatically going up or down. Is that typical of those players or is that part of the whole Cuban piano tradition?
LH: That's a tough question. I think Peruchín was the first one that started really extending the seventh chord. And by using like diminished sevenths and half-diminished sevenths, it's really an extension of a dominant seventh chord with the root left out, which the bass player is playing. And it just opened up modally a C seven chord, you know, a one-chord song. Same thing happened with the one-four-five-four change, you know, that kind of C-F-G-F kind of guajira kind of change, whether it's uptempo or downtempo it's really a one to a five chord, basically. So they kind of stretched it all out a little bit. René took it another step forward, for sure, and then after him I think Charlie Palmieri also very much, and then Eddie of course.
DC: Let's talk about how you made the transition from sideman to leader.
LH: I was playing with Harvey Averne one time at a place in Queens called the Manor and I used to sit there with a cigarette dangling out of my mouth, you know, real cocky. It was my book, it was my arrangements but Harvey had the work. We were mostly Italian and Jewish guys, a couple of Puerto Rican guys, and playing for the Jewish and Italian crowds in Mafia bars and that kind of shit. Harvey turned around to me and said "Play Number 26!" and I go "I don't want to play that number!" So he fired me and
kept my music (both laugh), which is the best thing that ever happened. Because I had been kicking around all these new sounds in my head and the music we were playing was like cover tunes of old La Playa Sextet songs and La Plata, Joe Loco, Noro Morales, old Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente stuff. So I started writing for a new sound.
DC: When you do covers what you're really doing is advancing someone else.
LH: Or regressing them (laughs). One of the two, you could have gone backwards too! Because don't forget, Puente had his big band, we're playing with a sextet so I mean how good can it really sound, you know? Now there had been conjuntos with trumpets, Eddie Palmieri had just started La Perfecta, Richie Ray had two trumpets. Machito and Puente had big bands, you know, saxophones, but nobody had ever used two trombones and two trumpets together. So I started writing some songs, Heny Alvarez used to work with us, play congas and we wrote a few songs together. And we started working in this place called the Chez José, I called it Orquesta Harlow. I used to keep the rhythm section in back of the band and the horns in the front like the old Cuban bands used to do. And I found this Cuban singer called Felo Brito, he was originally a dancer from José Fajardo's band. This was even before we recorded and we just started playing these songs, new stuff. I wrote a song about the Chez José, one about slippers, I remember one about a good combination, I wrote one based on the Beatles' songs. The Beatles were hot in that day, you know, (sings "She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah") so I wrote something based on She Loves You. If you listen back you can hear the whole Beatle influence even on Me and My Monkey, which was also a Beatle tune.
DC: What year are we talking about?
LH: I did my first album between '64 and '65. Harvey fired me '63 maybe, my son was about two years old. But I had this sound and I used originally one trumpet and two 'bones, then I went to two trumpets and then I found Chocolate Armenteross and I had all my favorite guys in the band, you know, Larry Spencer, Mark Weinstein. No timbalero, we used bongos - you know, real conjunto style, Phil Newsum playing bongos. Once in a while he played timbales but not two players, just one player. Then occasionally when Manny Oquendo got free I took Manny Oquendo in the band. But it was a new sound, it was very different and then one day Gerry Masucci popped in, he saw me and the rest is kind of like history. It took a while to get accepted, a long time, came up against a lot of reverse Uncle Tom shit, especially until I learned the language and until I had the shit really down a little more and I knew who was cool and who wasn't cool and who I could deal with and who I couldn't deal with. But the first few years were real tough. José Curbelo was my manager and I had to sit in his office all day long - "Get me a job, please, get me a job!" and this is after I recorded a couple of albums. You know, we used to sell 10, 15 thousand records and it was just the mom and pop record stores. There were no chains, there were no HMV's or Tower Records in those days or Virgin Superstores. The only reason I started working was because Curbelo managed people like Puente, he'd say "Well, you want Tito, you gotta take Harlow" (laughs) so he would force me on Arturo Franquís and Pozo and Federico Pagani and all these guys that were running these little dances in the Colgate Gardens and the Bronx Casino.
DC: These are the promoters at that time.
LH: Yeah, yeah, Arturo Franquís had the Bronx Casino and there was the Bronx Casino, Hunts' Point Palace, Colgate Gardens, the Riverside Hotel, the New Yorker, the Taft. Those were the places that had dances plus the social clubs and the schools. There were places like the Palm Gardens, that's where S.I.R. is now and where the second Cheetah was. The Palm Gardens was the dance hall and upstairs was the Musicians' Union (laughs), my father used to take me there when I was a kid. You did boat rides up the Hudson and to Bear Mountain. Stuff like that, the Puerto Rico Theatre.
DC: Did you work at any of the teatros?
LH: Oh, yeah, in the beginning of my career. Twelve shows a day (laughs), whatever, and we used to make 15 dollars, 20 dollars a day. We used to go all the way to Philadelphia on a Wednesday night. Six guys in a old, beat-up 1968 Hudson, I remember so vividly. We used to use six quarts of oil to get to Philadelphia, play all night, come back and go back to school the next morning - this is for 15 dollars. And then the bandleader used to take out taxes out of that (DC whistles) so we used to wind up with $12.11 (laughs), something like that.
DC: When you do the Puerto Rico Theatre are you the featured band or are you the house band playing for different acts?
LH: No, no, we were a featured band at the time. This was after I had a couple of records out, this was like in the late '60's. I remember Yomo Toro playing there all the time.
DC: Right, he used to live in those places.
LH: Oh, yeah. There was the Jefferson Theatre, there was one in Brooklyn that was wild too.
DC: Teatro Rio Piedras?
LH: Rio Piedras, yeah, I remember all those places. And then there were places on like Havemeyer Street in Williamsburg and a couple of joints we used to play over there. Then we used to play all the church dances too, Saint Rocco's and Saint Fortunato's. This was a scene that lasted through the end of the '60's.
DC: On a lot of your 1970's records I hear a kind of sophistication about audio production that you certainly couldn't take for granted in those days. How did you get involved in audio?
LH: It's funny 'cause my first few albums I didn't produce myself. But I was always close with Irv Greenbaum and Irv did my first 20 some odd albums maybe all through the Fania days and he taught me a lot. And it's funny how Irv became an engineer too, he never studied, he was a ship-to-shore radio operator in World War Two. When he got out of the Navy in World War Two he went to an employment office and they said "Well, what do you do?" He says "I was a ship-to-shore radio operator" and they said "Oh, knobs and things?" and they got him a job working at a recording studio and that's how Irv started to work in a recording studio. Anyway, I was an innovator, one of the first to record on film for audio production. We recorded on 16 track magnetic film, four 4 track dubbers because there were no dolbies or noise reduction in the early '70's. So if you listen to Hommy it's a very clean recording because the way we recorded got rid of a lot of tape hiss. We recorded onto 16 track and we had a mastering room on the floor below us, from RCA. So we mastered on the dubbers because it was a filming studio and then we sent the tie line downstairs and we shot the sound right down to the RCA mastering downstairs.
DC: At that point were you working with Bernie Fox?
LH: Yes. Bernie Fox and Alan Manger were the engineers at RKO, which later became Good Vibrations, which Gerry and me and Leon Gast and Alan and Bernie and Elliot bought from RKO. This was at 1440 Broadway, WOR was still broadcasting from there but we bought the recording facility and they stayed on with us. The studio became later La Tierra but it basically was the same studio. We started with 16 track and then from there we went up to 24. Irving was still there but Bernie and Alan also worked there and then later Jon Fausty.
DC: Talk a little about your evolution from being a bandleader and arranger to producing records.
LH: Well, I mean I was always a musician, I was always a writer, a conductor and an arranger and a songwriter. When it said "Produced by Gerry Masucci" all Gerry Masucci did was pay for it. He never said that's a B flat seven or a C sharp - no, he was never there at the recording session (laughs). So I was really producing it but I wasn't called the producer, we were called recording directors. And then I went to the Institute of Audio Research in 1973 for a year and I knew most of the stuff they were teaching so they bumped me up to the advanced classes. I was kind of bored with logarithms and all of that shit about ratios and sound waves and things like that, which didn't bother me because I had great ears. I just wanted to know the new machinery, what could we do, this is how we bypass this, this is how we bypass that and how each board works. And it was just about then getting into the big stuff, you know, into two inch recording and stuff like that. So I went real fast and then I started doing my own mixing and once I had a good head about how to limit things and noise reduction and stuff like that it was easy for me 'cause I had the ears to do it. I did the first quadraphonic recording, I did the first digital recording in Latin music.
DC: Which one was that?
LH: It was Señor Salsa, the first quad was Larry Harlow in Quad. We didn't know what the fuck quad was at all, nobody ever knew what it was anyway. We just put four speakers in this huge room and we put a chain in the middle of the ceiling with one of those basket seats that you sit in. And we would spin around and listen to all four speakers (laughs), that's how we knew all four speakers were working and we would mix it that way. That's how we mixed it, it was a makeshift quad but it was the real thing, it wasn't that three quarter quad, it was a full 360. But nobody had quad machines, quad never went anywhere (laughs).
DC: One thing that I've noticed on your albums is that almost more than any other leader there's always a large number of arrangers listed.
LH: Yeah, I like to get a different spectrum of things too. For instance, I listened to India's last album last week, her latest album, and every song sounds exactly alike, every one. Same theme, same tempos, same intro, same synthesizer on top, same love song. Same arrangement, same horn solo and to me that's boring. I like the way she sings except I wouldn't go out and buy that album, it's all exactly the same. So I like to get different viewpoints. I also feel that Marty Sheller can do a ballad better than I can, why should I do it when there's somebody that does it better than me? And that's the way I did it, my whole life is that way. The best thing I do is put people together and make things happen, I'm a mover and a groover and a shaker and baker and I get 'em done.
DC: What was going on in the period when you weren't actively performing?
LH: I was running a recording studio for seven years. Bernie Fox and I, we were partners in Big Apple. And then came the downfall of recording studios, I mean everybody has a studio in their house now. Everything is small, compact, digital -
DC: And everybody thinks 'cause they have a MIDI that they know sound.
LH: That's right.
DC: Which is bullshit.
LH: Everyone thinks that a MIDI trumpet's gonna sound like a real trumpet and it doesn't. But the advertising agencies and the people who all put in-house studios in - that's when our studio went down, about 1986, '87.
DC: Was there a period when you were involved in writing and producing jingles?
LH: I did that for a long time, like from the mid '70's starting with Schaefer Beer. I got tied up with Miller High Life, with Backer and Spielberg, the guys who wrote the original Miller jingle. I was producing for Miller Light, Lowenbrau, Magnum, Seven Up, Campbell's Soups - it was all owned by R.J. Reynolds and it was all the same company and Backer and Spielberg were the jingle house. So I did all the Latin American stuff and not only did they do a salsa one, they would do a Tex-Mex one for the Southwest and a charanga one for the Miami area. And then all of a sudden we were endorsing products, we were endorsing La Fundador Brandy and - (announcer voice) "This is Ismael Miranda for buh-buh buh-buh beer!" - and blue jeans and this and that. I was cleaning up for a while (laughs). I mean it's only 60 seconds but it was a challenge, I mean how creative can you be in that 60 seconds? So they were flying me to Houston to do Roberto Pulido's band or I'd go to Miami to do Hansel and Raúl over there besides producing, arranging and writing. And then we had Cheo and Miranda and Roberto and - oh, Jesus, I don't remember how many Mexican guys we had to do on that Tex-Mex stuff. Vicente Fernández and this one and that one endorsing the product, they would make some big money too. And it lasted till it lasted, till I guess about late '80's. Then all of a sudden the jingles were being done in the jingle houses, in-house people. It wasn't going out to the studios any more and it wasn't going out to the production houses. And the guys like Vinnie Bell who used to do 25 record dates a week were doin' one or two and Lew Soloff and guys like that. So it really hurt the studios, it really hurt the musicians too.
DC: So when you're talking about the first call guys like that hurting then, how about -
LH: Oh, yeah, how about all the other ones, just doing Latin stuff? I mean these were guys that were first trumpet for Frank Sinatra, you know? It hurt. But like we said, if you're a good musician you'll always have your talent. You'll never starve, you'll always have your talent to rely on unless you're really a total schmuck (laughs), your personality gets in the way of your talent. But you know, I didn't record for a long time 'cause I didn't like the deals that were out there. You know, when Gerry kind of abandoned Fania and Ralphie Mercado started with his line of these young kids why didn't he sign Larry Harlow, Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco, Eddie Palmieri, we were all loose and free in the '80's when Fania went down? Because Ralphie said "Well, I gotta pay these guys!" So he started with José Alberto and Tito Nieves and India and he paid them 500 dollars, 400 dollars. And we didn't have any new product so there would be nothing of ours played on the air except for Polito Vega's Sunday salsa show, you know? And this new romantic salsa which was aided by AIDS really - because all the songs, if you listen to it all the songs are very monogamous, one on one, stay with me, come back to me, be my lover rather than this promiscuous shit that we used to say, "Let's PARTY!" Fuck, suck and mambo, you know? (DC laughs), that was our thing! Like sex, drugs and rock and roll, it was fuck, suck and mambo and we partied pretty good in the '70's. You know, it was like free love time, Woodstock, the whole number. That's when Ralphie's whole thing started, when he saw an opportunity there he just cashed in on it. So now the only thing that's being played on the radio was this romantic stuff - young people in front of the band who weren't poets and didn't know how to inspire or anything and the record companies put these handsome kids in front of the band but all of a sudden at the same time there were real numbers. So Sony and BMG and WEA were buying up all these small record companies and all of a sudden there were no small record companies any more, there were just the giants that were doing Latin American music, that had power because of the payola thing to bang these records on the air. Plus the megastores opened, who were ordering 15, 20 thousand for each store on first order. And then of course the explosion of Hispanics in the United States and Dominicans and Central Americans and it just all snowballed. And Jerry Rivera, who was the first one of those young kids for Sony to really pop the market, was legitimate, he's selling a couple of million records and that's some big money. Then all of a sudden all of these young kids started appearing in front of a band and they could sing three inspirations that they wrote down and if they had to do a fourth they didn't know how to do it.
DC: Or that somebody else wrote down.
LH: Or unless somebody wrote it for 'em. And Willie Colón just started singing also, one day I was conducting for him at the Garden. He said "Listen, we can only do eight coros" and there's a big string section, it was the Fania All Stars. It was the first time he was with the All Stars in the late '80s or early '90's - yeah, I think it was the late '70's maybe and he said "Only do eight!" So I'm conducting and I did a ninth one and he just stood there (laughs). I said "Why don't you repeat one of the other ones or something?" and he came down on me and I said "Damn, you call yourself a singer, give me a break!" But that's how it was, I mean they're hiring a Nestor Sánchez or an Adalberto Santiago to help them in the studio, to coach 'em and give 'em the words and every time they sang the song it was exactly alike. And that's not the job of a sonero, the job is to make things up as it's happening, what's happening right now, at that moment, you know?
DC: In your producing how much did you ever have to help people with soneo?
LH: Never, never. Very, very rarely except for maybe a young singer that's just starting out, I would help him out and change the melody around or something like that. But very few of them, you know, very few of the guys that I work with. Guys like Tito Allen or Rubén Blades, Nestor - those are the best, Adalberto too. You should hear us on the plane when we go somewhere, the guys just start scatting on the plane, they're having a conversation in music. I watch Candido Fabré and the guys from Cuba on TV shows and my tongue falls out, it's just like they're talking in poetry and makin' it up as they're goin' along about what's happenin' right now. They got their little tricks that make it flow, you know, but it's poetry, it's street poetry.
DC: But you've always had real soneros.
