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Celia Cruz

The Eternal Bolero, Part 2: Songs I Learned in College

            In the first installment of my three-part series on the bolero, I offered an overview of the romantic genre and highlighted songs I had learned from my parents as a child. In Part 2, I’ve selected eight more classics that I discovered during my college years in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

            Those were years of cultural upheaval and explosive creativity, especially in pop music. For ethnic minorities fighting for civil rights and racial respect, it was an exciting time of cultural discovery. Many young Mexican Americans, swept up in the Chicano Movement, made it their mission to explore and affirm their cultural roots in food, literature, art, and music.

            That reawakening sparked a wave of community-based arts among Latinos/as, producing influential clusters of new music that put Latinos on the national pop music map.

            In Texas, Little Joe and other Tejanos pioneered the Tex-Mex sound. In San Francisco, Carlos Santana, the son of a mariachi musician from Tijuana, kicked off the Latin Rock craze by incorporating Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” into a brash new rock/tropical fusion. And in Los Angeles, Los Lobos spearheaded Chicano rock, and Tierra forged the East L.A. sound.

            Meanwhile on the East Coast, the children of Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants fueled an exciting new era of Caribbean dance music dubbed salsa, featuring a hip style, jazzy elements, and modern recording techniques.

            I was a huge fan of the salsa music coming out of New York at the time. It felt a little like the so-called British Invasion of the previous decade, with U.S. fans hungry for the latest releases from London. The salsa craze set us on a similar hunt for music from the top New York artists recording for a cluster of independent labels, primarily Fania, Coco, Tico, Alegre, and Salsoul.

            The new music was hard to find in California. Even at Berkeley, which boasted a couple of cutting-edge record stores, the Latin music sections were small and poorly stocked, if you could find them. So, when my girlfriend (and future wife) announced she was making a summer trip to Manhattan, I eagerly asked her to bring me back some salsa albums – any salsa albums. She returned with the Holy Grail of new Afro-Caribbean music – top albums by Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, Ismael Rivera, Santos Colon, and Johnny Pacheco with vocalist Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez. I listened to them alone in my cozy apartment, on the upper floor of a home in Oakland, overlooking the tree-tops, absorbed by the sounds of a different culture.

            In those days, salsa albums generally stuck to a loose formula, a mix of dance tracks (mambo, son, cha-cha-cha, guaracha, merengue), along with a couple of boleros, often one per side. Keeping the flame alive 50 years later, the podcast Radio Alimaña recently posted a one-hour compilation of boleros by various artists on Fania Records, including the much-admired Hector Lavoe and the under-appreciated Justo Betancourt.

            Eventually, my record collection had exposed me to the canon of Cuban and Puerto Rican boleros, expanding on my parents’ Mexican-influenced song selection featured in Part 1. Below are some of the boleros that I discovered during that ear-opening era. These songs touched me from the start and have stayed with me since then.

“Convergencia” by Johnny Pacheco & Pete “Conde” Rodriguez

            I was immediately captivated by the lyrical and melodic mystique of this old bolero, with lyrics by Bienvenido Julián Gutiérrez and music by Marcelino Guerra. It was composed in 1938 and first recorded the following year in New York by Cuarteto Caney, featuring famed Cuban bandleader Machito and Puerto Rican singer Johnny López.  I first heard it on a 1972 compilation album, Ten Great Years, by Johnny Pacheco, the Dominican bandleader who co-founded Fania Records, the label that spearheaded the salsa boom of the 1970s. The tune originally appeared on Pacheco’s 1967 album Sabor Típico, featuring the sublime vocals of Afro-Puerto Rican singer Pete “Conde” Rodriguez. As a team through the early 1970s, Pacheco and “El Conde” would produce a series of popular albums featuring a “típico” sound with a conjunto lineup, tighter and more compact than the salsa big bands of the 1950s. Those traditional albums were like primary textbooks in my early salsa education.

            This song still holds mystery for me. Clearly, it’s about heartache and lost love that makes you lose sleep (novelesco insomnio do’ vivió el amor), but the conclusion still escapes me. The one-word title (“convergence”) never appears in the song as a noun. The single use of the word is as a verb in the final line, where the singer says he is like “the straight line that converged” (la linea recta que convergió). But converged with what? It’s not clear, at least to me. To make matters worse, there are small inconsistencies in various versions of the lyrics, online and in liner notes, that make big differences. Is it “de playas y olas?” Or “de playas solas?” Is it “porque la tuya final vivió,” or “al final vivió?”

            In the end, precise words and ambiguous phrasing don’t matter. Just let the feeling carry you. In the middle section, the melody cascades down the musical scale in short phrases, creating a gently flowing sensation, as if pulling the listener downstream to an inevitable end. The sad, five-syllable phrases are like steps on the emotional waterfall:

Madero de nave que naufragó,
            piedra rodando,

                        sobre sí misma,

                                    alma doliente

                                                vagando a solas

                                                            de playas, olas,

                                                                        así soy yo:

La línea recta que convergió
porqué la tuya final vivió.

            The brilliant arrangement on the Pacheco/Conde recording uses overlapping horns to echo the cascading melody. Sadly, no arranger is credited on the album (Fania LP 339). Ironically, Fania would eventually become known as the label that meticulously credited musicians, composers, and arrangers on its releases, reversing the anonymity that prevailed in the Latin music industry during earlier decades.

            The Frontera Collection has a 78-rpm version of that early recording by Cuarteto Caney (Decca 21047B). Identified as a bolero-son, it opens with a solo trumpet playing the entire melody before the singing starts, an unusual approach. A full version is available on YouTube.    

            This is the only copy of the song in the database, but it has been recorded many times over the decades. In Cuba, fans treasure the 1980s duet by revered sonero Miguelito Cuní with singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, the New Song icon who also recorded a solo vocal in 1978 with Cuban jazz pianist Emiliano Salvador. Another notable recording, despite the strangely unsynchronized harmonies, is the duet between Cuban singer Omara Portuondo (of Buena Vista fame) and the song’s co-composer, Marcelino Guerra, nicknamed Rapindey.  Omara’s fellow Buena Vista vocalist recorded a tender, touching rendition on his 2007 album, Mi Sueño, with the sensitive piano accompaniment of Roberto Fonseca.

            Half a century after that Pacheco recording, contemporary musicians keep finding new ways to interpret the bolero. In 2014, a genre-busting, mind-bending version was recorded by none other than the son of El Conde, trumpeter Pete Rodriguez Jr., who holds a doctorate of musical arts from the University of Texas at Austin. The new version released the following year by Destiny Records on the album El Conde Negro, shows that the song has no stylistic boundaries. This is not your father’s bolero anymore.

“Usted” by Santos Colon

            In its one-word title, this sad song gives a cryptic clue to its meaning, though at the end, it’s still a bit of a mystery.

            The title is the formal variant of the pronoun “you” in Spanish. “Usted” is used, rather than the informal “tu,” when addressing a figure of respect: an elder, a parent, a teacher, or simply a stranger. It connotes both distance and unequal status in a relationship. In this case, the use is completely incongruous, since the speaker is supposedly addressing a person of great intimacy, perhaps a former lover who presumably has left, and left behind a broken heart.

            “Usted” is included on Colon’s 1972 album, Fiel (Fania Records SLP 430), a 10-track set of love songs tastefully arranged by Argentina’s Jorge Calandrelli. The song was composed by two prominent Mexican songwriters, music by Gabriel Ruiz and words by José Antonio Zorrilla. They blend so well together, the song feels like it blossomed from a single creative mind.

            I found 30 recordings of the song in the Frontera Collection, with two of special interest, both recorded in Mexico. First, the popular trio Los Tres Diamantes bring their high-pitched harmonies and hyper-romantic approach to the song, released by RCA at all three playback speeds – 78, 33, and 45. On another RCA Victor recording, composer and pianist Ruiz accompanies emotive Mexican vocalist Amalia Mendoza, primarily known for her rancheras. In this rendition, prominent arranger and bandleader Chucho Ferrer provides restrained orchestration that spotlights the singer while adding lovely musical embellishments throughout.

            I first heard the song in the smooth, honeyed voice of Santos Colon, a Puerto Rican artist who had fronted the high-powered dance band of Tito Puente, and who, at the time of this release, was still performing with the explosive Fania All Stars. As a soloist, affectionately nicknamed Santitos, he was known for his understated but compelling bolero interpretations.

            In the case of “Usted,” the typical bolero theme seems obvious at first. It’s about a man who has had his heart broken by a woman who is “the blame of all my anguish and all my losses,” who filled his heart with “sweet restlessness and bitter disappointments.”

Usted es la culpable
De todas mis angustias y todos mis quebrantos
Usted llenó mi vida
De dulces inquietudes y amargos desencantos

            It is only at the end that we realize this guy’s been suffering from afar. He uses “usted” because they are, in fact, strangers and he’s been hoping to get up the nerve to kiss her.

Usted me desespera
Me mata, me enloquece
Y hasta la vida diera por vencer el miedo
De besarla a usted

            With that revelation from what turns out to be an obsessed but timid admirer (stalker?), the use of the formal “usted” packs a powerful surprise punch, perhaps more disturbing than romantic. But make no mistake, bolero fans read it as a love story, as illustrated by the following comment from a fan on a YouTube clip of the song from Los Panchos.

            Cecilia Posadas writes: “I owe my very existence to this song. My grandfather was a whisker away from losing my grandmother, but one night he took her this song in a serenata. They got back together that same day, they married, and they had my dad. ❤” (Le debo mi existencia a esta canción, mi abuelo estaba a nada de perder a mi abuelita pero una noche le llevó serenata con esta canción, regresaron ese día, se casaron y tuvieron a mi papá ❤.)

“Dos Gardenias” by Angel Canales

            This is perhaps the weirdest version of the oft-recorded bolero, and I can’t get enough of it. The unusual interpretation is not unexpected from an upstart performer known for his offbeat vocal style as “El Diferente.”

             Fans loved Canales for his pirate persona, with his bald head, long necklaces, and gold lamé outfits. His band’s arrangements are jazzy and hip, although his lyrical themes are fairy traditional – paens to Puerto Rico, Nuyorican culture, social musings, and, of course, torch-songs-to-kill-yourself-by (corta-venas), such as “La Hiedra” and “Nostalgia,” a bolero tango.

            Canales’s voice is decidedly, and deliberately, non-traditional. His nasal tones and strangely modulated phrasing make him sound like a Latino Bob Dylan. In an aching, desperate song like “Dos Gardenias,” written in 1945 by Cuban pianist and songwriter Isolina Carrillo, the singer’s edgy style adds an additional dose of anguish to the seething jealousy, as if he were losing his mind as well as his heart.

            The two gardenias of the title are a symbolic gift from one lover to another, explicitly representing their two hearts. It’s a good choice of imagery, since the white flower is said to represent purity, trust, and hope. However, a sense of suspicion and potential betrayal arises in the final line:

“Pero si un atardecer
Las gardenias de mi amor se mueren
Es porque han adivinado
Que tu amor me ha traicionado
Porque existe otro querer

            Where did that poisonous possibility come from? He suddenly refers to the specter of a potential infidelity, to be revealed by the death of the gardenias. It makes you wonder if, despite all the prior romantic lyrics, the flower-giver already suspects he’s losing her love.

            If so, that suspicion would align with another trait that gardenias symbolize – clarity. But that’s not necessarily a good thing, explains Florgeous.com, a website devoted to flowers:

            “In fact, you could use a gardenia flower to show that you know more than you need to know.”

“Sin Fe” by Jose Feliciano

            Most people know this Puerto Rican singer and guitarist by his two biggest hits: “Light My Fire” and “Feliz Navidad.” The Doors cover was released in June 1968 on the the singer’s first big hit album for RCA Victor, titled Feliciano!. But by then, Feliciano had recorded a series of Spanish-language albums featuring nothing but boleros: Sombra, Una Guitarra y Boleros (1966, live at Mar de Plata, Argentina), Más Éxitos de José Feliciano (1967), and El Sentimiento, La Voz y la Guitarra de José Feliciano (1968).

            As a die-hard Doors fan, I cringed at Feliciano’s lightweight “Light My Fire.” But I loved his bolero albums, which predated Luis Miguel’s “Romance” series by 20 years. For some weird reason, these are the only LPs I brought with me on a Christmas trip to Juarez in 1973, the whole family packed in a rented mobile home to share the holidays with the south-of-the-border Gurzas. I was playing the records on my Tía Laura’s console when an incredulous cousin asked, “Is he really that popular over there?”

            By that time, yes, he was. Not for these bolero recordings but for the song that was to become a ubiquitous Christmas standard, “Feliz Navidad,” released November 24, 1970, on the album of the same name. Both hit albums – the Christmas collection and the album of rock covers – were helmed by Rick Jarrard, an RCA staff producer who also worked with Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson, and others.

            While Feliciano’s mainstream pop career took off, I was still stuck on his bolero collections. His Mas Exitos contains a bushel of classics, including “Noche de Ronda,” “Piel Canela,” and “El Reloj.” It also contains my featured song, “Sin Fe,” written by Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Bobby Capó, who also wrote “Piel Canela.”

            “Sin Fe” is sometimes called “Poquita Fe,” a variant used for all 24 of the recordings in the Frontera Collection. That includes the first recording of the song credited to Jorge Valente, a bolero ranchero released in 1960 by Discos Columbia on a 45-rpm extended play (Columbia EPC-244-A-1), with the backing of Mariachi Mexico de Pepe Villa. The track comes from Valente’s debut LP on Colombia, Love in Mexico, although the prominent mariachi bands are not credited on the U.S. release (Columbia EX 5132). Other notable versions in the database include the recording by Trio Los Panchos with three-part harmonies, and an instrumental rendition by Flaco Jimenez on accordion and Ry Cooder on slide guitar. (The 13 recordings titled “Sin Fe” in our database are entirely different songs.)

            By any title, I feel entranced by this song’s aching melody, with almost hopeless tones reflecting the title, “Without Faith.” It’s really one broken heart singing to another, across the gap of pain, disappointment, and betrayal. The singer acknowledges his own destructive failings in the relationship, doesn’t blame his disillusioned partner for doubting him, and finally pleads for her help in restoring his ability to love, and to forgive. His approach is low-key and soft-spoken. But at the end, there’s a musical flourish that embellishes the singer’s emotional appeal for restored trust and love.

            Feliciano’s natural, earthy vocals help convey the flesh-and-blood yearning and despair of the bolero style, which is deeper and more mature than the common pop love song. The feelings are enhanced on these albums by the traditional arrangements, mostly guitars and light percussion. In 1998, perhaps in an attempt to ride the coattails of Luis Miguel’s bolero success, Feliciano put out a new album called Señor Bolero, with a bigger orchestral sound that smothered the songs.  

            That album didn’t touch me like his early work did. You can feel the difference, and the feeling is missing.

“Lo Mismo Que Usted” by Fania All Stars

            Tito Rodriguez is another Puerto Rican crooner known for his cool style and velvety voice. He was big in the 1950s during the mambo craze in New York, part of a troika of bandleaders who dominated the dance floor at New York’s Palladium ballroom, along with Tito Puente and Machito. During that era, I was a kid buying singles at my local record store by Elvis Presley, Fabian, and The Four Seasons. Twenty years later, I discovered a whole new blend of salsa music through a popular album by the Fania All Stars titled Tribute to Tito Rodriguez. It was released by Fania Records in 1976, when I was starting to carve out a career in music journalism, freelancing for the Los Angeles Times and Billboard Magazine. In October of that year, I wrote a review for the Times of the local debut of the Fania All Stars at the Hollywood Palladium.

            The All Stars had been conceived as a showcase for the label, representing the roster’s premiere singers and bandleaders in one supergroup. From the start in 1968, the ensemble conveyed the excitement and spontaneity of the music through live recordings of shows staged especially for that purpose. That led to a series of live albums that propelled the scrappy startup to stardom – Live at the Red Garter (1968), Live at The Cheetah (1972), Latin-Soul-Rock (1974), and Live at Yankee Stadium (1975).

            The tribute to Tito Rodriguez was their first studio LP, featuring songs popularized by the Nuyorican singer who, like Santos Colon, jumped from the big-band dance format to the softer stylings of the bolero, which perfectly suited his romantic style. The album opens with an intricately constructed, ten-minute medley of three boleros sung by three different singers – “Inolvidable” by Cheo Feliciano, “Lo Mismo Que a Usted” by Chivirico Davila, and “Tiemblas” by Bobby Cruz. Composed of three separate tunes written by three different composers with charts by three different arrangers, the medley manages to sound like a single composition in three movements. It’s a theatrical, romantic opening for an album that goes on to feature up-tempo dance numbers.   

             “Lo Mismo Que a Usted” was written in 1965 by a pair of Argentinean songwriters, Palito Ortega and Dino Ramos, each famous in his own right. Ortega, a popular pop singer, made the first recording of his composition on April 12, 1965, more as a ballad than a bolero. Though not as widely known as other standards of the genre, it has been recorded by a host of artists, a sampling of which you can hear on this Amazon Music playlist.

            The Frontera Collection contains six versions, including a live recording by Tito Rodriguez during what was to be his final concert in 1972 at El Tumi, a nightclub in Lima, Peru. The beloved singer would die of leukemia early the following year, at the young age of 50. The live album of his final show, backed by La Sonora de Lucho Macedo, was released posthumously in 1973 by his own label, TR Records, titled 25th Anniversary Performance, a milestone that had marked the occasion for the show in Peru.

            Frontera also contains recordings of the song by Nuyorican bandleader Ray Barretto, Argentine vocalist Roberto Yanes, and Mexican tropical band La Sonora Santanera.

            Once again, the song lyrics use the formal, respectful “usted” in addressing the other party in the dialog. Once again, the grammatical usage raises questions about the relationship between the two. The lyrics are expository, laying out details of the singer’s lonely and heart-broken condition. The litany of woes is interspersed with the line, “lo mismo que usted” (the same as you), repeated seven times. So, we have a lonely-hearts club of two people, maybe strangers, mired in misery, and perhaps reaching for some connection in their shared isolation.

A mí me pasa lo mismo que a usted.

Me siento solo, lo mismo que usted.

Paso la noche llorando,

La noche esperando, lo mismo que usted.

 

A mí me pasa lo mismo que a usted.

Nadie me espera, lo mismo que usted.

Porque se sigue negando el amor

Que voy buscando, lo mismo que usted.

 

Cuando llego a mi casa y abro la puerta,

Me espera el silencio.

Silencio de besos, silencio de todo,

Me siento tan solo, lo mismo que usted.

 

            To this day, Tito Rodriguez is the song’s best interpreter. His mellow, mournful vocals suit the song’s interior gloom and sad resignation.

“Plazos Traicioneros” by Celia Cruz & Willie Colon

            In English, this song could be called “Why Do You String Me Along?” That’s the nut of the theme, longing for love dangled just beyond reach, always tempting, never fulfilled. “Plazos Traicioneros” was written in 1953 by Cuban songwriter, Luis Marquetti (1901-1991), who was also a teacher, poet, and unpublished novelist. Nicknamed El Gigante del Bolero, Marquetti wrote more than five dozen songs, including “Deuda,” the one that launched his career in 1945.

            I first heard the song on one of those bolero albums by Jose Feliciano, and the haunting melody became one of my favorites. My featured version above is by salsa stars Celia Cruz and Willie Colon from their first studio collaboration, Only They Could Have Made This Album. The song title is tricky to translate. Some lyric websites have it as “Treasonous Times,” but that smacks of political intrigue. In Spanish, “plazos” can mean deadline, or simply a specified time period, or a pause. And “traicioneros” can mean treasonous, as well as duplicitous and disloyal. So, a more accurate translation, without the lyricism, could be “periods of betrayal.”

            In three verses and a bridge, the singer questions the motives behind the constant foot-dragging by the target of his affections. Every time he declares his love to her, she responds, “Let’s see if tomorrow might be the day you get what you want.” In the lovely bridge section, before the final verse, he reveals the insecurity that is filling him with desperation. He asks if she is putting him off because “another has stolen your heart from me.”

 

Cada vez que te digo lo que siento,

tu siempre me respondes de este modo,

“Deja ver, deja ver,

si mañana puede ser lo que tu quieres.”

 

Pero asi van pasando las semanas,

pasando sin lograr lo que yo quiero.

Yo no se, para que,

para que son esos plazos traicioneros.

 

Traicioneros porque me condenan

y me llenan de desesperación.

Yo no se si me dices que mañana

porque otro me robó tu corazón.

 

Cada vez que te digo lo que siento,

no sabes como yo me desespero.

Si tu Dios es mi Dios,

para que son esos plazos traicioneros.

 

            The song shines in this version produced by Willie Colon and arranged by veteran producer, arranger, and bandleader Louie Ramirez. The Spanish-style guitar of Yomo Toro adds beautiful accents, while the band provides a subtle, understated backup. Celia’s rich, modulated lead vocal is complemented by brief, perfectly placed harmonies, presumably between her and Colon, who also does lead vocals on his own solo albums.

            Their rendition is one more gem in one of Celia’s biggest selling albums. It also includes the Brazilian-based hit, “Usted Abusó,” which roughly means “you took advantage of me.” With its sturdy resolve in the face of rejection, the song is a counterpoint to “Plazos Traicioneros,” because in this case, the suitor is not willing to wait around and take more abuse.

“Sombras” and “Amanecí en Tus Brazos” by Javier Solis

            I can’t write about my college years without mentioning these two songs. They are the stalwart bookends, the opening and closing tracks, on an album by Mexico’s cosmopolitan crooner Javier Solis, released in 1966 by CBS in Mexico as “Sombras” and in the U.S. as “Romance in the Night.” The following year, after graduating from high school, I moved to Mexico City to attend the National University, and these songs were in the air, everywhere. They were hits that transcended class, race, and neighborhood boundaries. It seemed like the whole country was transfixed by the voice of Javier Solis.

            For me, this music triggers a warm nostalgia that transports me to that specific time and place, as music often does. As a teenager raised from infancy in the United States, I remember the songs as part of the soundtrack of my induction into Mexican society, part of my own cultural immersion program. And just like this life-changing experience left an indelible mark on my mind, these tunes will always echo in my head.

            Thematically, the two songs could not be more different.

            “Sombras” was originally written as a tango in 1943 by Francisco Lomuto and José María Contursi. It was adapted for mariachi for Solis, known as El Rey del Bolero Ranchero. In either format, the song is a dark, desperate cry from a man on the verge of killing himself over lost love that left him in the “shadows” of his life. In the shocking opening lines, he says he wants to slice his veins and let his blood flow at her feet, proving his boundless love with his death. Talk about corta-venas!

            “Amanecí en Tus Brazos,” on the other hand, is brimming with the joy of true love. Written by Mexico’s prolific composer, José Alfredo Jimenez, the song expresses how lovers can get lost in each other, lose track of time, revel in intimacy from morning to night, with the moon and the dawn as their only witnesses. The opening line sets the mood: “Amanecí otra vez entre tus brazos / Y desperté llorando de alegría” (I arose once again within your arms, and I awoke weeping of joy).

            These songs express the polar extremes of relationships, from blissful love to suicidal loss. And within that range of romantic experience, lives the bolero.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      – Agustín Gurza

 Also in this series:

The Eternal Bolero, Part 1: Love Songs That Endure for Decades

The Eternal Bolero, Part 3: Staying Alive

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The Peerless Discography: A Labor of Love

Part of the frustration of building a musical archive like the Frontera Collection is the lack of reliable and readily available information for every recording. Key data – such as release dates, accompaniment, musician credits, and studio locations – is often missing or simply beyond the reach of researchers.

            I always thought that this problem was particularly pronounced in the Latin music industry. By comparison, I’d often see deep, detailed information for popular English-language genres, such as jazz, pop, rock, and folk. For groups like The Beatles, with fervent followers, there are more minutiae about their recordings than the average fan could ever need, let alone process.

            Despite the incomplete data – or perhaps because of it – Frontera’s digital library is an invaluable global resource. It’s a one-of-a-kind repository of recordings, some of which are the last surviving copies that otherwise would have been long ago lost and forgotten. And it represents decades of devoted research and acquisition by a driven record collector, Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Arhoolie Foundation.

            Passionate collectors like Strachwitz are the driving force in the field known as discography, the systematic cataloguing of commercial recordings. Not the record labels, not research institutions, not even the artists themselves have played such a pivotal role in a field that emerged in the early 1930s as a labor of love.

            “Discography has always been the work of amateurs,” writes Bruce D. Epperson in his book, More Important Than the Music: A History of Jazz Discography (University of Chicago Press, 2013). “Nobody ever went to discography school, or got a degree in it, or joined a discographers’ union. There is no defined body of special skills handed down from one generation to the next. It’s always been something that each individual has had to learn on the job.”

            With that pioneer spirit, Strachwitz set about, almost a quarter century ago, to create the first comprehensive discography of Discos Peerless, the original national record company in Mexico. He teamed with two collaborators for the daunting undertaking: Jonathan Clark, a mariachi musician and historian, and the late James Nicolopulos, former professor at of the University of Texas at Austin with a special interest in Mexican corridos.

            “It was important because, at the time, there was no other discography in Mexico of Mexican music,” said Clark in an interview, “and it was logical to start with Peerless because it was Mexico’s oldest national record company.”

            In the summer of 1995, the trio of discographers travelled to Mexico City to begin their groundbreaking work. They had no clear idea of the quality of the firm’s historical files. They didn’t know how complete and accurate they would be, nor how far back they might go.

            As we shall see, the company’s recordkeeping was fragmented, with no central data or single source to help them compile of releases dating back to the early 1930s. The work would require a dogged search through dusty record shelves, forgotten file rooms, and rows of old card catalogues, similar to those used in libraries beginning in the 1800s.

         “Nobody had ever made an attempt to consolidate all that information,” said Clark, “so there were a lot of different sources. And each different source of documentation contained unique information about each record that none of the other sources had.”

            As it turns out, the patchwork nature of the label’s in-house data was not unusual for the record industry, especially in its formative years, according to Roy Shuker of Victoria University in New Zealand who has written several books on the culture of popular music and record collecting.

            “The early recording companies were frequently very unsystematic in their cataloguing practices,” writes Shuker in his reference book, Popular Music: The Key Concepts (Routledge, 2017). “There was a general lack of catalogues of released recordings, especially from the smaller companies, along with a failure to keep thorough records of releases. This lack of systematic and accessible information on releases made record collecting a challenge, and fostered the growth of discography, especially among jazz enthusiasts and record collectors.”

             Strachwitz emphatically disagrees with Shuker’s assessment. He says record companies kept excellent records, especially in the early years of the recording industry. It was not until the 1940s, Strachwitz states, that labels became less rigorous about their recordkeeping.

            Disputes are part of the discographer’s DNA.  Historically, observes Epperson, they have argued, sometimes ferociously, over everything from arcane recording data to what qualifies as a certain style of music. Their “internecine battles,” wrote the late Edward Berger, a renowned jazz expert, mirrored comparable conflicts among jazz writers and critics.

            It was a Parisian jazz fanatique, in fact, who created one of the world’s first comprehensive discographies. French critic Charles Delaunay’s Hot Discography, published in 1936, is considered the first complete compilation of jazz recordings.

            Some sources erroneously claim that Delaunay actually coined the term “discography.” That credit belongs instead to Compton Mackenzie, a Scottish author, actor, and activist who co-founded the London-based magazine, Gramophone.  According to Epperson, the term first appeared in print in an editorial published by the magazine in January 1930.

            “I have often thought that I should like to start a museum to house one specimen of every kind of disc record ever published,” wrote Mackenzie. “I wonder how many there would be? I wish some devoted reader would set himself the task of making out a list …  Now, who will volunteer for this noble but arduous task?”

            When Strachwitz and the team undertook that arduous task at Peerless, they took a big gamble on the company’s cooperation. They arrived with only a preliminary, unofficial agreement to start the research. Nicolopulos, who led the team, had previously worked with a mid-level manager, the head of the royalties department, for his research on corridos. But top management had not signed off on the company-wide discography project.

            “From past experience, I was aware of the fact that many record companies, especially in Mexico, are suspicious of anyone trying to obtain discographical information,” writes Strachwitz in his introduction to the Peerless Discography on the Arhoolie Foundation website. “They generally consider this confidential data because they feel it might reveal sales figures and/or royalty payments to publishers and/or artists, or the lack thereof.”

            Luckily, a personal connection helped break the ice.

            Strachwitz, who doesn’t speak Spanish, shared his German ancestry with Jürgen Ulrich, then president of the company, who was born in Mexico but studied in Germany.

             “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” Jürgen asked in an initial meeting.

            There followed what Strachwitz calls, in diplomatic terms, “a fruitful conversation.” Clark remembers it as the parting of the waters.

            “They started speaking in German and that was an additional in, I think, that made him even more friendly,” Clark said. “So Ulrich was really cordial to us and he basically said, ‘Look, you guys can have the run of the plant.’ And he took us to each office … to the royalties office, to the tape library, to the record archives, and he introduced us to each person in charge and said, “Give these guys full access.”

            The team also arrived with a powerful door opener: a copy of what is considered in the U.S. the Bible of discographies, Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893-1942 (University of Illinois Press, 1990) by Richard K. Spottswood, a musicologist with a degree in library science. Specifically, they brought Volume 4 of Spottswood’s seven-part opus, focusing on “Spanish, Portuguese, Philippine, (and) Basque” releases.

