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04/01/96

Profile of Puerto Rican radio show host, musicologist and author, Frank M. Figueroa.


Profile: Frank M. Figeroa

by David Carp (David_Carp@descarga.com)

Official use of the airwaves began in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the United States in the latter half of 1922—just one of many manifestations of technological and cultural links between the North American mainland and the Caribbean. The three-way symbiosis between professional musicians, a listening and dancing public, and broadcasters is an old story for Afro-Caribbean culture, but is much better known through written documentation than through either oral or aural evidence. Although tantalizing references to radio broadcasts of Latino artists can be found in New York and Caribbean newspapers and other publications available on microfilm, research on Spanish language radio is too recent a phenomenon to have included the oral testimony of many of the men and women who pioneered the medium. One witness to (and product of) the power of radio in the Latino world is busy sharing his bilingualism, biculturalism, sophistication and earthiness with many willing listeners (one of the most willing being David Carp, a relative newcomer to radio). His name is Frank M. Figueroa.

According to certain elderly informants, very few residents of Puerto Rico heard radio broadcasts in the early to mid 1920s because of the relative expense of listening sets. As a member of a middle class Rio Piedras family, Frank Figueroa was able to hear music on the radio as far back as he can remember. Although Figueroa's nascent musical sensibilities were nourished by broadcasts of classic Puerto Rican popular artists such as Pedro Marcano and Rafael Muñoz, it was probably the Orquesta Casino de la Playa that had the longest-lasting impact. Residents of Puerto Rico in the late 1930s were only a short-wave radio set away from a variety of Cuban stations. It's no surprise that Frank knows some Anselmo Sacasas piano solos almost note for note and numerous Miguelito Valdés inspirations almost word for word: listening over and over again to Casino de la Playa records from radio broadcasts was almost a rite of passage for Puerto Ricans of his generation (he was born 5/7/26). He was taken by an uncle to a tea dansant at the Escambron Beach Club to hear Casino de la Playa on their first tour of Puerto Rico. Figueroa says, "Everyone would double on different instruments, which was a new thing, at times they would have three violins playing. And other times the band would just parade throughout the dance floor, you know, they'd form a conga line. Sacasas would be up front playing the sartenes leading the conga line and the trumpets behind playing and then Miguelito singing, playing the conga drum — wow!" At age nine, Frank was banging out rhythms on a pair of tin cans; by the early 1940s he was the bongo player with a conjunto of teenagers called the Rio Serenaders.

In 1942 the Figueroas moved to the New York City German neighborhood known as Yorkville. Frank was warned by family members of the "dangers" of El Barrio, and Harlem in general, and was left without groups to play with or radio programming that he could relate to. He signed up for a course in dental mechanics where he met a fellow student, Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Ramón Olivero. The bongos came out of the closet and Frank was soon gigging at the Club Obreros Españoles at 102nd Street and Madison Avenue, where Olivero led for many years a band playing typical Puerto Rican and Spanish music. (Olivero's drummer in the late 1930s was one Ernesto "Tito" Puente.) It wasn't long before Frank discovered Dick Gilbert's all-Latin segments on WHN, a station better known at that time for broadcasting the Brooklyn Dodger games. He had found his first North American radio role model. Frank says, "In my opinion Dick Gilbert was the first mainstream DJ to really play Latin tunes and to have some taste for our music. He played things that meant something, it wasn't 'La Cucaracha' or 'Alla los Ranchos Grandes' over and over again."

By the late spring of 1944, Frank Figueroa was in the service of El Tio Samuel. When he returned in July 1946, his family had moved to 944 East 163rd Street in the Longwood area of the Bronx, a hotbed of Latin musicians in the postwar era. While attending Seton Hall College in South Orange, New Jersey, he promoted several dances at the Audubon Ballroom and organized his own band. He was referred by a Bronx music school to a young saxophonist who had just finished a summer engagement in the Borscht Belt with Dominican bandleader Josecito Román and was just beginning his studies at the Juilliard School. The saxophonist was Ray Santos, who became musical director for Figueroa's group, the Ambassadors of Rhumba, and a lifelong friend. (Ray credits Frank Figueroa as the leader who gave him his first opportunity to play big band Latin music.) Although not a long-lived group, the Ambassadors of Rhumba included musicians such as percussionist Manny Oquendo (who lived around the corner from Frank on Kelly Street) and pianist Ray Coen. Its leader fronted the band, singing and playing maracas. Performance venues included New York's Manhattan Center, Palladium Ballroom and Lincoln Square Center.

Frank launched his radio career in 1947 with "Spanish Time" on Seton Hall's WSOU-FM (this was actually WSOU's first regular program). His move to commercial radio came in 1948 when WLIB's Juan José Vásquez accepted a pilot script for a new program. This program was "La Hora del Mambo," where Latin music's vanguard orchestras like Machito, the two Titos, Julio Andino and Noro Morales could be heard regularly. WLIB listeners would know that it was 5:00 p.m. when they heard Jose Mangual's unaccompanied cascara on his bongos. This meant that Machito's Continental recording of "El Rey del Mambo" was beginning (please, somebody reissue all of Machito's Continental 78s). A few minutes after Machito began his vocal, listeners would hear, "Y así al son de nuestro tema 'El Rey del Mambo' por Machito y sus Afro-Cubanos, da comienzo otro audición de 'La Hora del Mambo,' una hora en Mambolandia con su socio Frank Figueroa y la música más arrebatá de América." This trademark Figueroa introduction shows his desire to create a Spanish-language equivalent of the stylized "jive-speak" and laid-back personal quality of Fred Robbins, William B. Williams and other popular American announcers. Note the Spanish neologism "Mambolandia" (alluding to Pepe Becke's "Frizilandia," recorded by Becke's friends Miguelito Valdés and Bobby Escoto); the hip yet intimate quality of "su socio Frank Figueroa"; and "la música más arrebatá" which alludes to the stereotyped bop insider's drug-induced high as an extension of "arrebatá," a slangy expression of being in a wild, frenetic emotional state—or as Figueroa puts it "not good Spanish but hip Spanish."

Frank Figueroa was (and still is) an avid listener, not only to music, but to people. Bronx neighbors such as Ray Santos and Ray Coen were quick to pull his coat when anything new and good came out on record. Manny Oquendo's avid collecting, keen ears and tenacious memory have formed the tastes of two generations of musicians. Frank Figueroa was an early student at the Oquendo Conservatory. "He'd keep me hip and say 'Frank, you gotta play this!' I'd be walking by Kelly Street on my way home and he'd stop me and say 'Hey, you're terrific, that was swingtime today! Good stuff!' or 'Frank, where did you get that gallego music, don't play that!' "

The combination of trademark Spanish and "la música más arrebatá" made "La Hora del Mambo" and all subsequent Figueroa programs unique. He not only established his identification with the cutting edge of American popular culture; he also distanced himself from what many of his Nuyorican contemporaries considered to be the less positive features of New York Hispanic broadcasting. Figueroa regarded the programming of WWRL "La Voz Hispana de la Aire", WLIB, and other 1940s' stations that were either exclusively (or at least heavily) Spanish-oriented as being overly driven by market values. He says, "The Spanish radio broadcasts were poor in the sense that it was ten thousand commercials and one little record. They advertised barbershops and bodegas and everything else and you can understand why. These are time brokers that bought time from a radio station for a certain fee and then proceeded to make a living from this type of work. People like Salvador Merced and José de la Vega and those people, for us younger people it was kind of a disgrace to have to listen to that." Like many young Puerto Ricans, Figueroa preferred the programming of Jewish DJ Art "Pancho" Raymond. Like many 1940s Puerto Rican teenagers who aspired to hipness, he eschewed trios and avoided playing them on his programs. Let it be said that Figueroa is quick to acknowledge the talent of a Manuel S. Martínez, whose antics in his stock jibaro persona of "Compay Sico" cracked up WWRL listeners; or of his employer, Juan José Vásquez, who had an excellent speaking voice and considerable producing experience acquired during a tour of duty with the Voice of America, in addition to a knack for hustling commercial sponsors for his WLIB programs.

It's hard to imagine a world without easy ways of taping from radio and television. The mouth of a hard-core Latin music collector goes through a period of intense salivation when thinking about special broadcast moments lost for posterity. Many such moments must have occurred on the "Miguelito Valdés Show", which aired on WLIB from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. This program came about by pure chance after Miguelito heard his records on "La Hora del Mambo" and called the station. Figueroa invited this idol of his teenage radio listening days to WLIB for an interview. When Juan José Vásquez asked Miguelito Valdez to do his own program, Miquelito insisted that Frank Figueroa be the co-host. When Miguelito was on the road with his orchestra, Machito and other musicians of note would fill in. "Those guys had such a fantastic sense of humor—you wouldn't believe it, they kept me in stitches!" Figueroa recalls. "Miguelito would say when a number had many requests 'Este número tiene mas peticiones que el aqueducto de la Habana!,' this number has more requests than the aqueduct in Havana' which was always low in water and not running. So he's telling you that, you can't read a commercial, you're dying laughing! Or he'd say 'And now we have five hundred and fifty pounds of velocity and rhythm, Noro Morales!' When we played Jose Curbelo, 'And now we have Alfonso Trece.'" (Alfonso the 13th was a king of Spain whose abnormally large chin bore a striking resemblance to Curbelo's.) Vásquez's knowledge of Mexican show business and contacts he had made through the Voice of America, Miquelito Valdes' popularity, and the proximity of the WLIB studios to Columbia Record's legendary 30th Street studio, contributed to a party-like atmosphere at "La Hora del Mambo," with members of "La Farándula Panamericana" dropping in and out at will.

This constant flow of radio guests was most opportune. With his empathy, language skills, and warmth, Figueroa was a natural interviewer. These qualities were a hallmark of Figueroa's programs at other stations, which included (in chronological order) WEVD, WNJR, WVNJ and WHOM. (Incidentally, Miguelito Valdés was not the only bandleader/radio personality of this period. During the early 1950s Tito Rodriguez hosted his own WHOM program concurrently with Frank Figueroa's.) "Mambo Fiesta" was hosted by Figueroa (aka "Don Mambo") from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday. This program was done in English, but listened to heavily by both Latinos and Anglo mambo freaks. This was evident from the large number of listener phone calls. There were seven studio phones manned by Figueroa and two assistants, who used the requests to compile a "Latin-American Hit Parade." The WHOM studios were located on 53rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues above the Hickory House—and very near the Palladium Ballroom. Just as at WLIB, musicians and record business people were always dropping by, sometimes bringing acetate pressings of music recorded that day and never played before on the radio. Frank Figueroa was quite possibly the first DJ to play Tito Puente's "Encanto Cubano" and other sides from his 1949 SMC date; "Nosotros" and other numbers from Tito Rodriguez's first cha cha sessions for RCA Victor; and music by Moncho Leña, Johnny Conquet and many other bandleaders. One very hot recording artist who dropped in at WHOM was Dámaso Pérez Prado, whose English was minimal. Figueroa managed to interview him in Spanish and simultaneously translate for the Anglo audience, thus anticipating what has become standard practice among today's more accomplished Latin announcers.

"Fiesta Mambo" debuted on February 21, 1955 and was off the air by 1956. Frank Figueroa's on-air talents were not matched by a comparable knowledge of marketing. Advertising agencies in the 1940s and 1950s regarded the Hispanic radio market as too marginal for their ad campaigns; therefore, the key to survival as a Spanish DJ was the ability to sell time to individual businesses. Discouraged by the realities of commercial broadcasting, Figueroa enrolled at Columbia University in 1958. His love of the intricacies and layered nature of language was expressed in an intense study of Spanish literature. He soon earned a master's degree and a doctorate in Spanish language teaching and joined the faculty of Illinois State University in 1960 where he taught courses on television. Having served a thirty year term as Professor of Spanish and Latin American Area Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, he's happily retired and returned to one of his earliest loves—radio. Descarga Newsletter readers can hear Figueroa programming as part of "Oye Latino" on WMNF-FM in Tampa, Florida; on KUVO-FM in Denver, Colorado during Rico Rogers air shift; and on Ponce's WEVC-FM during Rafa Rentas's program. Figueroa is the founder of Pillar Publications, which has published his Encyclopedia of Latin-American Music in New York and an Almanaque de la Música Latinoamericana and has plans for various other projects. At age 69, Frank Figueroa isn't getting older, he's getting better.



Note to our readers: David Carp is preparing a series of articles about the history of Spanish broadcasting, on the U.S. mainland, in the Caribbean and elsewhere. If you have radio-related memorabilia, anecdotes or information that you wish to share, you can reach David in care of the Descarga Newsletter.



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