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02/10/01

Profile and discography of Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, notable improvising salsa singer, maraca player and bandleader nicknamed El Conde (The Count).
Note: This profile is immediately followed by a complete "El Conde" discography.



Profile by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com)

Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez New York salsa lost a significant sonero with the passing of the golden voiced Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez on December 1. Soneros are exponents of extemporised lyrics, a threatened species in today's mainstream salsa recording industry, preoccupied with developing and marketing the images of "good looking" young stars. Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, he acquired the nickname El Conde (The Count) because of his noble bearing and majestic stage presence.

Rodríguez inspired subsequent generations of NY salsa musicians. For instance, trombonist/ bandleader Jimmy Bosch, who was among the last to record with Rodríguez, comments: "Pete was a great sonero, unlike so many singers in the salsa business today. His voice was unique and embracing. When he performed he had an amazing ability to improvise, play hand percussion like no one else, and dance with so much grace." "El Conde was recognised as one of the best maraca players in Latin music," says Martin Cohen, boss of Latin Percussion.

El Conde started playing bongos at the age of five, and after working with local groups in Ponce, he relocated to New York in the '50s. There he participated in a number of key milestones in the history of salsa, a history dominated from the mid-'60s by the rise and fall of the Fania Records empire. During the '50s he did a stint as a paratrooper stationed at Fort Bragg in the segregated South. He told Cohen how this impacted on him as a Black Puerto Rican: "I had to cross the train tracks to the Black American side of town to get something to eat. I could go to JC Penney to buy clothes, but I couldn't eat there or use the toilets. So most of the time I stayed at the camp. That way I was more at ease. It was pretty humiliating."

Rodríguez was spotted by Johnny Pacheco, NY's most popular bandleader at the time, playing conga and singing in a Bronx bar. El Conde's first album with Pacheco was Suavito (c. 1963), the bandleader's fourth volume with his charanga (a flute, violins, rhythm section and voices group) on Al Santiago's Alegre label. In 1964 Pacheco and lawyer Jerry Masucci (1934-1997) founded Fania Records, with El Conde supplying lead vocals to the label's inaugural release, Cañonazo , by Pacheco's restructured and renamed band Nuevo Tumbao (New Rhythm). "Historically, this is a pivotal recording of sorts," wrote sonero Henry Fiol in 1998. "Not only does it mark the end of the charanga craze of the early '60s, but it also gives us a first look at Pacheco's conjunto sound (vocals, trumpets and rhythm section). El Conde gets his first chance to stretch out on this record, and he really kicks some serious butt."

Between 1964 and 1973 El Conde made a further seven albums with Pacheco, including probably their best, Tres de Café y Dos de Azúcar (1973). This period also produced several classic hits, such as "La Esencia Del Guaguancó" from La Perfecta Combinación (c. 1970) and "Dulce Con Dulce" from Los Compadres (1971). Writing about the latter album in his 1998 article Soneros: A Dying Breed? , Abel Delgado remarked: "Pete has a classic style, funky and economical. Not a vocal powerhouse, but more of a groove singer in the Abelardo Barroso (1905-1972) tradition. Awesome voice and a fantastic improviser."

Meanwhile, El Conde became a founder member of probably the most famous salsa super group, the Fania All Stars, whose debut at Greenwich Village's Red Garter club was immortalised in Live At The Red Garter, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (1968). After this recording, Rodríguez went on to make a further 16 albums with the Fania All Stars and appeared with them in the landmark movies Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa) (1972) and Salsa (1976). Both films helped popularise and re-brand NY and Puerto Rican Latin music product as "salsa" (literally meaning "sauce"), a product that was increasingly being generated by the expanding Fania stable.

A salsa explosion occurred. As the boom was reaching its peak, El Conde - like so many salsa band lead singers at the time - decided to go solo; in his case under the management of his wife, Frances. He recorded a handful of solo albums on Fania between 1974 and 1982 retaining the typical Cuban two-trumpet conjunto format used by Pacheco, who directed his bestselling and award winning debut El Conde (1974). His 1976 follow-up Este Negro Si Es Sabroso , listed by one Latin music website as the ninth best salsa album of all time, spawned his trademark hit "Catalina La O".

The NY salsa/ Fania bubble burst in the early '80s, and Dominican merengue ruled the roost between 1982 and 1986. When salsa began to reassert itself in 1986, it was to be in the form of insipid salsa romántica, which stifled the harder, swinging sound associated with El Conde and his ilk until well into the '90s. As a consequence of these developments, Rodríguez' recording dates dwindled. He reunited with Pacheco for four albums between 1983 and 1989, including the Grammy nominated Salsobita (1987). Then went solo again in 1990 with El Rey , an unconvincing stab at salsa romántica produced and directed by Pacheco, and his last on Fania for a while.

He only headlined on two albums during the remainder of the '90s: Generaciones (1993 on Marcas), made with his son Pete Emilio Rodríguez and daughter Cita Rodríguez singing chorus and sharing lead vocals, and the smoochy bolero set Pete y Papo (1996, back on Fania) with Papo Lucca. For the outstanding Generaciones , he departed from his usual two-trumpet conjunto sound to front a fully blown salsa orquesta. Many UK salsa dancers will be familiar with at least one track, because "Esos Tus Ojos Negros" was included in the bestselling compilation Salsa Fresca! (1996 on Rhino). This CD, probably more than any other, became a staple for would-be salsa deejays in countless fly-by-night salsa dance clubs and classes that sprung up across the UK. Other opportunities to record the odd track here and there were provided during this period by the Familia RMM, Fania's 30th anniversary, the Mascara Salsera's Gold Stars, Larry Harlow's Latin Legends Band and Jimmy Bosch's bandleading debut Soneando Trombón (1998 on RykoLatino).

This year, Tito Puente (1923-2000), who had previously hired Rodríguez to provide lead vocals to the second and third volumes in his three album tribute to Cuban sonero/ bandleader Beny Moré (1919-1963), again used his services to sing "Marchando Bien" on his RMM collaboration Masterpiece with Eddie Palmieri. The album was issued posthumously because Puente passed away on May 31 following heart valve replacement and bypass surgery. Ironically, El Conde had suffered from a heart condition for several years, but had declined to undergo bypass surgery. He died in his sleep on Friday December 1 in his Bronx apartment of an apparent heart attack. His remains were flown to Puerto Rico for burial.

Pete is survived by his wife, son and daughter and his grandchildren.


(The quotes from pieces by Henry Fiol and Abel Delgado are published on www.descarga.com, and those from Martin Cohen on www.congahead.com.)



DISCOGRAPHIC PROFILE:


RODRIGUEZ, Pete "El Conde"
(b Pedro Juan Rodríguez, 31 Jan. c. '35, Ponce, Puerto Rico; d 1 Dec. '00, Bronx, NYC) Noble-looking sonero (improvising salsa singer) with a distinctive smoky voice; nicknamed El Conde (The Count). Performed with local groups in Ponce; moved to NY, there recruited by Johnny Pacheco to sing on his Pacheco y su Charanga Vol.IV - 'Suavito' c. '63 on Alegre, inaugural Fania release Cañonazo '64 and Pacheco at the N. Y. World's Fair '64; departed to provide lead vocals on Swing '65 by Conjunto Sensación led by Cuban Rey Roig.

He returned to Pacheco for Pacheco y su Charanga - By Popular Demand '66; duo made five more albums together '67-'73 incl. their finest Tres de Café y Dos de Azúcar '73. El Conde left to go solo, made a series of albums on Fania retaining typical Cuban two-trumpet conjunto format used by Pacheco: best-seller El Conde '74 dir. by Pacheco (LP helped him win Latin NY "Best New Band" award '75), Este Negro Si Es Sabroso '76 incl. hits "Pueblo Latino" penned by C. Curet Alonso and Johnny Ortiz's "Catalina La O", both arr. by José Febles, A Touch Of Class '78 incl. "Tambo" written by Rubén Blades, arr. by Febles, Soy La Ley '79, Fiesta Con "El Conde" '82 prod./ arr. by Febles.

He and Pacheco reunited for four albums '83-9 incl. Grammy nominated Salsobita '87 and 25th anniversary release Celebración '89; went solo again with El Rey '90 prod./mus. dir. by Pacheco. El Conde broke-out of two-trumpet conjunto mould in favour of a salsa orquesta line-up of three trombones, two trumpets and alto sax, tres guitar, rhythm section and voices (incl. his son Pete Emilio Rodríguez and daughter Cita Rodríguez singing chorus and sharing lead vocals) for the refreshing Generaciones '93 on Marcas, prod./mus. dir./70% arrs./keyboards by Isidro Infante. He was named Padrino (Godfather) of the Bronx's Puerto Rican Day Parade '96 to mark his 35 years in music. He teamed-up with Papo Lucca for Pete y Papo '96 on Fania covering songs from album Romance '91 by Mexican singer Luis Miguel.

During the '90s he also recorded with the Familia RMM (for the RMM all-star Combinación Perfecta gatherings, first on CD in '93, and then on video the following year; pairing-up with Cheo Feliciano on each occasion to sing "Soneros de Bailadores"), the Fania All Stars (CD and video Live '95 on Fania to mark the 30th anniversary of Fania, and follow-up Bravo '97 on Jerry Masucci Music/ Sony), the Mascara Salsera's Gold Stars (Gozando! '96 on Asefra; singing a remake of "Catalina La O"), Larry Harlow's Latin Legends Band (eponymous album '98 on Jerry Masucci Music/ Sony; he'd previously sung on Harlow's Hommy - A Latin Opera '73, a salsa adaptation of The Who's rock opera Tommy '69) and Jimmy Bosch's bandleading debut Soneando Trombón '98 on RykoLatino.

In 2000 he sang "Marchando Bien" on the Tito Puente/ Eddie Palmieri collaboration Masterpiece on RMM; Puente had previously hired him to provide lead vocals to three tracks on the second and third volumes of his tribute trilogy to Beny Moré. He died in his sleep on 1 Dec. '00 in his Bronx apartment of an apparent heart attack. Reportedly he'd had a history of heart trouble, but had refused to undergo surgery.

He performed and recorded with the Fania All Stars from their inception, also with Celia Cruz, others.

Solo albums and selected albums on which El Conde sang lead vocals:

with Pacheco Pacheco y su Charanga Vol. IV - "Suavito" (c. 1963), Cañonazo (1964) and Pacheco At The N. Y. World's Fair (1964); with Conjunto Sensación Swing (1966); with Pacheco Pacheco y su Charanga - By Popular Demand (1966), Sabor Típico (1967), Volando Bajito (1968), La Perfecta Combinación (c .1970) and Los Compadres (1971 ); with Larry Harlow Hommy - A Latin Opera (1973); with Pacheco Tres de Café y Dos de Azúcar (1973); El Conde (1974); Este Negro Si Es Sabroso (1976); with Celia Cruz, Pacheco, Justo Betancourt, and Papo Lucca Recordando El Ayer (1978); A Touch Of Class (1978); Soy La Ley (1979); with Tito Puente Homenaje A Beny, Vol. 2 (1979); with Cruz and Pacheco Celia, Johnny and Pete (1980); Fiesta Con "El Conde" (1982); with Pacheco De Nuevo Los Compadres (1983) and Jicamo (1985); with Cruz and Puente Homenaje A Beny Moré, Vol. III (1985); with Pacheco Salsobita (1987) and Celebración (1989; nominated for a Grammy Award); El Rey (1990); Generaciones (1993); with Papo Lucca Pete y Papo (1996); with Jimmy Bosch Soneando Trombón (1998); with Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri Masterpiece (2000).


-This is a revised version of one of over 130 Latin music entries written by John Child (John_Child@descarga.com) 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.



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