Sunday, January 30, 2011
La Sonora Tropical - The Chicago Salsa Era
During the early to mid 1970s in Chicago, the city was experiencing the Salsa Explosion. Years earlier New York started the phenomenon through their popular Fania All Stars concerts which spread to Latin American neighborhoods throughout the U.S. The Salsa experience arrived full throttle and fueled pride in the Puerto Rican community, especially its urban youth, who now found a new way to further Puerto Rican pride through music. It was during this time in Chicago that the Salsa Band Era began. Many local salsa bands were forming and a local radio station began to broadcast anything related to salsa. Vic Parra, a local radio personality who also had a decent Charanga band, furthered the experience with his nightly radio show called, “The Mambo Express.” Cuban radio personality, Juan Montenegro, furthered the salsa effort with his popular radio program on the FM airwaves called, “Latin Explosion.”
On North Avenue in Chicago, a community organizer/ civic leader, Carlos “Caribe,” Ruiz recognized this new found interest as a way to get our youth off the streets by creating local salsa bands. “Caribe,” as he was called locally, would feature these kids in local productions, dances and other local venues. One of his first bands, “La Justicia” became very popular with the teen age set and developed quite a following. “Caribe” later created and promoted other bands such as, “La Union,” “Tipica 78”, “Tipica Leal” and others. Over time “Caribe” began to produce recordings of his groups under the label “Ebirac,” which spelled Caribe backwards. The records were sold during the band breaks at their performances.
The next salsa band to garner a large following was a local band called, “La Confidencia”. This group was founded by a local high school math teacher, Richard Straka, who was the leader and one of the trumpet players. This band lasted on the scene longer than those under Caribe because of two main reasons. La Confidencia were older and relied on charts, something the Caribe bands lacked since most played by ear. Their popularity rose when Caribe’s “La Justicia’s” popularity began its decline. Although this band was very good, they limited themselves to playing local venues as a warm-up band for out of town established bands and weddings. La Confidencia could play any popular song as good as the best of them but during that time lacked original material and never produced a recording.
During this time, older local salsa bands (musicians were older) dominated the salsa night club scene. For example, the house band at the Tropical Magic Night Club on Fullerton Avenue was a group called, “Manuel Y Sus Estrellas,” a group similar to New York’s “Joe Cuba’s Sextet.” “Felipe Y Su Sonora” appeared at the Night Life Night Club on North Avenue, “Tarzan Y Su Orquesta” played at the “Las Vegas Night Club” on Armitage Avenue while further north on Sheridan Road a Cuban night club owner brought a well known established band from Puerto Rico to town to be the house band for his club.” The band, “El Sabor De Nacho” led by leader Nacho Sanabria contained a mixture of musicians from Chicago and Puerto Rico. They were excellent and initially packed the house. Times got tough after awhile and they eventually had to go back to Puerto Rico. This was not the first time that an attempt was made to have a band from New York or Puerto Rico settle in Chicago. Back in the day a local promoter brought in Tito Puente to be the house band at “El Mirador” Night Club on North Avenue, the site of the old Lions Club hall (4310 W. North Avenue). This club was a high-end club with exclusive décor a la Palladium in New York. It was billed as an upper class club/ restaurant. The dress code was strict. The music was great but so were the prices. The house was packed on weekends but empty on weekdays. The club eventually went out of business when the excitement of the new venue wore off. Tito Puente and his singer “Menique” eventually returned to New York where work was steadier.
Chicago’s La Sonora Tropical
In the early 1970s, a local group of Chicago musicians of diverse musical backgrounds began to get together in the Logan Square neighborhood to experiment with salsa. They originally started out as a rehearsal band that got together for experimental jam sessions but later formed the first version of what eventually became Chicago’s La Sonora Tropical. The initial musicians were, Trombonist Greg Aguirre, a crossover musician whose background was in R&B/ Soul, Ramon Moreno on trumpet, Tenor Saxophonist “Dez” (Chuck Desormeaux), whose background was in rock and jazz, Chuck Velez on bass who had a background in rock/ Soul and recently worked as a background (coro) vocalist for “Cabito” Y Su Combo Puerto Rico, and Conga player, Jack Feliciano who came over from “Cabito” Y Su Combo Puerto Rico. The original vocalist was Wilfredo Torres. Amador “Buddy” Velez played keyboard for a short time while the band looked for a steady piano player and Roberto Sanchez was the regular bongo player. Saxophonist “Dez” Desormeaux eventually brought around trombonist Scott Sutter, who became the regular trombonist. As the group began to morph into a respectable sound, a young timbal player from Ponce, Puerto Rico, named Jesus “Papiro” Vera joined the band. Singer Wilfredo Torres, who began to have difficulties juggling work schedules between his day job and the band and eventually had to leave the group. During this time, timbalero Jesus “Papiro” Vera mentioned that his brother, Harry Vera, was a vocalist. Harry Vera came to the rehearsal and quickly became the singer that people most associated with La Sonora Tropical.
Over the years many other Chicago musicians worked with the band. Among them were trumpet players Steve O’Brien, Elmer Brown, Rod Clark, Nick Drosdoff, Michael Janus and Freddie Rodriguez. Trombone player Frankie Rodriguez also did a short stint with the band. Among the vocalists that worked with the band was Mike Maldonado, Hector Nunez and Jorge “Papo” Quintero - La Confidencia’s former vocalist. Percussionists that also worked with the band included Jose “Negrito” Perez on congas, Miguel “Chocolate” Cruz on bongos, Samuel Castro on bongos, timbalero Luis “Prieto” Rosario and Ray Soto.
The two toughest positions to fill in the band during this period were trumpet players and piano players. At the time there was a shortage of Latin trumpet players that could read music in the salsa circuit. The few that existed already had steady work. It was common for salsa bands to routinely rotate trumpet players based on need. The shortage was even more prevalent in Latin piano players. All of the good ones had steady gigs. La Sonora Tropical had Hector Narvaez and Helios Al Facio - professionally known as “Facio” as pianists for brief periods but eventually had to result to rotating piano players until a young pianist came to rehearsal one day to sit in. That piano player, Marcus Persiani, eventually became the group’s steady piano player. Marcus Persiani was a student of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago who played jazz and took an interest in salsa. Over time he developed into one of the best salsa pianists in the city. He eventually moved on to New York to pursue more work when the salsa scene began to decline in Chicago and wound up working for Willie Colon among others.
Before becoming La Sonora Tropical the group tried different names. The group started out calling themselves, La Perfecta, until informed that that was the names of Eddie Palmieri’s band. The group then tried “Los Caciques” for a short while, which is an Indian tribe. The name didn’t really describe the band so the search for a name continued. Naming the band became problematic. Every time a potential name came up it was discovered that someone else was using it - this would not happen today with the availability of the internet. The group finally settled for La Sonora Tropical. The “Sonora” part of the name came from the popularity of La Sonora Poncena while “Tropical” came from the popular Chicago Latin night club, the “Tropical Magic” on Fullerton Avenue (2573 W. Fullerton Ave.). In the late 1970s however it was rumored that a band in South America started calling themselves La Sonora Tropical which again caused the group to modify its name. The band then went by La Orquesta Tropical dropping the “Sonora” portion of its name due to the fact that a Sonora officially consists of an all trumpet horn section which was not the case with the band.
From the early days of the Sonora Tropical it was realized that having original material and steady work was the key to longevity. Regular night club work was also the key to maintaining good musicians. Most of the night club bands at the time played what was known at the time as “rutina” or “routine.” Rutina consisted of standard Latin tunes that everyone knew as a matter of routine or by ear. No sheet music was necessary because everyone knew the tunes by heart. The tunes were the popular songs of the time. This made it easy for night club musicians to replace each other or create a band at a moments notice to play a quick gig or to sub for another band at a club. Among the tunes considered “rutina” were, “Dulce con Dulce,” “El Sancocho Prieto,” “Toro Mata,” “La Hija De Lola,” “Bilongo,” “Alma con Alma,” “Senor Sereno,” “El Nazareno” and many others. Knowing these tunes were convenient for musicians but later became boring for the audience as they began to hear the same material no matter what club, wedding or dance they went to.
As previously mentioned, one of the band’s goals was to create original material. Another goal of La Sonora Tropical was to make records. These two goals were eventually attained and were the things that separated La Sonora Tropical from the other local salsa bands at the time. It wasn’t until after the band began to become popular due to radio airplay that other local salsa bands began to get into the recording studio. The first single to get regular airplay on Spanish radio was a simple catchy merengue entitled, “El Merengue Tropical.” The next tune that began to get regular airplay was, “Tierra Borincana.”