LH: Well, Felo Brito wasn't a sonero, he was a stage thing but he only lasted one album. Monguito was a sonero, I mean as much as he sounded like Cuní and everything like that he had his poetry, he definitely had his sound, he definitely had the sabor, you know? Miranda had the street thing but I taught him, I used to push Beny Moré down his throat. He used to stay four, five days at my house and I'd bang things down his head. Junior González too - I think Miranda's a much better singer than Junior but I had my biggest hits with Junior. He just had like a maña with the people or something, I don't know but I had four hits on one album with him once. And Hommy was his first record, he was thrown into this gigantic piece of music with no experience and he didn't have teeth. His two teeth were out in the front, I had to cap his teeth for that show (laughs).
DC: The interludes that connect the songs in Hommy who wrote them?
LH: Those were Marty Sheller's. What I did is we wrote the narrative first, timed it - 12 seconds, 26 seconds, 41 seconds, we'd have to go from B flat major to C sharp minor. "Marty, you've got 21 seconds to get from here to get over there (laughs) and here's what the guy's saying!" He says "Tu eres bobo" - bing, and there was a chord right here, boom, and that's how it moved from one to the other. And Marty also did Cheo's tune which was the Hoy el dia de Navidad and the other was (sings "Mirame"), the doctor and (sings "Oyeme"), that one. He did those two charts. But nobody knew what I was doing - I mean I recorded the songs separately, then I did the interludes and then I connected everything together because it was on film (laughs).
DC: How much of a performance life did Hommy have?
LH: It was done four times. It was done twice the same night at Carnegie Hall, on a Thursday night in March of that year and then it was done the following summer two times in Puerto Rico. But it's gonna happen again. Maybe with new singers, instead of Celia we'll have India and Jerry Rivera instead of this one, Andy Montañez instead of Justo Betancourt. But it's gonna happen.
DC: Tell us about Ambergris, the rock band that you had.
LH: We did two albums for Paramount, we went on tour with the Grateful Dead and with Rod Stewart and right through Woodstock, this is like '68, '69, '70. We had a loft for rehearsals and we had a guy that brought us our drugs and we called him "The Doctor", we had a clothing account at Paul Sargent's in the Village. And when we went to sign with Paramount - this guy Jimmy Jettleson had just built that Paramount Building on 59th Street - we said "What music companies do you own?" "Well, we own Farfisa, we own Giannini, we own Hohner", we own this. So everybody in the band got a guitar, an electric guitar, a 12 string guitar, an organ, a set of drums, a harmonica, an accordion (laughs) and they owned Marshall Amplifiers also (laughs) which were the best amplifiers of the day. So we had a sound system, we had nowhere to take it so we hired this loft. So I was writing for both bands at the same time, it was very difficult to try and keep 'em both working. There was a period of time when I had a job with Ambergris at Ithaca College and the same night I had a gig with Orchestra Harlow at the Bronx Casino, I said "Jesus, how am I gonna do this?" So I had a friend that had one of these little oil cloth bi-wing planes, those open cockpit things painted by Peter Max at the time. And the rock band would go up by bus to Ithaca, I'd fly in this little plane with the Snoopy hat on, he'd say "Look out for the jets" and we'd fly and make the gig. Then I'd get in the plane and it'd take me an hour and a half to fly back and I'd make the other gig with the Latin band (laughs) at the same time. I was doin' stuff like that, it got out of hand for a while.
DC: Fill me in, what kind of music did Ambergris play?
