The Fania All-Stars Salsa Masterpiece
Like any legendary record company worthy of its heritage, Fania Records was particularly sensitive to both good music and savvy self-promotion. So when he initially assembled the cream of his roster of artists from the late 1960s (Ray Baretto, Joe Batan, Willie ColonLabel co-founder Larry Harlow Johnny Pacheco, et al.) to perform together in a club as Fania All-Stars, it was as much a celebration of the exciting sounds of New York’s Latin music scene as it was a clever marketing exercise. Encouraged by guests Tito Puente and Eddie Palmierithe resulting live albums, 1968 Live at the Red Garter, volumes 1 & 2provided a proof of concept for the supergroup as a new experiment.
Three years later, Pacheco’s business partner at the label, Jerry Masucci, set his far greater ambitions. Boogaloo, the once-popular mid-’60s hybrid of Latin and R&B, had died out. But his youthful energy was absorbed by newly energized interpretations of the traditional Afro-Cuban styles championed by Pacheco, interpreted by sets with expert precision and jazz-level chops, flamboyance and above all, cultural pride. The new Nuyorican sound would become known as salsa. And the Fania All-Stars – which now encompasses both label members and new recruits – have been reconstituted for a special gig to record and film. Masucci envisioned a “Latin Woodstock” that would bring the eyes and ears of the world to the infectious energy of salsa, the New York community that spawned it, and of course, Fania.
Order Live at the Cheetah, Vol. 1 now.
Recorded on the evening of Thursday August 26, 1971, the two volumes of Live at Cheetah in many ways represents the Big Bang of 1970s salsa. The assembled All-Stars thronged the stage – including conga player Barretto, trombonist Colon, pianist Harlow, percussionist Roberto Roena and bassist Bobby Valentin , as well as superb singers Cheo Feliciano, Hector Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Cruz, Adalberto Santiago and Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – more than worth the billing. Cheetah’s ballroom filled with flashing lights, with a capacity of two thousand dancers, provided the perfect environment, as evidenced by the synergy of attendees. key and Valentin’s agile bass on the dazzling opening “Descarga Fania”, or the frenzy that the percussion triumvirate of Barretto, Roena on bongos and cowbell, and Orestes Vilato on timpani induce on the magnificent “Ponte Duro”.
Other moments possess the festive warmth of a homecoming. The showcase of Feliciano “Anacaona” (the tribute written by Tite Curet Alonso in homage to the emblematic Taíno cacique and rebel) signals his triumphant return to the stage after years of voluntary retirement battling drug addiction. Cruz and his pianist partner Ricardo Ray’s propulsive “Ahora Vengo Yo” – their return to the New York stage after a spell in Puerto Rico – heralding the duo’s subsequent success throughout the decade. 16-minute “Estrellas de Fania” and “Quitate Tu” – epic soneros featuring all the singers assembled in an all-around improvisation – evoke the unique exhilaration of standing on the precipice of something important. As Fania’s in-house designer and All-Stars “Dizzy” emcee Izzy Sanabria says of the stage at one point with all the passion the moment deserves: “¡Long live the music! The power of Latin music – yeah!”
Just as Masucci hoped, the Live at Cheetah albums – accompanied by their dynamic concert/documentary film El Barrio, Our Latin thing – propelled salsa, and with it Fania, all over the world. Within a few years, the All-Stars would sell Yankee Stadium, open the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, and play the “Rumble in the Jungle” concert in Zaire as they rose to stardom (and all its trappings and complications). . But Live at the Cheetah, volumes 1 & 2 argues that their chemistry has never been better than on the hot midsummer night in midtown Manhattan that started it all.
Order Live at the Cheetah, Vol. 1 now.