Bastion of Boogaloo

by Mathew R. Warren

In a scene from the 1985 film Crossover Dreams, the main character, Rudy Veloz, a frustrated salsa singer with aspirations of becoming a pop star, sees Johnny Colón performing with his band at an East Harlem roof party. “It doesn’t make any sense to me,” says Veloz, played by Rubén Blades. “This guy had a huge hit years ago; look where he ended up: back where he started on 104th Street.” This statement, though on some levels true, misrepresents Colón. His story is not so cliché. Colóns dreams are what kept him in East Harlem to start a music school for a new generation of salseros.

But that’s how things ended up, as Veloz put it. Colóns “huge hit”—“Boogaloo Blues”—came in 1966. It was a time of transition in the Latin music scene in New York. There was no such thing as salsa yet, the mambo craze was over, and Puerto Ricans were coming of age in the city—the Nuyorican was emerging. As many of their peers went off to fight in Vietnam, some of New York’s younger Puerto Ricans were losing interest in Latin music and beginning to identify more with R&B hits in English than with the music of their roots. “This is a time when Tito Puente could not get elected dogcatcher,” Colón says today. “Any band that you could name, it just wasn’t happening.”

Colón, then twenty-four had been putting together this own bands since he was a teenager, writing songs and performing as much as he could on an independent streak that went against the trend for a young Latin musician at the time. “You usually did some kind of internship with guys like Puente or Eddie Palmieri or Ray Barretto, somebody who would take you under their wing, and we didn’t do that,” Colón says of his band then. “It was a struggle, man. It was a struggle. The band was playing around a lot. We were getting cheap gigs, but we were working, which is the most important thing.”

During the day, Colón toiled at a job he hated, working as a clerk for a company of naval architects. He wanted to devote himself to his music, but he had a wife and baby boy to support. It was a change encounter with George Goldner and Stan Lewis that changed everything, not just for Colón, but for Latin music as well. Goldner and Lewis were influential record producers with hits dating back to the 1940s and ‘50s in R&B and Latin music. Goldner had founded the Tico Label and recorded artists like Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodríguez.

In 1965, Colón happened to be paying dues inside the headquarters of the musicians’ union when Goldner and Lewis walked in and announced that they were looking for young Latin bands to record. Colón said nothing but eyed the card Lewis had left with one of the union delegates. That same day, he went to the address he’d memorized off the card and convinced the producers to give his band and audition.

 

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Originally published in Waxpoetics 44, November/December 2010. Reprint with permission from Matthew R. Warren. | Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies