Charlie Palmieri - Biography

Carlos Manuel “Charlie” Palmieri (November 21, 1927 — September 12, 1988) was a giant in the development of Latin jazz, and the roiling aesthetic ferment that was the immediate precursor to salsa. Palmieri was a virtuosic keyboardist — the undisputed “Giant of the Keyboards” — but his gift was a special sort of alchemical magic. He pounded with a keen feel for rhythm and an intrinsic, intuitive pulse, yet he was a classically trained genius, and his performances could seamlessly and effortlessly blossom into breathtakingly elegant spectacles of soaring, awesome beauty. His parents emigrated from Corsica to Puerto Rico, and moved again to New York City, where Charlie was born. He taught himself the piano at the age of 3, and his talents were never in doubt. By the age of 7, he was enrolled in courses at the Julliard School; his younger brother Eddie followed in his footsteps, as both a child prodigy and an adult Titan of Latin jazz. By their teens, the Palmieri brothers were leading their own band, and soon came to the attention of the legendary Tito Puente. In 1947, Puente was the director of the famed Fernando Alvarez band, and he tabbed young Charlie Palmieri to join for a series of shows at the Copacabana Club. The gig lasted for seven years. Concurrently, Palmieri played keys in other bands, including a prominent stint with loquacious television host Jack Parr on the CBS network.


By the early 1960s, Palmieri was a durable and seasoned session man, but he had yet to break out on his own as an artist. His fortunes turned when he discovered the impossibly talented flautist, Johnny Pacheco. Utilizing his shrewd skills as a bandleader and orchestrator, Palmieri tailored a Cuban-derived curtain of strings to envelope Pacheco’s unmistakable sound. The result was an innovative take on the Charanga orchestra, and its undulating rhythms started a fad in the US. Palmieri soon had high-profile deals with major labels — first Warner Bros., then Alegre. When the wave ineviatably passed, Palmieri promptly adopted a Boogaloo beat and swapped flue and strings for a beefy, self-assured brass section. He scored a number of hits in the Latin music charts, including “Tengo Maquina y Voy a 60 / Going Like 60” in 1965 and “Hay Que Estar En Algo / Either You Have It or You Don’t” in 1967. He spent the rest of the decade on Atlantic, where he made inroads in the European market. By the 1970s, he had expanded the vocabulary of Latin music with ventures into mambo, bolero, son, and guajira.


After the early 70s, Charlie Palmieri slowed a bit, but was still thoroughly productive. He visibly reunited with friend and mentor Tito Puente, appearing on Puente’s popular television program, El Mundo del Tito Puente (The World of Tito Puente). He also expanded from piano into organ and even melodica, while collaborating with some of the great talents of Latin jazz and salsa, including Bobby Capo, Rafael Cortijo, Ismael Rivera and the great Ismael, as well as his brother, Eddie. In 1980, Palmieri suffered the first of several heart attacks and strokes that would ultimately take his life, but he leaves behind a powerfully rich legacy, one that continues to resonate in Latin music and beyond. Charlie Palmieri’s discography has become somewhat fragmented through the years, but there are several readily available and highly recommended selections: La Herencia (2007 Fania/Emusica) is an expertly assembled and digitally remastered collection of hits. Fans interested in digging deeper into Charlie Palmieri’s wonderful oeuvre should check out his 1968 Atlantic debut, Latin Bugalu (2001 Collectables). It rifles through jazz, mambo and boogaloo with expert finesse and irascible charm, and is a splendid of Palmieri’s virtuosity at its dizzying zenith.


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