I recently left a music journalism group on social media because the level of resentment towards boomer critics was snowballing from an undertow of irritation to outright hostility. So much for the idea of a creative community to exchange ideas, information, and scholarship, the original purpose of the group. As part of the older cohort – I turned pro in 1969, when I was 19, when I stumbled into covering a Rolling Stones concert in the Bay Area for the seminal underground weekly the Berkeley Barb – my retort is the cliché: We Had All the Best Music, and we got to see the best bands.
I was especially lucky in that regard, because not only did I grow up with rock’s foundational artists, but I was a suburban stoner teen with older friends who were more beatniks than hippies, who dug jazz and Latin music. When I was 16, in 1966, I had phony I.D. to get into the 18-and-over Action House in Island Park, NY, which booked up-and-coming regional rock bands (the Vagrants, Vanilla Fudge, the Hassles, the Illusion), and touring soul (Wilson Pickett, Martha and the Vandellas) acts. But the Action House concert imprinted in memory was the appearance of the Joe Cuba Sextet. Joe Cuba was a conga drummer and bandleader, who crossed over to the pop charts in 1966 and 1967 (at least in New York) with the singles “Bang Bang” and “El Pito (I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia),” a handclapping, whistle-blowing extended jam that you wished never stopped.
The name given this music then was “salsa,” which was also the name of the dance music of Puerto Rican New York. These songs were also the roots of boogaloo, or Latin boogaloo, a fusion of salsa, soul, and psychedelia. Salsa’s reigning genius Ray Barretto realized the potential of this blend in his 1968 Fania Records album “Acid”; coming from another angle, the Blues Magoos covered Joe Cuba’s jam as the seven-and-a-half-minute title song of their 1969 album Never Goin’ Back to Georgia: to paraphrase the Chambers Brothers in “Time Has Come Today,” with the Magoos, Latin soul was psychedelicized.
That bridge was already crossed in Boogaloo Blues, the funky and at times hilarious title song of an album by Johnny Colon and His Orchestra, in which the singer asks a girl why she is weeping while he’s onstage, and she tells him, in the chant before the vamp: “LSD’s got a hold on me, LSD’s got a hold on me.” The song got around the censors, if any were paying attention, because, as the song says, “‘L’ stands for love, and I’m so in love with you.”
This was not a crossover hit, but it was a nightly number one on the only radio show that mattered to us stoner salseros: The Symphony Sid Show on WEVD AM radio in New York. Symphony Sid Torin was established in the 1930s as a jazz radio announcer, disc jockey and impresario. During the 1940s, he broadcast live from clubs such as the Royal Roost and Birdland, a bebop maestro, and was an essential advocate for the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Lester Young.
By the mid-1960s, Symphony Sid moved his WEVD show to Latin music, with vestigial moments of bebop, which included his theme song, “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid,” composed and played by Lester Young. This song is a bonus 45 rpm single on the four-CD Fania singles box. One version is by Joe Bataan, the other side by Bobby Valentin. Sid would play the Young original, or versions or similar tributes including his other theme, “Moody’s Mood for Love,” in versions by James Moody or the 1952 vocal version by the suave and hip singer with the unmatchable name King Pleasure. Another signature artist even amid Sid’s Latin thing was Nina Simone, especially her depiction of “Four Women,” which moves from hypnotic control to a pinnacle of rage. I think it’s her greatest performance.
The essence of the intermittently interesting but often disappointing and overreaching four-CD set is this: the Fania label was undoubtedly the supreme name in salsa, Latin soul and boogaloo. But it did not have Joe Cuba, who recorded for Tico Records, or Johnny Colon, or the Lebron Brothers, who were on the Cotique label. Both Tico and Cotique were started by George Goldner, who also began Roulette Records, whose partner was the music business’ proudest gangster, Morris Levy. At times in the checkered histories of all of these labels, Fania distributed Cotique, but not until 1972, after the boogaloo/Latin soul movement had passed.
Fania was started by musician and bandleader Johnny Pacheco and lawyer Jerry Masucci circa 1964. In addition to the brilliant business move of branding a band known as the Fania All-Stars in 1968, a contingent that could sell out Yankee Stadium as the musical home team, their roster featured many of the prime movers in salsa music: Ray Barretto, Larry Harlow and his Orchestra Harlow, and Willie Colon, whose band introduced Ruben Blades, and boogaloo’s one bona fide superstar, Joe Bataan.
