In-depth interview with one of Latin music's legendary figures, pianist Eddie Palmieri.
Interview by David Carp with Bruce Polin
I do not think that it is an exaggeration to suggest that the Eddie Palmieri ensemble is artistically the most promising dance band now performing in the United States...Palmieri and the members of his orchestra have demonstrated, in the sophistication of their stylistic means, the power to shift the course of Afro-Latin music forever.
- Robert Farris Thompson, Saturday Review, October 28, 1967.
...there's a tune that Eddie recorded, it's got a timbale solo. And when they get to the timbale solo and they go into this rhythm break introduction and Eddie starts to play the montuno behind the drum solo everything in my stomach just turned upside down. I mean, who wouldn't want to play his ass off if you had a piano player behind you putting a montuno down that way? Every note, it's like his fingers were reaching into the earth with every note, if you were a drummer you would have to reach down as deep as him. You wouldn't want to play on top of him because that would be weak, you'd have to be down there with him in the bowels of the earth. I didn't listen all that much to the drum solo, it was Eddie's support of the drum solo that kicked my ass, and he's always done that. All of his montunos, whenever he supported a drummer or anything, all of his montunos were down. And you could see him sittin' at the piano with the expression on his face like he's reaching as deep as he can into the depths of feeling and the bowels of the thing to give you that support. Oh, man, fantastic guy!
- Ernest Philip Newsum, August 1998 conversation
Art historian/Yale professor/Africanist/cultural critic/mambonik Bob Thompson is usually about 30 years ahead of his time, and this quote is no exception. Phil Newsum is an alumnus of Orquesta Harlow and La Perfecta and a gifted percussionist and keen observer of the social and musical scene; his characteristic earthiness and eloquence speak for a whole generation of musicians, dancers, and fans of an emerging musical modality known as salsa. The subject of the above tributes has weathered cataclysmic changes in the music business and faced his personal demons unflinchingly; Eddie Palmieri is an unmistakeable presence on the current scene and still producing music at white heat. RMM is about to present further evidence of Palmieri's continuing vitality - a new compact disc called El rumbero del piano. In the midst of all the craziness normally associated with preparing a new release, Eddie found time to reflect on his career and the ambiente musical that has nurtured it. Joining Maestro Palmieri were freelance writer David M. Carp, Descargameister Bruce Polin, and Edward Palmieri II, who's been his father's personal manager for the last five years.
David Carp: We're going to try to tie together your being and your work from the beginning to the present. Tell us about your parents and your father's different enterprises.
Eddie Palmieri: My mother arrived in New York in 1925, that's how it all starts. She's still alive. She is totally an amazing woman and we couldn't have been more blessed having such a unique mother, who was a gifted seamstress at that age already when she arrived. She came here with an uncle and an aunt and there was another uncle and aunt here. And then my father followed a year later on a boat - naturally, that's the only way you could get here at that time. In 1926 they married, my brother was born in '27 and I was born in '36. No other brother, no other sister. My mother was very, very ill when she gave birth to my brother and my father had to carry them both out of the hospital, literally. So she thought that she would never have another child and I was quite blessed when I came along, all right? My brother will always be my inspiration, but he was nine years my senior. I was born at 60 East 112th Street, between Madison and Park. We moved from there when I was five years old and then we went right to Kelly Street between Longwood Avenue and Intervale Avenue, known now and later as the South Bronx but just known as the Bronx then, absolutely beautiful. And my father was a true genius of whatever he put his mind to and he knew about electricity. So he was fixing radios and eventually televisions.
Bruce Polin: What was his name?
EP: Charlie, Carlos Palmieri, Carlos Manuel Palmieri, my brother was Carlos Manuel Palmieri, Junior. Now my father opens up the Bronx Radio Lab on 163rd Street off Kelly Street, he had that with a partner called Fonseca. That was 1941 and from there in 1941 we go through the War years, my mother would prepare meals and I would take him the food in a canteen at night. He had his radio lab but then he got together with my grandfather and my grandmother and he bought a candy store on Longwood and Kelly. And he turned it into a luncheonette since he was a tremendous carpenter, he was everything!
DC: So he did all the work.
EP: Yeah, he ordered what he had to order and now it was a luncheonette. Now we had a restaurant, candy store. I was the soda jerk at 15 and made my egg creams and sold cigarettes, three for five cents or four for five cents, whatever, and stocked up the jukebox with the records that were happening. Because my brother was already playing with Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez was the band that was killing them and my favorite conjunto, and Tito and Machito. So I had that jukebox going and those were the years. And then from there when I was a little younger we used to go back down to El Barrio and I would sing in this apartment on Sundays with my uncles, they had guitars. My brother would play piano, I would sing and we made records, they would cut the record right there. And those records are nonexistent now in the family but those were many, many wonderful years of experience. My brother would play piano and I would sing.
DC: What kind of numbers would you do?
EP: Oh, my mother would dress me up like in an army suit and I would sing numbers of Daniel Santos. You know, when he was saying goodbye and going to the War.
DC: Oh, "Despedida."
EP: You know, "Vengo a decirle adios a los muchachos." And then I would get the prize, my brother would play piano, we were killin' them, killin' them, you know? And then I got sick and my mother put an end to that. By eight years old I'm on the piano and by eleven years old I'm with Miss Margaret Bonds, who is in the Negro history books and was my brother's teacher. She ended her career with the Fantasticks and she was a classical pianist, and in the studios at the Carnegie Hall building she had rented a studio and that's where I would have lessons on Saturdays. And with her in the Carnegie Recital Hall next door I gave a concert at eleven years old, a competition that was done for certain students of that age group. By thirteen I don't want to play the piano, I want to play timbales and I go with my uncle Chino, Chino y su Alma Tropical. He sang and another uncle played conga, we had a tres guitarrista, Miro; Manolín played second guitar and sang; Tati, trumpet; and Roberto on el bongó.
BP: Where did you play?
EP: Oh, any place that would hire us. The Mexican club on 25th Street, up in the Catskills, in La Villa Rodríguez. We would play there and my uncle told me, in fact, "Eddie, we're going to play La Villa Rodríguez, they even got a pool there!" I said, "No kidding!" I was thirteen, I stayed with him until fifteen. When I went to see the pool in the back there was a cow in the pool and there was another cow drinking water out of the pool and that was the pool that my uncle told me about. It certainly wasn't the Concord or the Raleigh Hotel, it was La Villa Rodríguez! But it was certainly part of my experience in the business. And by fifteen, I sold my timbales back to my uncle and went back on the piano, which I'm still studying to this day, and there's your gap.
DC: I've heard that your first fully professional orchestra was Eddie Forestier's unit. Tell us about him.
EP: Eddie Forestier was the naturally funniest guy! He went into the White Castle on Queens Boulevard, this is when we were working at the Sunnyside Gardens. And he went to the waitress and said - he stuttered - Do you still sell those-se-se-se H-H-HAMburgers that L-L-LOOK like aspirins? One of the funniest gentlemen and a very talented musician - played trumpet, played vibes, played bass, arranged. Unfortunately, his destiny didn't allow him to develop his musical talent.
DC: He always talked about playing dances where you guys would alternate with American groups playing jazz. When you played with Eddie Forestier was that happening?
EP: I saw Charlie Parker, and that was in the Rockland Palace. He would get gigs like that because he used to work for a promoter--that was a black promoter called Cecil Bowen. At the Hunt's Point Palace I know I saw Charlie Parker and I didn't know who he was, but I saw rubber bands and bandaids on the saxophone, alto. I saw different groups but my main interest was to try to play the piano. 'Cause I hadn't been reading music, I was playing timbales with my uncle, a folkloric band, and then it was very difficult to get back to reading. But then my brother recommended me to a group called Bobby Santiago and Ray Almo, which is where I really got a taste - I did Kutsher's Country Club in 1955, it was a five piece group. Two trumpets, they both played mellophone, Robertito played mellophone and vibes and the other played trumpet while the vibes were playing. I mean it was such a great combination, it was really wonderful. But I was going to school and that made it difficult for me to stay with them. I did the summer, when they came back they had a gig in Elizabeth, New Jersey and it was very hard for me to do that.
DC: When you were playing in the Catskills did you play any different repertoire than for your audience in the Bronx?
EP: Oh, of course, at that time when I started it was very, very commercial. What was commercial then, "Linda Mujer." That was done by Pupi Campo and Desi Arnaz -
DC: Noro -
EP: Noro, that was the standard to play for the non-Hispanics here in that time, in '30s, '40s and '50s. But in the '50s already the rage of the mambo was quite insane, and right after that was the cha cha cha, and that's when I was hittin' the Catskills. So they were already teaching mambo and cha cha cha there, and it forced the groups to play more hip than what it would have been if that wouldn't have happened. There was a dance craze which...a dance craze always makes it the most exciting time ever. Because it's more sales, and the music that goes along with this new dance and everything is happening. And in my opinion, the highest level that was reached in our genre of music was certainly the '50s. The '50s and '60s, but '55 was the center of the Clark Bar.
BP: Was the Catskill crowd hip enough to actually make requests?
EP: Oh, yeah. No, they wanted to hear everything, it was mostly the Jewish crowd that went to the Catskills and they were some of the greatest dancers. On Wednesdays they danced to Tito Puente and Machito and Tito Rodríguez at the Palladium. I mean they danced and they knew how to dance so they knew what they wanted to hear, you know. They would make requests at the Kutshers and then we did the best we could, we only had a five piece band but they knew that.
DC: Getting back to Forestier, when you were playing alongside a group like Charlie Parker - what was your take on jazz?
EP: Didn't understand it, didn't care for it. My interests were probing the drum and knowing that when I'm playing with the band, like Eddie Forestier, I already knew what was happening because I was such a fanatic and an eccentric fan of my brother Charlie. He was already playing and recording with Tito Puente in the '50s, '51, so I knew the deal. The only thing is that I didn't know the piano (laughs).
DC: You mentioned Margaret Bonds as an early piano teacher, and there's an interview I saw where you mention Claude Saavedra as being a very important influence.
EP: He was the most important in my technical achievement. Claudio Saavedra was one of the greatest technicians and I was so fortunate to meet him through Abie Lima, who was the drummer for my brother Charlie Palmieri.
DC: Did Claude and Abie go to the same church or something like that?
EP: Yes, and Claude was the choirmaster. And that's where Abie knew my wife, the family, and that's how I met my wife, through them. He knew Claudio before she had met them cause the father always went to church and they sang in the choir.
DC: What nationality is Claudio?
EP: He was a Spaniard, and his ancestors were conquistadores.
DC: Do you remember any of the etudes or methods that he gave you?
EP: Oh, he had his own personal method that he devised at Brooklyn College since he didn't play classical, he didn't play pop. He was really into the church music but he dedicated his life to the independence of each finger and what he taught me is just...there's no way to thank him. And I already had that approach when I did "Azúcar" in '65 and that helped me tremendously. As a matter of fact, he went to that recording. And that's when it broke the precedent of 2 minutes and 45 seconds, when Azúcar came out 8 minutes and 30 seconds. And that was exactly where I lived on Kelly Street, 830 Kelly Street.
DC: Since you brought this up I'm going to skip ahead. We know what a seminal number this was and we know about the commercial limitations of time, so that DJs could get their commercials in. How did the length of "Azúcar" affect radio play when it came out?
EP: Oh, it stunned them, put 'em in shock and I couldn't care less! All I know is that to be able to get the essence of that composition, which was a hit before I recorded it - in the street a year and a half earlier easy - cause I wrote it by '63, late '64 I'm playing it already and the blacks made it a hit. I was already playing it all over town, in Brooklyn, at the Palladium I was getting in and it was a hit before I recorded it. When I recorded it I had to record it the way we did it and Symphony Sid took it to the hilt and I can never thank him enough for that, and coming out of Morris Levy. As Morris Levy robbed everything so uniquely, you know, you can't use any other word, I couldn't thank him enough for being the company that was the second company I signed with. I certainly needed that boost of power and record airplay and he had control of it. So everything has its symmetry.
DC: Since were talking about Azúcar, what other DJs were able to play this number?
EP: Oh, Dick Ricardo Sugar for sure and then the Latin DJs, Freddie Baez, Raúl Alarcón the father later. But the main guy naturally was Symphony Sid cause he would play the composition, there was no problem about the time element, the Latin radio couldn't do that. There were some stations in Puerto Rico. But we stunned New York and everybody cause it was a jazz format and that had never been used before. Not that it hadn't been used - it was done, Charlie Parker with Machito, but that was under the heading of a suite. They were presented uniquely for that, it was a suite so a suite is understood. You understand that it's gonna be lengthy, not a record. This was a single record I'm gonna put on. We made an album and this is "Azúcar" - this is it, eight minutes, take it or leave it!
DC: So the context is different.
EP: Of course.
DC: But the people went for it anyway.
EP: Oh, yeah, and they had no choice because it was the true essence of what we sounded like in the dance. And that's what we were playing at that time. There were exciting dance orchestras which do not exist any more, in my opinion.
DC: Jumping back to the '50s and some of the work you were doing then, I know you went with Johnnie Segui.
EP: That's in '55 also, after Bobby Santiago. Bobby Santiago was the one who recorded "La Familia" on trumpet and vibes with José Curbelo and Mon Rivera, and he died tragically but he was a very, very dear friend. The drummer in that group - later on I meet Mangual's brother, Santos Miranda, who also dies tragically. That's with Pete Terrace. I do '57 and '59, I believe, with Pete Terrace. My brother would recommend me. He would come in and do some gigs with Johnnie Segui and travel, 'cause Mario Roman was the piano player, but my brother would come in. Then he would go out with a little small group for MCA and then say, "But my little brother..." and that's how I got into that group. But they fired me from the Caborrojeo for hitting the piano too hard. Meanwhile, the other gentleman was Pancho Rompeteclas (DC laughs), Pancho Cárdenas, but he was known as Rompeteclas, the guy that breaks the keys. But they really wanted to get me out and it was the best thing that happened, because then I was able to land up in '56 with Vicentico Valdés and that was my school. Not only because of him, Vicentico, but Manny Oquendo was very instrumental, Tommy López and Mike Collazo but Manny, you know, bringing me into the world of the Cuban recordings, about which I had no idea. I knew Beny Moré and Riverside , a few of them from my brother but not to really get in depth, you know, as a fanatic. He turned me into a fanatic and, like I told him once, I turned out to be a helluva student.
DC: Can you name some of the records that Manny turned you on to?
EP: Oh, Orquesta Aragón, La Orquesta Sensación with Barroso, Alberto Ruiz, Joseito Fernández - I could just go on and on and on! Conjunto Casino with , La Sonora Matancera, La Gloria Matancera. Everything, after Arsenio, Arcaño, Ideal - no, no, no, I just went probing, I went berserk!
DC: What about Conjunto Modelo?
EP: Ohhh! Conjunto Modelo comes after - which is the same musicians more or less but they would feud and then they would make a group. And then Lázaro Prieto makes Conjunto Modelo, which Lilí Martnez plays on Viejo socarrón, for example, one of the compositions which I asked Manny when I'm playing stickball once if he could recommend me a piano solo to listen to and he told me "El viejo socarrón" and it was Conjunto Modelo, even though Luis Grian Lilí played with Chapottín.
