CeliaCruz / News

Johnny Pacheco was La Salsa!

By Editors / newyorklatinculture.com – February 16, 2021

Johnny Pacheco (1935-2021) was an important New York Dominican salsa musician who co-founded Fania Records, and led the Fania All-Stars to international fame. He helped make people proud to be Latin in the United States.

“Compadre Pedro Juan, baile el jaleo…” “Baile el jaleo” is an old Spanish flamenco expression that means to dance with great passion like we do among family and friends.

La Salsa is New York Music

Johnny Pacheco popularized the term “salsa” which is now commonly used to describe Caribbean or even Latin music. But in its tightest definition, salsa dura (hard salsa) is the music of Johnny Pacheco and the now legendary artists from all over the Caribbean who worked with him in 1970s New York City.

The Caribbean is not only the islands. It includes Panama, Colombia, Venezuela; Guayana, Suriname and French Guiana; and the Caribbean coasts of Central America, including Veracruz, Mexico and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Pacheco was a great musician himself, but also brought out the best in the artists he worked with like: Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, Larry Harlow, Bobby Valentín, Ray Barretto, Papo Lucca (La Sonora Ponceña) and so many others. They are the legends of salsa.

Salsa really is a New York music. The two leading producers of the era were Tito Puente and Johnny Pacheco. Some artists like Celia Cruz worked with both, first with Puente at Tico Records and then with Pacheco at Fania.

You can hear the evolution of Latin music by following Celia from her roots in Cuba with La Sonora Matancera (1950-1965), into New York with Tito Puente’s Cuban sound (1966-1973), and then with Johnny Pacheco’s New York sound at Fania after 1974.

Proud of Our Latin Thing

In a way the Fania sound was the popular sound of the Latin people, just as Motown was the popular sound of African Americans. Many of us are taught that Latin and Black are two different things, but both share the same roots and Latin is very Black whether you want to admit that or not. If you really know the Caribbean, you start to notice the echoes of Caribbean culture in African American culture, and the other direction too.

The era wasn’t only about music. It was a time of expanding social consciousness. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s enabled African Americans to proudly say “Black is Beautiful.” If Black is Beautiful, then Brown is Beautiful too. Salsa was something that everybody liked, that Latin people could be proud of too.

The roots of the whole thing are the music of Caribbeans which first emerged when Black and Indigenous people were finally freed from the chains of human slavery. The deepest roots are in the traditional cultures of West Africa and Central Africa, and the Indigenous cultures of the Caribbean and South America. Both are present in the music even to this day.

The Dominican Republic

Pacheco was born in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic on March 25, 1935. His father was a musician, the bandleader and clarinetist of Orquesta Santa Cecilia which was a popular big band in the 1930s. They were the first to record Luis Alberti’s “Compadre Pedro Juan” which is probably the most famous traditional Dominican merengue.

When he was little, Johnny’s Dad gave him a harmonica. Without any training, he picked it up and played a perfect “Compadre Pedro Juan.” The family was flabbergasted. He was a natural talent.

Most salsa musicians are Puerto Rican, Cuban, Venezuelan or Colombian. We always wondered where was the Dominican and the merengue. It had to be there somewhere. Turns out it was in the bandleader, the whole time.

New York Pachanga

Pacheco first rose to prominence during the pachanga years of the 1960s. Pachanga is a mix between Cuban son montuno and Dominican merengue. It is an evolution of the charanga of the the 1940s which itself reflects the influence of the French contredanse in Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. All is on the path to la salsa. We keep mixing with each other.

The charanga is influenced by French classical music and brings the flute up front. Pacheco mirrored that with his big Fania arrangements and his flute. You can almost hear his exuberant playing now. He makes you want to dance. He makes you want to hug someone.

In the late 1950s, Pacheco began playing with Charlie Palmieri. By 1960 Johnny was the king of New York pachanga. His band was the first Latin band to play the Apollo Theater in 1962.

Johnny Pacheco was La Fania

Johnny Pacheco leads the Fania All-Stars in Africa in 1974

In 1963, Pacheco and Jerry Masucci co-founded Fania Records. Johnny was the music director and Masucci was the lawyer.

Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez started working with Pacheco. They became regular collaborators credited with many classic salsas.

Without taking anything away from Pacheco, El Conde, and others, it should be said that many salsa hits of that period were actually written by Puerto Rican composer Catalino “Tite’ Curet Alonso. Tite was cheated out of his authorship rights by a publishing firm. Fania owns some of the songs, but Tite didn’t get credited or paid much for his immense contributions to the genre. The performers got the credit, not the composer. Before Rubén Blades, Tite was the great poet of the salsa. The musicians know, but the public doesn’t. That said, Pacheco and El Conde also wrote many great salsa hits of their own.

Fania went on to produce some of the most famous concerts of the era at Cheetahs, Yankee Stadium and in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) Africa. The videos of those concerts are classics that should be in the Library of Congress as representations of the contributions of Latin artists to the culture of the United States.

The first salsa movie “Our Latin Thing” (Leon Gast, 1972) is the iconic film of that time. Fania has published it on YouTube.

Manuel Villalona’s excellent 2017 documentary “Yo Soy La Salsa” tells Johnny Pacheco’s life story. It is currently on Amazon.

Vaya Con Dios, Johnny Pacheco

Teaneck, New Jersey, Monday, February 15, 2021 ~ Dear Johnny Pacheco. You left the stage for the last time, last night, on the eve of Carnival. You must be on your way to a very big concert. Heaven will be dancing tonight!

We will never forget you. Your spirit lives on in the hearts of the Caribbean peoples and on dance floors everywhere. You brought everyone together and gave so many a way to be happy. We love you for that.

Do you still have your harmonica?

Compadre Pedro Juan, baile el jaleo
Compadre Pedro Juan, que esta sabroso
Aquella niña de los ojos negros que tiene el
Cuerpo flexible, baila en empaliza

“Compadre Pedro Juan” by Luis Alberti in the 1930s


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