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Ray Barretto

by John Child (

Ray Barretto, the hard-hitting conga player, bandleader, songwriter and arranger, sadly passed away on February 17th 2006. "Ray was like the quintessential Nuyorican," said percussionist and educator Bobby Sanabria. "For us in our community, he was a shining example of how somebody from humble beginnings can rise and achieve greatness." In tribute, John Child offers a revised version of a discographic profile he originally prepared in the early 1990s, followed by an extensive selection of albums Ray made as a leader, sideman and session musician.

Ray Barretto

b. 29 April 1929, Brooklyn, New York City, of Puerto Rican parentage; d. 17 February 2006, Hackensack University Medical Center, Hackensack, New Jersey.

Barretto, raised in East Harlem and the Bronx, was a prominent bandleader for over four decades. However, he started his professional career even earlier as a sideman and jazz recording session conga player working for the legendary Blue Note and Prestige labels, among others. To escape the ghetto he joined the army at 17. Influenced by a record of Dizzy Gillespie with conguero Chano Pozo, Ray started to sit in on jam sessions held at the Orlando, a GI jazz club in Munich, Germany. After military service he returned to Harlem and attended more jam sessions, studied percussion, and rediscovered his Latin roots. From then on he retained a foot in both the jazz and Latin camps. Barretto jammed with Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Art Blakey and other jazz giants and sessioned with Lou Donaldson, Gene Ammons, Blakey, Red Garland, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Dizzy, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Cal Tjader and many others to become arguably the most extensively recorded conguero in the jazz field. He also sessioned with the Rolling Stones, Average White Band, Bee Gees and Bette Midler.

Ray's first regular job was with Eddie Bonnemere's Latin Jazz Combo followed by two years with Cuban bandleader / pianist José Curbelo. In late 1957 he replaced Mongo Santamaría in Tito Puente's band, the night before the recording of Dance Mania, Puente's classic and best-selling album. After four years with Puente, he did a brief four-month stint with Herbie Mann.

Barretto got his first leadership opportunity in 1961 when Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records, who knew Ray through his jazz work, asked him to form a charanga (a flute and violin band, which were all the rage at the time) for a recording date. The outcome was the album Pachanga With Barretto, followed by the Latin jam Latino (1962), on which Barretto's charanga was augmented by tenor saxophonist Jose "Chombo" Silva and trumpeter Alejandro "El Negro" Vivar, both graduates of the historical '50s Cuban Jam Session albums on the Panart label. Latino contained the outstanding descarga (jam session) "Cocinando Suave," described by Barretto as "one of those slow burners," and cited by Chombo as one of his favourite recordings (both quoted by Latin music historian Max Salazar).

In 1962 Ray switched to the Tico label and released the album Charanga Moderna. The track "El Watusi" reached the Top 20 US pop chart in 1963 and sold a million. "After 'El Watusi' I was neither fish nor fowl - neither a good Latin nor good pop artist," he was to say later. His next eight albums between 1963 and 1966 thrashed around in various directions and consistently eluded commercial success. The musical merit of some of his recorded work from this period was not appreciated until years later.

His fortunes changed when he signed to Fania Records in 1967. He dropped violins for an all-brass frontline and made the R&B and jazz flavoured Acid, which won him major popularity amongst Latin audiences for the first time. Barretto's next nine albums on Fania between 1968 and 1975 were increasingly successful, the only body blow being in late 1972 when his vocalist since 1966, Adalberto Santiago, and four other band members left to found Típica 73. The title track of his 1973 album Indestructible was aimed at his ex-sidemen, with replacement lead vocalist Tito Allen singing about a blood transfusion making Barretto indestructible to any harm and Ray pictured on the sleeve as Clark Kent revealing his Superman costume. His 1975 album Barretto, with vocalists Rubén Blades and Tito Gómez, was his biggest seller. It contains the prize-winning hit "Guararé" and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1976. He was also voted "Best Conga Player of the Year" for 1975 and 1976 in the Latin NY magazine annual poll.