            Showing an example of Spottswood’s comprehensive catalogue, recalls Strachwitz, helped convince label executives of the value of the enterprise.

            Even under these ideal circumstances, the team encountered the same obstacles faced by other discographers, though perhaps somewhat more daunting.

            “Peerless published few, if any, listings or catalogues of their releases until the advent of LPs (long-play records) in the 1950s,” writes Strachwitz. “Collectors, researchers, scholars, and fans of Mexican music have long been frustrated by the lack of information available regarding early Peerless recordings. The only listings of releases I had ever seen were short lists of currently popular items printed on the sleeves of 78-rpm records.”

            Upon arrival at the Peerless facilities, Strachwitz and his team discovered more disheartening news.

            The company had no documentation for releases prior to 1939, the year the firm moved to its longtime headquarters on Avenida Mariano Escobedo, since demolished. That physical move coincides with the start of a new catalogue series, Peerless 1501, with a new matrix series, 1-39, the code number etched into the run-out groove of every Peerless record. Conveniently, the last two-digits represent the year of release, a date rarely specified on phonograph discs. In addition, company records indicated that many masters and matrices, the crucial metal parts of the production process, had been melted down for scrap metal.

            Even today, historical information about the company is scattered piecemeal across various sources, and is not entirely reliable. There are even conflicting dates for the year the firm was founded. Strachwitz cites the date of incorporation ­– Monday, August 14, 1933 – as noted in a special edition of the trade magazine DiscoMexico, published on the label’s 50th anniversary under the headline, “La Primera Compañía Fonográfica de México: 1933-1983.”

            Fábrica de Discos Peerless, a source of cultural pride for Mexicans, was founded ironically by two entrepreneurial immigrants: German-born Gustavo Klinkwort Noehrenberg, Ulrich’s grandfather, and Eduardo C. Baptista Covarrubias, a native of Venezuela. Klinkwort had moved to Mexico in 1906 and Baptista in 1921, according to online sources.

            By the time they became partners in Discos Peerless, the two men had already laid down the firm’s foundations, working independently on career tracks that would soon merge.

            In 1925, Baptista established a short-lived record factory with machinery he imported from New York, including a mill to mix shellac for making 78s. The milestone is proudly noted in a timeline written by the executive himself, “The Record Industry in Mexico,” published in Billboard on February 28, 1970.

            But Baptista fails to mention the fact, noted by Strachwitz and others, that the equipment was obsolete and the audio quality of the early recordings was sub-par. The sound was so bad, in fact, that the poor quality was cited as the reason the early masters were destroyed.

            In 1927, Baptista formalized the enterprise, founding his Compañía Nacional de Discos. He operated a small fleet of labels – Olympia, Huici, Artex, and Nacional – that were discontinued by the time Peerless was established, according to a 2006 doctoral dissertation by Donald Andrew Henriques, Performing Nationalism: Mariachi, Media and the Transformation of a Tradition (1920-1942).

             “Baptista had a recording studio in the Teatro Politeama and it was there that he recorded vocalists from radio, musical theater, and film,” writes Henriques, who earned his degree in ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin, and now is Assistant Professor of Music at California State University, Fresno.

            Far from glamorous, the theater, long since demolished, was a venue for vaudeville-style shows, located in what was then a sordid, low-rent district south of Mexico City’s historic center. Yet, it placed Baptista at the heart of the action, where aspiring future stars were hard at work making a name for themselves.

            Despite the admittedly crude production quality, Baptista managed to make the first recordings of artists who would go on to become superstars in the Mexican music business. In his industry timeline, Baptista cites his early recordings by Pedro Vargas, Guty Cardenas, Agustín Lara, and Alfonso Ortiz Tirado.

            Meanwhile, Klinkwort was busy building his own roster of releases. In 1929, the first recordings appeared on the Peerless label, “probably under (Klinkwort’s) ownership,” Strachwitz notes. Those early Peerless recordings also included music by the iconic Agustín Lara and Guty Cardenas, who pioneered the romantic trova yucateca, as well as Tito Guízar, a singer and actor who scored early success in Hollywood.

            At the time, Peerless and its predecessors had a clear field in the Mexican recording industry. After the Revolution of 1910, three major U.S. labels – Columbia, Victor, and Edison – found it too dangerous to continue doing business in Mexico. The multinationals would not establish full operations, with recording and manufacturing facilities, until the 1930s and ’40s.

            That left Peerless for many years with an open market to establish its national brand.

             “Obviously, any artist who wanted to record and become known had to pass through Peerless,” said Ulrich in a 2013 interview with Excelsior on the occasion of the label’s 80th anniversary. “Our business was not just to make money, but also to make public our musical culture. All the songs that we heard, and all the artists, those who shone and those who didn’t, are part of the Mexican identity, its idiosyncrasy.”

            The label’s roster of stars over the first three decades was truly peerless. Aside from the big names already mentioned, its top artists also included Gonzalo Curiel, Lola Beltrán, Luis Arcaraz, Toña La Negra, Las Hermanas Aguila, Miguel Aceves Mejía, Emilio Tuero, Los Hermanos Záizar, Tata Nacho, Trío Garnica-Ascensio, and Ramón Armengod. The great Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán made its first recording on Peerless in 1937, according to Clark’s liner notes for an Arhoolie CD compilation of the group’s early recordings.   

            But there is one artist that helped cement the company’s fortune and its future: singer, actor, and cultural icon Pedro Infante.

            “Peerless finally hit real gold,” writes Strachwitz, “when, under the artistic direction of Don Guillermo Kornhauser, it recorded the soon-to-be #1 Mexican singing and movie idol, Pedro Infante, on November 5, 1943.”

            One of the most fruitful sources of information at Peerless was its studio ledger books, with chronological information about recording sessions. Those hand-written ledgers included three volumes covering the period from 1945 through 1958. The entries included detailed information about recording dates and matrix numbers, as well as technical data, including hand-drawn diagrams showing the type and location of microphones used during the sessions.

            Clark, who remained in Mexico a full month, much longer than the others, began transcribing the wealth of data in the studio ledgers, with the help of a paid assistant. But the work was suspended because it was slow going and Strachwitz wanted to focus instead on completing the basic catalogue, focusing on the 78-rpm era up to 1955.

             According to Clark, Ulrich later provided photographs of the ledger pages for future transcription, including pages from the middle volume (1951-1954) that was believed lost at the time, but was later recovered.

            The studio session ledgers, however, were only one source of information available to the team. They had other ways of documenting and crosschecking the label’s recording history.

         There was the library-style card file, with one card for each recording. There was the label copy, containing the exact information sent to the printer for typesetting the labels, all kept in in bound binders in a filing cabinet. And there were files with information about royalties paid to the artists, noting the composer, the publisher, and the royalty agreement.

            Finally, there was a storage room for the old phonograph records themselves.

            Writes Strachwitz: “A very small room, partitioned from a larger space, contained the most interesting artifacts from my standpoint – namely 78 and 45 rpm discs pressed by Peerless after 1939. The run of Peerless pressings seemed to be complete, in chronological order, neatly stored in albums holding about 10-12 discs each. All discs were in mint condition – file copies – one example of each.”

            The process of documenting the discs was also slow and tedious.

         “We had to take a laptop into the vault itself and sit at a little table, and pull out all the records one by one,” recalled Clark. “So I read off the label information to my assistant, who typed everything into the database.”

         As a curious footnote, the researchers also found some copies of those early recordings made by Baptista on his original pre-Peerless labels.

            “The discs were the oldest information we could find,” said Clark. “They started much earlier than any of printed documentation. There were a few really old discs in that archive, even a few Artex and Huici and Nacional, which were the predecessors to Peerless.”

             So far, the Peerless Discography stops in 1955 with a 78-rpm ranchera recording by Las Hermanas Segovia (Peerless No. 4948). The mid-1950s marked the end of the era of 78-rpm discs, when they began to be replaced by the smaller 45-rpm singles, although there were exceptions. Peerless and other Mexican labels continued to produce some 78s in limited quantities even through the 1960s, primarily to service jukebox operators in rural areas who avoided the expense of updating their machines to the new format.

            In the latter half of the 20th century, Discos Peerless lost sales and stature in a rapidly changing music industry. Pop tastes had become gradually more pop and less folkloric, more foreign and less national.

            Peerless could not keep up. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. The label moved into other genres: tropical with Celia Cruz, “grupero” style with Los Babys and Los Freddys, and romantic pop with Verónica Castro.

            The firm also licensed recordings from international labels for domestic distribution. They brought in classical music from Deutsche Grammophon, pop artists from England on British Decca, and sizzling salsa sounds from Colombia on the legendary Discos Fuentes.

            Peerless released music by easy-listening bandleader Mantovani and sex symbol Tom Jones. And it also issued late-term 78-rpm pressings by The Rolling Stones that, as Strachwitz notes with amazement, “were indeed available in Mexico in that format at that late date!” Clearly a rock collector’s dream, he adds.

            “We wanted to offer the country a total musical and cultural experience,” Ulrich told Excelsior. “That was the vision of our founder.”

            Still, the decline and fall of Discos Peerless was long and painful.

            “They kept trying and trying and trying to come up with a new formula, sign new artists, come up with a big hit,” said Clark, “but they just weren’t successful. By the mid-1990s, they were in real bad shape. All of the evidence was of a company in decadence.”

            Keeping up with music trends was only one challenge. The label also faced staggering losses from rampant record piracy, and the looming threat of the digital revolution in the recording industry. Ulrich and the family had a meeting and decided to sell. In 2001, Peerless was bought by Warner Music, which has re-packaged and re-released the label’s rich and deep repertoire.

            For posterity, the label’s legacy will be enshrined in the discography.

            As a final resort in the effort to create that comprehensive catalogue, Strachwitz appealed to private record collectors for help. Those who provided crucial information included Armando Pous, “probably Mexico’s leading record collector,” said Strachwitz. Pous was especially helpful in filling gaps for that lost period before 1939.

            Yet, there are still more gaps to fill, more recordings to be added.

            “We hope that collectors who have items, for which our discography lacks data, will send us all details and thereby contribute to the eventual completion of this first part of the Discos Peerless discography,” Strachwitz writes..

            The collector’s plea echoes the one made 90 years ago in Compton Mackenzie’s editorial: “Now, who will volunteer for this noble but arduous task?”

Agustín Gurza

 

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Artist Biography: Rita Vidaurri, Treasure of San Antonio

Until her recent death, singer Rita Vidaurri (1924–2019) stood as the last surviving star of what is considered a Golden Age of female vocalists from San Antonio, during the 1930s and ’40s. Like her contemporaries Eva Garza (1917-1966), Rosita Fernandez (1919-2006), and Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007), Vidaurri relied on the Alamo City’s vibrant Mexican-American music scene to launch an international career, sharing world stages with superstars such as Nat “King” Cole, Pedro Infante, and Celia Cruz.

            After a lengthy interruption to raise her four children, Vidaurri resumed performing at the start of the new millennium, enjoying a sensational comeback that capped a career spanning eight decades. The veteran vocalist died in her hometown on January 16 of this year. She was 94.

            On stage, Vidaurri projected a self-assured persona, bantering with the audience, making wisecracks, and telling slightly bawdy jokes. Yet, her professional exterior masked a life of hardship and struggle. She fought to overcome shyness as a child and machismo throughout her life. Most tragically, she endured the death of three grown sons and suffered bouts of depression and illness over the years.

            Yet, Vidaurri never stopped singing.

            “Performing was always the best medicine for Rita,” says Tejano music historian and collector Ramón Hernández. “She ranks with the all-time greats and still hasn’t received all the recognition she deserves.”

 

Early Years in San Antonio

 

            Rita Vidaurri Castillo was born May 24, 1924, in a humble home on Montezuma Street in San Antonio’s West Side barrio, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country.  She was named for a 15th century Italian saint, Rita of Cascia, known as Patroness of Impossible Causes, and protector of abused, heartbroken women.

             Her father, Juan Vidaurri, was born in the town of Musquiz, Coahuila, not far from the Mexican border with Texas. As a boy, he came to the United States with his family, joining a wave of migrants trying to escape the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

            Having settled in Texas by the early 1920s, Juan Vidaurri met and married Maria de Jesus “Jesusita” Castillo, a San Antonio native. Jesusita was just 16 when Rita, the first of her three children, was born; her husband was 19.

             The elder Vidaurri was a mechanic who did auto repairs in the back of his home. He also owned and operated small barrio businesses—a gas station, a boxing ring, and a cantina. In his later years, he became known for his civic activism, turning his home into an ad hoc community center and political headquarters. Nicknamed “El Viejito,” he became well connected in Texas state political circles, and in 1977, San Antonio named a neighborhood park in his honor.

            Initially, Juan Vidaurri did not approve of his daughter’s flirtation with show business. It was her mother who nurtured young Rita’s musical talent.

            The girl’s destiny in music was presaged by a local man who picked up trash and bottles in the neighborhood but who was also considered a fortune teller. The barrio character heard the girl singing when he’d pass the Vidaurri household, and he gave her mother sage advice.

            “Let her sing if she wants to sing,” the man said. “She’s going to be something big.”

            Jesusita, who worked as a house cleaner, took the prediction seriously. She arranged for a neighborhood boy to teach her daughter guitar at 50 cents a lesson. And behind her husband’s back, she started taking the girl downtown for the amateur talent competitions at the Teatro Nacional, a cultural hub of the city’s Mexican American community.

            Rita, still in her pre-teen years, had to overcome her childhood shyness to perform. The aspiring vocalist tried to emulate popular singers from San Antonio, particularly Eva Garza and the renowned Lydia Mendoza, who had also competed in singing contests at the same venue.

            The effort paid off. For 18 consecutive weeks, the young singer won first place in the amateur shows, taking home the five-dollar prize. Word of her success inevitably got back to her father, who “blew his top,” Rita once recalled.

            One day, Mr. Vidaurri went to see for himself what all the fuss was about.

            “My mother didn’t know that my father was in the audience,” Rita Vidaurri said in a 2010 interview with the magazine Latino USA. “But afterwards, when they placed the envelope over my head and said, ‘the winner,’ he liked hearing the audience applauding for me.”

            Dad was not the only one who was impressed. Two top Mexican stars—comedian Cantinflas and composer Lorenzo Barcelata—also saw the girl perform at the San Antonio talent shows in the early 1940s, and would soon play separate roles in jump-starting her professional career. Meanwhile, Rita’s mother kept scouting local opportunities for her daughter to perform, often walking her to the various venues.

            Before long, Rita was banned from the weekly talent shows she had come to dominate because organizers wanted to give other girls a chance to win. The young vocalist went on to find new audiences at the carpas—the vaudeville-style, travelling tent shows, such as Carpa García and La Carpa Cubana, that were popular among working-class Mexican Americans of that era. She also performed for workers at the hundreds of nuecerías, or pecan-shelling operations, that flourished in San Antonio during the Great Depression. Like a roving  troubadour, the girl collected nickels and pennies in a can as she sang.

            In addition, Rita kept winning competitions, including one sponsored by H&H Coffee, a local roaster. The prize paid $50, a Depression-era bonanza worth almost $900 today.

            In the mid-1930s, Rita started performing with her younger sister, Enriqueta, touring small Texas towns as Las Hermanitas Vidaurri. It was a decade when female duets, such as Las Hermanas Padilla and Las Hermanas Mendoza (Lydia Mendoza’s sisters) had become widely popular.

            In 1938, Rita and Enriqueta Vidaurri made their first recording in a local furniture store, where records were commonly sold in those days. The session produced two tracks, “Alma Angelina” and “Atotonilco,” which, according to several accounts, were released on Bluebird Records, RCA’s respected budget label specializing in blues and jazz.

            However, the Bluebird 78-rpm single in the Frontera Collection features only one of those songs, “Alma Angelina,” with a different song, “No Me Abandones,” on the flip side. The label bills the sisters as Rita y Queta, accompanied on the first song by orchestra, and by accordion and guitars on the other.

            Their royalties came in the form of barter: The sisters were paid in furniture, for their mother.

            Sadly, Jesusita Vidaurri did not live to witness her daughter’s ultimate success. She died of tuberculosis in 1939, at the age of 31. Rita was just 15 at the time, and the loss forced her to grow up quickly. As the oldest child, Rita assumed responsibility for the care of her sister and their brother, Juan.

            “I was the one with the load to carry,” she said in a 2013 interview with journalist Hector Saldaña, published in the San Antonio News-Express on the occasion of her 89th birthday. “My mother made me promise to take care of them. My sister got married real young, and I was stuck with my father and my little brother.”

            It was a big challenge for a teenager: working to help support the family while continuing her education and still pursuing performance opportunities. At various times, Rita picked cotton as a farmworker, helped as a mechanic in her father’s garage, and got a job as a weapons inspector in a military arsenal. She also worked at her father’s gas station and, in her desire to please him, found time to play softball and take up boxing. “He treated me like a boy,” she told the newspaper.

            By now, however, Juan Vidaurri no longer objected to his daughter’s musical ambitions. In the early 1940s, Rita’s voice was on the radio in San Antonio, broadcast from the Teatro Nacional on La Hora Anahuac, a popular show sponsored by another local business, Davila Glass Works, and aired on English-language station KABC.

            In 1942, the year Rita turned 18, she was among the first artists to perform at the new Guadalupe Theater, built on the site of her father’s gas station.

            As she entered adulthood, Rita Vidaurri, the shy girl from the humble barrio, was on the verge of international stardom.

 

A Star Is Born

 

            For a fledging singer from San Antonio in the mid-20th century, the quickest road to stardom went through Mexico. And in the Mexican music industry of that era, all roads led to the capital.

            Rita Vidaurri’s first stop on her professional ascent was Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, a provincial capital that was emerging as a regional powerhouse for Mexican music.

            The singer, accompanied by her now supportive father, performed on Monterrey’s popular radio station XEMR, and landed a gig at El Parthenon, one of the city’s top nightclubs where the emcee was Lalo Gonzalez, the comical norteño singer nicknamed El Piporro.

            Vidaurri’s short, six-month stay in Monterrey had an immediate impact. Listeners were drawn to her commanding voice, described in her own words as “low but real loud.”

            “The keys I sing in are the keys of the man,” she told the News-Express.

            Vidaurri then took on her biggest career challenge: making her mark in Mexico City, the entertainment capital of Latin America at the time.

            Cantinflas, one of Mexico’s biggest movie stars, became one of the young singer’s early advocates. In 1944, when she was 19, the comedian urged Juan Vidaurri to take his daughter to the Mexican capital to advance her career. The comedian personally signed a note of endorsement that helped the novice singer circumvent Mexican union requirements, allowing her to perform “and they wouldn’t bother me,” as Vidaurri explained in a 2011 interview for the PBS program, Conversations.

            Lorenzo Barcelata, the famed actor, singer, and songwriter from Veracruz, became another early champion. The popular composer also carried clout, having shot to international fame with his most popular tune, “Maria Elena,” featured in the 1932 film Bordertown, starring Bette Davis. Barcelata’s other signature song, “El Cascabel,” was among the musical works launched into outer space on the Voyager Golden Record, as a sample of human creativity.

            Barcelata gave Vidaurri his personal, autographed guitar, as well as her lifelong nickname, La Calandria (The Lark), according to a 2014 profile in La Voz de Esperanza, a monthly by the non-profit Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which would help spark the singer’s late-life revival.

            Once in Mexico City, Vidaurri’s career continued to get a boost from key show business figures.