Bataan’s singles, from sublime to so-so, are spread around all four discs of It’s a Good Good, Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania Records: The Singles. You can see the problem here: There are at least three titles to this set, and so the first part should get a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, for piling on. The best Bataan tracks include a pair of two-part songs: “What Good is a Castle,” on which Bataan shows his ballad chops on the first side, while part two suddenly jerks uptempo, like his contemporaneous (1968) two part “It’s a Good, Good Feeling (Riot).” Adding the parenthetical (“Riot”) gave some political overtones to a party song that was strangely, a forgotten track on Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1967 Make It Happen; it was written by Motown’s writing/production A-team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, and it wouldn’t be surprising if there’s a version by the Supremes somewhere in the Motown vaults.
Because of a questionable curatorial decision, the box is arranged in chronological order by the catalog number of the releases. Fania 001 from 1967 consists of two forgettable sides by the forgotten 125th Street Candy Store, and leads to a first disc, except for the Bataan tracks, of mostly novelties that were sprayed like buckshot at any possible market.
Putting the 89 songs here in chronological order makes one question for whom this box is intended, because only librarians, scholars, and collectors care about catalog numbers. And this is music for dancers, swingers, and hipsters-before-hipsters-got-a-bad name, multicultural New York music when the city was dangerous but cool. You need to jump around a lot. For example: sandwiched between two serviceable cuts by the Fania All-Stars and Joe Bataan’s “Bad Girl” on disc two is Ralph Robles’ version of the Chantels’ doo-wop/girl group classic “Maybe,” a version you don’t want, and don’t need.
And it also displays the counter-intuitive nature of Fania itself. Despite its likely initial core audience starting in East Harlem and Bronx dance halls and neighborhood parties, Barretto, Harlow, and Colon were all visionary artists who defied the label’s pedestrian commercial logic and made conceptually unified albums that made Fania famous.
Barretto himself has a legacy that started with being a conga player on top jazz sessions in the 1950s. He had a great run of novelty hits from the dance-fad era (“El Watusi,” for Tico, in 1963), a comical and crazy theme for dancing the Watusi In the early 1960s Barretto also did movie soundtrack covers (“Exodus,” as well as an album of James Bond title themes in Señor 007). But he really found his own style on Fania, where he commanded the respect and perhaps the budget to record albums made to last. Acid (the cover is reproduced in the box) took advantage of its psychedelic era to sport a now-legendary cover of swirling, trippy, red/orange colors. But the timing allowed Barretto to merge his avant-garde jazz leanings and his roots in swing, so the nine-minute cut “Espiritu Libre” might have inspired jungle visions on an acid trip (it worked for me), but it was also an adventure for jazz heads.
That the Fania singles “Mercy Mercy Baby,” “A Deeper Shade of Soul” and “The Soul Drummers” are on disc one shows that on the Acid album, Barretto’s commercial instincts and artistic development were totally in sync, as they were in the 1968 follow-up, Hard Hands, with the title song and “Love Beads,” both bursting with soulful brio.
And that’s the way commercial music should work in any style. What has led to more bad music than you can measure is the A&R executive’s canned phrase, “I don’t hear a single here.” Or, “let’s go into the studio and try to make a hit.” This is the most obvious in the sad and embarrassed-sounding singles by Larry Harlow, “Mess Around” and “That Groovy Shingaling.” Harlow, who died earlier this year, was so revered in Latin music that hearing these is like asking Picasso to draw a comic strip. (Orchestra Harlow’s cover here of Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” is much better.)
And so, you have similar, cynical creations: Bobby Valentin’s novelties “Geronimo,” “Bad Breath” and “Funky Big Feet.” And on disc four, much of which was recorded in 1972-1973 and way past Fania’s prime, is Bataan’s “Latin Soul Square Dance,” and I leave it to your imagination as to how that turned out. The label was betting big on the sweet high voice of Ralfi Pagan, who sounds like Clyde McPhatter with none of the soul, nor the songs: the best Pagan gets is on adequate covers of “Up on the Roof” and Carole King’s “It’s Too Late.” Way too many tracks are by Harvey Averne, a talented musician and arranger whose own recordings as named leader, whether as the Harvey Averne 9, Harvey Averne Dozen, or Harvey Averne and Group Therapy (“The Micro Mini” and “The Think Drink ‘Spiked'”) always sound a little out of step with whatever time they are set in.
And Louie Ramirez, for some reason recording as Ali Baba, does a song called “Ungawa,” which at the time was part of a Black Power chant, and you just shake your head and wonder, what were they thinking? This package suggests that what they were thinking too often was, we need a hit to improve our cash flow, and too often, it did not work.
Header image of Ray Barretto courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Brianmcmillen.