DC: Did you hear a number called "Cantando," a cha cha in a rugged style?
EP: That's the ruggedest cha cha cha ever written! That's by Conjunto Modelo, one of my favorite conjuntos and they recorded very little, maybe that one album they did 'cause they broke up right away. But what they put down, man, it's one of the greatest son montuno, guaguancó albums of that tempo ever recorded, that one and the one Chapottín did. And then, naturally, Arsenio, but I'm talking about when Chapottín did Canallón, Me voy contigo, Yo soy tiburón - now that's a classic, classic. Modelo comes out and they throw arrows at Chapottín's band and they're talking about like, you know, you left a window open and the man came out and now you have to deal with the Modelo. They were always singing, always combatting against each other, that's the true essence of the exciting orchestras when you have the right personnel and this pride in each band, just like there's pride in each team.
DC: And it's like Puente always says about the rivalry between the two Titos, the public is the beneficiary.
EP: Of course! And especially the dancers.
DC: I mentioned "Cantando" because what I heard is that there were musicians who didn't dig the cha cha, they thought it was rinky dink and when they heard this they realized that it didn't have to be.
EP: Yeah, but the cha cha was not rinky dink. The cha cha cha is one of the most sophisticated musics ever written, by Enrique Jorrín, it's one of the most beautiful concepts of musical presentation. They have to really get into it and, unfortunately, as it would have been extended more and more, Fidel came down from the hills and changed history - unfortunately, and fortunately for others. But truly unfortunately for where we were going, because when that happened there, over here the lack of creativity led to things like the boogaloo, was going into Romper Room and kindergarten and Mister Rogers Neighborhood. But that was when the umbilical cord was cut and the tragedy that's happened even in Cuba, that they cannot even imitate those rhythmical orchestras, those patents or that rhythmical style formed. They cannot do that, it was taken away from them for 40 years. They would have to go through orientation, listening to the proper records and those records don't exist except if René López has them. And now some CDs are out, like more than ever. But the young Cubans were cut off from their own heritage for 35, 40 years.
DC: After you graduate from the Vicentico school you go with Tito Rodríguez, this is correct?
EP: Between there I go with Pete Terrace, and then with Pete Terrace we go back to Kutsher's Country Club. When I go to Kutsher's Country Club in '57 Wilt Chamberlain is the bellhop.
EP: When I came with my orchestra in '62 Wilt Chamberlain came up in his Bentley. Because there was a Maurice Stokes benefit and Red Orbach used to have the benefit tournament at Kutsher's Country Club and Wilt Chamberlain came back for that. Maurice Stokes was a very talented basketball player that fell in the court and stayed unconscious, and then they made the Maurice Stokes benefit and that started from '62 and I hit Kutsher's in '62. Then in '58 is when I go witlh Tito Rodríguez for two years.
DC: When you're with Tito Rodríguez what's the balance of the kind of work you do, are you playing more shows or more dances?
EP: More shows. He had already paid $10,000 to a gentleman called Bernie Wayne, choreographer, and made a whole show for himself which included a soft shoe, which included him putting on a ten gallon hat with two guns and singing (sings "My name is Hopalong Tito, bang, bang!"). And that's exactly what we did in Vegas, and that's exactly how they threw us out! (He laughs.) But he had his own dream and his beautiful wife sang in a kimono, sang "Poor Butterfly," and Martha the Cuban dancer and him dancing. He did the best he could, but that wasn't the deal. But he really was Hollywood bound in his head, he wanted to do the Desi Arnaz/Lucille Ball deal, which eventually he puts on, I would say not the best, but he put on the best show that Puerto Rico's ever had. He did it when he goes back to Puerto Rico - late '60s or something like that, I don't remember exactly.
DC: Is this for television?
EP: Television, yeah. In the late '60s he does that in Puerto Rico, he's killing them! 'Cause at that time there were still a lot of big name acts coming into Puerto Rico from Vegas, and he was able to get some of them, through whatever connections, you know, to do his show. And since he was known naturally from the Palladium years and that, anyone that he would get through a Sammy Davis or whatever that would come to Puerto Rico in those years, did the top shows ­. They don't do that any more there, maybe now a little bit more, but not like then. But anyway, by '59 is when we do Live at the Palladium and it's one of the greatest Latin and Latin jazz albums ever recorded, in my opinion. Live, and nobody can comprehend how it sounded with the acoustics of the Palladium, and it was for United Artists. It had the greatest personnel that you can think of for that time, and the compositions that were done by different arrangers starting with Mr. Harold Wegbreit, Phil Sunkel and Aaron Sachs, Julio Andino and then myself. I was the one that had the most problems because, again, my reading. The band was doing things now like "Satin and Lace" and I needed now to have done my homework in jazz and, because I didn't comprehend jazz, now I was paying dearly for it. But by the time I got to Tito Rodríguez, as far as anything Latin, I was quite confident, 'cause of Vicentico. But when it came to these standards, these jazz compositions, now I had problems, because now I hadn't done my homework - chord changes and things like that, naturally.
DC: And we're often talking about several changes of harmony per bar.
EP: Yeah, the movement of a composition. In Latin music we just did a thing, that we went to the tonic and dominant, but here, now you gotta solo on the chord changes. So it was somethin' for me to rise to whatever occasion I rose to. But I had tremendous help and confidence given to me by the bass player Julio Andino, and then my respect for Tito Rodríguez and every musician that was there, I certainly had to hold my own.
BP: So there was pressure but it was a friendly pressure.
EP: Oh, yeah, it was a constructive one. Plus the rhythm section was again Manny Oquendo, Pat Rodríguez and Luis Goicochea, who were like family to me. I knew Luis, we had traveled already together. And Pat Rodríguez was related to Tito Rodríguez, not directly but through his first wife, and that's how he got in there.
DC: What got you off the ground as a bandleader, tell us about the first jobs you had leading your own units?
EP: Oh, then in 1960, then I had left Tito Rodríguez's band. And then I started to take anything, you know, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, wakes (laughs), anything to be able to be employed. And then I would do a lot of trio work. There was a gentleman, can't remember his name right now - oh, yeah, Arret. Not Marty Arret, something Arret, something like that. Him and his wife, they used to book, for example, the hotels, the top hotels. And they would bring in Tito Puente for an hour which he would play like from 8 to 9 or 9 to 10, then he would go to the Palladium. Then they would have a society band, it was more like a Lonely Hearts Club deal, you know? And then they brought in a Latin band or a Latin trio, you know, and that's where I got in. I did the Statler Hilton which at that time was Class A, you know, 32 dollars a night. And I was able to bring maybe Manny Oquendo on conga, Mike Collazo on timbales - remember that I played with them from Vicentico. So I used to call them and they were all free and then Tommy López was with my brother, eventually he goes with La Duboney. Then from La Duboney Tommy comes to La Perfecta later. But those early gigs - yeah, yeah, that was something! And then when I had told my wife, "I'd like to make my own band, I don't think I'll be happy working with anybody else," and I started - then I wanted to have a conjunto always. Until I went on a Tuesday night to the club called the Tritons, the social club in the Bronx on top of the Loew's Spooner. It was owned by a gentleman called Angelo Rosado - his name [nickname] was Becko. He was a friend of mine. I used to help him deliver groceries in the Bronx earlier, good lookin' guy. And he made a social club, he had the girls and that. And Pacheco was very, very hot then because he had recorded "El Giro de Macorina" in '59 and he broke records, he sold like 100,000 - no one even heard numbers like that then and he was killing 'em! After he left my brother's charanga, Manny Oquendo was with his charanga and a conguero called Johnny Palomo. But he was killing 'em, killing 'em! And on Tuesdays he had jam sessions and I went, I was living in the Bronx. I was living very close to Hunt's Point, I was living in Soundview with my in-laws. And came down and that's where I saw Barry Rogers play trombone. Georgie Castro was playing with a group called Gilberto y su Charanga - he didn't really have a charanga but they had a vibes player and Georgie played wooden flute. And once in a while I could use with the quintet or quartet at Becko's place the flute, at one time the trombone. And one night I used 'em both and I said that's it! I had met Ismael Quintana earlier, I had seen him and then I tracked him down and I found him. Now I had the singer and I had seven men, now I needed to work. So what I did was I rented the place, I borrowed a thousand dollars from my beautiful mother-in-law and I gave it to Becko, who needed money at that time, and I rented the place.
BP: That's a lot of money back then!
EP: I ran the place for a month. And I had a friend also whose father had a bar and I got the liquor. That turned out to be a problem but we got through - you know, I just got the band started. But the band was so heavy, the word of mouth in the street got it going. And then little by little we kept working until we got to the Palladium, and when we got to the Palladium we were never allowed out any more and we closed the Palladium in '66.
DC: When you're playing at the Palladium which bands are playing alongside you?
EP: Oh, Machito, Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente...La Perfecta dealt with each and every one one-on-one, no quarter taken. There were four sets, you did 16 sets a week at the Palladium for 72 dollars, before taxes. So when I got my check I used to have a check for $58.75 (laughs) and La Perfecta used to get paid $179.50 a night. They had lost their liquor license and now they gave me 90 engagements. So once they give you the 90 engagements, then anybody that wants to book you out would have to pay more and that was the deal. José Curbelo was my agent then and he handled that pretty well. Then Ralph Mercado came in, he started in '74 when I opened up his office. I was the first artist that Ralph Mercado hired and the first one to leave.
DC: I want to talk about your acceptance by black audiences.
EP: Immediately, immediately!
DC: What kind of places were you playing with a strong African American presence?
EP: No, as soon as the band started to play. When we hit the Palladium we were already playing, we did gigs in Brooklyn, wherever. But the blacks were running rampant and they danced better than anyone you could ever think of. So it ran, the world was running, and then "Azúcar" was already a hit in the street before I ever recorded it, two years, about a year and a half I was already playing it. And then by that time the pressure - they had to let me into the Palladium. You couldn't...nobody could get into the Palladium and they allowed me in. And once they let me in, then on Sundays I was the major draw for the blacks. Then Joe Cuba follows when he does "Bang Bang" and that's later. But I mean we grabbed it from the '60s. I mean Joe Cuba already had his group, he started in '55 at the Pines. But his group turns into a killer because he has Cheo Feliciano, very young, and they were excellent. And so on Sunday - and the price was great, so they got in on Sunday - there was Tito Puente and myself, Machito and myself or Joe Cuba and myself on Sunday at the Palladium because they had to hold me in there. And Tito Puente naturally, the blacks just loved him, too. Tito Puente had the whole conglomerate as far as the audience. He had the Jewish audience, the Hispanic and then the blacks. And I grabbed the three of them but don't forget he had started...he had that fifteen years on me. I'm just coming in kicking his ass and kickin' all the bands - its not me, the band is so potent! In other words they got a big band but I'm coming in with an eight piece group that's giving you headaches, man, we're drivin you up the walls! But Tito Rodríguez then makes the band of bands, for me, when he brings in Vitín Paz, and that band starts I believe in '63, somethin' like that. Mikie Collazo leaves my band first and goes with them - in other words he makes that band when La Perfecta is hitting. So then we go against that band, too. But that band that he makes, Tito Rodríguez, is a monster band! Mario Rivera, they have Artie Azenzer on piano, Julio Andino again on bass, Vitín Paz. Then Cachao, that's when they do that album Tito Number One, you know, it's a monster album and Tito sings incredibly!
Edward Palmieri II: I'd like to talk about something you just asked regarding my father with the black audience, like the black audience in the Palladium days. We were able to maintain that audience over 36, 37 years through Harlem River Drive also.
DC: And the Sing Sing album.
EP2: The Sing Sing album and everything. And then, because when we came out with Palmas, which was really the first album since Lucumí, Macumba, Voodoo to a degree that was on a major label and which really gave proper distribution and proper care to the artist - when Palmas came out, what we recognized was a great resurgence of younger people, especially the blacks, in the club scene and the house scene. Because they were doing a lot of sampling on the Palmas CD and it came back, it's always coming back to Harlem River Drive. So when you were saying about my father, about the black audience, it's continued and he's been quite blessed that way.
DC: So it's part of a continuum.
EP2: Exactly. Because everybody to this day, they always keep going to Harlem River Drive. I don't know if you heard the new CD, Oaktown Irawo, that came out of the West Coast with Omar Sosa and all these cats from France and everything, they mentioned that their whole thing was to do a remake of Harlem River Drive. It just came out six, seven months ago. It's a label in San Francisco that Greg Landau has. On the liner notes they mention the French producer Jacques Hubert who came up with the idea. He said, "I want you to do a remake of Eddie Palmieri's Harlem River Drive." And you"re talking 25, 26 years later!
EP: I just spoke to Cornell Dupree.
EP2: He was playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival and he was, like, "Man, that album!" He was talking about Bernard Purdie and Ronnie Cuber, all those guys. So my father's been able to get all these cats and we've been able to maintain that audience.
DC: I want to talk about your relation with Al Santiago, who gives you your recording debut as a leader on Alegre.
EP: I knew Al because I used to buy records at his place and my brother knew him because he knew him when he played saxophone in the '40s. So he opened up a small, little store right there in the station underneath Prospect Avenue. And lo and behold, the next thing you know he's recording and when Pacheco gives him the hit, "Macorina," he's established. He would have been the first truly major millionaire, unfortunately he succumbed to family problems and that destroyed the company. He extended well in his thoughts but his extension became his downfall because he didn't have the right people there, and then he got tragically hurt and everything went berserk in his life. But he was the one, and my brother naturally was the one that got me in there to do an audition. And then I did it, and the next thing you know I was recording and I did the first album. I only recorded three albums and then I left. Let me see, we did La Perfecta, we did El Molestoso and then Echando Palante. See, Echando Palante is done for Tico but the one I do, Lo Que Traigo es Sabroso, is number three. I had started that already, which had "Muñeca" on it and had "Bomba del corazón." But because the company went bankrupt - I mean he went bankrupt, he lost the company - then Symphony Sid and Jack Hooke take me to sign my contract with Morris Levy. And I tell him it's all fine but if he ever needs me to finish that off I want the clearance and he gave me permission, so then Al jumped on it right away. So I actually did the two albums in one year. But the fourth one comes out first, number three, and then comes Lo Que Traigo es Sabroso. But that was started first.
DC: Some producers really get involved in what's going on in the studio and some take a more laid back role. How involved was Al?
EP: He left me alone. As a matter of fact, I've been quite fortunate - every company, every producer just left it up to me and I couldn't thank them enough for that. But they also suggested things, like he also suggested to me to do one of the compositions of El Trio Matamoros, any song. And he also came up with the name La Perfecta.
DC: Al did?
EP: Al did, 'cause in the number "El Gavilán" we say, "El son montuno es la perfecta" I put in those words myself. And then he said, "That's the name of the band. All right, lets call it Perfecta." That's how it happened.
DC: At what point is the two trombone sound set?
EP: Oh, we came to talk, Barry Rogers and I. He says we're going against all these bands, we need one more trombone, two trombones to give it that extra power, to give it that symmetry of sound with the flute being optional. And that's where different players came in, Julian Priester, Joe Orange, Mark Weinstein and down the line until Barry found on a recording José Rodrígues. And when he found José Rodrígues, I met him on 138th Street and St. Ann's Avenue in the Bronx, I looked at him and I said, "Wow!" He was Brazilian, had been living in Santo Domingo and then he arrived here. And we were blessed with one of the greatest trombone players that we ever met. The combination of both, they were so opposite in what they each individually could do, that as a team it worked uniquely and we worked it that way. For example, Barry Rogers was involved in singing coro so when we'd play a mambo - you know, to be ready for
it - then the first part would be given to him or the highest notes would be given to him, anything that would make it easier for Barry, who always had problems with his lip. Fever sores, that was a problem.
DC: But Barry pressed a lot.
EP: Well, he taught himself to play the trombone in the unorthodox way of learning and put on too much pressure and that took a lot out of him. And even José Rodrígues told me once, "If he keeps playing the way he plays, he's gonna die, that instrument takes so much out of you and the way he plays." Just the recordings told you that, imagine live! Those trombones, when they used to get into a riff behind the flute they don't stop, and then Barry just takes off and keeps going and we just kept pushing and pushing. And that instrument is not an instrument to be able to do that with and they did it. And, unfortunately, it cost them dearly because they both passed away, they were both young.
DC: In what other ways did Barry influence you when you first met him, aside from the great solos and riffs -
EP: Oh, no, everything. His preparation, his musical knowledge of all different kinds of music. And then he had come from rhythm and blues bands, he recommended me to listen to Otis Redding. He recommended me to listen more to the jazz albums, in exchange for Celia Cruz he gave me Kind of Blue. He took me to Birdland to see John Coltrane. He taught me how to drive properly a Volkswagen, how to consider the engine because of the gear ratio. The Jaguar, when I received a Jaguar he had a Jaguar XK-120 so we had to drive that properly. I mean anything that had to do with cameras...I've got pictures of my son, not my oldest daughters but the first three, because of Barry Rogers and the camera I got from Tommy López. But Barry, everything was Barry, Barry. Barry was the most incredible influence and the most spiritual companion I could have ever had on the bandstand. Plus, he tuned the piano for me right on the engagement. He brought in the sound, he was the first one to do the sound. If anything went wrong, he would take out his soldering gun, I mean on stage! He was a genius!
DC: A Renaissance man.
EP: I mean God sent him to me, man. And I would say we became - at that moment nobody realized - such an incredible duo, a dynamic duo in our genre of music, that it's there forever. Until when we split and that was certainly due to me, when fame ran ahead of preparation and when that happened, then he had already taken me to Bob Bianco in '65. He went one day to do a group with David Herscher and the Herscher brothers called the Runaways and I went back to Bob Bianco which is the best thing that happened to me.
DC: What kind of group was the Runaways?
EP: Oh, Barry was gonna play tres and trombone in that. They didn't work that much but it was interesting in what they did and what they were looking for. But see, he just wanted to do something new and the boogaloo helped damage everything on my end and then that didn't help. It was a whole combination of things, you know? But everything happens for the best. Then we meet again in '74 and that's another classic that we get involved for, Sentido, which is for Mango. And then we do for Coco The Sun of Latin Music, and then we meet one more time in '80 to do the white album, which is totally separated from all others because there's four Victor Paz's there and three Barry Rogers' (laughs.)
DC: One thing that has distinguished you for most of your career as a leader is quartal harmony, in some ways that's almost become a cliche, but nobody does it like Eddie Palmieri. The fourths, whether in voicings or in melodic lines - how did they find their way into your music?
EP: Oh, all that's related to Bob Bianco. The idea is when you have a complete scale, you know, from C to C, you play all the notes - naturally it's not gonna be acceptable. So then we do the first expansion, and fourth harmony is Expansion Two in Schillinger. Expansion One is thirds, Expansion Two is...When I tell him, "Oh, man, I love the way McCoy Tyner plays." "Oh, that's Expansion Two." And he broke down everything, Expansion Three would then be fifths, Expansion Four would be sixths, and that's the idea. Bob Bianco was my personal guru in every category that you can think of. Music, which he brought me to the Joseph Schillinger world, which I had no idea of, plus his own rationalization of the system and his jazz presentation that he gave me. Plus he took me to the Henry George School of Political Economy and he took me into scientists like Immanuel Velikovsky, and then philosophy. And, because of him, I got this thirst for investigation, my spirit of investigation to know about that no man's land which is entitled philosophy.
DC: On the credits for the album Lucumí, Macumba, Voodoo you list your influences and two of them are Velikovksy and Henry George.
EP: And Phil Grant.
DC: What attracted you to Henry George?
EP: Well, because, again, Bob Bianco was a teacher at the Henry George School and he taught that free. And I used to go to his classes, Barry Rogers and I went first, then Barry left. But I went and I really got into, as far as I could, into Henry George and finding his remedies in his masterpiece book called Progress and Poverty.
DC: Beautiful book.
EP: Which is the unequal distribution of wealth, which is the problem that we have all over the planet. He predicted it right on the money. But fortunately for whomever probed deeply and comprehended it because, like we said in class, virtue is its own reward.
DC: One thing that I found interesting about La Perfecta is that some of the players had day jobs. Can you tell us about work outside of music that some of these guys did?
EP: Oh, Ismael Quintana worked for a dental firm and George Castro worked for the stock market and eventually went back to the stock market and left the music.
DC: Yet you had steady gigs up in the Catskills, how did these guys make it?
EP: Oh, they had to commute. If you wanted to stay in the band you had to commute and they did it every night, they drove a hundred miles a day.
DC: But that's incredible loyalty, I can't imagine anyone doing this today.
EP: Well, that's why it was an incredible orchestra, It was something nobody could comprehend either. That conjunto, La Perfecta, was quite awesome. And the loyalty showed and you feel it in the recordings, that Ismael Quintana and Georgie drove up every night! And it wasn't only the loyalty as far as Ismael Quintana driving a hundred miles a day and George Castro.... The thing is that since that day there's been a system, a formula that's followed in this band. Whoever comes in next is the one who's got the gig. If you leave the gig, whoever comes in--not that I don't want you back-- but this guy's gotta leave again. Until he leaves.... And if he leaves and you're not able to come in,then the next guy. There's always somebody that wants to come into this band. It's like the Hispanic Jazz Messengers, which, unfortunately, Mr. Blakey and I never recorded together but we talked about it.
DC: But you have the same spirit of passing on tradition to a succession of younger players.
EP: that's what Mr. Brian Lynch said, too, we would have been quite complementary to each other in the recording studio.
DC: At big Catskills hotels such as the Raleigh, Kutsher's or Brown's it was normal to have more than one band. Was La Perfecta required to do anything in those hotels besides play dance sets?
EP: No, just dance sets and then matinees. One of those matinees was filmed by Barry, which is the only filming of the Perfecta, there's no other film of the Perfecta, unfortunately. The other thing we did was when we won El Momo de Oro, in the four hundred year anniversary in Caracas and we recorded ten TV shows, four numbers a day for ten days. We recorded forty compositions. It went bankrupt and they could never find that film again. But the only film of La Perfecta is that and I believe it's still gotta be there someplace because it's the four hundred year anniversary of Caracas. Such an important year, they wouldn't erase it. They said that they probably erased the tape to use it for something else but I believe that some day that'll be found. And the only one that's not on there is Manny Oquendo cause he had a taxi accident, with another taxi, and he got all busted up. So Mike Collazo, who was the drummer with Vicentico, Mikie Collazo comes with me to Venezuela and he worked very hard. But Tommy López is the one that really was outstanding, because since Manny Oquendo and him were so tight, when Manny doesn't show Tommy takes the pressure.
DC: He compensates.
EP: Yeah, and after that he never plays again the same.
