Johnny Colón

by Mathew R. Warren

The members of the Johnny Colón Orchestra were all from East Harlem, a group that included two young singers, Rafael “Tito” Ramos and Tony Rojas. While still traditionally Latin, their sound mixed in jazz and blues influences. They were loud, raw, and less polished than any of the famous band of the day. And the prominent use of Colón’s trombone—an instrument not commonly featured by other Latin band up to that point (other than Eddie Palmieri’s)—also set them apart.

Goldner’s initial response was lukewarm when he heard them. ‘“So, what do you think, Mr. Goldner?’” Colón recalls asking after the audition. “He says, ‘I like it, it’s got a nice sound. It swings, but it doesn’t have that chicka chicka cheeky—you know that Cuban stuff? I said, ‘Well, its not a Cuban group, this is a New York sound. This is what’s happening.’” He told Goldner to come see them play at the Colgate Gardens, a popular dance hall in the Bronx. “It was a very hot spot,” says Colón. “I think we were playing on a Friday or a Saturday night. So we go in, the place is jam-packed [with] very beautiful young kids, and many of them minors pretending that they were eighteen.”After the gig, Goldner, sensing the energy coming from the young crowd, changed his mind and told Colón he wanted to sign them to his new label, Cotique. “I signed the contracts in the studio,” Colón remembers. “I didn’t know what the hell I was signing. I just knew I wanted to record, like most kids at that time”.

For their first album, the band had a repertoire of songs they had been experimenting with since forming over a year earlier. Goldner persuaded the band to write one new tune based off a bluesy piano riff he had heard Colón use as an intro to the Latin standard “Anabacoa.” Goldner suggested they drop the “Anabacoa” and sticks with the blues. Colón, wanting to please the producer, agreed, and wrote the new song. The result would become the title track on the debut album, Boogaloo Blues, a record that would usher in a wave of new bands and bring about a resurgence of Latin music. The cover of the Boogaloo Blues LP, shot by the great music photographer Charles “Chuck” Stewart, shows Colón holding his trombone, the same King 8-H copper bell trombone his mother had helped him buy years earlier.

Mercedes Vizcarrondo-Colón came to New York in 1932 from Santurce, Puerto Rico. She married three years later and in1942 had her first child, John Colón. His father, Juan Colón, a merchant seaman, also from Puerto Rico, abandoned the family when his son was four years old. Colón grew up on 102nd Street and then on 106th Street, living with his mother, grandmother, younger sister, and an uncle. The areas was not yet known as “El Barrio”, and Puerto Ricans still shared East Harlem. “East of Third Avenue, it was the Italian community, and if you walked east of Third Avenue, they would kick your ass,” says Colón. “From Third to Fifth, it was Puerto Rican. It was like West Side Story for real.”


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Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies