Latin Music USA


Hora 2: La Revolución de la Salsa

En el segundo episodio, puertoriqueños y otros latinos en Nueva York reinventan el Son cubano y la Plena puertorriqueña, agregándoles elementos de Soul y Jazz, y crean Salsa, que se vuelve el rítmo que identifica a los latinos por todo el mundo.

AIRED: October 12, 2009 | 0:54:55

♪ Oye que rico suena...

♪ Las estrellas de Fania.


a small New York record label pulled together its best artists

for a performance at a club in the city.

IZZY SANABRIA: Ladies and gentlemen, here they are,

the world's greatest Latin musicians,

the Fania All-Stars! Yeah!

(crowd cheering)

SMITS: Two years later,

they performed for over 40,000 people at Yankee Stadium.

And one year after that,

they were playing for thousands more across the globe.

By the end of the '70s, the label-- Fania--

had sold millions of records around the world.

All the while, back in the U.S.,

most people barely noticed.

This is the story of what they missed:

a musical revolution--

the birth of salsa.

(applause and cheering)

♪ Oye como va mi ritmo ♪

♪ Bueno pa gozar mulata. ♪

(song continues)

(song ends, applause)

Funding for Latin Music USA is provided

SMITS: The 1960s in East Harlem,

El Barrio.

By then the city held over a half a million Latinos,

mostly Puerto Ricans.

(bicycle bell rings)

Many were young, part of a massive postwar generation

whose search for identity would transform U.S. culture.

New York-born Puerto Ricans would become "Nuyoricans"

and salsa would be their flag.

The first step on that journey

was away from the Latin big bands of the '50s.

I was tired of traditional Latin music.

I was tired of bands and frilly dresses and perfume--

heavy musky perfume.

I was tired of that.

We grew up immersed in it.

It's like your mother and your father-- you're used to them.

A one, a two, a one, two, three.

♪ Lum dee lum dee li

♪ Lum dee lum dee li

♪ Lum lee lum lee li

♪ Lum lee lum lee li

LUCIANO: We had a rock-and-roll generation

that was listening to Smokey and the Miracles,

the Temptations, Elvis Presley.

♪ This cat named Mickey came from out of town... ♪

LUCIANO: Rock and roll knocked us out

and it knocked us out as much as it did any other American.

(piano playing bluesy melody)

SMITS: It didn't take long for musicians in El Barrio

to make R&B and rock their own.

They called it Latin boogaloo,

a fusion of traditional Latin rhythms

and the new sounds of a new generation.

If you listen to that, what you hear is, you hear...

kind of a funk... and-and, uh...

the very... bottom of, uh, rhythm and blues.

(sings riff)

And then the rest of it is the Latin rhythm on the bottom.

("Boogaloo Blues" plays)

JOHNNY COLOÓN: But it was just putting the music together,

the sounds that you were raised with, and as a kid

from El Barrio, born in El Barrio,

you know, it just came out.

♪ I'll show you the town

♪ I'll give you the world...

It filled the void because we had nothing.

We were caught between rock and roll and Latin.

It married the two.

SMITS: Earlier hybrids had made it to the pop charts,

like Mongo Santamaria's "Watermelon Man."

Latin boogaloo added more...

♪ Bang! Bang!

♪ Bang! Bang!

SMITS: Joe Cuba's "Bang Bang"...

("Bang Bang" continues playing)

♪ Bang! Bang!

♪ I like it like that

SMITS: Or Pete Rodriguez's "I Like It Like That."

♪ I like it like that...

SMITS: The musical simplicity of Latin boogaloo,

compared to the sophisticated mambos of the past,

invited a new generation of musicians into the business.

JOHNNY COLOÓN: If you played with Puente

or if you played with some of the other bands,

Machito and stuff like that, you had to be, you know,

really mature and kicking around for a long time,

but now, you have this wave of young musicians coming in.

JOE BATAAN: ♪ Push, push

♪ Doin' a boogaloo

♪ Push, push

SMITS: One of those was Joe Bataan,

a 22-year-old just out of prison.

♪ Doin' a boogaloo, push, push. ♪

And I remember walking down First Avenue

and 99th Street and I said to myself,

"I'm gonna start a band,

and I'm gonna kick ass."

♪ Well, I took the subway downtown one day ♪

♪ Just to buy me some Chinese food ♪

(recording): ♪ And then she smacked me on the head ♪

♪ Kicked me on my knee and said ♪

♪ "Mister, you're dead if you mess with me" ♪

♪ Hey, hey, hey

(horns playing)

♪ Hey, hey, hey...

(rhythmic clapping, song fades)

We put in the clapping, of course,

which was very instrumental

in most of the boogaloo songs back then.

And, uh... just to cause excitement.

(rhythmic clapping over boogaloo rhythm)

SMITS: Latin boogaloo open the doors for a bandleader

from the South Bronx

who would stand at the center of the salsa revolution

of the '70s--

trombonist Willie Colón.

We really sounded awful.

It was, you know, just noisy, awful bands,

but, uh, the kids loved it.

We had a fan club.

They would dance at the rehearsals,

they would show up at the dances.

Uh, so they were always there.

So we started getting gigs

just because we had this giant entourage

that would show up all the time.

When I started doing my first gigs,

I was... 14 years old,

and I wasn't the tall kid either,

so it was really hard.

I used to buy my suits in secondhand store

and put on these old... old man suits.

Sometimes I'd have a... I'd take a cigar and, you know...

I'm 14 years old, I probably looked like a lesbian.

(trombone and piano playing)

SMITS: By 1967, Colón had a record deal with a local label.

COLOÓN: When we signed the contract,

my lawyer was, uh, my mother.

I was 16, I couldn't sign the contract,

she signed them for me.

I think she was, what, all of 30 years old

and a high school grad, so, uh,

I had the best representation.

SMITS: But there was a catch.

Colón would have to take on a new lead singer,

a Puerto Rican who had moved to New York

only a few years earlier, Hector Lavoe.

COLOÓN: So we talked to Hector.

Hector decided he was gonna sing just this one album with us

because the band... he said the band stunk.

♪ Baby, I need, baby

♪ I need you

♪ Oh, you're looking fine

We worked together for eight years.

I never officially hired him.

I said, "Hey what are you doing Saturday?"

He'd show up.

♪ Baby

♪ Oh, pretty baby...

SMITS: Willie Colón's debut album, El Malo,

was a hit in El Barrio

and a boost to a young record label started in the city

just a few years earlier, Fania Records.

Fania's co-founder and musical director

was Dominican Johnny Pacheco.

He was making money off boogaloo,

but as a musician, didn't think much of the trend.

I use to hate it because the trombone players,

all they played was three notes and the back beat,

and to me that wasn't music.

And they all sound the same.

It was... it was horrendous.

SMITS: Pacheco had cut his teeth

playing in New York's Latin orchestras in the '50s.

In the early '60s, inspired by Cuban music,

he led his own group featuring flute and violins.

Though he had some hit LPs, he didn't think he was getting

his fair share of the royalties,

and decided to start his own label,

delivering the records himself.

I had a 180 Mercedes, that was..

the back was already hitting the floor.

I was hitting the streets.

And I used to put... load the trunk with records

and then we used to go into New York and part of the Bronx.

SMITS: To help finance the label,

Pacheco joined forces with a young Italian-American lawyer

and ex-New York cop, Jerry Masucci.

He was having trouble with his first wife.

He was paying a lot of money, alimony,

he was very unhappy and he gave me the case.

We hit it off,

and I told him I wanted to start a company.

Without the two of them, it never would have happened.

You know, Jerry couldn't have done it without Johnny,

Johnny couldn't have done it without Jerry.

It wouldn't have happened.

SMITS: Pacheco and Masucci would combine

the raw energy of boogaloo

with the skills and rhythms of older Cuban dance bands.

Fania planned to attract a new generation of Latinos

in search of a new identity.

We were, at that time, as Puerto Ricans, wanting to be bad.

We wanted to be tough, and Super Fly was out...

MAN: Th is dude is bad.

And he ain't just fly,

he's Super Fly.

Yeah, Super Fly.

And Shaft and all of that stuff.

MAN: Th ey say this cat is a bad mother...

WOMEN: Sh ut your mouth.

I'm talkin' 'bout Shaft.

Then we can dig it.

And we wanted to be part of that.

So Willie, a working class Puerto Rican kid,

took the image of the gangster and exploited it.

COLOÓN: The clothes I was wearing and that gangster thing

kind of played into the image, and it really caught on.

It gave us an opportunity to do things with the covers

that were interesting

and we would kind of parallel what was going on.

We did The Good the Bad and the Ugly,

and The Hustler, the movie with Paul Newman;

we did The Untouchables.

So it was kind of a mirror of what was going on

in the media in those days.

My mother was going out with this guy

whose father was Harry Belafonte's doorman,

and Harry Belafonte was always giving him

these beautiful silk ties,

and he would give them to me

'cause he had no reason to wear a tie so I, you know...

as part of my look, you know, I had all of these beautiful...

uh, Harry Belafonte's tie collection.

SMITS: Graphic artist and concert emcee Izzy Sanabria

would design some of the most memorable Fania album covers

and posters.

I came up with this idea,

which was influenced by the fact that I had seen, on sale,

posters by the FBI

of Bobby Seale, and, you know, some of the Black Panthers.

So I took Willie Colón downstairs to a local arcade,

I took two profile shots, and four right on shots

and then I put "Wanted by the FBI."

COLOÓN: It looked exactly like a post office wanted poster

and we took like 20,000 of them and we put them around the city,

we glued them all over the place.

And people that didn't speak a lot of English or, you know...

they were calling up the FBI

to find out how much the reward was.

Willie Colón's grandmother almost had a heart attack

because her neighbors came in--

"Ah, tu no sabe que la FBI esta buscando a Willie," you know.

And Willie had to come in to tell them,

"No, this is just a promotion of my album."

COLOÓN: We were like a self-promoting merchandising machine

and it was all just organic because we were playing.

(singing "Todo Tiene Su Final")

SMITS: Colón's music had evolved as well.

He had moved away from boogaloo toward a more Latin sound

that played to the strengths of singer Hector Lavoe.

(singing "Todo Tiene Su Final")

COLOÓN: On all of Hector's recordings,

he was able to play with the rhythm

and put the words in the way they fit.

You know, you could give him the words and he would just

kind of rock them around and wrap them around the rhythm

and-and make it happen.

SMITS: Lavoe sang with the full flavor of rural Puerto Rico.

He was from the countryside,

a jíbaro, and proud of it.

He was the most popular of all the singers at Fania

because he was a real Puerto Rican, a real jíbarito,

and he always, he never... he said,

"That's me and that's the way I want to be."

And the people loved that.

We kept working together and finally we got this, you know,

chemistry where I really got to know him and understand him

and I learned a lot from him.

He taught me Spanish, I taught him English.

And it was great.

I had the Bronx street stuff going

and he had that-that, uh, country,

Puerto Rican folkloric thing

and it was a great combination.

SMITS: Colón began to draw

on his own childhood experience of the island.

COLOÓN: My grandmother, every chance she got

she would save money and send me back to Puerto Rico

just so I wouldn't get into any trouble.

You know, they put me up in a farm up there with her

and I think that was really important

to me in my development.

SMITS: By the early '70s,

Colón's growing sense of Puerto Rican pride

had led him in a new experimental direction,

integrating the folk traditions of the island into his music.

I had a string of hits already with Hector

and I go to Jerry at his new big office at 888 7th Avenue,

to the Fania suite, go into his office and I said,

"Jerry I want to do a Christmas album."

"Great. Great idea."

I said, "Yeah, but I want to do a Christmas jíbaro album.

I want to do Puerto Rican music."

And he says, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, just bring me the record.

I don't have time..." and I said, "Okay, great."

SMITS: To add an authentic jíbaro feel to the album,

Colón wanted the instrument most identified

with the Puerto Rican countryside, the cuatro.

He called on Yomo Toro, a musician he had first heard

as a boy while visiting his mother at her job

in a lingerie shop in El Barrio.

I'd be in the store visiting and, you know,

somebody would come in to buy underwear

I'd have to go out 'cause it's, you know, a little personal.

And I'd walk a couple of stores down and I saw this bar,

the Campana Bar, and in the window of the Campana Bar

it said "Yomo Toro, Fridays,"

and I looked and I hear a guy, you know...

I hear the the cuatro playing and stuff you know, inside

with the go-go girls, and I'm trying to peek inside

and usually somebody would come out and,

"Hey, get away from there," 'cause I was just a little kid,

think I'm trying to see the go-go girls,

but I wanted to see... well, I... both.

SMITS: Colón's Asalto Navideño-- Christmas Assault--

with its traditional and Nuyorican sounds,

would become one of Fania's biggest albums,

selling well in New York, Puerto Rico

and breaking new ground for the label in South America.

One track would become a classic, "La Murga."

♪ Vamos a bailar La Murga

♪ La Murga de Panamá...

(song continues)

♪ Vamos a bailar La Murga

♪ La Murga de Panamá...

SMITS: "La Murga" was based on a riff

picked up while on tour in Panama.

It's been sampled and copied and stuff on a zillion records.

It goes...

(playing repetitive notes)

(same song plays)

SMITS: While in Panama, Colón and Lavoe had left a deep impression

on a young musician who would eventually take salsa

in an entirely new direction.

RUBEN BLADES: They had this raw power,

energy, and we all went, "Whoa."

SMITS: Blades tried to sell them some of his songs.

Lavoe said to call him at his hotel.

I couldn't sleep that night, I was so thrilled.

And, of course, I call him at 8:00 in the morning.

He probably played till 3:00, 4:00 and then partied

and he'd just gone to bed.

And he picked up the phone

and, uh, and-and I introduced myself and he said,

"Oh, yeah, listen, brother, can you give me a little chance,

'cause I'm want to go to sleep now."

And I said, "Oh, yeah, yeah, I'm sorry."

We said, you know, we'll meet some other time,

and, um, and as it turns... turns out that I did.

SMITS: By the early '70s, Fania was set to explode.

The catalyst was a single night's concert

in a former roller-skating rink in midtown Manhattan,

the Cheetah Club.

The label had gathered its best talent

to create the Fania All-Stars, led by Johnny Pacheco.

They were a supergroup, the cream of New York's Latin scene,

though they didn't sound like it at the afternoon's rehearsal.

MASUCCI: That day, when they were rehearsing,

it was horrendous.

And we were saying, "This is gonna be terrible."

It was like a...

a corral full of peacocks.

Really, it-it was not easy.

Uh, the egos... I remember that I had brought a chart

that Hector and I had written

and I won't say who did it,

but one of the old timers took it and threw it on the floor

and we couldn't play it, so I was very pissed.

But Jerry said,

"Ah, take it easy, Willie..." So I went and I played.

And we did it and it was great.

SANABRIA: The place was completely packed.

The police and firemen came, you know, they blocked...

people couldn't get in, there's a line around the block, boom.

After the third number, we knew it was a happening.

MASUCCI: That was one of the most

amazing nights that you could ever witness in music.

SMITS: That night at the Cheetah

has been called the Birth of Salsa.

It was the moment when many strands of music converged

in New York to create the Latin sound of the '70s.

(song ends, crowd cheering)

It was Cuban music that we took and we changed the arrangements,

being that most of the guys were born here

or grew up in New York, we had the rock influence,

the jazz influence,

and we changed the approach.

And it was a New York sound.

Now what happened was people were getting confused

with the mambo, cha-cha-cha, guaracha,

so what we did was took the music

and put it under one roof and we called it salsa.

SMITS: A typical salsa band features one lead vocalist.

That night the All-Stars had six.

The energy from the stage

and the energy from the audience

created what I call an incredible spiritual,

religious revival meeting of, you know...

It was just something that started somewhere

in the depths of your stomach

through your emotions and your feet

and people couldn't sit.

They wanted to stand up and dance in the aisles.

For the people themselves, the audience,

salsa's rhythms provided an escape from everyday life

in El Barrio.

It became a rhythm they lived by,

a rhythm they breathed, and a rhythm they made love to.

It was...

the essence of the Latino soul.

SMITS: The magic of that night at the Cheetah Club

might have dissipated,

except for another bold stroke by Masucci.

He filmed the event.

He was just thinking just out of the box, you know.

This is not... nobody was investing this kind of money,

nobody had these kind of dreams.

SMITS: What the Woodstock movie did for rock,

Fania's Our Latin Thing did for salsa.

It gave a glimpse into the lives of Nuyoricans,

propelled by the performance at the Cheetah Club.

The film played to packed houses in cities around the U.S.

and throughout the Americas.

MASUCCI: It was a big success, you know.

It was a tremendous success

and actually it changed the whole business

because from just recording stars, you know,

they became big images on a screen

and I believe it turned the whole business around.

I think that's one of the things that made Fania the big success

it is today.

(singing "Anacaona")

SMITS: Fania began cranking out new recordings

while buying out smaller competing labels

on its way to becoming the only game in town in Latin music.

(singing "Anacaona")

Motown had their music,

the whites, the Anglos, had their own music

and the Latinos, they said,

"This is our music, salsa is our music,"

so they had something that belongs to them.

SMITS: As Fania Record sales soared,

so the reputation of its boss began to sink.

CHEO FELICANO: He was the worst.

He was a businessman.

It was a one-sided thing.

I mean, all the contracts that we signed

were very wisely designed by Jerry and his lawyers

and we got the short end of the stick.

All of us.

Jerry was a businessman. He was a businessman.

And businessmen do what they do.

He ain't taking the least of the profits, that's for sure.

And there's no reason why he should

because he's the guy who's putting up the money

and he's the guy who's taking the risk.

MASUCCI: As long as I have the hits and the artists,

(laughing): I'm in a powerful position.

But I've been lucky enough to know the right talent

and sign them and keep them.

And, you, know, and after 15 years in the business

and bringing the business up from nothing,

you get a certain amount of power.

Uh-oh, look out! Look out! Look out!

SMITS: Masucci kept a tight rein on royalties.

Even Fania's most prolific composer, Tite Curet Alonso,

with over 300 hits,

had to double as a mailman to make ends meet.

He wrote all the hits for everybody

and... he died a pauper.

And that's a shame

'cause he was a creator, he was a master,

he was the guy that did... made us all stars.

(singing "Anacaona")

(music fades)

SMITS: But whatever Masucci's business methods,

his vision and his instinct for the music

were seldom in question.

LARRY HARLOW: He was very smart.

I used to bring him my record

and he'd say, "Which song do you think

was the best song on here?"

And I'd say, "This one, song A."

And he's going, "No, it's song C."

And 99% of the time he was right, he would pick the hits.

He knew what would... what the public really wanted to hear.

SMITS: Larry Harlow became a key Fania musician and producer,

but it wasn't what his parents had in mind.

(Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" playing)

! Born in Brooklyn, in a Russian Jewish family of musicians,

he'd been brought up to play Beethoven sonatas.

As a teen, he became interested in Latin music

hearing it on the streets of Harlem

walking to his music school.

HARLOW: I started playing with African-American musicians

and they would play these arrangements

that came from Cuba-- mambo number one, mambo number nine...

(sings mambo riff)

But what was written on the paper was this:

(plays simple repetitive chords)

Which was very simple,

but I didn't know how to play a guajeo,

I didn't know what to do with those chords,

I just played what was on the paper.

And the bandleader, Hugo Dickens, said to me,

"Wow, you play terrible.

I'm going to have to throw you out of the orchestra."

I felt absolutely miserable,

so I ran to the nearest record store

and I bought these recordings of Joe Loco and Noro Morales,

who were very fine pianists, and I memorized their solos

and figured out that what they were playing

was just breaking up of these chords.

In other words instead of playing...

(plays simple repetitive chords)

Instead of playing that, they're now playing...

(plays complex repetitive chords)

They take that chord and just separate the notes.

I said, "Oh, that's how it works."

SMITS: In the '60s, Fania signed Harlow,

and in the '70s, he scored his biggest hit,

a version of a Cuban classic, "La Cartera."

HARLOW: It was all about a guy that lost his wallet

and he didn't know where his wallet was

and he went to a spiritista, to a spiritualist,

to find out where it was, and it just caught on.

(song continues playing)

SMITS: By the early '70s, salsa was booming in New York,

a vibrant soundtrack to the lives of millions.

After the success of Our Latin Thing,

Masucci was ready to make a second film.

He took a high-risk gamble on an ambitious venue.

MASUCCI: I decided to rent Yankee Stadium.

It was $280,000 for the night

and everybody in New York told me I was totally crazy.

And that was Jerry.

That was 100% Jerry.

I even thought he was nuts.

I'll never forget, we put $50,000 dollars

down on the field,

you know, 50 grand as a deposit.

SMITS: The Masucci brothers were guaranteeing,

with their own money,

the crowd would not damage the Yankees' valuable turf.

That is, if a Latin audience could ever fill a stadium

of this size.

I'll never forget, I went there,

sitting on the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium,

I'm looking up and there's nobody in the stadium

and all of a sudden...

they-they started to come, they started to come.

And then we had, what, about 45,000 people there that night.

(crowd cheers)

SMITS: After a series of opening acts,

Fania brought out the All-Stars

in a roll call of its best talent.

Otro gran borequa... Cheo Feliciano!

(applause and cheering)

Willie Colón!


Larry Harlow!

Hector Lavoe!

The great Johnny Pacheco!


Ladies and gentlemen, here they are,

the world's greatest Latin musicians--

the Fania All-Stars!


SMITS: With the film shoot underway

and over 40,000 people in the stands,

the night appeared to be a success.

ALEX MASUCCI: Johnny was leading the band

and the band, you know, they're playing "Congo Bongo"

and Mongo's playing and Baretto's playing

and the drums are playing

and I'm looking and I'm saying, "What the ... is that?"

And it looked like a waterfall.

Something was moving from the loge down.

And I realized, "That's people!"

These people were climbing down onto the field

and they're charging the stage and Johnny don't see it,

the band don't see it.

And all I'm thinking about is that's 50 grand

that we're gonna lose.

And I'm trying to stop the show.

You know the guy who's going, "Cut, cut"?

That was me.

They went right over the stage, they stole the piano,

they stole the timbales.

You know, the bodyguards picked up Jerry

and started carrying him away.

And it was pretty much of a riot, you know?

(music stops) So depressed.

I took the money and I went home.

Jerry said, "What are you gonna do?"

I said, "I'm gonna go home. I'll take the money."

And I took all these suitcases

with the money in it and I went home.


SMITS: The crowd's favorite, Hector Lavoe,

was left in the changing rooms, unable to perform.

As Fania's top male star,

he had to be in that expensive salsa film.


(crowd cheering)

So, a year later, Masucci took him all the way to Puerto Rico

and filmed him there.

♪ Mi gente !¡Ustedes! ♪

♪ Lo más grande de este mundo

♪ Siempre me hacen sentir...

SMITS: This performance turned "Mi Gente"-- "My People"--

into a salsa anthem.

♪ !¡Vengan conmigo! ♪

(cheers and applause)

Puerto Rico!


SMITS: Fania's rise to the top of the Latin scene

had started in the streets,

but at the same concert in Puerto Rico,

Masucci presented the new dazzling jewel

he had recently added to the Fania crown,

the legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz.

(singing "Bemba Colora")

FELICIANO: She had a powerful voice.

She had everything.

She had that African heritage,

and that's what she exposed.

She was...

she was rhythm, she was, she was...

she was salsa.

SMITS: Cruz's story reached back to the radio stations of 1940s Cuba.

When she graduated into the nightclubs of Havana,

American tourists, including Jerry Masucci,

were entranced by her voice.

I just always loved Celia

and I-I really wanted her to come and... to our label.

Jerry went wild for Celia, you know.

He went wild for Celia.

(audience singing along)

SMITS: By bringing Cruz to the label,

Masucci introduced the star to a new generation,

and Fania gained not only a singular talent

but some old school showbiz glamour.

(singing "Bemba Colora")

Muchas gracias.

(cheers and applause)

SMITS: Finally completed after two years,

the second film attempted to take the music out of El Barrio

and place it in the middle of mainstream pop culture.

(rock music plays)

SMITS: Jorge Santana, Carlos' brother, added rock guitar.

Mongo Santamaria, well known in the jazz and pop world,

was featured.

Cameroonian Manu Dibango played his R&B and pop hit,

"Soul Makoosa."

♪ Soul Makoosa...

And hip New York reporter Geraldo Rivera added commentary.

Now if the music is hot and the beat is uptempo,

there's only one name for it. The name is...


SMITS: But the critical and commercial response to the film

in the U.S. was tepid.

Ultimately where the label struck gold

was outside of the United States.


SMITS: By the mid-'70s, the Fania All-Stars,

with Celia Cruz, were touring the world,

ambassadors of salsa, developing markets

and fueling an explosion in Fania's international sales.

(indistinct singing and chattering)


♪ Ee Mama

♪ Ee Mama

♪ Ee Mama

♪ Ee Mama...


MASUCCI: When we were really doing the great concerts

with the Fania All-Stars,

we would do more business in Latin America

than the Rolling Stones.

We had the president and the generals of Panama meeting us

at the airplanes with Fania All-Stars buttons on.

(singing "Guantanamera")

It was ridiculous.

They used to tear the doors down--

metal doors down-- to get in.

♪ Mi gente...

♪ Que cante mi gente...

MASUCCI: We did Japan, we did Africa, we did England,

we did all of South America.

And wherever we went we never had a loser.

It was always big.

(Celia Cruz singing)

SMITS: The All-Stars were on the crest of a Latin wave,

touring-- and indulging-- like rock stars.

COLOÓN: We had Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy,

all kind of rock and roll magazines

and stuff covering us.

We understood it was something else.

But it was nuts, the Fania All-Stars was, you know,

all of these guys are geniuses,

and by the same token they're just mad-- crazy, crazy mad.

But it was great, it worked, it elevated a lot of us

to a position where we could really earn a living at this,

a respectable living,

and I think it created a market that just wasn't there before.

SMITS: Fania had become an international juggernaut

with Jerry Masucci riding high at the top.

But its greatest success was still to come.

The once awestruck Panamanian musician Ruben Blades

had moved to New York in 1974,

leaving behind a career as an attorney.

He'd called Fania hoping to record for the label

but been turned down flat.

Before I hung up I said,

"Is there anything else you have there?

Is any kind of job available?"

The person said, "Well, we have an opening in the mailroom."

"And how much does it pay?"

"125 bucks a week."

I said, "I'll take it."

But everybody thought I was crazy, I think, in a way,

because I was a lawyer, an attorney,

and I'm in... working in a mailroom, you know?

SMITS: Blades' strategy paid off.

In 1977, in partnership with Willie Colón,

he recorded his first Fania album,

introducing a new lyrical sophistication to salsa.

SMITS: Blades provided the songs, with Colón producing the recordings.

BLADES: Willie Colón has this ability to connect and reconcile

the artistic with the commercial.

He knows how to do that instinctively.

Very intuitive person.

COLOÓN: Ruben had a talent

for putting together words,

for crafting the words in such a way

that he was able to just paint a picture of...

so that you could hear and smell and see all of the things

within the lyric.

When I got to New York, for instance,

I wrote this song.

♪ Apurate maquinista

♪ Quede hace tiempo esperando el numero seis ♪

♪ El numero seis, el numero seis. ♪

What is that song about?

It's a subway.

♪ Hurry up, damn machine, I've been here for hours ♪

♪ And still I cannot see the number six subway ♪

♪ Number six.

And people still sing it today.

Why? Because today you still have people waiting

for the number six train saying, "Where the hell is this train?"

♪ Apurate maquinista

♪ Quede hace tiempo esperando el numero seis ♪

♪ El numero seis, el numero seis, el numero seis. ♪

SANABRIA: Then he starts writing lyrics

that have political and social content

and he deeply penetrates South America.

BLADES: When I started writing songs

about things that happened to people in the city,

then people who were not dancers,

and people who were not from the Barrio itself,

or that corner specifically,

then began to adapt the songs as their own.

It's not just to dance to.

This is more important, this can go beyond dictatorships,

beyond censorships, beyond ignorance.

It could also be a way of solidarity.

It's not just dancing.

SMITS: Blades' songwriting and Colón's production

combined to create an album that has been called

the "Sgt. Pepper of salsa"-- Si embra.

BLADES: If an album sold 10,000 copies,

it was, you know...

If it sold 40,000,

which was what Willie was doing

at the time, it was whoa.

And if it sold 100,000, it was like unbelievably huge success.

♪ Las manos siempre en los bolsios de su galan... ♪

When we sold 500,000 copies of Siembra

in Caracas, Venezuela, alone, that was like an earthquake.

♪ Y sepatia por si ay problema... ♪

COLOÓN: And it just came at the right moment.

There was problems in Panama,

there was problems in the universities in Puerto Rico,

all of these political problems and here comes Siembra--boom.

Do you know "Mack the Knife"?

♪ Oh, the shark bites

♪ With such teeth, dear...

SMITS: The inspiration for the biggest hit on the album

came from an unlikely source.

I heard that song when I was, you know,

when I was, like, eight or nine years of age.

Bobby Darin recorded "Mack the Knife."

I remember I used to, in parties, I used to sing it,

you know, mimic and they would give me a quarter or something.

It's a haunting melody.

(singing "Pedro Navaja")

SMITS: Based on "Mack the Knife,"

"Pedro Navaja" told the story of a Barrio hoodlum

who stabs a woman on the street, but is shot by her as she dies.

The bully got bullied.

And that was happening in all levels of society:

governments were treating people badly,

authorities were not doing what they were supposed to do

and people saw in that example a way of getting even.

In the midst of the attack, it's like I respond in kind.

SMITS: Ironically the Pan American success of Siembra

was the beginning of the end of Fania's domination of salsa.

New outposts of production sprang up

throughout Latin America.

Back in New York, the creative team of Blades and Colón

was falling apart.

COLOÓN: On a personal level, we didn't connect at all,

'cause Ruben is a guy that was raised by his mom and dad

and he went to the university and he decided to come

to New York and dabble, you know, in the ghettos

and to the music.

So he understood everything intellectually,

but he didn't know what it really is, you know?

And I'm a guy that was raised

with holes in his shoes in El Barrio.

It was very hard for us to work together.

SMITS: Another Fania star, Hector Lavoe, was in trouble.

For years he had struggled with drug addiction,

which now began to get the upper hand.

BLADES: Because of his drug use,

he was beginning not to show up in the shows

and his voice was beginning to suffer

and his sales began to drag.

And when that happened, Jerry Masucci called me,

and I'm sure he called Willie, too, and said,

"We need to do something with Hector.

You got something? It's gotta be great."

SMITS: Blades gave Lavoe a song he had written for himself--

a portrait, tinged with sadness, of a singer, "El Cantante."

It would become Lavoe's signature song.

BLADES: And he did well with that album.

But then, you know...

what a tragic life he had.

It's such a sad thing.

COLOÓN: I was able to help him a lot

at the beginning, but when it got too strong,

it's just... you know, I had to let go.

♪ Son mejor que los de ayer

♪ Comparenme criticones...

FELICIANO: He wanted to get out of it,

but it was hard.


things got so bad that he ended up the way he did.

He was a great guy.

SMITS: Hector Lavoe would die of AIDS in 1993.

(song continues playing)

Towards the end of the '70s,

the Fania family was starting to fall apart.

Masucci had bought his own pressing plant,

which means we didn't know how many records he was pressing,

which means we didn't know how many records were being sold.

All the singers were leaving and forming their own bands.

It's like a baseball team, you know?

If you're a winning manager, and... you're powerful,

but once the team starts losing...

You're only as good as your players, you know?

ALEX MASUCCI: You talk about rock and roll,

you know, you have one group, you make millions of dollars.

Jerry had 35 groups that he had to listen to

every ... day, and listen to their ...

and listen to their problems and listen about the cockroaches

and listen about their kids and listen...

You know, I think he just said, "... it." You know?

I think he just said, "... it,

I'm getting out of here."

MASUCCI: They wear you down,

and I just wanted to get away and take a break.

You know, burnt out? You know, that-that thing?

I was burnt out.

(horns playing salsa intro)

Fania was a movement.

They saw themselves as a business-making entity,

as a profit-making entity, but it was a movement.

Fania produced, supported, encouraged

some of the finest musicians in our country.

We became kings. We were the kings.

Our salsa music,

and specifically the Fania All-Stars, we were the kings.

It was so much fun.

It was just so much fun.

They were all nuts, you know,

and they were young, and they were all stars.

You know, to me they were all family.

We said at the beginning,

"We're gonna take over the world" and we did.

We did.

Next time on Latin Music USA:

MAN: "Mexican rock and roll?

There ain't no such thing."

I said, "Hold on, pal."

Mexican-Americans find their ow n musical voice.

(Gloria Estefan singing)

And a handful of superstars take Latin music into the heart

of American culture.

Nobody can do it like we do.

♪ She's into superstition

Next time on Latin Music USA.

Go to

or follow the hashtag #L atinoMusicPBS

to learn more ab out the artists,

watch video, and listen to music featured in this episode.

To order the home video version of Latin Music USA,


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