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A discographic profile of producer Al Santiago.

Profile: Al Santiago

by John Child (


(b Albert Santiago Alvarez , 23 Feb. '32, Spanish Harlem NYC; d 9 Dec. '96, Peekskill, NY State) Record producer, record store and label boss, composer, arranger, bandleader, saxophonist, pianist, school psychologist. His father, Don Alfredo, played saxophones, clarinet, trombone and violin with Latin dance bands, incl. the Charlie Valero Big Band (c late 40s) which also featured trumpeter Willie Colón Sr., father of the contemporary salsa star Willie Colón; his uncle led a Latin big band called Bartolo Alvarez and his Orchestra. His older sister, Ada, studied piano with a woman musician who often played in the same band as his father; Al studied piano with her in the early '40s, but hated the instrument so much that he switched to sax. He became band-boy for his uncle and was soon promoted to conga ('Pete Terrace, who was playing timbales in the band at the time, told me I was the worst conga player in the world - and of course he was right!'); at 15 he took over the tenor sax chair.

The uncle quit in '50 to open the Casa Latina on 110th St. in Spanish Harlem, which became a leading Latin record store. The 18-year-old Santiago took over leadership of the band of 30 to 40 year old musicians, 'I started firing one a week, and by the 15th week, I had all these young guys with the exception of my father, which I couldn't fire. Well, I guess I could have.' He called the band the Chack-a-ñu-ñu Boys, an onomatopoeic attempt at the sound of a Latin rhythm section. Santiago also played with Carlos Pizarro, El Combo Ponce, Jack Portalatin, Quique Monsanto and Pepe LaSalle '48-60, and sat in with others incl. Machito and Tito Puente (Al later said: 'I consider Tito Puente a genius and I was thrown out of Tito Rodríguez's hotel suite for stating same.'). When he was about 19 an incident involving a jazz trumpeter/arranger was a turning point in his career. 'I'm playing with the Chack-a-ñu-ñu Boys at a Latin wedding - incidentally 14-year-old Eddie Palmieri was at the piano that night - and my trumpet player sends a substitute, and who does he send, he sends Buck Clayton! One of the best jazz trumpeters. I got annoyed - not because Buck Clayton came to play with me as a substitute - I got annoyed because Buck Clayton had to , on a Saturday night, take a $20 gig with 20-year-olds. So I said: 'Performing is not for me, I'm going to the business end of the music.'

With $1,800 borrowed from his family, he bought a record shop called Casa Latina del Bronx on Brook Avenue and East 137rd Street in the Bronx and ran it '51-5 while completing a business degree at CCNY. Demolition of local residential blocks caused him to lose half his business, so he opened a larger shop on Prospect Avenue and Westchester in the Bronx as the Casalegre Record Store '55 and ran it for 20 years, and by using ingenious promotions it became 'the most famous, hippest record shop in the Latin field' in the space of one year. Next he went into partnership '56 with clothing businessman Ben Perlman founding the Alegre label (the 'Blue Note' of Latin music), issuing 44 singles in the first four years by the likes of Kako, Joe Cotto, Vitín Avilés and Cuarteto Mayari, continuing to promote the shop with freebies and radio adverts featuring Alegre product. Harold Collazo, a Casalegre employee, persuaded Santiago to visit the Tritons social club on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx '60 to hear Johnny Pacheco and his charanga; he later said that the band hadn't reached its eighth bar when he decided to record it. Santiago insisted that Pacheco submit to a contract if he wanted to record, and Alegre's first album Johnny Pacheco y su Charanga Vol. 1 '60 became the biggest selling album ever in Latin music at that time. A few months later, Santiago heard Charlie Palmieri's Charanga 'La Duboney' playing and he signed him up as well, giving Alegre NYC's two top charangas.

'Charlie and I were inseparable,' wrote Al in '93, who first met Charlie when he performed with his uncle's band. 'We ate together, went to the movies together, and our wives and children became very close. During '60 to '66 Charlie recorded four albums for Alegre. We were working together very frequently because I usually asked Charlie to play piano on most of my studio projects; ie Mon Rivera, César Concepción and of course the Alegre All-Stars.' Santiago used the windfall revenue from the overwhelming success of Pacheco's first album to fund something 'completely left field and different' for his second Alegre album release: the renowned Jazz Espagnole '60 by Sabú Martínez, described by John Storm Roberts as 'one of the tightest Latin jazz recordings ever made.' 'I knew it wasn't going to sell,' said Al in '89, 'in the first year it sold about 400 copies. I spent more money giving away free copies to get it played than it earned. Sabú's album eventually became an underground culture hit and is a collectors album today.'

Santiago produced 49 albums on Alegre '60-6, including four more volumes by Pacheco and his Charanga, debut albums by Kako, Eddie Palmieri and Willie Rosario, others by Dioris Valladares (En Vete Pa'l Colegio '61 and Yo La Vi Vol.II '63), Orlando Marín (Se Te Quemo La Casa '62, reissued '78, and Que Chevere Vol.II '64), César Concepción (Sabado '63), Johnny Rodríguez (El Cancionero de America '63), Mon Rivera (a new lease of life was given to Rivera's career by Al's three trombone band on Que Gente Averigua '63, reissued as Mon y sus Trombones '76), Tito Puente (Y Parece Bobo c '65), Louie Ramírez (Vibes Galore c '66), Celio González (Ahora Si!/ This Is It! '66) and the esteemed first four Alegre All-Stars Latin jam session albums: The Alegre All-Stars '61, The Alegre All-Stars Vol.2 `El Manicero' c '65, The Alegre All-Stars Vol. 3 `Lost & Found' and The Alegre All-Stars Vol.4 `Way Out' , both mid-60s. Santiago stated in '94 that Julio Gutiérrez's Cuban Jam Session Vol. 1 '56 on Panart 'planted the seed for the Alegre All-Stars' and declared it to be 'the best descarga/jam session ever on record'.

The fourth Panart Cuban jam session release Cuban Jam Sessions In Miniature 'Descargas' (see Descargas Cubanas: Cuban Jam Session Vol. 2) '57 by Cachao was also a major influence on him: 'My favourite recording of all time! What a rhythm section!' 'I figured,' he told DJ Nancy Rodríguez in '90, 'why not make a band of the bandleaders and where I don't have a bandleader to fill up a chair, I would get one of their top musicians to do it. They would all be members of the Alegre family. I spoke to Johnny Pacheco and Charlie Palmieri and others as the first nucleus. They liked the idea, but had reservations of how to get together if they were working with their own bands. That was solved by rehearsing on Tuesdays, at the Tritons. The other problem was how to solve the mixture of different temperaments and characters, Kako an introvert, Pacheco an up-tempo man, Charlie a harmonic man, and Dioris vocals and merengues. We decided it would all be improvised without music, with mostly rhythm. We had an unusually large rhythm section ... so when you hear that record, what comes to mind is the Cachao music, that rhythm section ... In the beginning there was no designated leader ... Before the album came out, I had to make a decision. Who am I going to designate the leader of the Alegre All-Stars? ... I chose Charlie because of his harmonic way of thinking ... This hurt me in a way because after that, Johnny never wanted to record with the Alegre All-Stars again.'

Santiago and Perlman sold Alegre '66 to Branston Music, the umbrella corporation that owned Tico and Roulette Records, and he worked for Tico, producing Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son.. . '66, the first collaboration by Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, the tremendousSon Con Guaguancó c '66 by Celia and the 'Alegre All-Stars', and They Call Me La Lupe/ A Mi Me Llaman La Lupe '66 by La Lupe with Chico O'Farrill ('Chico wrote all the arrangements ... We worked on that project with a studio dream band ... My great friendship with Tito Puente got a little strained at that time. He didn't like the idea that after he caused La Lupe to reach her zenith as a recording artist and performer I should be producing her LP with Chico and a studio band.').

Next Santiago and Perlman formed Futura Records, which put out a Kako 45 and Willie Colón's first single. Around this time Al assembled a version of the 'Alegre All-Stars', comprising of an amazing four bassists and three Latin rhythm sections, together with three horns, tres, piano and background voices for a never released avant-garde descarga workout he dubbed The Four Bass Hit Session ; personnel incl. Cachao, Bobby Rodríguez and Julio Andino, basses; Kako, Frankie Malabe and Louie Ramírez, percussion; Willie Colón, playing trombone on his first recording with a band other than his own; Pedro 'Puchi' Boulong, trumpet; Mauricio Smith, alto sax/flute; Barry Rogers, making his recording debut on tres; Charlie Palmieri, piano; Héctor Lavoe, Chamaco Ramírez, Chivirico Dávila and Willie Torres, background voices.

Santiago became staff producer with Musicor '67, producing albums by Bobby Capó with Tito Puente, two albums by Kako, Orquesta Broadway (Do Their Thing '68), Mark Weinstein (the avant-garde Cuban Roots '68, feat. pianist Chick Corea), Willie Rosario (Two Too Much '68, Rosario's first with a baritone saxophone and four trumpet frontline, a combination he has retained until the present day), Dioris Valladares (Con Pimienta '68), Tito Rodríguez (Big Band Latino '68, which he issued under threat of litigation from Rodríguez, who never proceeded, and Instrumentales a la Tito '68), La Playa Sextet (Sonido de Puerto Rico '68) and Tato Díaz. After that he freelanced with various companies, perpetuating the Alegre All-Stars tradition under the name of the Salsa All-Stars (produced for Salsa Records '68) and two albums by the Cesta All-Stars (in fact a recording of Alegre All-Stars personnel made in '67, but Santiago lacked the funds at the time to pay the studio or musicians, let alone release the material; he sold the tapes to Joe Quijano, who after some overdubbing and insertion of material from elsewhere in the Cesta catalogue, issued the recordings as the Cesta All-Stars' Live Jam Session , late 60s, and Salsa Festival , early 70s, with sleeves that continued the single colour concept of the Alegre All-Stars' covers, crediting himself and Al as co-producers).

Al also did albums by Orquesta Capri (En Fuego and Felix Morales and his Orchestra Capri '72) and Orquesta Tentación (Nuestras Raices/Our Roots ) on Salsa. He worked on Pete & Louie/ The Beautiful People c '70 on Fania by Louie Ramírez and Pete Bonet ('Pacheco supervised the first session and gave in to Louie that I finish the LP and supervise the mixing'). Santiago formed Mañana Records '70, prod. albums by Capri and Tentación and conceived and prod. the ground-breaking Saxofobia Vol.1 '71 by Orlando Marín's 'La Saxofónica', featuring a unequalled frontline of five saxophones, with rhythm section and voices; Charlie Palmieri played piano on half the album and Louie Ramírez wrote half the charts and composed one tune. Though it was an artistic success, NYC Latin music industry politics at the time restricted airplay and undermined its commercial success. His other early '70s productions incl. an unreleased album by the New Yorican Orchestra, with Charlie Palmieri on piano, for Ralph Cartagena's Rico label, César Concepción's Hot & Salsa on Velvet (uncredited) and recording supervision (also uncredited) of Kako and Totico's Siguen Pa'lante y Pa'lante on Gema.

