Everybody salsa! Fania, the ramshackle New York label that sent Latin rhythms global

Its founders went from flogging LPs from a car to defining a genre in the late 60s. As a box set is released, manager Harvey Averne and star Joe Bataan recall those heady days in East Harlem

It is 1967. Latin boogaloo – a fusion of African American R&B and Cuban rhythms reflecting the rich melting pot of East Harlem, New York – is sweeping the barrio. Johnny Pacheco, a devotee of traditional Latin music, considers boogaloo “horrendous” and “not music”.

Nevertheless, he will quickly learn to love the money it makes his groundbreaking label, Fania Records. After the boogaloo fad subsides, a new wave of innovative, charismatic young stars will rise to make Fania the premier Latin label in the US. Salsa – their distinctive blend of traditional tropical rhythms – will become the vibrant soundtrack to pre-disco New York.

An exhaustive new box set chronicles this history. “People often say Fania was the Motown of Latin music,” says the DJ and producer Dean Rudland, the curator of It’s a Good, Good Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania. “But African American music easily crossed over to the American mainstream, whereas, until recently, crossover has been very elusive for tropical music in the US. Fania proved the Nuyorican [New York Puerto Rican] community could fill out Yankee Stadium, that their artists could sell out arenas across the world. It was a powerful thing.”

A Dominican-born, Juilliard-trained flautist who introduced the Cuban dance craze pachanga to the US, Pacheco started Fania in 1964 with Jerry Masucci, a divorce lawyer who hated his day job but loved Latin music. It was a ramshackle operation, with their pair hawking LPs from the trunk of a car. A turning point came when their new signing Larry Harlow, a Jewish musician and Latin music devotee, introduced Masucci to a man named Harvey Averne.

Ray Barretto, circa 1968
Ray Barretto, circa 1968. Photograph: Courtesy of Fania Archives

Harlow had played in Averne’s band, Arvito and His Latin Rhythms, in the 50s. Those were salad days for Afro-Cuban jazz, when Manhattan nightclubs such as the Palladium Ballroom shook to the sounds of mambo titans such as Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and “Prez” Prado.

“Every hotel had to have a Latin band,” says Averne. His father, a poor Georgian émigré who worked in the garment district, fell in love with the music and culture of his Puerto Rican co-workers. Sharing his dad’s passion, Averne had been gigging between Manhattan ballrooms and Jewish holiday resorts in the Catskill mountains since he was 14. “I grew up in Brooklyn, a tough neighbourhood,” he says. “Music was my ticket out.”

Beatlemania ended the reign of mambo, however, and the hotels soon ditched Latin bands for beat groups. Averne started a home renovation business that was lucrative – he had a chauffeur and an East Side apartment – but no fun. He pounced when Masucci asked him to run Fania while he wound down his law practice. “I told him I’d never run a record label; I’d never even stepped into a recording studio. He said: ‘You’ll learn fast.’ The job paid 300 [dollars] a month. I said: ‘But Jerry, I pay my chauffeur 300 a month!’ ‘Well, then I hope you didn’t forget how to drive.’”

Averne says Fania was “a seat-of-its-pants operation then. My thing was to maximise every opportunity.” The rise of boogaloo was its best opportunity yet.

Joe Bataan in 1970
Joe Bataan in 1970. Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns

“Boogaloo was a cha-cha-cha with a backbeat,” says Joe Bataan. The son of a Filipino father and an African American mother, he could pass as Latino and had risen through the ranks of barrio hoodlums. “I was a neighbourhood thug – I got kicked out of school and sent to reformatory.” He fell under the spell of the reform school music teacher and, upon release, spent his evenings practising piano at the local community centre.

One night, he arrived to find a group of teens rehearsing; ploughing his switchblade into the piano, he declared himself their bandleader. Within six months, they were recording their first album for Fania.

That album, 1967’s Gypsy Woman, was recorded in a day. Its title track was a Latinised Curtis Mayfield rewrite that, alongside contemporaneous boogaloo anthems – Pete Rodriguez’s I Like It Like That and Joe Cuba’s Bang Bang – signalled a generational shift within Latin music. “Boogaloo changed the times,” says Bataan. “We were voted Latin band of the year in 1968, above Puente, Machito, Rodriguez and the rest. Our third album, Riot, outsold everybody four to one. Boogaloo wasn’t the music of our parents. It spoke to a wider audience. And it ruled East Harlem for three years.”

Pacheco thought boogaloo sold out Latin music’s traditions. Nevertheless, it still struggled to escape the barrio. The wider music industry ghettoised Latin music. Bigger labels, including Atlantic, dabbled in Latin soul, but saw it as a fad; there were only two New York radio DJs playing Latin music, Symphony Sid and Dick “Ricardo” Sugar. “I wanted to compete against James Brown, against Smokey Robinson,” says Bataan. “But Fania had limited money and expertise.”

