Born: April 22, 1931 | Died: February 15, 2009 Primary Instrument: Composer/conductor/leader
Joe Cuba, was a Spanish Harlem band leader and conga player who became known as the father of Latin boogaloo because of a string of innovative hit records in the 1960s and ’70s that fused Latin and soul elements. Originally the leader of a Latin band with jazz leanings, Mr. Cuba found commercial success by mixing rhythm and blues into his music and Spanish and English into his lyrics. Hits like “Sock It to Me Baby” and “Bang Bang,” both from 1967, demonstrated a crossover popularity that was unusual for the time, appealing almost equally to Latinos, blacks and mainstream audiences.
“Joe was really the pioneer in making the move to singing in both languages, and it blended very well with those up tempos he liked to use,” said the jazz and salsa pianist Eddie Palmieri, who first met Mr. Cuba in 1955, when both men were playing in the Catskills. “He takes a top position in the history of the music for that, and also because he showed what you can do with a small group.”
Born Gilberto Miguel Calderon in the Spanish Harlem section of Manhattan, to parents who had migrated to the city from Puerto Rico, Mr. Cuba took up the conga drums as a teenager. He enrolled in college, but after seeing the percussionist Tito Puente in performance and striking up a friendship with him, decided to become a professional musician.
After stints in several New York-based ensembles, Mr. Cuba formed his own group in the mid-1950s, at the height of the mambo dance craze. At his agent’s suggestion, he soon changed the band’s name from the Jose Calderon Sextet to the Joe Cuba Sextet. The group found work playing shows of all kinds, from weddings to Latin dance parties, up and down the Eastern seaboard.
n 1962, Cuba recorded To Be With You with the vocals of Cheo Feliciano and Jimmy Sabater. The band became popular in the New York Latin community. The lyrics to Cuba's music used a mixture of Spanish and English, becoming an important part of the Nuyorican Movement. In 1967, his band which included timbales, vibraphones, and the piano among its musical instruments, scored a hit in the United States National Hit Parade List with the song Bang Bang - a song which ushered in the Latin Boogaloo era. He also had a #1 hit, that year in the Billboards with the song Sock It To Me Baby.
Then came what is considered to be his greatest hit, El Pito (I Never Go Back To Georgia). It is said that during the 1960s, while Joe Cuba and his sextet were on tour, they had an engagement in Georgia. He personally suffered the racial discrimination which was rampant in the south at that time. This experience inspired him to write the song which includes his trademark whistle.
In contrast to the majority of Latin orchestras of the era, which were larger and relied on trombones and other brass instruments to define their sound, Mr. Cuba’s group went for a cooler approach. A vibraphone and piano often played the main melodic lines, floating atop a strong and assertive rhythm section.
“A bastard sound” is what Mr. Cuba called the “Latin boogaloo” style he pioneered in the mid-1960s. “You don’t go into a rehearsal and say, ‘Hey, let’s invent a new sound or dance,’ ” he explained in the book “Salsa Talks! A Musical Heritage Uncovered” (Digital Domain, 2005), by Mary Kent. “They happen.”
“The boogaloo came out of left field,” he said, and was the result of years of playing dances and watching to see how “the audience relates to what you are doing.”
On April 1999, Joe Cuba was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was named Grand Marshall of the Puerto Rican Day Parade celebrated in Yonkers, New York. He was also the director of the Museum of La Salsa, located in East Harlem, Manhattan, New York.
The rise in popularity of Mr. Cuba’s bilingual songs and mixture of American and Caribbean rhythms coincided with the emergence of a distinct Nuyorican identity among Puerto Rican New Yorkers, and Mr. Cuba became one of the most visible symbols of that phenomenon.
Source: Larry Rohter