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Willie Colón’s 'The Hustler' Shattered The Accepted Rules Of Latin Music

We Remember Salsa's Big Bang For Its 50th Anniversary

On January 26, 2018

A deliberate alternate music history, Rock 'N' Roll 5-0 looks back five decades at some of the most notable, and notably overlooked, albums of the time. A break from the Beatles-Stones-Dylan feedback loop, this monthly series explores the less heralded, the disregarded, the ignored and the just-plain-great records deserving of reappraisal, exploration and celebration. From groundbreaking releases that stumped the normies to genuine gems rarely discussed in contemporary criticism, Rock N Roll 5-0 goes deep in the service of inclusivity, diversity and eclecticism. Pay attention; this is 1968.

The 50th anniversary series’ second installment takes the subway uptown to explore one of Latin music’s most compelling records. Breaking with the boogaloo trend, a Puerto Rican teenager from the South Bronx kicks off salsa’s enthralling first wave.

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The dealer wore P.R. shoes, or so the song goes. It’s one of Lou Reed’s few blurry lyrics on the otherwise blunt “Waiting For The Man,” that infamously unvarnished first-person narrative of a visibly out-of-place white boy copping heroin in the predominantly black and Hispanic locale of East Harlem, El Barrio. For Warhol’s superstars or the flyover state rockers who copped The Velvet Underground And Nico, the footwear reference and its softballed slur likely didn’t even register. Chances are, most of the folks who dug the Velvets back in the mid-to-late 1960s hadn’t ever met a Puerto Rican person anyway, to say nothing of his shoes.

The history of the U.S. and Puerto Rico is one fraught with contention and complexity. Yet for most Americans at that point in the 20th century, their exposure to the commonwealth and its people--their fellow citizens--was limited. Part of that has to do with the nature of emigration from the Caribbean island to the mainland. Between 1950 and 1960, some 470,000 Puerto Ricans opted to settle stateside, primarily in New York City. It would take until the late 1960s and early 1970s for migration to significantly expand beyond the uptown and outer borough enclaves further into and across the U.S. Thus, unless one spent much time in upper Manhattan or The Bronx, or vacationed in San Juan, Puerto Rican culture was widely unknown quantity in the lower forty-eight.

Music, as often is the case, offered an exception. Americans proved susceptible to so-called Latin crazes in the middle of the 20th century, including mambo in the 1950s and boogaloo in the 1960s. More overt than in the urban doo-wop groups of the prior decade, Latin boogaloo showcased New York City’s uptown sound as performed largely by players of Puerto Rican heritage, including Ray Barretto, Joe Bataan, Johnny Colón, Joe Cuba, and Ricardo “Richie” Ray.

While the music was enjoyed by Spanish-speaking audiences, save for some frowning faces and sneers from the preceding wave of traditionalists and jazzbos, the potential for crossover was huge. Pianist Pete Rodriguez had a hit straight outta The Bronx with 1967’s “I Like It Like That,” a perpetually catchy English-language number that perfectly encapsulates boogaloo’s blend of Latin rhythms with domestic soul and jazz sensibilities. Posing on the cover of the corresponding album, Rodriguez and his band looked stylish yet safe, their swinging little party on pause.

By 1968, boogaloo had become a popular and thus potentially lucrative musical form, and Fania Records was one of its most reliable outlets. Formed in 1964 by Dominican Johnny Pacheco and Italian Jerry Masucci, the New York based label gave the city’s Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians a means to make and distribute the sort of records that were popping at the time. Though it would soon become a seminal salsa imprint and feature some of the burgeoning sound’s brightest stars, Fania was still quite a young company, its owners not far removed from the days of selling records out of the trunk of a car.

Masucci and Pacheco had a good fifteen years on Willie Colón, the teenage trombonist they signed from the South Bronx. Born and raised in the city, one that sparks and nurtures grand artistic movements like nowhere else, he grew up poor in a Latin diasporic section of the borough, one where new immigrants and their families were replacing generations of Irish and Italian ones. As such, Colón had been embedded with and exposed to far more diversity than your average American high schooler.