Meanwhile Barretto had tired of grueling daily nightclub gigging and felt that clubs stifled creativity and gave no room for experimentation. He was also pessimistic that pure salsa could cross over to a wider audience. So on New Year's Eve 1975, he played his last date with his salsa band. They continued under the name Guararé and released three albums: Guararé (TR, 1977), Guararé (Inca, 1979) and Onda Típica (Inca, 1981).

Barretto organised a fusion oriented concert band. An agreement was struck between Fania and Atlantic Records and the first release on his new label was Barretto Live: Tomorrow, a two-disc recording of his successful debut concert at the Beacon Theatre, New York in May 1976. Ray's 1977 and 1978 albums were his last on Atlantic and should remain consigned to the deletion bins of history. However he still managed to win the Latin NY titles for "Musician of the Year" and "Best Conga Player of the Year" in October 1977. His fusion band turned out to be a commercial flop; he injured a hand, and was unable to play for a while.

Regarding his period with Atlantic, Ray later admitted: "That chapter was a disaster. Number one, I went to Atlantic without being totally in control of the music I wanted to make. Something happened in my early years as a young bandleader - I had a big hit ('El Watusi'), which kind of spoiled me because I liked having a hit. I liked the feeling of being recognized, of being made to feel important. When I went to Atlantic, I thought I might be able to come up with a hit and relive that kind of experience. That kind of clouded the fact that I was not making the music I wanted to make. I let them dictate which way to go with my music. As a result, I neither made it with non-Latinos or with Latinos. If I had to do it again, I would it differently," (quote from interview with Luis Tamargo in Latin Beat magazine, June / July 1994).

In 1979 he went back to Fania and reunited with Adalberto Santiago to produce Rican / Struction, a return to progressive salsa and regarded as one of the genre's all-time classic recordings. The LP was a smash hit and won him the 1980 Latin NY titles for "Album of the Year," "Musician of the Year" and "Best Conga Player." Ray's next two albums Giant Force / Fuerza Gigante (1980) and Rhythm of Life / Ritmo de la Vida (1982) featured the impressive voice of ex-Guararé lead singer, Ray de la Paz.

In 1983 Barretto teamed up with Celia Cruz and Adalberto to make the highly successful Tremendo Trio!, which won an ACE (The Hispanic Association of Entertainment Critics of New York) Award for "Salsa Album of the Year." The superb Todo Se Vá Poder (1984) and Aquí Se Puede (1987) included ex-Los Kimy singer Ray Saba (aka Del Rey Xaba) on lead vocals. Barretto and Cruz's second collaboration Ritmo En El Corazón, released at the end of 1988, won them a Grammy Award in 1990. He joined the salsa romántica bandwagon with the weak album Irresistible (1989).

From the late '80s Ray also led a Latin jazz band on the New York club circuit. On August 30, 1990, to mark his longstanding involvement in both jazz and Latin music, Barretto appeared with Adalberto and Puerto Rican trumpeter Juancito Torres at a tribute concert titled "Las 2 Vidas de Ray Barretto" (The Two Lives of Ray Barretto) at the University of Puerto Rico. In 1991 he switched to Concord Picante for a series of three Latin jazz outings, commencing with Handprints. However, Ray returned to solid salsa in 1992 for his final release on Fania, the outstanding Grammy nominated Soy Dichoso, with lead vocals provided by Alfredo "Tito" González (formerly of Grupo Fascinación and Típica 88). In 1994, Ray revealed to Max Salazar: "I was forced out of the salsa field…I was told I'm too old for young dancers to appreciate…none of the dance halls would hire my band…I like Latin jazz, but I'd rather be playing salsa…it's my love," (Latin Beat, November 1994).

He marked his 50th Anniversary with the 2-CD salsa set Live In Puerto Rico (AJ Records / Sony, 2001) featuring past lead vocalists Adalberto Santiago, Tito Allen and Ray de la Paz and former sidemen Johnny Rodríguez Jr., Orestes Vilató and Andy González. Meanwhile he released a further six Latin jazz albums on various labels between 1996 and 2005 and won the Down Beat critics poll for percussion in 2003 and 2005. His 2005 album, Time Was - Time Is on O+ Music, was nominated for a Grammy in 2006.

He was a member of the Fania All Stars since their 1968 inception; he appeared with them in the UK in 1976 and participated in their 30th anniversary reunion tour in 1994. He produced albums for a number of artistes, including Roberto Roena, Tommy Olivencia, Adalberto Santiago, José Fajardo and Pupi Legarreta. His various international tours included many UK appearances.

On January 13, 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him its Jazz Masters Award, a distinction for lifetime achievement. He suffered a heart attack two days later. He had quadruple bypass surgery on January 20th and follow-up open-heart surgery on January 29th.

Albums as a leader:

Pachanga With Barretto (1961)
Latino (1962)

Charanga Moderna (1962)
On Fire Again (1963)
The Big Hits Latin Style (1963)
La Moderna de Siempre (1964)
Guajira y Guaguancó (1964)

Mysterious Instinct (Akannaginnagi) Featuring Brock Peters (1965)


Viva Watusi! (1965)
Señor 007 (1965)
El Ray Criollo (1966)

Acid (1967)
Hard Hands (1968)
Together (1969)
Head Sounds (1969)
Power (1970)
The Message (1971)
Que Viva La Musica (1972)
The Other Road (1973)
Indestructible (1973)
Barretto (1975; nominated for a Grammy Award)

Barretto Live: Tomorrow (1976; nominated for a Grammy Award)
Eye Of The Beholder (1977)
Can You Feel It (1978)

Gracias (1979)
Rican / Struction (1979; nominated for a Grammy Award)
Giant Force / Fuerza Gigante (1980)

La Cuna (1981)

Rhythm Of Life / Ritmo de la Vida (1982; nominated for a Grammy Award)
Tremendo Trio! with Celia Cruz and Adalberto Santiago (1983; nominated for a Grammy Award)
Todo Se Vá Poder (1984)
Aquí Se Puede (1987; nominated for a Grammy Award)
Ritmo En El Corazón with Celia Cruz (1988; Grammy Award winner)
Irresistible (1989; nominated for a Grammy Award)

Handprints (1991)

Soy Dichoso (1992; nominated for a Grammy Award)

Ancestral Messages (1993)
Taboo (1994; nominated for a Grammy Award)

My Summertime (1996; nominated for a Grammy Award)

Contact! (1997)

Portraits In Jazz And Clave (1999)

Trancedance: Ray Barretto & New World Spirit Featuring James Moody & Los Papines (2001)

Live In Puerto Rico - 50th Anniversary (2001)

Homage To Art (2003)

Time Was - Time Is (2005; nominated for a Grammy Award)

Selected Latin and jazz albums on which Ray Barretto performed:

José Curbelo, Live At The China Doll In New York 1946 plus hits from 1952-1954 (Tumbao, 1995)
Lou Donaldson, Swing And Soul (Blue Note, 1957)
Tito Puente, Dance Mania (RCA, 1958)
Woody Herman & Tito Puente, Herman's Heat & Puente's Beat (Everest, 1958)
Gene Ammons, Blue Gene (Prestige, 1958)
Art Blakey, Drums Around The Corner (Blue Note, 1958; not issued until 1999)
Art Blakey, Holiday For Skins, Vols. 1 & 2 (Blue Note, 1958)
Lou Donaldson, Blues Walk (Blue Note, 1958)
Lou Donaldson, Light-Foot (Blue Note, 1958)
Red Garland, Manteca (Prestige, 1958)
Red Garland, Rojo (Prestige, 1958)
Red Garland, Rediscovered Masters (Prestige, 1958)
Arnett Cobb, Party Time (Prestige, 1959)
Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis & Shirley Scott, Bacalao (Prestige, 1959)
Tito Puente, Mucho Cha-Cha (RCA, 1959)
Tito Puente, Live At Grossinger's (RCA, 1959)
Lou Donaldson, The Time Is Right (Blue Note, 1959)
Joe Zawinul, To You With Love (Strand, 1959)
Johnny "Hammond" Smith, Talk That Talk (New Jazz, 1960)
Gene Ammons, Boss Tenor (Prestige, 1960)
Tito Puente, Tambó (RCA, 1960)
Tito Puente & Buddy Morrow, Revolving Bandstand (RCA, 1960)
Herbie Mann, Flute, Brass, Vibes And Percussion (Verve, 1960)
Horace Parlan, Headin' South (Blue Note, 1960)
Lou Donaldson, Midnight Sun (Blue Note, 1960)
Herbie Mann, The Common Ground (Atlantic, 1960)
Dizzy Gillespie, Carnegie Hall Concert (Verve, 1961)
Herbie Mann, The Family Of Mann (Atlantic, 1961)
Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Afro-Jaws (Riverside, 1961)
Wes Montgomery, So Much Guitar! (Riverside, 1961)
Mark Murphy, Rah (Riverside, 1961)
Cannonball Adderley, African Waltz (Riverside, 1961)
Oliver Nelson Orchestra, Afro/American Sketches (Prestige, 1961)
Oliver Nelson & Joe Newman, Main Stem (Prestige, 1961)
Jimmy Forest, Most Much! (Prestige, 1961)
Gene Ammons, Jug (Prestige, 1961)
Gene Ammons, Up Tight (Prestige, 1961)
Al Grey, Al Grey / Billy Mitchell Sextet (Argo, 1961)
Wild Bill Moore, Wild Bill's Beat (Jazzland, 1961)
Wild Bill Moore, Bottom Groove (Jazzland, 1961)
Gene Ammons, Boss Soul! (Prestige, 1961)
Gene Ammons, Soul Summit (Prestige, 1961/2)
Johnny Lytle, Moonchild (Jazzland, 1962)
Dave Pike, Limbo Carnival (New Jazz, 1962)
Willis "Gator" Jackson, Thunderbird (Prestige, 1962)
Sonny Stitt with Jack McDuff, Stitt Meets Brother Jack (Prestige, 1962)
Pérez Prado, Exotic Suite (RCA, 1962)
Ray Bryant, Dancing The Big Twist (Columbia, 1962)
Don Goldie, Trumpet Caliente (Argo, 1962)
Tito Puente, More Dance Mania (RCA, 1963, recorded 1960)
Kenny Burrell, Freedom (Blue Note, 1963)
Kenny Burrell, Midnight Blue (Blue Note, 1963)
Stanley Turrentine, Never Let Me Go (Blue Note, 1963)
Kenny Burrell, Bluesy Burrell (Moodsville / Prestige, 1963)
Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis with Shirley Scott, Misty (Moodsville / Prestige, 1963)
Kenny Burrell, Crash! (Blue Note, 1963)
Johnny "Hammond" Smith, Open House (Riverside, 1963)
Herbie Mann, Returns To The Village Gate (Atlantic, 1963)
Kenny Burrell, Soul Call (Prestige, 1964)
Lou Donaldson, Cole Slaw (Cadet, 1964)
Stanley Turrentine, Stanley Turrentine (Blue Note, 1964)
Jimmy Smith, Christmas Cookin' (Verve, 1964)
Quincy Jones, Quincy's Got a Brand New Bag (Mercury, 1965)
Tico All-Stars, Descargas At The Village Gate, Live, Vol. 1, Vol. 2 & Vol. 3 (Tico, 1966)
Sonny Stitt, The Matadors Meet The Bull (Roulette, 1966)
Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery, The Dynamic Duo (Verve, 1966)
Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery, Further Adventures Of Jimmy And Wes (Verve, 1966)
Wes Montgomery, California Dreaming (Verve, 1966)
Wes Montgomery, Tequila (Verve, 1966)
Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Lock, The Fox (RCA, 1966)
Cal Tjader, Along Comes Cal (Verve, 1967)
Freddie Hubbard, Backlash (Atlantic, 1967)
Wes Montgomery, A Day In The Life (A&M, 1967)
Shirley Scott, Stompin' (Prestige, 1967)
Eddie Harris, The Electrifying Eddie Harris (Atlantic, 1968; nominated for a Grammy Award)
Cal Tjader, Solar Heat (Skye, 1968)
Yusef Lateef, Latitude 42° 30' Longitude 83° (Atlantic, 1969)
Fania All Stars, Live At The Red Garter, Vols. 1 & Vol. 2 (Fania, 1968)
Wes Montgomery, Down Here On The Ground (A&M, 1968; nominated for a Grammy Award)
Jimmy Sabater, Solo (Tico, 1969)
George Benson, The Other Side Of Abbey Road (A&M, 1969)
Yusef Lateef, The Diverse (Atlantic, 1970)
Fania All Stars, Live At The Cheetah, Vols. 1 & Vol. 2 (Fania, 1971)
Kenny Burrell, God Bless The Child (CTI, 1971)
Freddie Hubbard, Sky Dive (CTI / Columbia, 1971)
Johnny Lytle, The Soulful Rebel (Milestone, 1971)
Fania All Stars, Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa) (Fania, 1972)
Deodato, Prelude (CTI, 1972)
Cheo Feliciano, With A Little Help From My Friend (Vaya, 1973)
Billy Cobham, Spectrum (Atlantic, 1973)
Joao Donato & Deodato, Donato / Deodato (Muse, 1973)
Woody Herman, Giant Steps (Fantasy, 1973; Grammy Award winner)
Fania All Stars, Latin-Soul-Rock (Fania, 1974)
Gene Ammons, Goodbye (Prestige, 1974)
Fania All Stars, Live At Yankee Stadium, Vols. 1 & Vol. 2 (Fania, 1975; Vol. 1 received a Grammy nomination)
Woody Herman, Feelin' So Blue (Fantasy, 1975)
Fania All Stars, Salsa (Fania, 1976; nominated for a Grammy)
Fania All Stars, Tribute to Tito Rodríguez (Fania, 1976)
Fania All Stars, Delicate And Jumpy (Columbia, 1976)
Fania All Stars, Live (Fania, 1978)
Fania All Stars, California Jam (Fania, 1980)
Jeremy Steig & Eddie Gómez Rain Forest (CMP, 1980)
Stanley Turrentine, Mr. Natural (Blue Note, 1981)
Hilton Ruiz, Cross Currents (Stash, 1984)
Fania All Stars, Viva La Charanga (Fania, 1986)
Fania All Stars, Live In Africa (Fania, 1986; recorded 1974)
Fania All Stars, Bamboleo (Fania, 1988)
Fania All Stars, Guasasa (Fania, 1989)
Fania All Stars, "Live" (Fania, 1995)
Héctor Martignon, Portrait In Black And White (Candid, 1997)
Estrellas Caimán, Descarga del Milenio (Caimán, 1997)
Dave Samuels, Tjader-ized (Verve, 1998)
Michael Philip Mossman, The Orisha Suite (Connector, 2001)
Ricky González, Oasis (Rumba Jams, 2004)

Selected compilations:

His first two LPs were reissued as the double album Carnaval (Fantasy, 1973) and various compilations have been released, including Descarga Criolla (Palladium, 1992) with tracks from his 1965 to 1966 albums recorded for United Artists.

© and John Child, produces and selects the contents of the totallyradio show Aracataca , He is an editor and journalist for the Latin music website and a contributor to the MusicWeb Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and Penguin and Guinness Encyclopedias of Popular Music

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