Santiago co-founded Montuno Records '75 and prod. three albums there incl. debut releases by Yambú and Saoco (the notable Siempre Seré Guajiro '76, co-produced with the band's co-leaders Henry Fiol and William Millán, and released through Mericana). He penned the liner notes for the Alegre All-Stars compilation They Just Don't Makim Like Us Anymore '76, and returned to Alegre '77, by that stage subsumed by Jerry Masucci's Fania Records empire, to produce Pa 'Bailar Na' Ma by Dioris Valladares, and the Alegre All-Stars 17th anniversary reunion Perdido (Vol.5 or 6?) . Masucci hired him as Director of Special Projects for Fania '78 in charge of reissuing classic albums and preparing compilations: 'I worked at Fania for about 11 months. And I made 39 compilations for them, which were 'Best of ...' albums without being called 'Best of ...' albums, because of course Masucci wanted me to fool the public and come up with a new title so they thought it might be a new record ... I wrote more than half the liner notes. Some of them I would write and give the credit to other people, like on the Frankie Dante (deceased) and his Orchestra Flamboyán (Best Foot Forward '78), I wrote the notes but Tito Puente got the credit.'

Back with Alegre '78, Santiago acted as consultant on Charlie Palmieri's The Heavyweight and prod. the eponymous album by the young band Fuego '77, feat. future Libre lead vocalist Frankie Vásquez. He formed Gaucho label '79 (named after his 11-year-old German Shepherd) on which he released a 45 in tribute to the great Cuban singer Miguelito Valdés by the Gaucho Band (aka The Santiago-Madera 22 Piece Studio Band): 'What a record! What personnel! Machito, Puente, Charlie, José Fajardo, Bobby 'Compañia' Rodríguez, Luis 'Perico' Ortiz, Puchi ... and the best Latin sax section ever assembled: Mario Bauzá, Bobby Porcelli (altos), Dick 'Taco' Meza, José 'Pin' Madera (tenors) and Mario Rivera on baritone'; 'Don Alfredo' (a tribute to Al's father) from the same session was issued as a bonus track on Saxofobia Plus '93. He prepared a compilation for the Miami-based company Armada and Rodríguez (now Armada and Fernández), titled Al Santiago's The Best of Cuba c '80, released on their Funny label.

The mainstream salsa industry, by the second half of the '80s churning out vapid and undemanding salsa romántica material, did not employ Santiago's experience; he prod. and hosted the Big Band Latino radio show'82 and worked as a music teacher for the New York City Board of Education '84-5. More radio work followed in '89-90 as deejay on Jazz Retrospect . Santiago attended graduate school to become a bilingual school psychologist; 'Having worked with musicians all these years and dealing with their genius, tantrums and immaturity, has been an excellent preparation for dealing with children in the school setting,' said Al with a smile.

He returned to production '93 with the launch of the Mucho Music label, starting with Saxofobia Plus , a remixed reissue of Saxofobia Vol. 1 with bonus tracks by The Santiago-Madera 22 Piece Studio Band and a two-piano descarga by The Charlie Palmieri-Louie Ramírez Sextett (recorded '66). After another gap of 17 years, Santiago was invited to reconvene the Alegre All-Stars for a free concert on 4 July '94 at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Many of the previous members had joined what he called 'The Celestial All-Stars', incl. Charlie Palmieri, Louie Ramírez, Barry Rogers and Frankie Malabe (conga player, teacher and author; b 28 Nov. '40, NYC; d 21 April '94, NYC). In addition, José 'Chombo' Silva was in NYC's Harlem Hospital and Kako was indisposed (d 29 July '94). For what he dubbed the Partially New Alegre All-Stars, Santiago rounded up Martin Arroyo on piano, vocalists Frankie Figueroa and Johnny Magnífico, Papo Pepin on conga and Danny 'Flamboyán' Martínez on cuatro guitar to join the 'old-stagers' vocalist Chivirico Dávila, Orlando Marín on timbales, Bobby 'Compañia' Rodríguez on sax, trumpeter Puchi and bassist Bobby Rodríguez. Because there was a prospect of a concert recording, they rehearsed several new numbers with sketch arrangements by Santiago, José Madera and Bobby 'Compañia' Rodríguez; that fell through, but a studio album may be in the offing. 70-year-old Chivirico Dávila, who according to Al was 'full of energy and looking good' at the gig, died on 5 Oct. '94. At the end of '94 Al released his second production on Mucho Music: Al Santiago Presents: Orchestra Pueblo 'Ponce' , the recording debut of Orchestra Pueblo, offering an alternative sound to then current 'crop of bubblegum salsa bands' (Bruce Polin, editor, Descarga Newsletter '94)

Founded in '82 by bassist/arranger/teacher Victor Avilés to 'represent the cultural values of the community', Orchestra Pueblo is comprised of a not untypical salsa orquesta instrumentation of three trumpets and two trombones, bass, piano and rhythm, augmented by the added spice of Danny 'Flamboyán' Martínez's cuatro, a small 10-string Latin guitar. 'Ponce' consisted of a mixture of original tunes and Latin standards; while Avilés writes most of the band's charts, the album's title track, the Noro Morales instrumental classic 'Ponce', was arranged by revered pianist/arranger/composer Héctor Rivera, to which Al added his own self-penned lyrics, enthusiastically sung by Johnny Magnífico; the song pays tribute to Puerto Rico's 'La Perla del Sur' (Pearl of the South): the southern coastal town of Ponce, birthplace of many of the island's important musicians. In addition the album incl. refreshing interpretations of the Trio Matamoros Cuban classic 'Son de la Loma' - featuring a beautiful cuatro solo by Martínez - and the Beny Moré standard 'Encantado de la Vida', written by veteran Afro-Cuban composer Justi Barreto, who crafted the '94 composition 'Rubén', an open letter to singer songwriter, movie star and would-be Panamanian president Rubén Blades. Avilés' arrangement of his joint composition with Martínez: 'Pueblito Natal', motors and elevates in equal measures; other original tunes incl. 'Soy Cantante' (one of three songs by Wilma Castro on the album), a tribute to the late Héctor Lavoe - a son of Ponce incidentally.

For what turned out to be the last time, Al convened and conducted the Alegre All-Stars (or Nearly New Alegre All-Stars as he called them) for a successful gig at NYC's S.O.B.'s club on 17 June '96 to celebrate their 35th anniversary; personnel comprised of Puchi and Héctor 'Bomberito' Zarzuela, trumpets; Mauricio Smith and Bobby 'Compañia' Rodríguez, reeds; Jimmy Bosch, trombone; Oscar Hernández, piano; Joe Santiago, bass (Bobby Rodríguez was recovering from a back operation); Orlando Marín, timbales; Papo Pepin, conga; Johnny 'Dandy' Rodríguez, bongo; Willie Torres and Rudy Calzado, vocals. Al's health rapidly deteriorated between Sept. '95 and Nov. '96 (he was admitted to hospital on three occasions); he retired from his job as a school psychologist Sept. '96; prior to his final admission to hospital (15 Nov. '96) he began preparing the next two Mucho CDs: compilations of Marcelino Guerra's (d 30 June '96) Verne recordings and a 22 piece all-star band; he died 9 Dec. '96 from complications of diabetes and heart disease. During his final days he repeatedly spoke of joining 'The Celestial All-Stars' and reuniting with Latin greats such as Noro Morales and Machito.

Related articles:
Profile: Alberto Santiago Alvarez
by David Carp 12/01/96
Obituary of Al Santiago (1932-1996)

Profile: 35th Anniversay Of The Alegre All-Stars
by David Carp 06/01/96
A celebration of Al Santiago's all-star group.

This is a revised version of one of over 130 Latin music entries written by John Child ( for The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 2nd Edition, edit. Donald Clarke; Penguin Books; 1998; 1524 pages; US$22.95, UK 16.99.

They are published on the Descarga website by kind permission of Mr. Donald Clarke.

-This is one of over 130 Latin music entries written by John Child ( for The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 2nd Edition, edit. Donald Clarke; Penguin Books; 1998; 1524 pages; US$22.95, UKú16.99.

They are published on the Descarga website by kind permission of Mr. Donald Clarke.

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