Ray Barretto - Biography

Bespectacled and wearing a grin, his head thrown back, eyes closed, and hair disheveled, Ray Barretto hovers over multiple congas in this defining image of New York salsa. His long career followed a circular route from its beginnings in the world of jazz in the ‘50s, to the birth of salsa in the ‘60s and its maturation in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then back to (Latin) jazz in the ‘90s. A gentle giant with “hard hands,” Barretto was one of the crucial contributors to the development of the influential Latin music scene in New York City.


Born in New York City to Puerto Rican immigrants on April 29, 1929, he joined the army at the age of 18. While stationed in Germany, he was exposed to big band swing and Dizzy Gillespie, but heavily inspired by Chano Pozo, he chose to play the congas. As one story goes, when he was on leave from the service in 1949, Charlie Parker heard him playing at a jam session and invited him to play with his band. In the‘50s he played for several years with Cuban pianist Jose Curbelo’s big band. He got his big break in 1957 when Tito Puente asked him to replace Mongo Santamaria in his hugely popular orchestra.


The first recording he played on as a member of Tito Puente’s band was the seminal mambo recording Dancemania (1958 RCA), Puente’s best selling record and among the world’s most influential recordings. Barretto kept busy with the Puente orchestra and became known for sitting in and jamming with jazz artists. As the first call Latin percussionist for numerous recording studios, he recorded with such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Cal Tjader, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Red Garland, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, and Lou Donaldson.

At the suggestion of Riverside Records, Barretto formed his own charanga band in 1961, based on the classic Cuban configuration popular at the time and characterized by its use of flute, violins, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. The result was Pachanga with Barretto (1961 Riverside), which was followed by Latino! (1962 Riverside).  His next effort, Charanga Moderna (1962 Tico), would exceed all expectations with the single “El Watusi.” The song achieved unprecedented crossover success for Latin music, peaking at number seventeen on the pop charts.

Unfortunately for Barretto, his unexpected success was also a curse, as record companies wanted more of the same and he ran the risk of being dismissed as a novelty. His next eight recordings, made for the Tico and United Artists labels, though not without musical merit, did not yield a hit. Albums such as Viva Watusi (1965 United Artists) and Señor 007 (1966 United Artists), which cast the Bond themes in a Latin groove, would be resurrected with all-things-Latin-soul in the new millennium.


In 1967 he dropped the strings, signed with the new hip Fania label and embraced the brassy sound of nascent salsa. In sync with the summer of love and the psychedelic craze, Acid (1968 Fania) was an instant hit. Its exuberant blend of soul and salsa, as exemplified by “A Deeper Shade of Soul,” would make it a timeless classic. Barretto’s new popularity coincided with the ascent of salsa to the forefront of Latin New York and, perhaps more than any other individual, he helped give salsa credibility and crossover success.


Fronted by the great vocals of Jimmy Sabater and Adalberto Santiago, and featuring the inventive percussion of timbalero Orestes Vilató, Barretto’s band and its irresistible dance power can be heard on Hard Hands (1968 Fania). In addition to the title track, which celebrates Barretto’s nickname, the song “Abidjan” is a tribute to the capital of the Ivory Coast in West Africa where Cuban music and salsa enjoyed great popularity. Together (1969 Fania) followed, with “Hipocrecía y Falsedad” and then Power (1970 Fania), featuring the Barretto composition “Oyé La Noticia” (Listen To the News).


The Message (1971 Fania) captured Barretto’s salsa machine in full stride with its set of well crafted songs. In a nod to the prevailing anti-war (Vietnam) sentiment, a peace sign occupies the “O” at the end of his name on the cover art. Vocalist Adalberto Santiago was becoming a star in his own right, singing original compositions such as “Alma con alma” (Soul with soul). With his top-flight band at the height of its powers, he released Que Viva La Musica (1972 Fania), with its celebratory title cut and a rousing version of the Barretto original “Cocinando.” It also includes a version of the classic Cuban composition by Arsenio Rodriguez, “Bruca Manigua.” For his next effort, he revisited the classic Cuban songbook with the energy of a salsa superman as personified in Indestructible (1973 Fania). The Santería inspired opener “El Hijo de Obatalá” by Puerto Rican composer C. Curet Alonso, remains one of the most popular cuts in his vast catalog.


Barretto’s band had a remarkable run with a steady crew, anchored by innovative timbalero and percussionist Orestes Vilató and fronted by singer Adalberto Santiago. However, the volatile salsa scene produced a fracture and Vilató and Santiago, along with some other band mates, left to form their own band in 1973, Tipica ’73. They would go on to be their own popular and innovative force in the evolution of salsa, but Barretto was discouraged. He turned to The Other Road (1973 Fania) embracing his Afro-Cuban jazz roots. With the help of trap drummer Billy Cobham, he reprised Monk’s “’Round About Midnight” and penned the original “Adidjan Revisited.”


As a key member of the Fania All Stars, he occupied center stage like an awkward giant surrounded by his congas. As he threw his head back, he lit the rhythmic spark that spurred this radical mob of young stars to incendiary heights. The Fania label had locked up most of New York’s Latin talent and promoted the concept of salsa, which sparked the imagination of the youth, igniting their energy and providing the soundtrack for a radical shift in consciousness. Barretto appeared in their legendary 1971 performance at New York’s Cheetah Club, contributing the almost ten minute cut “Descarga Fania All Stars.” The electrifying performance was captured on vinyl in Fania All Stars Live at the Cheetah Vols. 1 & 2 (1973 Fania) and the independent film and soundtrack Our Latin Thing [Nuestra Cosa] (1972 Fania). The film featured a memorable segment with Barretto sitting on scaffolding (erected on a broken-down ghetto building) and leading a large group of children playing found objects in an improvised rhythm jam.


In 1973 Barretto and his Fania All Star cohorts performed to rock star size crowds at Yankee Stadium in New York and Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Jaun, Puerto Rico. These legendary performances were captured in Fania All Stars Live at Yankee Stadium Vols. 1 & 2 (1976 Fania) and can be seen, along with the young Geraldo Rivera, in the film Salsa (1976 Columbia). In 1974 they performed in Zaire (Congo) before the fabled “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Their performance was a truly significant cultural event and along with their show in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, helped awaken an African salsa scene.


Back in New York, he regrouped and gave the talented young singer/songwriter Ruben Blades his first big opportunity, along with vocalist Tito Allen and pianist/arranger Sonny Bravo, on the superlative salsa record Barretto (1975 Fania). “Guararé,” rooted in classic Cuban elements, was a big hit with the dancers and Blades’ original composition “Canto Abacua” established him as a fresh new voice. The Fania label gave Barretto the freedom to play and record what he wanted and helped make him a salsa superstar. The nine records he recorded with them between 1968 and 1975 are classics, but ultimately he tired of the daily grind of leading a dance band and he struggled to make money with such large ensembles.


Barretto decided to give up the band and played a farewell concert in New York on New Year’s Eve in 1975. He also recorded a live disc with them in May of 1976 at the Beacon Theatre in New York. The double LP Tomorrow: Barretto Live (1976 Fania) captured this legendary show that included several ten minute-plus jam sessions. The rousing “Que Viva La Musica” boasts a guest appearance by Tito Puente and filled an entire side of a disc. He then signed with Atlantic Records and began working with a smaller ensemble, playing jazz and funk with an Afro-Cuban groove. Eye of the Beholder (1977 Atlantic) and Can You Feel It? (1978 Atlantic) may have their musical moments, but their intended crossover fusion proved elusive.


His Latin jazz effort, La Cuna (1979 Columbia), received the slick treatment by producer Creed Taylor. With Tito Puente on timbales and Charlie Palmieri on keyboards, Barretto does a great version of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” That same year he reunited with singer Adalberto Santiago and gave his fans another salsa classic with Rican/Struction (1979 Fania). The album would win him Latin NY awards for Album of the Year, Musician of the Year, and Best Conga Player. Giant Force (1980 Fania) and Rhythm of Life (1982 Fania) followed, with singer Ray De La Paz fronting a formidable salsa orchestra. On Tremendo Trio (1983 Fania) Barretto teamed up with Adalberto Santiago and Celia Cruz to tremendous success.


Todo Se Va Poder (1984 Fania) and Aquí Se Puede (1987 Fania) continued a trajectory that culminated in a Grammy-winning effort (Best Tropical Latin Performance 1989), Ritmo en el Corazón (1988 Fania) with Celia Cruz. In 1990, he participated in a tribute to his career called “Las 2 Vidas de Ray Barretto” (The Two Lives of Ray Barretto), which celebrated salsa and Latin jazz. In 1991, he began an association with the Concord Picante label with the release of Handprints.


With his New World Spirit ensemble, Barretto would help set the standard for an emerging Latin jazz scene. Ancestral Messages (1992 Concord Picante) revealed the Barretto original “Song for Chano,” dedicated to legendary drummer Chano Pozo, whose influential career was cut short with a bullet in 1948. He stripped down to a sextet for a standard-filled My Summertime (1995 Blue Note) and continued that paradigm for Contact! (1997 Blue Note). Portraits in Jazz and Clave (2000 RCA) followed, and he continued to perform steadily as he released Trancedance (2001 Circular Moves) and Homage to Art (2003 Sunnyside), a musical poignant tribute to drummer Art Blakey, with whom he had jammed as a young man. With no apparent loss of chops, his last two albums, Time Is- Time Was (2005 O+ Music) and Standards Rican-ditioned (2006 Zoho Music), set a formidable standard for what might be called hard Latin bop


Barretto passed away on February 17, 2006 at the age of 76 in Hackensack, New Jersey from heart failure. His six-decade career began as a jazz aficionado and passed through the mambo epoch to unexpected pop success, then solidified in the nascent salsa scene from which he returned to his Latin jazz roots. He was a crucial figure in the development of salsa and that success made him a larger than life figure. More than just a conga player, his contributions as a bandleader and composer were crucial. Ray Barretto's lifelong integrity leaves a human legacy of social conscience and compassion and his musical legacy remains for posterity. Que Viva La Musica!


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