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.