Born: February 28, 1934 | Died: September 15, 1983 Primary Instrument: Percussion
Willie Bobo was one of the key players who fused influences from Latin soul, rock, and jazz in the late 1960s and 1970s. Willie went on to become an important band leader, whose music reflected the traditions of Spanish and Black Harlem.
Born William Correa of Puerto Rican parents, in 1934, Willie was raised in New York City. In 1947, he worked as a band boy for Machito’s Afro-Cubans, one of the most popular Latin music ensembles of the era. Late at night, during the last set, he was sometimes allowed to sit in on bongos, getting his first taste of performing on a bandstand in the company of world class musicians. Good fortune led him to the side of Cuban conga legend Ramon “Mongo” Santamaria, a recent arrival in the Big Apple from Havana. In exchange for his services as Mongo’s much needed translator, the fledgling percussionist received lessons in Afro-Cuban techniques from the master.
It was jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams who gave Willie the distinctive nickname “Bobo,” which he would soon adopt for his stage name and use for the rest of his life. The Spanish word means, among other things, “clown” or “funny man,” and was perfect to sum up Willie’s lighthearted demeanor and fun-loving attitude.
He worked with Williams as a trap drummer and as a percussionist with Cuban big band leader Pérez Prado before being invited to join Santamaria in the rhythm section of Ernest “Tito” Puente’s mambo orchestra. The five years alongside Mongo and Puente produced what many scholarly observers consider to have been some of the finest Afro-Cuban percussion performances in “Top Percussion and Cuban Carnival” -- ever captured on tape. Bobo’s rendezvous with destiny, however, was just beginning.
While still with Puente, he recorded with pianist George Shearing, on the pianists first album for Capitol, “The Shearing Spell.” Shearing would be the first of many jazz luminaries who would call on Bobo’s talents over the years. Throughout the 1950s, he accompanied numerous jazz artists such as Stan Getz, particularly on studio sessions--especially when everyone had to record a mambo or cha-cha somewhere in the course of their contract. Both he and Santamaria left Puente in 1957 and soon had another opportunity to make more Latin jazz history, joining vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s ensemble from 1958 to 1961 and participating on such landmark Tjader sessions as “Latino” and “Monterey Concerts.” Bobo partnered with the vibraphonist again in 1964 to record the top Latin jazz hit “Soul Sauce.”
He and his former teacher Santamaria reunited in 1960 to record “Sabroso!” for Fantasy. Soon after that, he picked up a contract as a solo artist for Roulette Records, which was looking for another artist to ride on the coattails of Ray Barretto's hit instrumental, El Watusi. Bobo's career with Roulette ended about as quickly as the Watusi craze. Verve signed Bobo and quickly released his album, “Spanish Grease,” soon thereafter.
When he began to lead his own groups in the mid 1960s, Bobo was quick to look to the popular culture of the day for inspiration. He was one of the pioneers of the boogaloo (bugalú) or “Spanish Soul” movement, a style known for its jaunty blend of R&B influences and Afro- Cuban rhythms that became wildly popular. On such albums as “Spanish Grease,” “Juicy,” “Spanish Blues Band” and “Uno Dos Tres,” Bobo rendered rock, pop, soul, Cuban and Brazilian songs with equal panache, substituting an electric guitar for the customary piano and emphasizing a funky, urban side of the style that expanded his audience even further. His recording of “Evil Ways,” for example, foreshadowed the hit version of the tune recorded by Santana a few years later.
Like many of Verve's jazz artists, Bobo covered current pop hits as often as more serious Latin and jazz material. At the time, this choice was pretty much a sure-fire way to get panned by jazz critics, but in recent years, Bobo's albums have been reissued to new acclaim and provided a rich sampling source for breakbeat artists. He always has a strong following within the Puerto Rican community where he is still revered as a percussion legend.
In the late 1960s, he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a session musician with Carlos Santana and others after his Verve contract expired. He played with the studio band on The Cosby Show, and did other recordings as; “Tomorrow is Here,” in ’77 for Blue Note, and “Bobo,” in ’79 for Columbia. He reunited with Santamaria in 1983 at the Playboy Jazz Festival, and died the same year.
Bobo’s son Eric released “Lost and Found,” in 2006 for Concord, it is, for the most part, a fine collection of unreleased recordings dating from the early to mid-'70s, when the artist was still at the peak of his creativity. Discovered by his son in the family home, the dozen tracks assembled here showcase Bobo in a number of settings. It is more of a tribute from a son than a best of compilation.
For the uninitiated into Willie Bobo, and interested readers alike, I recommend “Willie Bobo’s Finest Hour,” as a good introduction into this man’s music. In an excellent review of this reissue by Thom Jurek he states: “What comes across so forcefully on the Bobo collection is that his ideas about music were progressive to the point of being oversimplified by others; Bobo saw all music as pop music and treated it as such on his records. His wish to make corner-bending sides for his friends in Harlem actually translates to the entire American populace very well, so well in their directness and emotional honesty -- as well sweet-grooving simplicity -- that sophisticated statements on race and class are played out in his pop music. For those who don't give a damn about this kind of analysis, it's safe to say that this set -- all 18 tracks of it -- constitutes one hell of a driving, partying, dancing, or goofing record straight from the heart to the street corner. This is amazing stuff.”
Right On Willie !!
Source: James Nadal