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A celebration of Al Santiago's all-star group.

Profile: 35th Anniversay Of The Alegre All-Stars

by David Carp

• The year: 1961

• The date: Who the hell remembers?

• The location: Mastertone Studios,
West 42nd Street, NY, NY

• The song: “Buscando a Kako”

Eleven of New York’s busiest sidemen and bandleaders are in a highly unlikely location: the same studio, on the same day, at the same time. During the session another unlikely event happens. The beginning of an instrumental number by multi-instrumentalist Don Elliott flows out of pianist Charlie Palmieri’s stream of musical consciousness. The first seven or so notes are cannibalized by a pack of musical omnivores and, fitted with lyrics, instantly approved for recording by producer Al Santiago. These lyrics consist of an imaginary search for all of the immensely talented musicians in the studio; most of these musicians have bisyllabic names or nicknames, which very conveniently fit into the rhythm of what remains of Don Elliott’s tune.

Can the evolution of a song and the progress of a recording session be detailed so neatly and precisely. Occasionally. Regardless of how accurate the above account may actually be, “Buscando a Kako” isn’t a bad metaphor for the Alegre All Stars, their history and the achievements of their founder. It’s likely that Kako wasn’t so hard to find if you knew where to look. Looking for talent and new ways of presenting it require a much longer-lasting search.

It’s well known that the inspiration for the Alegre All Stars was provided by several Panart issues of leading Cuban musicians who were surreptitiously recorded while they were jamming at a party. The phenomenon of New York Puerto Ricans being inspired by Cuban musicians goes back at least to the early 1940s. Two outstanding early examples of this are percussionists Jose “Buyu” Mangual and Pedro Allende “Pulidor” who would assiduously listen to their short wave radio sets to catch the latest Cuban rhythm patterns and pass them along to their colleagues. New York musicians with any pretense to hipness wouldn’t let a week go by without going to their neighborhood record stores to pick up the latest recordings of Casino de la Playa, Merceron y sus Muchachos Pimientos, Arcaño y sus Maravillas or Chapottin y sus Estrellas (depending, of course, on who was current). Indeed, the very measure of the breadth of one’s musical knowledge and the depth of one’s musical feeling was measured by how thoroughly the musician in question was immersed in Cuban musical culture. (In certain circles, particularly those of serious record collectors and veteran musicians, this is still true.) It is, therefore, no surprise that the first “Cuban All Stars” records elicited the following reactions from Al Santiago. “It was obvious that they were having a great time, and when I heard that record, there was no record previous to that one that impressed me so much. The first time I went to Puerto Rico as an adult, which was in 1959, I took the Cuban Jam Sessions, Volume One with me, the only LP that I ever carried to and from Puerto Rico, and I played it for my mother-in-law and even SHE liked it. I decided, ‘Well, if the Cuban guys can do it, the New York guys can do it’”.

From 1956 to 1960, Al Santiago’s Alegre label released forty-four 78 rpm records. Coincidentally, release number forty-five was Al’s first 45 rpm issue. These records essentially broke even and not much more. Alegre’s first major commercial success was his 1960 release Pacheco Y Su Charanga, both Pacheco’s and Santiago’s first LP production and a 120,000 seller. The sales of this album put Alegre far into the black and encouraged Santiago to follow the promptings of his own tastes rather than the normal dictates of the Hispanic record business.

Artists showcased in the ensuing eight albums included the following bandleaders: pianist Charlie Palmieri, timbalero Francisco “Kako” Bastar, conguero Luis “Sabu” Martinez, merenguero Dioris Valladares and, of course, the mega-selling Pacheco. Santiago recalls, “Now I had put out nine albums and I decided ‘Why don’t I get the leaders from these albums and/or the top musicians in these bands that I have under contract and form a band?’ “Santiago approached all of the above bandleaders except Sabu, a player whose instrumental gifts and showmanship were not matched by reliability. Chombo Silva was persuaded to come in on saxophone. For the trombone chair, Pacheco recommended a fellow Gompers High School graduate from the Bronx named Barry Rogers. Vocalist and composer Rudy Calzado was another Pacheco alumnus who was enlisted (a similar double threat was eventually provided by Willie Torres). Added to this arsenal of vocalists was Eladio Peguero, better known as “Yayo el Indio,” famed both as a great vocal soloist and possibly the most recorded corista in Latin music history. The rhythm section was rounded out by Puente and Machito veteran Bobby Rodriguez on bass, Marcelino Valdés (a highly underrated percussionist) on congas, and guiro maven Julian Cabrera.

These musicians performed together at the Tritons, a second story nightclub on Southern Boulevard between 163rd Street and Westchester Avenue. After a series of ten Tuesday night shows, they were ready to record. As Al remembers, “When we went to the studio, we had the easiest All Star session we ever had. We never did that again, we just used to go to the studio and, right there, bing, bang, improvise.” At this point in the saga of the All Stars, it is important to look at how they fit into the Latin music industry of their time. For the vast majority of record buyers, they didn’t. Nineteen sixty-one was half a decade or so away from the peak of the migration from Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, the number of first generation Puerto Ricans was still large enough to create a thirst for reminders of La Isla del Encanto and its culture. One of the best ways of slaking this thirst was buying and listening to records of the Trio San Juan, Trio Vegabajeño and similar groups. In the late 1940s, bandleader Bartolo Alvarez (Al’s uncle and role model both as musician and businessman) obtained the money to open the original Casa Latina by delaying payment of his sidemens’ salaries. Within a week he had repaid his musicians and secured the opening of his store. Bartolo remembers this as largely based on the sale of Columbia recordings of Trios Los Panchos. Bartolo’s nephew was rudely awakened to this reality when he opened the Casa Latina del Bronx at 207 Brook Avenue. Al says, “When I opened my first record shop, I thought I was gonna be selling Tito Puente and Machito and Tito Rodriguez and all I was selling was Trio San Juan and groups like that. My uncle Bartolo told me when I started recording bands that I was crazy! ‘No,’ he said, ‘you can’t make money with that big nut!’ Here’s a guy who had a band and loved horns, but he was also a businessman.” Al summarizes the attitude that ultimately produced the Alegre All Stars recordings. “I never made ANY record for the mass listening audience. I made records, as arrogant and self-centered maybe as it may seem, because I enjoyed making them and I made them for my taste and if people liked them, wonderful, it was a plus. Thank God my retail store paid my rent and the grocer.” (Johnny Pacheco’s first album didn’t hurt either...)

Between advertising, word of mouth and the retailing clout of Casalegre, the Alegre All Stars albums sold between five and ten thousand copies apiece. Santiago claims that after paying musicians, arrangers, recording studios and manufacturers, it usually took a mere couple of thousand albums to break even. Recording the Alegre All Stars demonstrated some of the tensions between improvising and composing, made modest profits for the owner, and provided considerable entertainment for all concerned. A good example of the relaxed precision and planned spontaneity (OK, the oxymorons are getting a little out of hand) typical of the All Stars is how the ballad “To Be With You” (classified on the original backliner as a “bolero-gas”) came to be recorded. Composer Willie Torres remembers, “I was at A and R Studios on 48th and Sixth, I had just finished recording with Machito and I had a recording session at one o’clock to do the Alegre All Stars at Nola on 57th Street. But I couldn’t get a cab, I was walking and running and trying to get a cab up Sixth Avenue. So I finally get there and they had already done one tune. I walked in and Charlie said, ‘Hey, Willie, what do you want to do ?’ I’m out of breath, I said ‘Hey, let’s do “To Be With You,” let me make money on my own tune.’ And that’s how we decided to do ‘To Be With You.’ We talked it through, bap bap bap, intro, Puchi did a hell of an intro.” Pedro “Puchi” Boulong admits the impromptu nature of his introduction. “Charlie says, ‘Play something, any kind of intro.’ I made it up and actually it wasn’t in the key for Willie and he modulated after I finished, he changed it right there to the key. But it fit, you know, it was a relative key. It was great, with Charlie there you could do almost anything. He had most of the ideas, he would start something and when you’ve got guys like Chombo or Barry that could fall in right away and then make up something on the spot it really swung.”

As Puchi remembers this date, this improvisatory quality included how the musicians were actually booked. “That night I was working with Tito Puente at the Palladium, and when I finished I met Tommy Lopez the conga player. He was going to record that night with Al. I had my car so I decided to drop him off, it was at the Nola Penthouse on 57th Street. I saw Al at the doorway. I was getting ready to leave and he says, “Where are you going?’ I says “I just dropped off Tommy, I’m going home.’ He says, ‘No, no, no, you’re gonna play here! So, I went up and played.”

Al Santiago could be as spontaneous as his players. For one thing, recording sessions were sometimes conceived, booked and carried out on less than twenty-four hours notice. When timbalero Orlando Marin was called to record with the All Stars, he had no idea that he would be a featured soloist on “Manteca” until Al pointed a finger at him in the studio. Orlando found the Alegre system a little different from what he was used to in the studio. “I’m more regimented,” he says, “I like to rehearse things until they’re really, really down. But the Alegre All Stars were very, very fast and you had to be very quick and sharp to stay up with them. Because the rhythm section never was reading music, they were always playing by ear. Sometimes there was music, they had some music for breaks and things, but we had to memorize everything, we weren’t usually counting bars.” For Orlando and his colleagues, this tension was more than made up for by the exhilaration of creation. This kind of freewheeling approach was considerably enhanced by the modern miracles of magnetized oxide and razor blades.

