Johnny Colón

by Mathew R. Warren

Colón asked Hook, his old manager, for help dealing with Curbelo, but he refused. Colón had seen no royalties from Boogaloo Blues, or his other record, and needed to perform to support his family. Colón decided he had to leave Curbelo, even if it meant he was on his own. “I was persona non grata because I took them on, you know,” Colón says. “Just fighting for my rights meant I was taking them on.”He could no longer play at the Village Gate or some of the other hot clubs under Curbelo and Levy’s syndicate. But despite the blacklist, Colón persevered. He was still under contract by Cotique and continued recording. He performed wherever there were gigs, even spending a stint on the Jazzmobile, a float that drove bands around Harlem.

In 1970, George Goldner died suddenly of a heart attack. By then, the admiration Colón had once felt for the producer was long gone. “Goldner had tremendous charm and personality and simpático with people, but he was a con man; they’ll do that,” Colón says.

He took the opportunity to get out his contract with Cotique and went to Jerry Massucci, co-owner of Fania Records, and asked to record on the label’s new subsidiary, Vaya. Massucci signed Colón, and he recorded his fifth album, Hot! Hot! Hot Caliente de Vicio, released in 1972, but to his surprise, it would not come out on Vaya. “We finish the record,” Colón says. “Larry Harlow took the pictures for the cover. Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco are in the room, and Jerry’s telling me, ‘Listen you’ve got to put this out on Cotique.”I said, ‘I just came from Cotique. You know I don’t want to be with Cotique anymore; that’s why I signed with you.’ He says, ‘Well, you know, we’re trying to works something out. “So Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco are cracking up in the corner. I don’t know, what’s going on. I get out of the room, and I’m sitting with Larry, and I’m saying, ‘Man, I’m so disappointed.’ And he says, ‘Man, don’t you know, Johnny? I said, ‘No, what’s happening?’ He says, ‘They’re in the process of buying Cotique.’”

Released on the now Fania-controlled Cotique, the album, with no boogaloos, did well, and Colón had another big hit with “Merecumbe,” an aggressive salsa song that has since become a classic in the genre. He would record one more record, Tierra Va a Temblar, under the new Cotique, but buy 1972, his contract was up, and Colón was becoming fed up with the business. “I got frustrated because it’s the same old thing—nobody pays you,” Colón says. I didn’t want to go back to Fania or any other recording company.’’

By then, he had been able to get around some of the restrictions created by his being blacklisted and was performing enough gigs to feel comfortable. He decided to leave the recording business and pursue another passion. “I was still getting jobs with the band on my owns, so I said, ‘Why I don’t I just keep doing what I’m doing with the band and continue my other dream? Which was to start a school. And that’s the way it went,” says Colón. With public funding, along with much of Colóns own money, he established the East Harlem Music School, offering free lessons to the community. His impact as a music instructor for more than three decades may be even greater than the effect of his recordings. Students like the singer Tito Nieves, percussionists Jimmy Delgado and Robin Loeb, bass player Rubén Rodríguez, and even a young Marc Anthony would all go on to become stars in the contemporary salsa music.


Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies