Bandleader Pucho (Henry Lee Brown) and his unique hybrid of Afro-American and Afro-Cuban musical styles.
Profile: Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers
by David Carp
“Every month, every two weeks there was a Latin band like Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Noro Morales—all those bands played the Apollo. Now the music had to affect the black people for Latin bands to come into the black neighborhood of 125th Street and the people was comin’ out to see these Latin bands. They know it’s somethin’, they understand that rhythm. And that’s what it was about—they didn’t understand what they were saying, but that mambo rhythm, boy, once that gets into your feet you had to dance to it.”
—Henry Lee “Pucho” Brown
Postwar residents of South Central Harlem may not have ventured east too often into the area already known as “El Barrio.” In their role as consumers of Afro-Caribbean musical culture, they didn’t have to. Latin music was available on the radio, at dance emporia such as the Savoy, Renaissance and Audubon Ballrooms, the Rockland Palace, and at mom and pop record stores all over Harlem. Besides, it was only a short walk to the northern edge of Central Park, where Puerto Rican and Cuban residents of East Harlem would bring their congas and bongos for increasingly frequent jam sessions. One neighborhood youngster who took full advantage of all of these resources was Henry Lee Brown of 300 West 113th Street. Although raised on the swing music of his parents’ generation and surrounded by the doo-wop of his own, it was the Afro-Cuban based Latin music of the 1950s that gave him his musical identity and, more than that, his name. Henry Lee recalls, “I had a poster in my room, you know how kids put posters in their room, and a friend of mine came up to the house and it was Machito, Tito Rodriguez and Pucho and the Alfarona X playin’ at the Park Plaza. [Pucho was Pedro “Pucho” Marquez, a Puerto Rican trumpet player.] The guy says, ‘Who’s this Pucho?’, I said, ‘I don’t know’ so he says, ‘You Pucho!’ So we went downstairs and all the cats was on the corner and he said, ‘We gonna call him Pucho from now on’ ”.
This happened around 1950 about the same time that Pucho enrolled at James Fenimore Cooper Junior High School, which was located at 120th Street and Fifth Avenue and attended mainly by Hispanics and African-Americans. “I was sittin’ in class with a Spanish cat named Luis and a black cat named Montell, they was sittin’ on the side of the desk beatin’ the cascara and singing ‘Anabacoa...coa...coa,’ “ Pucho recalls. “I heard this rhythm, you know, it grabbed me. I said, ‘Wow, what is this that you guys are doin’?’ So the cats told me, ‘This is the mambo, this is the new dance that they’re doin’.” Buying a 78 of Damiron and Chapuseaux’s “Anabacoa” was Pucho’s entry into Latin music collecting. Other early favorites included Tito Rodriguez’s “Golpecita,” Elmo Garcia’s “Brooklyn Mambo,” Joe Loco’s “Stomping at the Savoy” and Tito Puente’s “Mambo Birdland.” These are records that come up again and again in conversation with Pucho’s African-American contemporaries whenever they’re discussing their first contact with Latin music.
African-Americans and Latinos have certainly been playing Afro-Caribbean influenced music together in New York ever since the post-World War One wave of migration from Puerto Rico. By the early 1950s there were small and big bands made up mostly, if not exclusively, of African-Americans playing Latin (or at least Latinized) music for African-American audiences. Pucho is Exhibit A of this stage of development. He began as part of a group of teenagers known as Los Locos Diablos, which later became known as La Paris Sextet. This group was lead by vibist Alfred Du Mire (aka Alfred La Paris) and included congas, bongos, bass, timbales and piano. By 1957 Pucho was playing timbales with the similarly configured Joe Panama Sextet. (Joe Panama was a Panamanian originally known as David Preudhomme whose earlier group was the nucleus of the first Joe Cuba unit). In 1959 Joe Panama broke up his group, which was then re-formed as Pucho’s first band, soon known as Pucho and the Cha Cha Boys.
The three bands most popular with uptown Latin music enthusiasts were Pucho and Joe Panama’s small groups and the larger unit lead by Hugo Dickens. Patrons of the Bronx’s Blue Morocco and Harlem’s Celebrity Club or Small’s Paradise danced enthusiastically to whatever music the bands provided (the phenomenon of dancers requesting specific styles was more associated with a white clientele). Nevertheless, a variety of rhythms and tempos was expected. As Pucho says, “A piano player and a bass player had to know three types of music, you couldn’t just play one type. You had to play jazz, you had to play Latin and you had to play funk, so that was very hard. Some cats could play this and they could play that, but they couldn’t play this and they couldn’t play that. But for the bands like Hugo Dickens and my band you had to play three types of music.”
