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If the New York salsa scene were its own galaxy — a glittering cluster where artists from across the Caribbean and the United States orbited around one another in a feverish dance — the late Johnny Pacheco was the gravitational pull that held them together.
Pacheco, the famed bandleader, flutist, percussionist and co-founder of the groundbreaking salsa label Fania Records, died Monday at 85. His wife, Maria Elena “Cuqui” Pacheco, confirmed his death of complications from pneumonia.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Pacheco inherited his musical prowess from his father, Rafael Azarias Pacheco, bandleader and clarinetist of the renowned Santa Cecilia Orchestra. The Pacheco family emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx in 1946, when Johnny was 11 years old. From there he dedicated himself to two courses of study — engineering and music. It was after a short stint as an engineering student at Brooklyn Tech that he pivoted to the Juilliard School of Music, where he specialized in Latin percussion.
Pacheco spent his young adult years hopping from band to band, sharing ensembles with Nuyorican contemporaries like Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente. By 1960, Pacheco signed with Alegre Records and launched his own ensemble, titled Johnny Pacheco y su Charanga, a group that refashioned the syncretic Spanish-African folk tradition of son Cubano by taking cues from merengue, cha-cha-chá and other tropical genres that found a home in New York City. In tandem with an influx of Cuban immigrants to the city, Pacheco and his milieu ushered in the 1960s Latin dance craze, the Pachanga.
Pacheco, fatigued by his own battles over royalties with his label, finally tapped Italian American lawyer Jerry Mascucci to co-found their own imprint in 1964 — now known as Fania Records. With Mascucci in control of the business side of things, Pacheco curated their roster with the most charismatic Latin jazz musicians in New York City, including the prominent percussionist Willie Colón, the buoyant Cuban vocalist Celia Cruz, American player Larry Harlow, Panamanian singer Rubén Blades and Puerto Rican icons Héctor Lavoe, Ray Barretto and Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez. Together, Pacheco eventually corralled the labelmates into a power-packed supergroup known as the Fania All-Stars. “I wanted to have the best orchestra ever,” said Pacheco. “Now I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do next!”
The Fania All-Stars were instrumental in making salsa one of New York’s most illustrious exports, moving feet and shaking hips en masse around the world, from a soldout show at Yankee Stadium in 1973 to a historic 1974 concert in the Congo. Even as the genre’s popularity began to wane in the States by the early ’90s, the Fania All-Stars continued to climb the Latin charts and book plum international gigs well into the 2000s. By 2005, the All Stars’ live recordings were added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. That same year Pacheco, a nine-time Grammy nominee, was finally honored with a Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Pacheco was a visionary; he was the man,” Bruce McIntosh, an executive at Fania Records, told The Times on Tuesday. Fania has since survived two acquisitions from other labels — first by Emusica, then by Concord — and relocation from its birthplace in New York City to Miami. Still, Fania has maintained an ample digital archive on YouTube, where many of Pacheco and the Fania All-Stars’ greatest hits live on. In honor of the Dominican trailblazer, below is a sampler of essential tracks.
Pacheco y su Charanga, “Óyeme Mulata” (1961)
Pacheco and Latin jazz percussionist Louie Ramirez, later remembered as the “Quincy Jones of salsa,” co-wrote the 1961 single "Óyeme Mulata” and “El Güiro De Macorina” as an introduction to their mixed heritage sound. “I went around to all the record companies and they said ‘That stinks, that’s a piece of crap, you’re not going anywhere with this!'" recalled Pacheco in 2016. "But I happened to know a disc jockey named Rafael. On Friday I went over and said ‘Listen to this.’ He played it four times on a Friday night, by Saturday everyone was looking for the record.” By 1962, Pacheco y su Charanga became the first Latin band to headline the Apollo Theater in New York — and the record sold over 100,000 units.
Fania All-Stars, “Quítate Tú (Pa’ Ponerme Yo)” (1971)
The All-Stars got their first closeup as a group in the 1972 documentary "Nuestra Cosa Latina" (Our Latin Thing), directed by Leon Gast ("When We Were Kings"). Set inside Manhattan’s Cheetah Lounge, a hub for the New York salsa scene, the concert would be recorded and released as the 1971 album “Live at the Cheetah, Vol. 1.” The song’s title, which loosely translates to “Get out of my way,” was born of the kind of awkward social interaction familiar to many; Pacheco explained the inspiration behind the song in the same 2016 interview. "It was two days before the Fania All Stars’ concert at the Cheetah .… Bobby Valentín and I were leaving the restaurant Asia, which was located across the street from the Cheetah, and we both got stuck at the door and could not leave. That particular refrain came to mind, and from there I ran to make the arrangement.” American superstar Stevie Wonder eventually performed his own rendition with the All-Stars, mixed with a cover of the McCoys' "Hang on Sloopy," live in 1976.
Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco, “Quimbara” (1974)
The bond between Pacheco and Cruz coursed like an unshakable electric current through the salsa scene. In her autobiography, “Celia: My Life,” Cruz recounted meeting Pacheco in 1969 after she performed a concert with her first band, Sonora Matancera, at the Apollo. It was there he pitched her on signing with Fania: “Whites have their labels, blacks have Motown, and with Fania, we Latinos will have ours too.”
Their first joint album, 1974’s “Celia & Johnny,” opens with the flamboyant squall of “Quimbara,” a celebration of salsa’s African roots. The two most memorably performed the song together at a 1974 festival in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Muhammad Ali and George Foreman were set to meet in a legendary heavyweight title fight. Pacheco would produce over 10 albums with Cruz, the last being her Grammy-winning 2002 album “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” (The Black Woman Has Swing). It would be the singer’s final album before her death in 2003.
Rubén Blades, “Juan Pachanga” (1979)
A year after releasing “Plástico,” his standout disco-salsa hit with Fania All-Star Colón, Panamanian vocalist Rubén Blades was invited to help Pacheco and Ramirez write a song for the Fania All-Stars. Outfitted with the panther-esque roar of a wah-wah guitar, their dizzying salsa number “Juan Pachanga” won over Pacheco and helped initiate Blades into the All-Stars. “I went to the ‘La Tierra’ studio, because Johnny Pacheco wanted me there [with] the singer,” Blades told The Times. “I didn’t know who it was, [but] he needed help with the lyrics and the soneos, or improvisations. After waiting an hour, the singer didn’t show up. So Johnny told me, ‘Rubén, you record the song.’
“I thought it would be a tentative take, but I put my everything into it,” Blades said. “To my surprise, Pacheco incorporated it into the Fania All-Stars album, just as I did it. The song was ‘Juan Pachanga’ and its success further boosted my career, something I have never forgotten. That was vintage Pacheco, a top-notch music producer.”
Héctor Lavoe, “El Rey de la Puntualidad” (1984)
The king of punctuality, as the song goes, Héctor Lavoe was not.
A Puerto Rican salsa singer with a rock-star lifestyle, El Cantante’s presence in the Fania All-Stars was nothing short of anarchic (if he was present at all). Lavoe spent most of his life struggling with depression and drug addiction, as well as recurring standoffs with collaborators Colón and Pacheco, who pointedly wrote “El Rey” after Lavoe flaked on one too many concerts. “Your people want to hear your sonorous voice / And we just want you to arrive on time,” chide the All-Stars — to which Lavoe retorts, “I’m not the one who arrives late / You’re the ones who arrive early!”
“El Rey” would be Lavoe’s final hit. He died at 45 due to complications from AIDS, which he contracted after years of sharing needles. In memory of Lavoe, Pacheco became a lifelong advocate for people living with HIV and AIDS; he famously performed at the 1988 AIDS benefit concert, "Concierto por la Vida,” at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall.
David Byrne and Celia Cruz, “Loco de Amor” (1986)
Starring Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith and Ray Liotta, Jonathan Demme’s 1986 screwball comedy “Something Wild” inspired one of the most curious collaborations in Latin music history. Written by Pacheco for Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and Celia Cruz, the bilingual salsa song “Loco de Amor” serves as the opening theme for the film, bridging together two distinct New York City sounds: Byrne’s downtown art-punk and Cruz’s uptown swing. Pacheco eventually helped co-write and produce three additional songs for Byrne's 1989 solo debut, "Rei Momo."
Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco, “La Dicha Mía” (1992)
In the Pacheco-written song “La Dicha Mía” (My Bliss), Cruz recounts the rocky road that led her from Havana to New York, where she’d meet collaborators like Puente, Colón and Pacheco himself. “The truth is that I have been very happy,” sings Cruz. “My luck cannot be compared!” The song would be featured in the soundtrack for the 1992 drama “The Mambo Kings,” which starred a young Antonio Banderas and Armand Assante as the Castillo brothers, two Cuban musicians who find their way in the Big Apple — just as most of the All-Stars had, many years before.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.