            With the help of another famous comedian, Germán (“Tin Tan”) Valdés, she found her name on the marquis of El Patio, the upscale supper club that featured the biggest names in Latin American music. She was billed as “La Última Sensación en Ranchera,” sharing the stage with stars of the caliber of Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, Pedro Vargas, Toña La Negra, Antonio Aguilar, and Lucho Gatica.

            Vidaurri consolidated her new celebrity with forays into film and radio. Stunningly, she landed her own late-night program on XEW, Mexico City’s influential broadcast station, owned by media mogul Emilio Escárraga. The station had such far-reaching influence that it billed itself as "La Voz de la América Latina desde México."

            Like many singing stars of her day, Vidaurri also reportedly appeared in several musical films, although IMDb, the International Movie Database, does not list her Mexican movie credits on its website.

            After World War II, Vidaurri’s career took off internationally. She toured throughout Central and South America. She famously performed in Cuba with the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, and the Queen of the Bolero, Olga Guillot. In New York, she appeared with Trio Los Panchos and Eydie Gorme, one of the hottest international acts at the time.

            Ironically, the more famous she became and the more time she spent on tour, the more her star began to fade back home. Still, Vidaurri continued to perform and record in her hometown and throughout Texas. She played a historic role in the infancy of television in San Antonio, featured as an artist on KEYL-TV’s Spanish Varieties, “the first regularly scheduled foreign language television show in Spanish,” according to a 1951 article in Billboard Magazine. Her TV appearance was promoted as “the Villareal Brothers, with their vocalist Rita Vidaurri, who do ranchero type songs.”

            By the mid-1950s, Vidaurri had made scores of recordings for Norteño, the local label founded by renowned musician and businessman José Morante. The Frontera archive contains 10 songs on five discs, all Norteño 45s, including one side featuring a duet, Rita Vidaurri Y Chicho.

            Vidaurri has some three dozen recordings in the archive in a variety of styles, as a duo or solo act, most on South Texas labels. They include popular numbers such as “San Antonio Hermoso,” “Sacrificio,” “El Dinero Vale Nada,” “La Mula Bronca,” “La Esposa Del Caminante,” and “Asi Pago Yo,” the latter co-written by Chucho Navarro of Los Panchos and Mario Moreno “Cantinflas.” On some of her Falcon Records sides, Vidaurri is accompanied by pioneering conjunto leader Pedro Ayala, “El Monarca del Acordeón.”

            The collection also contains several songs written or co-written by the singer, including all 12 tracks she recorded with her sister, as the duo Rita y Queta, for the Bluebird label. Other Vidaurri songwriting credits include “Por Que Señor,” with Trio Los Bohemios, and “Lejos de Ti,” a Fox by the duo Rita y Pepe, with Manuelillo Guerrero’s slightly jazzy accordion, on San Antonio’s Corona label.

            When it came to promotion, Vidaurri took advantage of an all-American business strategy: capitalizing on her celebrity and good looks.

            She won a “bathing suit and legs contest” in 1946, according to the profile by Hernández. And a decade later, her glamorous image was featured on a poster for Jax Beer, a major regional brand in those days. She was paid $500 to serve as the beer’s Mexican-American poster girl, christened La Belleza Morena de Tejas, the dark-skinned beauty of Texas.

            The 1957 photo of Vidaurri, shot in New York, was a big hit. Soon, writes Hernández, “her image graced the walls of every place that sold Jax Beer in the United States.” That included the Linda Vista, Juan Vidaurri’s bar on Commerce Street in the West Side barrio, which displayed his daughter’s poster with pride.

            It was proof that Rita Vidaurri had arrived. She had won not only fame, but also her father’s approval.

 

Personal Tragedies

 

            Vidaurri’s professional success could not shield her from the pain of her personal life.

            Twice married and twice divorced, she had a total of four children with three men, starting with twins born out of wedlock when she was 23. Her second spouse was abusive. Her third compelled her to abandon her career and become a housewife.

            Her deepest wound was the loss of her three sons, who all died as young adults of different causes, at different times. Her eldest son, Leo, who earned three Purple Hearts in Vietnam, died as a result of exposure to Agent Orange during the war, according to Linda Alvarado, his twin sister and Vidaurri’s only surviving child. In a phone interview, Alvarado said her middle brother, Rogelio, also a veteran, died in an accident involving an 18-wheeler. And her baby brother, Eddie, was just 21 when he was stabbed during a dispute with his brother-in-law.

            Until the day she died, Vidaurri carried in her purse the laminated photos of her three deceased sons, according to Saldaña’s obituary. One of her records, “Hijo Mio,” featured the voice of her second son Rogelio as a child.

            Vidaurri was 31 in 1955 when she married Hillman Edward Eden, who was her manager and 20 years her senior. Seven years later, their son Eddie was born. According to Alvarado, Eden demanded Rita quit show business to take care of the children. The singer was reluctant to sacrifice the career she had worked so hard to build. But, as Vidaurri herself told PBS, she agreed because she considered her husband a good father, “and my children loved him.”

            The couple divorced and Eden, a World War II veteran, died of a heart attack in 1964. At 40, Vidaurri was left a single mother with four children and no means of support. She had retired from singing and remained absent from public view for the rest of the century, using her husband’s surname and living alone in a modest house. In the early 1990s, her father died at age 85. The loss added to her loneliness and sense of isolation.

            All her success, all the recording and touring, had left nothing to secure her future.

              “Back then, they would pay you 20 dollars to record a song, and that was it,” Vidaurri recalled in the Latino USA interview nine years ago.  “We were stars at the wrong time.”

 

Never Too Late for a Comeback

 

            When she re-emerged to sing again in San Antonio, a new millennium had just begun. Local fans were shocked to see her, because they thought she had died or moved to Mexico.

            Vidaurri’s late-life revival didn’t happen by chance. The task of resurrecting her career fell to Graciela I. Sánchez, director of the Peace and Justice Center. Around 1999, Sanchez had read an article about two singers from the Golden Age of female Tejana stars, Rita Vidaurri and Rosita Fernández. She was moved by their stories.

            “These once beautiful stars had been forgotten by San Antonio and the world,” said Sanchez in remarks at Vidaurri’s memorial service. “They felt abandoned. They wanted and needed people to remember them. They wanted to be back on stage, or at least Rita did.”

            For months, Sanchez vainly tried to track down the retired singer, who was still using her married name, Eden. Then, in 2001, a mystery woman showed up at a tribute to Tejana icon Lydia Mendoza, in honor of her 85th birthday. The older woman, with a distinctive swath of gray hair atop her forehead, seemed to come “out of nowhere,” recalled Sanchez, whose center sponsored the event at downtown’s Plaza de Zacate.

            “I’m Rita Eden,” the woman said.

            Stunned, Sanchez gave the singer a big hug, and invited her on stage. The 77-year-old performer belted out a rousing version of the classic ranchera, “Los Laureles,” dedicated to Mendoza, who happened to be her comadre. The crowd erupted, “screaming and hollering,” as Vidaurri recalls. Afterwards, fans swarmed to greet her, thrilled to see her after so many years.

            Sanchez then asked if Vidaurri wanted to resume her singing career.

            “I guess so,” she said. “I don’t have Mr. Eden to stop me anymore.”

            Thus began an unexpected comeback for Rita Vidaurri, one that would last almost two decades, until her death.

            At the time, Vidaurri was working as a home health-care aid to make ends meet. The non-profit eventually bought her a guitar, a microphone, and a speaker for when she performed at senior centers and nursing homes.

            The Esperanza Center also organized her concerts, and helped produce her new recordings. In 2004, the center celebrated Vidaurri’s 80th birthday with a show at Plaza Guadalupe, which drew hundreds, including an aging Rosita Fernandez who would pass away two years later at 88.

            In conjunction with the celebration, the octogenarian released a new CD, La Calandria. It was produced with a generous assist from San Antonio music legend, the late Salomé Gutierrez, owner of another West Side cultural institution, Del Bravo Record Shop. At the time of the CD release, Vidaurri vowed it would be her last.

            That prediction turned out to be a full decade premature.

            Ten years later, she marked her 90th birthday with another album, Celebrando 90 Años. And she was feted with another tribute concert, again produced by the Esperanza Center. It was held May 23, 2014, at the Guadalupe Theater, where she had performed as a teenager seven decades earlier.

            The year before, the busy singer drew rave reviews for her appearance at the unveiling of a commemorative stamp honoring Lydia Mendoza, also held at the Guadalupe Theater. Saldaña called it a “show-stopping, scene-stealing performance,” in an article echoing a Beatles song with the title, “S.A.'s Lovely Rita turns 89.”

            The culmination of her comeback, however, came as part of a vocal quartet that brought together other women of her era, all from San Antonio. The nostalgia group became the hottest sensation on the local music scene in years.

            They called themselves Las Tesoros de San Antonio, an ensemble created in 2006. Aside from Rita Vidaurri (La Calandria), they included Blanca Rodriguez (Blanca Rosa), Beatriz Llamas (La Paloma del Norte), and Janet Cortez (Perla Tapatía), who sadly died of throat and lung cancer in 2014, at age 83.

            Despite the loss, Las Tesoros continued to perform as a trio. They issued a CD in 2017, Qué Cosa Es el Amor, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Esperanza Center, which engineered their comeback. Their story was also featured in a 2016 documentary by filmmaker Jorge Sandoval, Las Tesoros de San Antonio: A Westside Story, which debuted at the Mission Marque Plaza, site of the old Mission Drive-In Theatre in south San Antonio.

            “Rita was the oldest, the strong-willed matriarch, the grand dame (of the group). Her resurgence was a reminder that she had long been a symbol of female empowerment, independence—and perseverance,” wrote Saldaña, who is now curator of the Texas Music Collection at Texas State University.

            Vidaurri was honored both before and after her death. She was inducted into the National Hispanic Music Hall of Fame in 2004. Five years later, she was invited by San Antonio’s Trinity University to participate in the music department’s Legends of Texas Border Music series, which pairs guest scholars with “prominent musicians” from South Texas.