DC: Getting back to the Palladium, what can you tell us about the last night.
EP: There were two closings but the last one was mine.
DC: Two closings?
EP: Yeah, like two days - like one band stopped, for some reason there were two days, it seemed that way. But I closed it the last night and the one that's there is Santitos Colón and I, because they gave like little cheese sandwiches. We were kidding around, making fun of the departure of Mr. Hyman, who loved his place, and his wife. She was the heiress of Otis Elevators, his first marriage.
DC: No shit!
EP: Yeah, and he was in the garment center, Mr. Hyman. But they loved it and they bought the Palladium, they turned it into the Home of the Mambo and it all fell apart, and they really wanted them out of there. So when they raided the place that was really a setup and that was unfortunate. Rolando LaSerie was there. And after that they removed the liquor license, so after that he was able to last not too long. And now you see that skyscraper that they really wanted to put there in the first place. Plus there were a lot of problems, that they had a lot of complaints downtown. They were quite abusive, they had tremendous, big bouncers and they would throw you down a flight of stairs. They did it to lots of the Hispanics on Saturday nights and they'd get drunk. Everything comes around, you know what I mean?
DC: Think about the era before there were electric keyboard instruments. How did you rate the clubs and dancehalls in the 60s for the best pianos and the worst pianos?
EP: Oh, all of them were worst, they were all ruined by then and the only one that saved me was Barry Rogers. He came with his tuning fork and then there would be 3,000 people there, Ralph Mercado could be screaming, but Barry was banging the pins in. Nobody cared about the pianos. And then Barry got me a pickup from a gentleman called Alex Lipschitz in Brooklyn and he got these flare horns and a Bogen amplifier. We got our first primitive sound and it was all because of Barry Rogers.
DC: So Barry really did get your sound system together!
EP: That's right. He got the stuff from Buylines, he was quite economical (BP laughs).
DC: How were you originally hooked up with Cal Tjader for the albums that you did?
EP: He just showed up at the Cheetah, and when he came he said he wanted to record and I said, "You got a deal." Then when I went to see Morris Levy, Morris Levy suggested, "Well then, he'll do one for you, exchange of artists." And that's what we did. Creed Taylor was the gentleman in charge of MGM at that time, Verve, and we did it. And they both will be there forever, mainly because of the personnel again. And Bobby Rodríguez was the bass player of La Perfecta then, so now there was really no competition! We were in competition when we played, when Bobby Rodríguez came into the band, for the short time with him and Manny Oquendo. Now there was no competition, nowhere, now we controlled. And they wouldn't really let us perform because they really were giving us the business, too. Little by little, they didn't want this to happen, you know, we were so awesome.
DC: You made your feelings clear about the boogaloo earlier in our conversation. When you had the Champagne album, that included "The African Twist."
EP: Well, it's like I told someone what a disaster we have now and the tragedy of our dance orchestras and he said, and I'll quote, "Eddie, you change with the times or the times are gonna change you." And sure enough, record sales were dipping and all these boogaloo bands were selling more records than Dr. Carter's Liver Pills. But all those orchestras that sold all those records, not one of them exists now! So it's like Bach and after Bach the Art Galant [Style Galant, a rococo style ca. 1750 that was heavy on decorative ornaments and light on counterpoint] , and all those composers of Art Galant, nobody knows who they are. But Bach is the only artist whose music we have sent out into space to see if there's any other life on another planet. They recommended and they sent out only Bach's music, he's the only one, and do you know why? The reason is because whoever hears the music of the old Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, would have to say, "You know, those people can't be all that bad." That's the greatest compliment I've ever heard in my life on any artist which has ever been bestowed, only on Johann Sebastian Bach. But the movement then was Art Galant. Then the fugue was out, it was like bringing in boogaloo after the mambo and cha cha cha, which was a complete disaster.
DC: Well, how much did you play "The African Twist?"
EP: Oh, the least I possibly could. And after that I had to go back to Bob Bianco. I was not well. It destroyed everything for everybody.
DC: Give me an idea of the next stage after La Perfecta.
EP: Then it came into the new group and that was the rhythm section called Los Diablitos. That was Nicky Marrero, which I could never thank him enough, Eladio Perez, and Chuckie López, who was 13. When I added the three ages one was 19, one was 17 and one was 13. Divided by three, that came out to 17.1, and that's what I recorded. Then that album becomes Superimposition cause I'm already studying that much more with Bob Bianco and he's straightening me out. And that's when Chocolate comes in, Armenteros, and joins José Rodríguez, and Ismael Quintana is still the vocalist, and that band becomes something to deal with too. That one goes into Justicia and Vamonos pal monte with my brother. Then that becomes a whole other ballgame and that gives me all the variations to the bands that I have now.
DC: Can you talk about your collaboration in the '70s with René Hernández?
EP: Well, the René Hernández arrangements are when I do Sun of Latin Music in '75 and then in '81, even though he had done work on my first album. He was my musical godfather - my musical godfather, chosen by me. I loved him very much, the true genius of the structures that only he comprehended, the way he uniquely did it and presented those arrangements to Machito's orchestra. No one could ever even get close, ever, ever, ever.
DC: So because you grew up listening to Machito you were very aware of René from the beginning.
EP: Oh, but I happened to love him, he was a saint! You remember Saint Augustine - Saint René. I named my oldest daughter after him, Renée, with the two Es. So imagine how much I loved this guy. [Three other musicians who named children after René Hernández are Hector Rivera, Yayo el Indio, and Benny Bonilla]
EP2: I remember when you used to go to his house.
EP: Oh, that's later, that's when I'm in Puerto Rico. 'Cause when I met him later he didn't want to write any more, he figured that he's out of it. He was already playing with Miguelito Miranda in Puerto Rico, the show band in the Caribe Hilton. And then Miguelito retires and then the trumpet player....
DC: Mario Ortiz?
EP: Mario Ortiz takes over the band, you know, and René stays with the show band. So he's just there in the condominium in Calle de Parque and here I come, and he didn't want to get involved (laughs) with nothin'! And I tell him something and he tells me, "Well, I tell you what we do. If you come every day or whatever days you're here, two hours a day, from 2 to 4, you know, let me know what days you're gonna come - I'll wait for you and we'll work together." And that's what we did, and out of that came The Sun of Latin Music. When he wrote for Lalo Rodríguez and did the most beautiful arrangement of the "Deseo Selvaje" is René Hernández and I, our first collaboration. He died in '77 but what he did for me in '73, '74, when he realized that I wanted a tango, he writes the arrangement and I put it in my closet. The danzón "Ritmo Alegre" and the "El Dia Que Me Quieres" are in the closet for six or seven years. Then they bring in Bobby Colomby and he does the danzón - I got Jon Faddis, Lou Soloff, Chocolate and Alan Rubin in that trumpet section - and it stays there for years. Because he did "Spirit of Life," he wanted to do the danzón and it doesn't come out, the partner is the tango. And then when I sign with Gerry Masucci, finally, I take out the tango. And since he was doing work with the CBS Fania All Stars, they send him the tapes and I find the danzón. Then nobody could do the tango so I called Vitín Paz, after three years that we don't see each other. He says he'll do it but I gotta erase all those trumpets that were done. That means Faddis, Soloff, and I erased them all, then it became a classic. And Barry Rogers and Vitín Paz and Cheo Feliciano and Ismael gave me a classic of classics.
DC: I want to talk about "Un dia bonito" and how it developed.
EP: I wrote that on a boat, at 9 in the morning on a boat with the González brothers next to me. I was playing conga and I was singing. It was a beautiful day and I sang (sings "Un dia tan bonito") and I'm sitting there writing in a boat. Then I change it to what I specifically wanted, the target of California 'cause I had left the market of California, Los Angeles, and in particular because my family was there in San Francisco, which I happen to love very much. And look at the irony of life, my son lives there now.
