Latin Swing's Last Lion

Johnny Pacheco Returns To The New York His Salsa Once Changed

Dapper, charismatic, and 68 years young, Johnny Pacheco is one of New York's cultural lions, a Juilliard alumnus who revolutionized the way Afro-Latin swing, a/k/a salsa, was perceived around the world. One of the last of a vanishing breed, Pacheco holds a torch that now shines as much for fallen comrades like Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Héctor Lavoe, Celia Cruz, Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, Charlie Palmieri, and José Fajardo as for himself. Simultaneously at work on a new solo album and a biographical memoir spanning his life at the epicenter of Latin club music, Pacheco is far from hanging up his clave. This week, he appears with his conjunto-style orchestra to inaugurate regular Latin nights at a spanking-new midtown venue—LQ at 47th Street and Lexington Avenue.

His group Tumbao Anejo spent much of 2003 gigging in the five boroughs and Puerto Rico. In 2002 they were doing that plus playing dates in Europe, Florida, and the Dominican Republic featuring special guests—twice with Celia Cruz. But old friends and collaborators are getting thick on the ground of late. Asked if he might now produce any of the rising young singers in salsa, like Marc Anthony or India, Pacheco says yes, that's part of his plan. But he is currently more intent on keeping his mojo closer to home. Tumbao's lead vocalist is Hector Casanova, one of three Cubans in the largely Puerto Rican ensemble. Including their Dominican leader, the lineup becomes a demographic microcosm of the public this band lives to serve.

Since his book starts in the 1950s, might he squeeze one charanga number into his LQ set, in honor of the years he played flute with Orquestra Duboney? Anything is possible while Pacheco is in a reflective mood about his amazing career.

Although New York enjoyed a thriving local Latin dance scene before he stepped in, it was the Dominican-born bandleader's personal vision, ambition, and energy that led to his and lawyer Jerry Masucci's co-founding of Fania Records in 1963. Their goal was to run a label that would promote salsa as a youth-oriented pop trend every bit as modern and accessible as Motown or the British Invasion. Masucci handled the contracts and Pacheco handled the music; DJ wrangling and hand distribution of albums to mom-and-pop stores was shared. "We took the Cuban music and gave it a face-lift—a different approach and a more progressive sound," says Pacheco. "We grew up in New York listening to rock and jazz, so we'd dress up our arrangements. We put the rhythm section up in front because we were used to rock-group drums—you know, that heavy sound."

And the rock influence didn't stop there. For new ideas about stagecraft, Pacheco and his acts would check out everybody from the Rolling Stones to Kiss. By the mid '70s, Latin audiences were thrilling to the sight of Papo Lucca strapped to a piano rotating in the air, or singer Hector Lavoe lowered from the ceiling while singing "Mi Gente" at Madison Square Garden. Pacheco is still proud of these stunts: "The way I felt is that those Latinos who were coming to see us were going to see the rock groups too. And I didn't want to shortchange them."

It was Pacheco's love and respect for fellow musicians on the Latin scene that fueled his desire to sign all the tightest young combos and singers, as well as present all of their music in the best possible light. This meant helping devise more interesting album covers and experimenting with technology to improve both live and studio sound. To this end, Fania bought its own studios and made them available to its artists day and night. Legend has it that there were entire years between '64 and '80 when those machines never got the chance to cool down. "I used to go to the studio at 10 a.m. and stay until about 1 a.m. because I used to check out what the other guys were doing," says Pacheco of his daily schedule. But after supervising quick studies like Willie Colón and Ray Barretto once or twice, he felt pretty secure in leaving them to their own devices.

Given how important live performance was to the development of the label's sound, on-site concert recordings remained a central hallmark of the Fania imprint. Pacheco's own charanga band had been one of a handful of tropical groups to play at the 1964 New York World's Fair—a set he recorded and saved to release on vinyl years later. Once he formed his ultimate promotional vehicle, the Fania All-Stars, in 1968, the supergroup was immortalized with concerts in landmark locations like the Cheetah (now S.I.R. Studios), the old Red Garter (now the Bottom Line), Madison Square Garden, and Yankee Stadium.

More unlikely validations followed, in climbing sales figures and crossover clout. But no corporate winning streak ever lasts. In the '80s, substance abuse problems began to eat away at the Latin talent pool. There was no longer a constant influx of hungry teenage contenders to bring new enthusiasm and new fans to the music. Public tastes began to change, and the carefree college kids so important to Fania's consumer base became parents less likely to spend money on bars and concert tickets. Clubs were closing. Major labels were suddenly willing to woo the Fania's signature stars away with promises of bigger advances and more creative freedom than a bootstrap indie could afford.

After 20 years of sustained growth and virtually no competition from other companies large or small, Fania was under siege. Artists who had sold hundreds of thousands of albums and couldn't understand the dearth of back-end royalties either left outright or went into creative retirement. Formerly supportive radio stations changed ownership and format. Soon, even the hottest Afro-Cuban jams went unplayed when regional trends swung to romantic ballads and merengue.

Until his death in 1997, Jerry Masucci kept Fania only marginally active, mostly for the sake of periodic releases from Celia Cruz, or an occasional reissue. Experiments at distributing some new Cuban product failed. Since Pacheco was still in demand as a freelance sideman, arranger, and producer as well as a live attraction, he didn't sweat Fania's interim quiescence. After Masucci's passing, Pacheco and his Matured Sound (which is one way Tumbao Anejo can be translated) simply shifted over to the Charly label. Artifacts from Fania's catalog still circulate through persistent licensing deals and the willingness of its creative alumni to keep working and periodically reunite under Pacheco for Fania All-Star shows. This fall New York saw one such revival, which flanked the Fania stal-warts with the similarly magnificent orchestras of Puerto Rico's Gilberto Santa Rosa and Venezuela's Oscar d'Leon.

And January 21, when he hits the LQ stage, Pacheco will be returning to the roots of his calling—as elegant as Duke Ellington and as shrewd as Berry Gordy, testing new material before a sharp-dressed crowd with dancing feet.

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