            U.S. Representative Joaquín Castro of Texas paid tribute to the late singer in a floor speech on January 31, 2019.  The congressman, twin brother of 2020 presidential candidate Julian Castro, called her “a pillar in our San Antonio community” and a role model for “the countless aspiring singers who look to her as a beacon of possibility.”

            In her later years, Vidaurri suffered from diabetes, had three heart attacks, and underwent a quadruple bypass. Toward the end, her daughter said, people urged her mother to slow down for health reasons. But Rita wouldn’t hear of it.

            Vidaurri’s last formal public performance took place at the Esperanza Center on November 1, 2018, with Las Tesoros. But informally, she appeared religiously every Tuesday and Thursday morning at a San Antonio restaurant called Flor de Chiapas. A corner booth was always reserved for her and a small group of fellow musicians who gathered for the friendly sing-alongs. Vidaurri attended until she was literally too sick to make it.

            In her last days in hospice care, some of those same musicians brought the serenade to Vidaurri’s bedside. As they sang some favorite tunes, the ailing artist managed a smile and tried to whisper words with her last breath.

            "She moved her mouth like she wanted to sing along with them," Alvarado recalled in a local TV interview. "And everybody just started crying."

In that moment, Rita Vidaurri Eden fulfilled her final wish.

          "When I die,” she would say, “I'm going to die singing."

– Agustín Gurza

 

 

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The Recordings of Tito Puente: Spanning Genres and Generations

There are only a handful of musicians whose careers have encompassed a half century in the evolution of recorded sound, from 78-rpm discs to digital streaming and downloads. One of them is Tito Puente, the versatile bandleader, percussionist, composer, arranger, and vibraphonist. Born in New York of blue-collar Puerto Rican parents, Puente debuted as bandleader during the thrilling mambo era of the 1950s and was actively touring and recording fifty years later, still a star in the new millennium.

            Last month marked the 17th anniversary of Puente’s death, on May 31, 2000. El Rey del Timbal, as he was affectionately nicknamed, was 77 and performed on stage the week before he passed away. Because Puente enjoyed such a long and fruitful career, he had the chance to record some songs multiple times, years apart.

            Puente was known for his work in Afro-Cuban music, Latin jazz and straight-up salsa. Those are not the genres most closely associated with the Frontera Collection, which specializes in Mexican and Mexican-American music. Still, Puente’s work is amply represented in the archive, especially on 78s, because from the start of his career he recorded on major labels that got scooped up, fortuitously, in large acquisitions.   

            A search of the Frontera Collection yields more than 150 recordings by Puente, on 78s, 45s, LPs, and cassettes. The most valuable are the 78s, which number about 100. They are mostly on RCA and Tico Records, the pioneering independent Latin label founded in 1948 by George Goldner. In 2008, a complete collection of those Tico 78s was released in a 4-volume set of eight CDs, featuring a total of 156 tracks originally released between 1949 and 1955.

            In his liner notes to the collection, Joe Conzo, described as Puente’s confidante and chronicler, recalls his friend as a child prodigy in Spanish Harlem, excelling as a dancer, singing in a barber shop quartet, and learning to play sax and marimba, in addition to percussion.  These recordings, he adds, “showcase the true genius of Tito Puente” as “creator of a sound that became popular all over the world.” They also show how Puente surrounded himself with musicians who would go on to become stars in their own right, including Mongo Santamaria,

Charlie Palmieri, Willie Bobo, and Mario Bauzá.

            Though not as exhaustive as the definitive Tico compilation, the Frontera Collection offers a substantial view into the formative years of one of the leading Latin artists of the 20th century. Following are some of the highlights, described with a little help from my friend Alan Geik, a Grammy-nominated record producer and pioneering salsa deejay in Los Angeles. Geik recalls the first time he saw Puente perform at New York’s famed Palladium Ballroom, circa 1962. “The venue was exciting in so many ways,” says Geik who was a student at City College of New York at the time. “A few of the numbers Puente played would get dancers to their feet on the first notes–everybody knew the songs!”

Los Diablos del Mambo and/or The Picadilly Boys

            “Arthur Murray Rumba” (SMC Pro-Arte 1234) is one of the oldest and rarest Puente tracks in the collection, though it does not come up in a search by the musician’s name. That’s because the recording is credited to a group called Los Diablos del Mambo, or the Mambo Devils. Released on the SMC (Spanish Music Center) label, the disc identifies Puente as the composer and band director.

            So who are the Mambo Devils?

            Curiously, Oxnard musician, Latin jazz deejay, and record collector Raul Rico posted this same track on his YouTube page, with the band identified as Tito Puente and his Picadilly Boys, not Los Diablos del Mambo. But it’s most likely the same band under two different names.

            The recording was released June 1, 1949, according to Rico’s post. Around that same year, Puente became a bandleader for the first time. He was hired to play Sunday matinees at the Palladium by promoter Federico Pagani, who helped turn the Manhattan ballroom into a showcase for Puente and other famed bandleaders during the 1950s mambo craze. It was Pagani who dubbed the band The Picadilly Boys, according to the book Recordando a Tito Puente, El Rey del Timbal, by UCLA ethnomusicology professor Steven Loza.  Puente formed The Picadilly Boys with former members of a group led by Cuban bandleader Pupi Campo, some of whom are credited in the YouTube video. Unfortunately, the record label does not identify the members of the Mambo Devils, with the exception of “trumpet solo by Chino.” That’s most likely a reference to Chino Gonzalez, identified as second trumpet in The Picadilly Boys. So, Chino’s trumpet ties the two bands together.

            Coincidentally, the “Arthur Murray Rumba” is also identified by two different names. Rico’s video subtitles the track: “aka Picadillo,” the tile of a famous Puente hit. The Frontera Collection contains a version of Picadillo on RCA Victor, by Tito Puente (El Rey del Timbal) y Su Conjunto. In her book Tito Puente: When the Drums Are Dreaming, author Josephine Powell reports that Arthur Murray himself commissioned the song from Puente, who frequently performed at the Park Avenue studio owned by the famed ballroom dance instructor. “Mr. Murray wanted to record an album of mambos with dance instructions on the backside,” she writes. “Tito merely changed the title of “Picadillo” … and included the number in the album Arthur Murray Mambos.

            The songs sound very similar, though they vary in significant ways as well. “Picadillo” has become a standard of the Latin jazz and salsa repertoire. The Fania All Stars, at the peak of their popularity in 1976, recorded this extended album version featuring the electric guitar of Stevie Winwood. And Puente, on his very last album, a collaboration with pianist Eddie Palmieri titled Masterpeice/Obra Maestra (2000), revisited the song with a jazzy, descarga treatment titled “Picadillo Jam.”

Cuban Carnival

            Cuban Carnival is the title of Puente’s first RCA LP, released in 1956. The bandleader wrote eight of the eleven songs on the album, including a couple of hits that would become hallmarks of his career. Interestingly, the original liner notes were written by Richard Joseph, then travel editor at Esquire Magazine, a reflection of how Americans at the time saw music as a vehicle for discovery of other cultures (though Puente’s music flourished in their own backyard). The Frontera version of this album is, lamentably, a re-issue on Cariño Records, a mid-priced label used for recycled RCA material, distributed in the United States by Caytronics, the major domestic licensee of Latin music in the 1970s and ’80s.

            Three tracks from the album are especially notable:

             “Guaguanco Margarito” is an Afro-Cuban number with underlying santería themes. “It’s always been one of my favorites,” says Geik. “The breaks in the music were made for the dancers of the 1950s who, unlike many of today’s dancers, actually paid attention to the music and appreciated the breaks for their mambo ‘stylings.’ Those breaks were the musical impetus on the dance floor.”

            Puente recorded a fresh rendition of the song in his penultimate album “Mambo Birdland,” a live set which won a Grammy in 2000, the year he died. The arrangement is updated and the singer takes the liberty of changing the lyric in the opening line. Instead of addressing the Margarito of the title, he sings, “A ti te gusta la rumba, Tito Puente, y a mi me gusta el bembé.” You can hear and compare the new version on this YouTube clip.

            "Elegua Chango" is another track inspired by Afro-Cuban religion, named for two important deities. It’s an old rumba that shows how the rhythms of religious rituals informed the popular, secular music we later called salsa. This track also highlights Puente’s arranging skills, bringing a brassy jazz sensibility to the traditional folk idiom.

            The final track from the album I want to mention will be familiar to many fans of Latin music around the world. It’s titled “Pa’ Los Rumberos” and, as we shall see in the next section, it is one of two Puente songs that drew a link between New York’s glitzy Latin dance scene of the 1950s and the politicized Latin rock scene in San Francisco of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

The Santana Connection

            Two of Tito Puente’s most famous songs, both from the mid-1950s, became hits for Latin rock star Carlos Santana almost two decades later. “Oye Como Va” is undoubtedly Puente’s biggest hit, recorded in 1963 with smooth Puerto Rican crooner Santos Colon on vocals. In 1971, this cha-cha-cha became a Top 20 hit for Santana, when it was released as a single from his second album, Abraxas. The following year, Santana recorded “Pa‘ Los Rumberos,” the second Puente tune which he turned into a crossover hit.

            Most people, it’s safe to say, still don’t know that Puente wrote both songs. Geik recalls asking Puente what he thought of Santana’s version of “Rumberos,” and in a wisecracking reference to the steady flow of royalty checks, the musician said, “Every time I open the mailbox, I love it."

            Unfortunately, the Frontera versions of the tunes are unremarkable. Santana’s “Oye Como Va” is on a scratchy 45-rpm single (Columbia 4-45330), with terrible sound quality. Puente’s version of his signature hit is from that Cariño Records re-issue. The collection also has a clunky, Tex-Mex version of the song by Augustine Ramirez, which only makes you pine for Puente’s rhythm and Santana’s guitar.