DC: But the version of this song that appears on The Sun of Latin Music -...?
EP: Oh, no, that's a classic between Barry and I. That's the highest musical presentation of Barry and I, that's what we reached there. We started in Sentido, the old Perfecta, but "Un Dia Bonito" is when it's the maximum of our collaboration ever. And my respect for him, I never played piano like that again and I couldn't do that again if I tried, what I did there, in my opinion. Because it was the magic between us, he drew it out and I drew everything out of him too. And then nobody could copy the score, so Felipe Yez did it - Felipe Yez who played piano for Tito Rodríguez, who died of cancer.
DC: He wrote "Chévere."
EP: Right, exactly right. I went to his house, he was living in Queens, because I recorded in '75. '73, '74 is when the score is happening, you know?
DC: How much of what you hear on the record was put together in layers and how much of it was actually done with people playing live together in the studio, are there a lot of overdubs?
EP: No, I took an earlier part of the piano and I added to make it twice 'cause I liked them both. And then all the other work was put together by Barry, of just removing one part and, you know, editing really. But it was done in one shot, I had Victor Paz and Virgil Jones - those guys come to record and then they're out! But Barry was the one that was there, he was my anchor, and then he took charge of the studio. So he relieved me - it's like what my son does, he takes care of the studio, everything else, and relieves me so I can perform, you know? He knew that I had to perform to something else that I never done and when I presented it to him he loved it. I gave him the whole structure, the intro, the whole thing. Then he orchestrated that and then he added - ohhhh, the work was insane! I mean to hear it, you gotta hear it.
DC: Every time I listen to it I can't believe what I'm hearing, every time (EP laughs). I want to talk about how you got involved in the whole Grammy evolution.
EP: It just happened! I didn't even know that I was nominated, I don't even know who sent my name in! The next thing I know I'm a governor and I say, "Wow, what is this?" And then the next thing I know I really got into it, and the next thing I know is they make me a vice president, and then the next thing I know (laughs), I'm playing with my octet in the host committee, and the next thing I know is we're finding out another category. So while we were quite instrumental, there have been many that have been. The gentleman from California that wrote a beautiful letter, John Santos, and a lot of people telling them that they need another category (Latin jazz). But we were the ones that were instrumental in showing them, and when we played the next thing, you know, we got it! And then after that I left. I mean I didn't leave, I had to leave for a year. But I don't believe they really want me back and I don't believe that I want to get back. Because of the things that I saw and things you couldn't possibly bend into action, and now in the separation of NARAS, that LARAS situation, of Latin American artists. I comprehend what they want to do to represent the artists properly, the Hispanic artist. But why don't we take out classical music and call it CLARAS (DC, BP laugh), for example, which means classical legendary artists. You know, whatever you're gonna call it, CLARAS, and then let's put all the Latin artists in NARAS. Because classical musicians and classical artists, I'm not putting anything down, but I don't believe a classical artist should be sitting next to, starting with an Eddie Palmieri and Doggie Dog Dog Dog or somethin' like that, waiting to get his nomination. I think we're insulting the musicians of the highest order. They should be completely separated, they should be dissected out of NARAS and called CLARAS or whatever name it goes by officially and have just one NARAS representing all the musical genres in the world. Once you separate us I'm gonna take it as apartheid. I'm gonna start thinking of a racial undertone, overtone, any tone you want. It stinks! And that's why I don't believe I'll go back or that they want me back. But I wish them the very best and I'm glad I was instrumental for the Latin jazz.
DC: Since what you play is rooted in dance music, from a dancers perspective how has the music changed since you started as a bandleader?
EP: Oh, what we have now is a complete tragedy of the non-exciting orchestras ever, ever on the planet Earth playing the genre that belongs to us as exciting dance orchestras! They have altered the structures, and what you have is now - its like when you look at all the cars you really don't know what car is what, really, like the way you were able to name them before, they had their individual signatures. Right now you don't know which orchestra you're listening to, since they all sound the same, and one sounds worse than the other! The singers don't have their proper college and library preparation, not putting enough, anything - they just don't know and no one can guide them properly. We don't get the right airplay for the music that should be played. So they're only hearing one side, its a one-sided story. And again you either change with the times or go along with it and that's fine. It has nothing to do with me, it's with the young orchestra leaders that are fronting an orchestra, that they know nothing about music! And the arrangers are told by the record company exactly how to write for these artists. Because if you don't write what people are buying then you're rocking the boat, now you're rocking the boat and we're gonna call you not! So then the arranger does what he's told and what we have then is bland! What we have is non-exciting orchestras and the rhythm section, which puts you to dance, is now secondary, third-dary. And it looks like the way they're going, they'll probably eliminate them as far as live, they could use any kind of bland track to accompany this presentation, which is a total tragedy in my opinion. Remember, this is Eddie Palmieri's opinion and that's where we'll leave it at. Anybody else can have their own opinion, mine is this is a terrible, terrible situation. Until El rumbero del piano comes out, it will put a stop to all of this.
DC: And that is the new album?
EP: It will be out at the end of August. I haven't recorded vocals in 11 years, my son and I produced it and it's the order for the 21st century. What I had to do was find a way that I can satisfy the jazz player's desires to the maximum along with my percussion section's desires, and I was able to merge the two. That meant I had to concentrate on a jazz form, that we have all the changes for the players like Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Conrad Herwig, in the trilogy that my son calls the Palmas, Arete, El Vortex. But in the middle of those composition I turned into my dance orchestra, and that means that the rhythm gets priority - it goes into first position, the way it should. And that's why you hear the Latin jazz and you can still see people dancing, it's still geared to dance. Now all I did was go back to my forte, which is the whole composition, of lyric contents. So this CD has the lyric message, harmonic message and a rhythmical message, very important for the 21st century. And it grabbed the folkloric of my music of Puerto Rico - plena, which is the true folkloric, and bomba, both of African origin, but plena more manifesting and developing in Puerto Rico as the true folkloric of Puerto Rico.
BP: Who are the vocalists?
EP: We have Wichy Camacho from Puerto Rico, brought in by Ralph Mercado, and then Herman Oliveros, who is our vocalist for the last two years in Europe since Europe has now gone berserk for salsa. So we present both shows, the salsa and the Latin jazz, and take it to the highest order. No other orchestra can do that, in my opinion, to that degree on the planet.
DC: Can we have the other personnel?
EP: Oh, we have Mr. Piro Rodríguez, first trumpet; Nelson Jaime, second trumpet; Tony Lujan on third trumpet. We have Conrad Herwig, trombone, and Mr. Phil Vieux, a phenom, on baritone. Then you have José Clausell on timbales, Paoli Mejas on congas and Javier Oquendo on bongó. Joe Santiago, his first album ever with us, and me on piano, my son and I co-produced the CD. And then we go to Los Pleneros de la 21 to do bomba and plena. That'll be our presentation of our show, it'll probably open up in San Francisco.
DC: I just heard a tape where Phil Vieux is playing a bunch of different woodwinds. I had never heard him before and I thought he was great!
EP: No, correction -he's not great, he is the greatest! They're gonna have to deal with him, Phil Vieux is the greatest saxophonist that I've ever heard and been able to share a bandstand with. He is truly awesome, he is a true phenom and he came from the Horace Silver orchestra here. He's hurt right now, but he's on his way to Haiti, he's gone there to heal and he'll be back soon.
DC: He broke his arm?
EP: He broke it and then re-broke it in Denver.
BP: The same place, the same break?