Audio engineer Roy Ramirez remembers that three or four tunes could be recorded at one date if it went well, that a less smooth session could produce only one tune, and that he did a considerable amount of editing. Al explains, “The editing wasn’t so much to shorten the number, it was because we were improvising. Let’s say we would start, I would point to Chombo and tell him to play a guajeo and then the trombone would go off on it. By the time they got it together correctly they had already played like eight repeats on it or more and I would take out all those fumbling intros out and just use the solid playing.” It certainly says something about the risky game plan being followed that musicians with this level of improvisational and technical skills were edited in this way. It’s also not surprising considering the hands-on nature of Al Santiago’s involvement. Of all the producers that Roy Ramirez has worked with, Al Santiago is the one who has spent the most time in the studio with the musicians. “He’s that way,” Roy says, “he gets involved with the band and what they’re doing and suggesting and things like that.”

Another aspect that pairs planning and spontaneity with the talents of Roy Ramirez, Al Santiago and the entire cast of characters is studio chatter. This originated with the frequently discussed and rarely heard album, Sabu: Jazz Espagnole. Al may differ with this account, but here is Roy’s. “Al asked me for a demo acetate. I was editing it and before Sabu starts one tune he tells the musicians to hurry up because he has to go to the bathroom, which I thought was kind of funny. So I left it in, I figured it would shock him and he’d be screaming at me and say ‘No, you can’t leave that in!’ He went crazy over it, he says, ‘It’s a little low, can you build it up?’ I said, ‘Oh, there’s no problem building it up. I just put it on as naturally as it was in the studio, but if you want me to pick it up a little...’ and I did.”

Studio chatter became a major selling point for the Alegre All Stars albums. For Roy Ramirez, including this material is highly in character with the kind of creativity involved in almost every aspect of these recordings. “It’s an ad lib session, you know, they’re coming to jam so everybody’s got input. So, you’re listening to these inputs and you find it very interesting, who comes up with what ideas. To me that’s part of the artistic product, it’s like watching a painter go through his process of painting.” Even the slyest allusions to drinking and Kako’s whereabouts were subject to planning and creative molding. One of the funniest of these moments occurs when Kako attempts to dedicate a tune in a mixture of Spanish and English; despite some earnest coaching from Al Santiago an all-Spanish version eventually triumphs, accompanied by general hilarity. Al says, “I asked him to introduce something and he kept fuckin’ it up and fuckin’ it up and we forgot all about it. Then the next time I went to the studio I’m looking at Roy when his real devilish eye tells me, ‘I want you to hear this,’ and he had taken all these things and spliced them together the way you hear them now and we just cracked up.” Roy says that most of the studio chatter sequences were edited together from bits of tape only a few seconds long, a technique he was very familiar with through his experience in the post production of comedy albums. The only label that we know to have beaten Alegre to this particular punch is Prestige (several of their mid-50s Miles Davis albums have some celebrated moments of studio chatter).

By 1966, Al Santiago had overextended himself with recording projects and the label was sold to Branston Music to enable Al to pay off various debts. The All Star’s recordings were continued under different names to avoid contractual problems (e.g., Salsa All Stars, Cesta All Stars). By the late 1960s the balance between improvisation and arrangements was becoming an issue, especially as the All Star groups grew in size. As long as Willie Torres and Al Santiago have been friends, they’ve “agreed to disagree” on certain topics and particularly on how much written music should be used. Willie has always advocated none. He says, “Later I lost the feeling with the Alegre All Stars when they started writing charts, the spontaneity went out of it.” According to Al, Willie would tell him off even if he brought in just a sketch, not an arrangement, to organize intros and endings. “He wanted us to strictly improvise, and for the most part we did,” Al recalls. The Alegre All Stars have weathered a lot. It’s possible that one of Al’s biggest mistakes ever was making Charlie Palmieri musical director of the All Stars, partly influenced by his close personal relationship with Charlie as opposed to a more strictly business relationship with Johnny Pacheco. Not surprisingly, Pacheco quit. This deprived the All Stars of Pacheco’s flute playing after Volume One, and the label of its most financially productive artist. The biggest setbacks have been the deaths of the majority of the artists since the early 1960s. It is a tribute to Al Santiago’s vitality, creativity and optimism that in the face of these losses, he’s keeping this concept alive. A 1996 version of the All Stars performed at S.O.B.’s in New York City on June 17 and a recording and concerts outside the New York area are in the works. The surviving All Stars will no doubt miss their original bandmates; the current group plays more instrumentals than that of thirty-five years ago. There’s no more Kako to look for, but looking for that elusive balance of spontaneity and planning and looking for new musical worlds to conquer are keys to alegría.

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