Only 17 at the time of its release, the young bandleader’s first album for Fania dropped in 1967. Despite the foreboding title El Malo, drawn from his enjoyment of gangster films like The Untouchables, the package itself scarcely threatened. On the front cover, Colón looked sharp in a turtleneck and blazer combo, posturing quite seriously. On the back, he donned a tuxedo in a photo below a ringing endorsement written by Pete Rodriguez, the King Of Boogaloo himself enthusiastically lumping him in with the trend. Each of El Malo’s songs appeared to fit neatly into categories familiar to Latin music listeners, with designations like MAMBO-JAZZ and SHING-A-LING clearly noted on the tracklisting. Half of the titles were in English. These small details, though superficial, spoke volumes. The album sold well.

Though in retrospect much of its aesthetic feels gimmicky, boogaloo was not inherently inauthentic, certainly not to the Puerto Rican practitioners who made their name in it. Yet much like jazz or rock, whose roots grew from a sincere place of African-American artistry, Latin music was just as prone to commercial exploitation, arguably more so given the threat of exoticism. Listening to Bataan’s “Gypsy Woman” or Palmieri’s “Ay Que Rico,” one could theoretically draw a straight line to later novelties like Gerardo’s “Rico Suave” or Las Ketchup’s “Asereje.” But that would be dishonest, a retrogressive view that belies the then-contemporary appeal of boogaloo’s fresh sound within Latinx communities in the U.S.

That said, it likely felt stifling for a young creative like Colón to have to contend with boogaloo’s rigidity. Consider the time period in which he was living, one restlessly alive with cultural revolution from coast to coast. San Fran psychedelia had infiltrated rock, and the spirit of experimentation gave its purveyors a wide berth to push the genre forward or at least push it around. 1967 yielded Are You Experienced, Disraeli Gears, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Surrealistic Pillow, among others.To think even for a minute that Colón and his bandmates would be altogether oblivious to that indicates a profound bias worth calling out and eradicating.

With so much to inspire him, so much metamorphic upheaval happening within and outside Latin music in the 1960s, Colón had little incentive to follow up El Malo with a conventional set of genre standards and boogaloo tunes. Though literally and figuratively miles away from the Velvet Underground, their shared city similarly galvanized the artistic growth between that album and its superior follow-up The Hustler. On innovative contemporary albums like Ray Barretto’s Acid, his Fania labelmates and neighbors were moving the needle in their own way, deeper and deeper into a musical melange so inventive and diverse that it could collectively and ultimately only be called salsa. Colón clearly respected the Cuban-derived traditions of guaguancó, son montuno, and other such forms. Yet like the rockers of his generation, he sought to do more than what came before.

Released in 1968, The Hustler was anything but ordinary. A mesmeric prototype of the salsa to come, its rejection of the previously accepted norms for Latin music begins with its album artwork, a front cover photograph of the band taken at a pool hall owned by Masucci’s father in Yonkers. As with records like Pete Rodriguez’s I Like It Like That or its successor Oh That’s Nice!, the guys are well-dressed. Yet the seedy setting, the chomped cigars and sucked cigarettes, the jewelry, and the money wagers on the billiard table evoke a stereotypically menacing motif of gangsterism, far more pronounced than the subtlety of El Malo. The nod to the Paul Newman film of the same name is unmistakable, to be sure, but this feels less like imitation and more like a reality check, a candidness far more prevalent nowadays on trap mixtapes. No groovy loft party, this is the world that Colón wants his listeners to enter before playing The Hustler.

Despite local promoter Izzy Sanabria’s liner spiel emblazoned in English on the LP’s back cover, The Hustler does not pander to tourists. Apart from the title track, an instrumental, the remaining six boast Spanish names. There’s a cinematic quality to that titular opener, Colón’s overpowering trombone, the rhythm section’s hypnotic clave, and Mark Dimond’s thrilling piano flourishes out over virtual credits.

“Though salsa may not yet have been a universal term in the musical lexicon of 1968, The Hustler was its Big Bang, Latin music for Latin people.”

The piece serves as a fantastic introduction to a hungry young group of musicians with promising, though not always actualized, futures in music. Not long after The Hustler, percussionist Nicky Marrero soon began working with Eddie Palmieri, performing on 1970s classics Vamanos Pal Monte and Harlem River Drive, among others, and then later with everyone from Nina Simone to Ringo Starr to Steely Dan. That same decade, in addition to appearing on several noteworthy salsa records, his cohort Pablo Rosario also played both live and in studio with David Bowie and Luther Vandross. Dimond, an incredible talent, put out the essential 1972 album Brujeria for Vaya Records, but drug abuse prevented him from doing much more studio or session work in the subsequent years. A tragic figure, he died in his thirties in 1986.

Of course, the best known performer on The Hustler is its lead vocalist Héctor Lavoe. Then at the squinting dawn of his phoenix-like ascension to salsa superstar status, he comes in on “Que Lío,” a tale of woe from the perspective by a man embittered with his lovelorn lot in life. Ramón pines for Mariana, who by twist of fate is the girlfriend of his friend. It’s a stock story, but Lavoe sings it with such pain in his throat. So extreme is the protagonist’s emotional state that the lyrics cross from existentially desperate pleading into utter misanthropy, expressing an alarming disgust for all the world’s happy couples. Depending on the listener’s state of mind, one’s empathy for Ramón may conceivably erode with certain vitriolic verses, though Lavoe’s impassioned delivery cushions such sentiments. With interpolative origins in Joe Cuba’s preceding single “El Ratón,” Colón and Lavoe’s “Que Lío” is a classic in its own right, utilized in the latter’s Marc Antony starring biopic El Cantante and featured in Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series The Get Down.

Like most of the popular Latin records of the period, Cuban forms loomed large over The Hustler’s proceedings, lending credibility to Colón and his more than capable crew. “Guajiro,” a well-done son, sticks fairly faithfully to the style. A heartfelt if wistful ode, “Havana” expounds on the beauty of the island city, not the least of which being its women. Then a full decade into el bloqueo, the U.S. embargo of Cuba, one can’t help but detect an unhappy streak in its effusive fondness.

Those Side B selections arguably made the provocative, nose-thumbing track they sandwich more palatable. “Eso Se Baila Así,” that most revolutionary moment of The Hustler, is Colón’s seditious kiss-off to boogaloo. In his own words, the track serves as a “declaration of independence” from the style, one presented in subversive fashion. The track’s opening notes instantly recall the familiar flair of Latin boogaloo, with the immigrant Lavoe recalling his first encounter with the dance, presumably in New York. Yet as the song progresses, with its catchy bits of call-and-response conjecture, the bait-and-switch emerges. Boogaloo no va conmigo. Boogaloo does not go with me. “Eso Se Baila Así” wasn’t a celebration of the craze; this was a funeral for a form falling out of favor.

To Colón, Lavoe, and others in their age group, boogaloo was passé and they wanted that to be known. And while the track wasn’t quite the silver bullet that felled the often whitewashed genre, its decline and demise wasn’t far behind. Though salsa may not yet have been a universal term in the musical lexicon of 1968, The Hustler was its Big Bang, Latin music for Latin people. Crossover would come and go over the years, up to and through recent successes like Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito”. But from that point on, fueled by a growing and mobile Spanish-speaking population in the U.S., success would largely and rightfully happen on their own terms.

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Gary Suarez

Born, raised and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Forbes, High Times, Rolling Stone, Vice and Vulture, among others. In 2020, he founded the independent hip-hop newsletter and podcast, Cabbages.

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