            Puente re-recorded “Oye Como Va” also for that last live album from 1999, tipping his hat to Santana in his introduction. I also found a live video of the number, billed as his final performance, in which singer Jose Alberto amazingly whistles the flute part. The song remained essentially the same after almost 50 years. The big difference between Puente’s earlier and later versions, says Geik, is in the recording quality, which saw a big evolution between mid-century and new millennium, the bookends of Puente’s career.

The Celia Cruz Decade

            While Santana was busy churning out Puente hits on the West Coast, Puente was busy in New York making records with a new singer who had recently arrived from Cuba, via Mexico: Celia Cruz. The pair made several albums during the 1960s, but a big hit eluded them. Celia eventually moved back to Mexico, but she emerged again in New York during the salsa boom of the 1970s, this time as the newly crowned Queen of Salsa.

            The Frontera Collection has just four tracks by Celia from her Puente period and they are worth only a passing mention. Both are Tico 45-rpm singles: “En El Batey” backed by “Aquarius - Let the Sun Shine In” (1969), and “La Plena – Bomba Me Llama” backed by “La Rueda” (1966). The latter disc was co-produced by two top New York Latin producers of the day, Pancho Cristal and Al Santiago.

Puente, The Arranger: A Bridge to Other Styles

            Puente, born and raised in Spanish Harlem, also known as El Barrio, started music studies at an early age. His mother enrolled him in piano lessons at the New York School of Music, according to Conzo’s liner notes. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he attended Julliard School of Music on the GI Bill, studying orchestration, conducting and theory. The formal training gave him the versatility to work in a variety of musical styles, especially jazz and adaptations of American pop standards.

            Puente maneuvered easily out of his mambo comfort zone. Just listen to the exquisitely tailored orchestral arrangement for the bolero “Yo Quiero Verte,” by the vocal duet of Johnny Lopez and Alicia De Cordova. It is subtle and supportive of the singers during the verses, but turns dramatic during an instrumental break, with dissonant notes and changes in rhythm. He also does a nice job with the traditional Mexican standard “A la Orilla de Un Palmar,” on the flip side of the duo’s Tico 78. Again, Puente’s non-traditional jazz touches stand out during the instrumental break as well as the striking string flourishes at the very end. The arranger also offers an up-tempo, tropical adaptation of the traditional Mexican folk song, “Pénjamo,” by Rubén Méndez, with a playful, Mexican-hat-dance ending.

            Though the term was not popularly used at the time, crossover was common among the big Latin bands in the 1940s and ’50s. Sometimes Latin bandleaders recorded American pop tunes, as Geik notes, “under pressure from their record labels who wanted to expand beyond the largely Latin audiences of that era.” A good example: “How High The Moon,” recorded by Pupi Campo’s orchestra with a Puente arrangement. The 78 disc was released by Seeco Records which, as Geik obvserves, “was named for owner Sidney Siegel, a Jewish businessman who had a building in Spanish Harlem and made the storefront a record store.”

            But it wasn’t just record label pressure that drove the crossover. Musicians of different genres mixed naturally in New York. Conzo points out that during his stint in the Navy, Puente met many musicians who played for the bands of Benny Goodman, Charlie Spivak and others. So musicians naturally swapped genres.

            Here are a few other examples of Puente’s crossover work:

“I Get a Kick Out of You” (Tico 10-156)

            Written by Cole Porter and performed as an instrumental mambo by Tito  Puente and His Rhythm Sextette, with Puente on sparkling vibes. The Tico  logo on the label features a banner inscribed with one of Puente’s titles: “El Rey del Mambo.”

“Autumn Leaves” (Tico 10-155)

            Another instrumental mambo, with Puente again carrying the melody on vibes. This time, he’s leading his Rhythm Quartette.  Listen for the unusual ending.

“My Funny Valentine” (Tico 10-276)

            Puente does an instrumental rendition of the Rodgers and Hart classic, this time with a full orchestra. The label gives him yet another title: “King of the Cha Cha Mambo.”

“All of You” (Tico 10-256)

            Another Cole Porter standard gets the instrumental mambo treatment, with Puente on vibes. The song, as the label notes, is “From the B’way Show ‘Silk Stockings.’ ”

“Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” (Tico 10-256)

This was a crossover smash for Perez Prado, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1955. It topped Billboard’s year-end chart of Top 30 singles that same year, beating Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” at No. 2. Puente’s arrangement is more relaxed, less brassy than Prado’s. Instead of using trumpet, Puente gets a sweeter melody on what sounds to me like a clarinet.

More Puente Classics from the Frontera Collection

El Rey del Timbal (Tico 10-109A)

            “This is one of Tito’s signature numbers,” says Geik. “He played it throughout his long career. It is an interaction between him playing timbales and the rest of the band, a very high intensity number. When the song ended Tito would  often say, ‘This proves the band rehearses.’ ” The vocal is by Vicentico Valdes.

Mambo Macoco and Abaniquito (Tico 1012)

            In his liner notes, Conzo identifies “Abaniquito” as Puente’s first big hit, though it was the B-Side of this Tico 78. The lead vocal is again by Vicentico Valdes, who later had a long solo career. It also features Mario Bauza, of Machito fame, on trumpet, and Graciela singing coros.

Mama Ines (RCA Victor 20-6417)

            Puente jazzes up this old Cuban standard written by Moises Simon, who also composed the crossover classic “El Manisero” (The Peanut Vendor). Puente adds multiple time changes to take the song through a series of rhythms, from mambo to cha-cha-cha to merengue.

Lágrimas Negras (RCA Victor 23-5117)

            This is another old Cuban standard written in 1929 by one of the fathers of the Cuban son, Miguel Matamoros. It has been recorded countless times by myriad artists, from Panama’s Rubén Blades to Spain’s flamenco star Diego El Cigala. On this RCA version, a bolero mambo, Puente is credited as vocalist   along with Hermanos Valdés.

Ariñañara (RCA Victor 23-5117)

            A Puente perennial written by Chano Pozo, one of the pioneers of Latin jazz. Vocals again are credited to Hermanos Valdés.

Ran Kan Kan (RCA 23-1470)

            A favorite of dancers at salsa dance competitions, this is another Puente  classic, identified as a son montuno. Puente is billed on the label as El Rey del Timbal y Su Conjunto.

Cuban Nightingale (Tico 10-126)

            This is one more standard from the incredibly rich Afro-Cuban catalog. The song, known in Spanish as “Sun Sun Babae,” was written by Rogelio Martinez of Cuba’s seminal salsa band La Sonora Matancera, where Celia Cruz got her start.  Frontera has a wonderful version of the tune by Ramón Márquez and his orchestra on Coast Records. Puente’s recording is notable because it features bilingual vocals by the DeCastro Sisters, a trio nicknamed the Cuban Andrews Sisters.

Babalagua (Tico TR-145)

            This Afro-Mambo, written by Pepe Delgado, is most notable for the extraordinary Afro-Cuban vocal by Bobby Escoto, who did a short stint as one of Puente’s early singers.

Hot Tomales (Tico 10-248)

            This favorite Cuban cha-cha-cha was written by a famed Cuban bandleader and flautist named Jose Antonio Fajardo, who moved to New York in 1961. The tune, first popularized by Orquesta Aragon, is originally titled “Los Tamalitos de Olga,” ostensibly about a street vendor of tasty tamales, though I suspect it has a sexual double-entendre.  Aside from the nice flute work,    Puente’s track is most notable for the misspelling of the title on the label – twice. It’s not “Toe-males,” but tamales. The subtitle also gets it wrong, turning Olga’s “tamalitos” into more “tomales.” To top it off, the Tico people misspelled the composer’s name as “Fasardo,” instead of Fajardo. As these things go, these errors probably make this disc more valuable to collectors.

                                                                                           --Agustín Gurza

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Panart Cuban Label

One of the secret treasures of the Frontera Collection is the amount of vintage Cuban music it contains. Among the most popular and longest lived bands is La Sonora Matancera, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. There are some 140 discs in the archives, mostly old 78s, by the iconic Afro-Cuban conjunto, founded in 1924 in the province of Matanzas. However, not all the titles are credited to the band itself. That’s because the group featured so many big-name vocalists who became popular solo artists and are listed separately.

By far, the best known of these star singers is the late Celia Cruz, who launched her career in Cuba in the 1950s as La Matancera’s lead singer, before going on to become a superstar of the salsa boom in New York two decades later.

Other big-name Matancera vocalists whose recordings are featured in the Frontera archives include Miguelito Valdez and a pair of famed Puerto Rican singers, Daniel Santos and Bobby Capó. Most of the tracks were recorded in Cuba and a few were released on multi-national labels such as RCA Victor. The vast majority of the Matancera 78s, however, appeared on the New York-based Seeco label, one of the largest independent Latin labels of its day, founded by former jeweler Sydney Siegel. According to a band bio, La Sonora Matancera signed a recording deal with Seeco in 1949, more than a decade before it left its homeland, along with Celia Cruz, as a result of the Cuban Revolution. The band continued to record for the label in the 1960s, when the label gave way to New York salsa upstarts like Fania Records.

Veteran collectors, however, will be most interested in the Matancera discs on Panart, the classic independent label operating in Havana before the Revolution. The records feature two different label designs, with different lettering and coloring. But they both have the distinctive, bilingual identifier that makes them especially valuable: “Hecho en Cuba Por La Cuban Plastics and Record Corp.” After the Revolution, copies of the Panart catalog were released by Cuban exiles in Miami, but the originals remain the sought-after items.

Like many of the great bands in Latin music, La Sonora Matancera became an institution. It survived even after the death in 2001 of Rogelio Martinez, who had joined the band in the 1920s and had been its director for more than five decades. The latest incarnation of the venerable act is based in Las Vegas and led by pianist Javier Vazquez, another legendary figure in salsa music, who has been the band’s principal arranger since 1957.

-AgustÍn Gurza

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