EP: Yeah, he just wanted to find out if it was true the first time, he does things like that (DC, BP laugh). He is truly the most awesome saxophone player I've ever met! I'm talking about from piccolo to bassoon, every instrument that you could think of in between and he'll be able to play it and take it to its level, including clarinet and bass clarinet. No one can do that, none of them!
DC: And he plays baritone on the CD.
EP: And my favorite is the baritone. No one can do that, you name 'em and I'll tell you immediately - as a matter of fact don't name 'em, there's no one that can do that! So he's not a great player, he's the greatest at this age that no one knows yet, and that's wonderful. I like things like that.
EP2: 25 years old.
EP: Yeah (laughs), he's a genius! And he got fired immediately, man. I told him, "How did this all start?" And he said, "Well, I started on the piano," and as soon as he said piano, I called Conrad and said he's fired! Piano!
BP: You mentioned that you're going back to using vocals. Is part of this because RMM thinks that it's more marketable if it's straight salsa?
EP2: Well, he wanted to market it that way, too. But there was one composition that we have to maintain, which is the straight ahead jazz cut that we did, which is called "Bug." It's a special bonus track at the end of the album because of business negotiations in Germany with the new Volkswagen, there are negotiations going on that they're gonna to use that. Four minutes, straight ahead jazz.
BP: Was the thought behind that that it could be used as a jingle for the Volkswagen campaign?
EP2: No, it was dedicated to the people who have captured back majority through myself, founding this publishing company that administers all of my fathers last five, six CDs. The majority of work is my father's since Palo Pa Rumba, since 1983 my father's arranged everything. He started to go back on the pencil, does his thing. So I founded this company four or five years ago when I got involved in my father's business and I've gone after everybody who has "so called," had a wonderful time with my father's catalog. And I've challenged everybody on that and I've gotten back at least 80 per cent of my father's music through this company. It's called Bug Music, out of Los Angeles. So because of their great work, that they've been able to capture back my father's greatest hits and at least get accountability, now people are sending accounting every quarter, or semiannually. And I'm getting my father's money, which he never got before. The business of music went over my father's head like many other great people. In the 60s Morris Levy took everything in Tico, he took everybody's music.
DC: You know, I've got the documentation from BMI, Eddie has six pages worth of tunes registered with them!
EP2: Yeah, my father's pushing almost 200 original compositions now, he wants to go to 300 and then retire.
BP: How did you get involved with your father's career?
EP2: I ducked into the studio when he was doing Palo pa rumba with Gerry Masucci, I saw so many things going on that were wrong. But I was still in college.
BP: For example?
EP2: Ah, just the studio that they were in and then no one paying attention, I just couldn't understand what was going on. And then I got involved during the La India situation, I was there for a whole month with him.
BP: Lets talk about that for a moment, that Llegó la India collaboration certainly jumpstarted her career. First of all, whose idea was that and did you notice some of the younger audience turned on to Eddie Palmieri, did you notice any resurgence in sales?
EP: Oh, it was directed that way from David Maldonado. He asked if I ever heard of a Little Louie Vega and I didn't know who Louie Vega was.
BP: At that time, her husband and producer.
EP: Oh, no, I didn't even know who they were. And then one day I went to the studio and I met Little Louie, and India was there. W e looked at each other - ahhh, she was frightening and she looked at me like, "Who is this guy?" (DC, BP laugh). Who is this old guy, you know? So I just saw them and then I cut out. And then I met a gentleman called Tom Del Mastro, her business manager, who is a C.P.A. One of the baddest C.P.A.s that you could meet on the planet. He made me a deal that I couldn't refuse and I got involved. And then I said, "Well, OK, tell her that within that deal it's gonna be via Eddie Palmieri," and that's how he used it, and then my son saw to that. And, after that, she went onto her thing and I wish her the very best. But I know that what she sang there she is to be commended for. She had never sung in Spanish, and that album some day will be known as the true classic of all her recordings, in my opinion. It's an orchestra catering to her, it was custom tailored, which I know how to do for the vocalist. And not that they didn't custom tailor for her later, but it's highly custom tailored in what I chose for her, which is everything you could think of from a rumba to merengue, bolero. We opened her up completely.
DC: How much did you help India with the inspirations?
EP: Oh, it's me singing! My trajectories, my phrasing, her voice. Because she had never sung in Spanish, you know, she had never done anything. She didn't even know about that medium, she was hip hop and she was playing in all different places, the gay places. Not for the reason that it was gay or this and that, she did any gig and they paid her well. I mean you had to pay her, she went into a gay club and she did her show. Little Louie went and did the thing, and between the two of them - but she was making good money and she was very good and they love her! Yeah, then she's one on one with the audience, like, "Hey, baby -" you know, she's down to earth, she's street! But when we meet, now this was a whole different ballgame. I had to start giving her Merceditas Valdés, I gave her CDs to listen to. Celia...I gave her everything I could think of, gave her an orientation as fast as I could. And then working with her every night, I'm talkin about every night till 5, 6 in the morning, 7 in the morning.
DC: Were there any other singers you recorded that you also helped with soneo?
EP: All of them - except I would say, naturally, Cheo Feliciano. Not all of them, but I mean I helped 'em. I told 'em I'm not telling you what to sing, but I know exactly what you have to sing, things like that. And then Lalo Rodríguez was everything, he was 16 years old. So I would say Lalo and India were the two extremes, the 16 year old and the young lady that had never sung in our genre.
EP2: And then Luis Vergara, Palo Pa Rumba.
EP: And Luis Vergara - yeah, but he had already sung.
DC: Was Lalo supposed to do The Sun of Latin Music originally?
EP: No, it was gonna be Ismael Quintana but Ismael Quintana left with Fania. Then I called Andy Montañez and he was gonna do it but El Gran Combo, they didn't give him permission to do the whole album. So I didn't have a singer, and Justo Betancourt and a friend in Puerto Rico helped me find Lalo Rodríguez. And then I took him right to René Hernández's house and said, "Sing anything you want." He took out his guitar, which was bigger than him almost, and he sang "Deseo Selvaje" and I knew I had a winner. And then René took it from there, and he and I worked every day.
BP: What do you listen to at your leisure these days? (EP indicates nothing.) You're working all the time?
EP: Working here, I don't have the time to listen to music, I don't have the right sound system. For many years I haven't listened to music really--20 years, 15 years--the way I used to. We sold the house in '83 to go to Puerto Rico when my brother had his heart attack. Since then, I've never listened to music again, I mean the way I used to listen to music. My son knows, he used to sit in there with his sisters and just rock, I mean he heard everything and I played it loud! You know, I had two big 15 inch woofers, I mean that's the way I like to hear it. I sat in the middle, like in a yoga position and let it blast me. But I haven't done that in years.
For the last half year or so the kind of buzz that surrounds any upcoming Palmieri album has been steadily growing. El Rumbero del Piano has just been made available. Another Palmieri CD should be out by December 1998, recorded live at the Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture in the Bronx. Sales of this album will benefit the New Direction Fund of Bronx Lebanon Hospital. On August 10, 1998, this presentation was shown on New Yorks WNET-Channel 13. This footage will also be available through RMM; believe it or not, it's the first commercially available video dedicated to the artistry of Eddie Palmieri.
For those interested in digging deeper into the history of "El loco de la salsa," we recommend two articles. The Robert Farris Thompson piece quoted earlier has all the dazzling command of language, socio-cultural insight, and lucid description of the music itself that we've come to expect from this brilliant thinker and writer. To find this piece, look in your local library's microfilm collection for the Saturday Review of 10/28/67. Arguably, the most probing and witty published interview of Eddie was conducted by John Storm Roberts, author of The Latin Tinge and Black Music of Two Worlds. His "Salsa's Prodigal Son: Eddie Palmieri" appears in the April 22, 1976 edition of Down Beat.