Nineteen-sixties’ bandleaders such as Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo were able to raid Pucho for talent by being able to offer higher salaries. Former Santamaria music director Marty Sheller tells the story of how bassist William Allen left the Pucho fold. “When it finally came time for Victor Venegas to leave Mongo, the word got around that Pucho had a bass player, he had recently come back from Vietnam, and he was terrific. Jack Hooke called me and said, ‘Marty, I want you to go to the club where he’s playing and check out the bass player and tell me what you think.’ The bass player, William Allen, very much wanted to work in Mongo’s band. So I came into the club and Pucho saw me, came over and said, ‘Ah, shit, you’re gonna take my bass player, aren’t you?’ and, I said, ‘Boy, he really sounds good.’ Pucho’s a nice guy and he said, “He really does, he would be perfect for Mongo’s band’ “. Steve Berrios, Jr., Bobby Capers, Chick Corea, Bill Salter, Jerry Jemmott, Lisle Atkinson and Lonnie Gales are among the veterans of jazz, Latin, and pop music who are graduates of the Pucho Academy.
What kind of music was the Pucho aggregation playing in the 1960s? “We always played jazz because there was no Latin musicians in the band,” Pucho says, “only ‘Dato’ [Norberto Apellaniz], he was the bongo player but everybody else was black in the band. We played jazz cover tunes and American cover tunes in Latin and then when the boogaloo came out we was playin’ tunes like ‘Mustang Sally,’ ‘In the Midnight Hour,’—now those are real boogaloo tunes, all we did was put the Latin beat behind it. Because basically you could do the boogaloo to Latin dance, actually Latin boogaloo is nothin’ but a cha cha with a backbeat. You could still do the dance, the same boogaloo, you could do it to the cha cha or you could do it to the black authentic boogaloo music.” The Joe Cuba/Joe Panama vibes and rhythm sound of the 1950s Pucho group was fleshed out with jazz and r&b flavored horns. Pianist Arthur Jenkins doesn’t remember a large amount of written music being used by Pucho. “We all knew the same tunes and the record companies couldn’t put out tunes fast enough for us to consume. Maybe Art Blakey came out with ‘Moanin’ ‘ and by the time we got together to play again we all knew the tune without even havin’ seen each other. Or maybe we did see each other, we’d get on the phone—’Hey, man, did you hear “Moanin’?” and we’d go and sit down and listen and then when we got together to play the job we’d start playin’ it. We’d already know the tune and we may just have to say, ‘Well, let’s put this kind of a break here,’ somethin’ like that.”
A Pucho single called “Darin’s Mambo” appeared on the Epic label in 1963, but it didn’t hit. In 1966, he was signed by Prestige and his band was renamed “Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers” by staff producer Cal Lampley. Eight albums were eventually released on Prestige; this generated considerable airplay on stations such WLIB. Pucho’s economic backbone, however, was the employment provided by the black social clubs of the 1960s. “They have somethin’ going on in the back if an organization rented the room out,” Pucho remembers, “but we was in the front and we played there for two weeks, it was six nights a week. In those days you had yourself what you call a ‘round robin.’ Say if you work Count Basie’s for two weeks, then you go to Small’s for two weeks, then you go to the Hideout for two weeks, that’s basically six weeks scored right there. Then you go to another place for two weeks so all you need is four clubs and you just keep goin’ around and you’re workin’ constantly.”
After leaving Prestige, the Latin Soul Brothers recorded two albums for the Right On! label and then broke up. The social clubs that kept Pucho’s men employed lacked the viability of the previous two decades; DJs and canned music eliminated much of the work. It’s been suggested that public taste cried for more specialization—in other words, for Latin music you booked a Latin group, for soul music you booked a soul band. The stylistic versatility of a Pucho or a Hugo Dickens was no longer a point in their favor. When Pucho’s father died, he inherited the Brown family home in Middletown, New York. In 1971, he moved to the Catskills and began working as a trap drummer for hotel combos. Twenty years later, Pucho discovered that British rock musicians had been sampling his old numbers and rapping on top of them. Better yet, he had become a hero to British radio personalities such as DJ Giles Peterson. English labels began licensing the Latin Soul Brothers’ Prestige albums. This marked the beginning of “acid jazz,” a term which Pucho hasn’t been able to define with much more clarity than the rest of us. But who’s defining too carefully—whatever it is, the “acid jazz” movement has generated international tours and a new album for Pucho on the Milestone label (Rip a Dip). He may have acquired some avoirdupois since the sixties. What he hasn’t lost is the charisma and warmth that made audiences want to hear him and musicians want to work with him. The music retains its vitality, funkiness, and the unique hybrid of Afro-American and Afro-Cuban styles that attracted its practitioners in the first place.