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Obituary of Al Santiago (1932-1996)

Profile: Alberto Santiago Alvarez

by David Carp

There’s an apocryphal story about Count Basie’s reaction to the death of Art Tatum. There were several minutes of silence as Basie contemplated the news. Then he said, “You know, it’s a hell of a thing when someone dies. It’s a hell of a hell of a thing when someone dies and takes all that talent with him. But it’s really a bitch when someone dies and takes all that talent with him and is a hell of a nice guy.” This highly believable piece of apocryhpha is about the best I can do in making articulate something I’m finding very difficult to do—expressing my sadness about Al Santiago’s passing and summarizing in a meaningful way his importance to his particular industry and his particular community. This is a difficulty that I doubtless share with many of his friends and colleagues.

Readers of the Descarga Newsletter are familiar with many of Al’s music business and personal anecdotes. Many readers of Vernon Bogg’s Salsiology felt that they got their money’s worth merely reading Vernon’s hilarious and candid interview with Al. As journalistic coverage and musicological study of Latin music has grown over the past couple of decades, Al Santiago has begun to receive some highly deserved credit. This has often been superficially handled, but bad breath is better than no breath. It’s easy to make a laundry list of musical artists “discovered” by Al Santiago, but this is not the “Descarga Cleaners Information Service.” However, there are some basic accomplishments in Al Santiago’s life and work that I feel need to be addressed.

First, let’s re-examine the laundry list and wash some of Al’s clean linen publicly by looking at Al’s predecessors in the Latin record business. When we talk about Gabriel Oller of SMC and Coda Records, Luis Cuevas of Verne and Ralph Perez of Ansonia, we’re talking about a generation born in Puerto Rico in the early part of the twentieth century. (Sidney Siegel of Seeco Records was a Jewish New Yorker and contemporary with the abovementioned.) Al Santiago represents the next generation and its values and tastes. He was a stone Puerto Rican and a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. His musical consciousness was formed in the South Bronx of the 1940s as part of a heavily Puerto Rican community incredibly rich in cultural and family values. The majority of his most celebrated “discoveries” were also New Yorkers born in the 1930s. (Exceptions such as Johnny Pacheco came here at a relatively early age and are New Yorkers culturally speaking.) Considering the pivotal role of mid-twentieth century Nuyoricans as interpreters of Cuban music, Al Santiago and his artists were very much in the right place at the right time. Without slighting the beauty of typical Caribbean music (which he also produced beautifully—listen to the Alegre albums of Sarrail Archilla, Ivan Rodriguez and Dioris Valladares), Al saw the next logical step. This was to mix the big band feeling of Machito with the freewheeling improvisational and recreative talents of Chombo Silva, Barry Rogers, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Johnny Pacheco and other members of our laundry list, creating a sound for hip New Yorkers of the 1960s that hasn’t dated. What is more important, he knew how to produce and promote this sound. Al brought new standards of studio technique, postproduction, graphic design and use of media to the Latin record business. He used the best available sidemen, engineers and facilities, and paid fairly and on time. His intuitive understanding of behavioral psychology gave him flexibility in the recording studio and an unmatched ability to match approach to situation. It’s not unfair to say that without the Alegre label the industry would have been very different. It’s hard to imagine aggregations such as the Fania All Stars without the Alegre All Stars.

Notice that I’ve put the word “discover” in quotes twice already. Using this word implies that a talented artist is some kind of well-kept secret that someone magically reveals to the world at large. The key word here is “enable.” Al Santiago was a great enabler of talent, and not just performing talent. Izzy Sanabria never looked back after designing his trendsetting Alegre covers. Rene Lopez’s first crack at producing is largely because of Al’s nitty gritty advice and recognition of his musical abilities. We’re speaking of two gentlemen who have gone on record acknowledging their debts to this man. Unfortunately, many are equally indebted and less forthcoming about giving him credit. Which brings up another point; Al always gave credit where it was due. His Alegre backliners were the first in the industry to consistently credit not only sidemen, but all people involved in the project (even procurers of liquid refreshment). He was always giving of himself; every institution that he’s ever been associated with has stories about how Al Santiago gave free music lessons or free counseling or organized activities for the students (or inmates or patients or whatever).

His openness made him highly approachable by all. I remember how he made my own son’s normal shyness vanish almost immediately and how even his dumbest jokes made a big hit. (That’s not really fair, most of the jokes he told my kids were pretty good.) Now we’re touching on another side of Al—he was a natural and inveterate entertainer. He had a definite flair for anecdotes, which came across as well in print as in person; his sense of life’s ironies and tragicomedies was superb. He was in his element holding court in a restaurant or rehearsal studio regaling people with old stories presented with the gusto of first presentation. There was a unity between the creativity of his work and his own life; how else can you explain naming a record label after your dog? Of course, Gaucho was no ordinary dog—certainly he was more of a mensch than many of Al’s colleagues in the music industry (but that’s another story).

In interviews Al always claimed that much of his success was due to the lack of skill, energy and vision on the part of his competitors. This smacks of the famous Grouchoism about not wanting to be a member of any club that accepts people like him as members. In fact, he was an extremely modest person. The word “genius” is bandied about fairly often in the record business and Al was genuinely embarrassed when referred to in that way. In his case, it’s not much of an exaggeration.

Much about Al Santiago (including the darker side) can be explained by his bipolar personality. He was a member of the first generation of manic depressives to be treated with lithium-derived medication. Like many other creative people with this condition, Al probably did some of his best and most focused work during his manic highs; the lows produced a depressed state that led many to believe he was a drug user (which is denied by longtime intimate friends). The overextension of Alegre Records that brought Al into disastrous debt by 1966 and forced him to sell the company could be interpreted in this light. It’s safer to say that the cliche “generous to a fault” was a product of bipolarity. His entourage-laden trips to Puerto Rico and spending binges when he had money (and even on some occasions when he didn’t) were legendary. It seems to me that his need for love and assurance increased in his later years as a product of relative isolation, both geographical and professional.

After selling Casalegre in 1975, he turned his considerable talents to a variety of ways of making a living, the most recent being a position as a bilingual psychologist at the Spofford Youth Detention Center in Hunts’ Point. The global hegemony of Fania Records and various changes in the music created an industry that he was never truly able to re-enter. Living in northern Westchester County away from his musical and spiritual home, he was sustained for years by the love and dedication of Louise Gerber, a “stand-up lady” of the first order.

I could write much more about Al Santiago and plan to at a later date; however, the double bar is being drawn by my need to go in a few minutes to the memorial service. It’s inaccurate to say that I’m going to miss Al; I miss him already. An awful lot of people feel the same way.

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