LH: Ambergris was two guys that left Blood, Sweat and Tears, Jerry Weiss and Charlie Camilleri. We formed Ambergris, it was a horn band. When I had done the Me and My Monkey album you can hear it, you can kind of hear the beginnings of Ambergris on Me and My Monkey. I said "Wow, if we can do that with a Latin band imagine what we can do with a real rock band!" So Jimmy Malin was the singer with Ocho and I took him but he was an American guy, he was a great conga player. And I took this guy and that guy and we found the guitar player in the subway and found a guy over here - we were real hippies in them days, you know, '68, love children. We used to walk around without shoes (laughs), face jewels and a lot of psychedelics, a lot of drugs. And we put together Ambergris, first we started doing cover tunes of Otis Redding. Then we had two or three guys from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and one from Juilliard and they were heavy duty writers. Harry Max, he was from Eastman and eventually he wound up with Lewie Kahn in the same band and they both doubled violin - one trumpet, violin and the other trombone, violin. Remember "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", that Charlie Daniels thing - I did El diablo que viene, that's Harry and Lewie playing two violins there. It was a great band. But Ambergris kinda like stemmed out of that, we got a $60,000 contract and at that time that was a lot of money in 1969. Paul Sloman and Al Schwartz were our managers and they got us a great deal and we hung out with the Dead, you know, in Tiburon and out there in Mill Valley and we were drugged out (laughs) most of the time. We went on tour with Rod Stewart, "Small Faces" and finally I just missed the Latin band too much and it just got real out of hand and one the guys died from an O.D. in Mill Valley. We wound up coming back 1970 to Orchestra Harlow (laughs) and Miranda was running the band for me while I was away. He said to me "Here, take it, take it back, I don't ever want to be a bandleader again!" (laughs), he had a little taste of it. Some nights we used to go out and work and at the end of the night you come home with ten dollars, you know, after paying everybody. We were only making 30, 40 dollars a night apiece then.
DC: On your album Salsa there are some great numbers which are interpreted with a charanga flavor, La cartera, El paso de Encarnación. Charanga has had its ups and down in New York, at that point where was charanga in terms of popularity?
LH: It was down, charanga was down. Orquesta Broadway had just more or less folded, the original band had broken up and Fajardo had gotten shot and he was sick. And who else was left, Charanga América was here and Hansel and Raúl maybe was still here, whatever. But it was down and there weren't any hits 'cause the Fania All Stars were just comin' up then, like really heavy. But I used to ask the guys in my band "Do you guys play any other instruments?" So Larry Spencer would say "I play a chromatic harmonica" and he'd take the harmonica out, I mean and wail, I mean like Toots Thielemans! And then Lewie Kahn used to say "Well, I play like a little violin".
DC: (laughs) A little violin - oh, please!
LH: And took it out - and all of a sudden Harry said "I play bass and violin and trumpet" and then Charlie Miller would say "Well, I play flute and trumpet" and then this guy would say "I play sax and tuba" (laughs). So I had a lot of combinations to work with because I was an oboe player and a flute player and a bass player and a piano player. So I played a few instruments myself and it was a lot of fun. But I was always a charanga freak and I always loved Aragón's stuff. I was kind of responsible for bringing back charanga and then it made a little resurgence again, you know, a little later on.
DC: 'Cause think of Pasaporte which is a great album, it's possible that you were paving the way for it.
LH: Yeah, and also there was another thing on one of the songs, No quiero. Harry Viggiano took this tres solo, beautiful tres solo and then Charlie Miller transcribed it and took it down note for note and played an alto flute on top of it. Robert Farris Thompson always says "How did you ever do that?", I said "It just happened, man" - that Charlie took it upon himself and the sound was so intriguing, to hear that. Yeah, because first of all it's a solo, it's a very intricate kind of thing and to have an alto flute and an electric tres, it was quite interesting over this huge fuckin' band (laughs). Dynamic, crazy rhythm section, heavy duty rhythm section on that album. I don't know if you know Charlie Miller, he was Dr. John's music director for many years.
DC: Oh, he's a New Orleans boy.
LH: Right, he's the one that brought Wynton Marsalis to New York, OK? So he was a great player. Kind of looked like a nerdy kind of guy, you know, with glasses and he was always kinda withdrawn but boy, can that motherfucker play! (laughs) Did some albums with me, he was with me for a while, we toured together and then he went back to Dr. John's band, he was the music director for about eight or ten years and then Dr. John just broke up the big band. But he's down in New Orleans, we still talk. And then when I did La raza Latina I had Jon Faddis do some solos on it and I didn't like Faddis's solos, took 'em off and put Charlie Miller over them. So the solos you're hearing on that is Charlie Miller, Perico did one and Charlie did the other two. But I wiped Faddis's solos off so you know I was very particular about that too.