As the band continued to progress, a local promoter named Angel Lopez approached the band about playing for established stars from New York and Puerto Rico. La Sonora Tropical had an advantage over many other groups in this area at the time due to the fact that the band could read charts. Many of the other groups were still playing by ear, which cost them many jobs. Angel Lopez would save money by contracting only the singer, who would bring along his or her charts instead of bringing the entire band into town. Among the singers La Sonora Tropical accompanied were, Hector Lavoe, Tito Allen, Menique – who later went on to record with La Sonora Tropical, and female singer, “Sophy.” “Gilberto Diaz” and his band and “La Confidencia,” another local salsa band previously mentioned were also utilized for this type of work during that time.
Around 1975-1976 La Sonora Tropical began to gather material for its first album. Promoter Angel Lopez, who was fairly successful in promoting salsa dances and shows with established stars decided to try his hand at producing records. Angel Lopez created the Latin Connection record label and produced La Sonora Tropical’s first album entitled, “La Sonora Tropical.” The album featuring Harry Vera on vocals was recorded and pressed in Chicago in 1977. Local record stores that sold salsa albums carried the record. The only problem was that there was only one pressing and finances became the main obstacle that stood in the way of moving the album forward. You see, recording and getting the album to the store is one thing but it takes even more money to market an album properly.
In 1978 the opportunity surfaced again for a second album. During this time, La Sonora Tropical became the house band for the “Chateau Latino,” a Latin disco that also featured live salsa. The proprietor, Gilbert Salgado, was eager to produce the next Sonora Tropical album and approached Menique about recording with the band. Menique, a former vocalist for Tito Puente and Charlie Palmieri, who was in Chicago from New York, came to an agreement. In February of 1978, the entire band was flown to New York and recorded the album entitled, “Menique Presenta La Orquesta Tropical.” Menique was the singer on half of the tunes on the album and Harry Vera was the singer on the other half. The album was recorded at Latin Sound Studios in New York City. Jon Fausty, who was better known as Fania records regular engineer was hired as the album’s recording engineer. After the release of the album (1979) Menique returned to Chicago to promote the album with the band. By that time however live salsa music at Latin clubs in Chicago began to take a back seat to disco. Clubs began to eliminate live music altogether in favor of DJs (Disk Jockeys). Although the album was one of the best salsa albums produced by a Chicago salsa band, it suffered the virtually the same fate as the first album for the same reason – lack of funds to push it further.
After the gig at the Chateau Latino ended, the band, now known simply as La Orquesta Tropical, became the house band for the Latin Village Night Club, a popular salsa club in Lincoln Park that did not go the disco route. As the band continued to work another attempt at recording was made. This time, the recordings were done back in Chicago. The band began recording new material for its third album, which was recorded at P.S. Recording Studios in Chicago, Il. In all, four tunes were cut for the album which remained unfinished due to funding issues.
Tito Allen and La Tropical
In the early 1980s, Tito Allen, the popular Puerto Rican vocalist, known for his work on Ray Barretto’s Indestructible album (Fania - 1976) came to Chicago to perform and was accompanied by La Orquesta Tropical. After completing his commitment, Tito Allen decided to stay in Chicago in order to try something different. Tito Allen decided on La Orquesta Tropical as the band that would accompany him. The partnership initially worked out for the band as the salsa night club scene had gone down the tubes since the majority of the clubs by now had turned to DJs instead of live music for financial reasons. This meant that the only other work besides the occasional wedding were dances and out of town functions. At first the prospect looked good. Tito and the band performed to good reviews. Unfortunately though, work did not come as steady as was necessary to maintain an established salsa star of Allen’s caliber in Chicago. Within six months, Tito Allen returned to Puerto Rico to seek more work. His parting was understandable given the city’s financial situation. With the decline of steady work – a necessary element for keeping good musicians together, and the need to get personal finances in order as many of the musicians by now were raising families, it was decided that it was time to move on. For some, seeking club work was replaced by seeking pensions, others freelanced with other groups as the need for their services arose. La Orquesta Tropical or Sonora Tropical, as others continued to call it closed shop.
This was an exiting time for Chicago Latin music – an experience like no other. This does not mean that salsa is dead in Chicago for returning to salsa is like returning home. You may leave it for a short time to check out the latest fad (Disco, Rap, Hip Hop) but you will always return home for some home cooking. As the years passed, newer groups emerged and have taken over the experience. The younger bands and musicians from the day eventually became the older cats or the seasoned vets. It is now in the hands of the younger guys to continue to spread the tradition - there is no doubt that it will. As the late Ray Barretto once said in one of his recordings, “Que Viva La Musica!”