DC: Did Fania file contracts with the Union for record dates?
LH: I was the only band with Fania that got paid Union scale for recording, all my musicians got money that went into their trust fund, welfare fund, everything. 'Cause I was the guy that always started all the shit with Gerry and take him to court and suing him and checkin' royalty numbers, you know, countin' record sales. Didn't do any good but I was the rebel. But I had complete studio time, we had completely free creative time in the studio to do whatever I wanted.
DC: Now these great albums of the mid '70's, what kind of studio time are we talking about in terms of the number of hours it took to put these things together?
LH: 100 to 150 hours, which is not a lot in today's standards, I mean a regular album today is 200 hours. But I'll give you a good example - the Tribute to Arsenio album from the beginning of the recording to the end of the recording took a total of three days and a total cost including musicians, arrangers and studio of $1800 and that's unheard of. I did that in one day, one session, six songs (laughs). But I kind of thought I was rippin' the people off even though it was a great six songs, that we should have had more numbers. But in retrospect I think it was OK and nobody ever said "Thank you" (laughs), especially Masucci.
DC: Had you been playing those songs as part of your book for dances?
LH: Well, some yes, some no. With Hommy it was afterwards, Arsenio was afterwards but the Señor Salsa album, we had been playing that for four years before we recorded it, that's why Ray Pérez went in and knocked it off so fast. And when we did the next album it was all new stuff, Ray Pérez couldn't get arrested on the next one. He sang so badly because he wasn't prepared, he didn't do his homework. Matter of fact there was one song on that album that he didn't even sing. I wound up doing an instrumental, it was a Brazilian tune that I wound up doin' on piano 'cause he couldn't understand the lyrics.
DC: I asked about studio time because Bernie Fox told me that Pasaporte took 180 hours, which he said was very unusual for that time.
LH: That's a lot. I mean basically we used to knock 'em out in 65, 70 hours in the early '70's.
DC: When I hear your albums sometimes I hear a kind of layering of sound, where you hear batá drums and the contemporary drumset style of the time.
LH: Sure, sure. And I used a lot of weird instruments, I used berimbaus. I used all these weird Brazilian things that people never heard, if you listen real close you say "What is that?" I used berimbaus on Fausto Rey's recording (sings) and nobody knew what the hell it was. I used electric pianos way before Eddie Palmieri, way before Stevie Wonder - I gave Stevie Wonder the clavinet (laughs). And the reason that happened, because we used to go to these clubs and we used to get there, open the piano up and half the notes would be missing, half the hammers. So Eddie Palmieri and I used to rip the hammers out of the piano so finally the guy had to get a new piano. We'd come in the next week, the guy would paint it up and says "Brand new piano!" - throw a coat of paint on it and it only had 26 notes that worked. So eventually we wound up with those first heavy electric pianos, the Vox and what was the other, the Wurlizter and then the Fender Rhodes. But I got into the clavinet early 'cause I wanted to get that tres kind of sound and the clavinet was like a plucked string. It was like an electric clavichord, almost like a harpsichord or a clavichord and Hohner made that and I endorsed Hohner for a while.
DC: So what period of time are you playing clavinet?
LH: From the late '60's to the late '70's, I used a Vox before the clavinet. When I did the Electric Harlow album, it was about that time when I got the clavinet, maybe a year before that. I mean then you're at the mercy of the clubowner and you had to play these pianos that they had there at the Corso and I remember Barry coming with tuning forks and stuff for Eddie an hour before the gig crawlin' under the piano tuning the pianos for Eddie (laughs).
DC: I heard the Hunts' Point Palace never had a decent piano.
LH: Never. Papo Lucca and I threw the piano off the stage there and it was a big, high stage (DC laughs). It was an upright and we finally got so disgusted we yanked the hammers out and threw the hammers at the people and we pushed it off the stage and it fell down (laughs). The Hunts' Point was great 'cause we used to start at 12 in the afternoon and ten bands for 2 dollars (laughs), stuff like that.
DC: In 1974 you have that Fania trip to Africa which has a lot of great musical moments but there was this whole contretemps because of how they quoted you in Latin New York. Did that have any impact on your career?
LH: Yes - see, this was all taken out of context. I went to Africa, had a marvelous time. I speak enough French to say "Cafe, s'il-vous plait?" and when you ask a person to bring you a cup of coffee and they bring you a glass of water they're either fuckin' with you or they're pretty stupid.
DC: Or both.
LH: Or both (laughs). So I said "I found the African people very nice" - 'cause the only real contact I had was with the waiters and the waitresses and the people in the hotel - "very nice but stupid." So of course Izzy Sanabria printed that in Latin New York and all of a sudden I was kind of blackballed by all the black clubs in New York (laughs) for about a year or two. Eddie Palmieri had a good run because of me, because I said that and I kinda learned my lesson after that and now I love everybody, I love everything. If I don't have anything good to say I don't say anything.
DC: Does that mean that there was a big scene of black clubs that hired Latin groups at that time?
LH: Yes. They were in Brooklyn, like in Haitian sections or Jamaican or island people, like Utica Avenue and Empire Boulevard. Felipe Luciano used to run a joint down here with Frankie Crocker on 33rd Street and Jewel, shit like that. They used to have a Thursday night Latin night and a Sunday night and Eddie Palmieri was their main man. But there was a time when I used to work those joints once a week or somethin' like that.
DC: Where do you find the most audience interest for the kind of music the "Latin Legends" is playing now?
LH: Europe, South America and outside of New York, we've been to Japan four times already. It's like we're the Rolling Stones, it's like when Fania goes to South America, we put 80,000 people in the stadium. Now Friday night I played a place in Brooklyn (laughs), a Dominican hip hop place. The kids had no idea who we were, no idea what we were playing, all they wanted to hear was house merengue music. Now you know I'll never work that place again. But Sunday night I worked at the Flamingo and there were all the old dancers from the Palladium, from the Corso. I don't want to play the clubs, I just want to play concerts. But every six months you gotta come around and show people what you got and you gotta do the clubs, even if I lose money and I lost money this weekend. But it don't matter, you have to have that profile there. But now the younger kids are discovering all these re-releases that are coming out on CD and they're discovering their mothers' and fathers' music - "Larry Harlow, my mother has all your records" (laughs). But they're discovering it now, they know but in South America they always knew and they never stopped knowing and they don't like salsa romantica. The Number One song in Cali right now is Soy sensacionál from Hommy, 27 year old song! The Number One song in Bogotá right now is Cari caridad, a 27 year old song, Number One on the Hit Parade! That doesn't mean I'm selling a million records but that's the Number One played record on Colombian radio, I can't believe that! Just think about all those years they wouldn't play me on the air here, they wouldn't play the old stuff except Polito's Sunday show, a jazz station or a college station or something.
DC: Is there a fear in the radio business that to play anything like what the "Legends" play is identified with an old sound and therefore is going to alienate people?
LH: No, that's not the fear. The fear is that the biggest minority, especially here in New York, is now Dominican, it's not Puerto Rican any more. And these kids, they're pushing merengue down their throats and it just keeps snowballing. But the people who know music, I mean they know what it is. I have my audience, I don't really want to play in the club scene in New York City. I'll come into the Garden, I'll do Lincoln Center, I'll do it here at Hostos College - boom, and I'm out of here. But I go to L.A., I do 17 days, I go to Texas and I do it for ten days straight. I go to South America, I have a six week European tour booked. 27 shows at 15 K a pop - I mean I couldn't even get 1500 a pop here in New York (laughs) with the same band, same thing. I do all the Blue Notes - I do three in Tokyo, Seoul, Korea, Djakarta, Indonesia. If I make my records I make people happy. There's six great singers on the record, three of the old style, three of the new style. I can't lose, I got somethin' for everybody. I got son montuno, I got romantic salsa, I got salsa clásica, I got descarga, I got cha cha cha - when's the last time you heard a cha cha cha recorded - and I got Latin jazz on it too, an instrumental. So I got all the bases covered, it's all good stuff.