With crossover proving elusive, the label’s next wave of stars took a direction closer to Pacheco’s heart. “After boogaloo, Fania’s artists began investigating their roots,” says Rudland. The label signed the Puerto Rican percussionist Ray Barretto, whose pedigree indicated that the label was “serious”, says Averne: he had played conga for Puente, recorded for the label Blue Note and released a hit single, El Watusi. Averne produced Barretto’s Fania debut, 1968’s Acid. Despite the title, it was no psych-rock opus, but rather a radical update of traditional Latin music. Averne describes it as “a milestone” in the evolution of the genre for which Fania would become best known: salsa.

Salsa encompassed traditional styles and rhythms originating from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic that enjoyed a resurgence in the 70s, as a generation of Nuyoricans, inspired by the black power movement, embraced their heritage. While indebted to the past and the homeland, this diasporic sound had a character of its own: heavily percussive and scored by fierce, joyous brass and driving piano.

The Cheetah nightclub in New York, 1966
The Cheetah nightclub in New York, 1966. Photograph: Marty Lederhandler/AP

“Fania’s music was urban,” says Averne. “You could hear taxi cabs, the dizzying harshness of the concrete jungle. It was the sound of New York City.” The city responded to salsa with a passion that eclipsed boogaloo, embracing the sharp-dressed glamour of its stars and devotees. The furious dancing and wild times at nightclubs such as the Cheetah on Broadway and 53rd Street anticipated the decadent thrills of the disco era.

Harlow, Averne’s former bandmate, was a key architect of the sound. Described by Rudland as “a serious scholar of Cuban music”, Harlow sought to put salsa on a footing with rock music. He was the first artist playing Latin music to tour with his own sound system and light show (by then the norm for touring rock acts). After the Who released their pioneering rock opera Tommy, Harlow responded with Hommy, a “Latin opera” about a deaf, blind and speech-impaired conga player. “Larry even went to Havana to become a santero [a priest in the Santería religion],” adds Averne. “It’s not easy to be included when you come from the outside. He earned it.” Harlow died in August at 82.

Fania’s in-house art director, Izzy Sanabria (who later hosted a Latin answer to Soul Train, Salsa, on a New York TV channel), claimed to have coined the genre’s name. A marketing genius, he portrayed Fania’s latest signings, the trombonist and band leader Willie Colón and the singer Héctor Lavoe, as suave gangsters on albums including 1969’s Cosa Nuestra and 1970’s Wanted By FBI. “They had this ‘crime pays’ image and it was brilliant,” says Averne, who lent the pair his girlfriend’s Rolls-Royce to pose in. “Willie and Héctor were special. They were kids off the street – they were the audience and they were writing those kids’ stories and emotions. They quickly became the biggest sellers on Fania.”

“They knew nothing about being a gangster,” says Bataan. “I was the one who really ran the streets, who went to prison – they were just pretending.” The label’s early star struggled with being a team player. “We were rival gangs in music – if I saw Willie Colón on stage, I’d think: ‘I want to kick his ass tonight.’” But Pacheco wanted his signings to work together for the good of the label, assembling a supergroup, the Fania All-Stars, from the cream of their roster, including Barretto, Harlow, Colón, Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Valentin, Mongo Santamaria and many more.

Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, 1969
Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, 1969. Photograph: Gilles Petard/Redferns

The All-Stars were at the vanguard of Pacheco and Masucci’s ambitions to break Fania and salsa globally. They were the featured attraction in Our Latin Thing, a 1972 concert movie that vividly captured the grit and glamour of 70s East Harlem; they toured Europe, Africa and Japan and headlined Yankee Stadium. Fania became synonymous with salsa and, as the decade wore on, business was so good that Masucci tooled around Manhattan in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce with the licence plate “Salsa-1”.

It didn’t last. Syncing the sharp-dressing glamour of Latin nightclubs with grooves more familiar to white audiences, disco stalled Fania’s progress. Averne left in 1972 to form his own label, CoCo Records. After splitting from Colón in 1973 to pursue solo stardom, Lavoe struggled with fame, drug addiction and depression. Colón teamed up with Ruben Blades for 1978’s political classic Siembra; Lavoe died of Aids in 1993, at 46.

Bataan left Fania after pay disputes and an attempt to unionise the label’s artists; in 1974, he co-founded the label Salsoul, marrying salsa to disco and scoring the kind of crossover success Fania had always dreamed of. The All-Stars pivoted to disco and signed to Columbia Records in the late 70s. By 1988, however, they were reduced to releasing a cash-in cover of the Gypsy Kings’ global smash Bamboleo. “Fania petered out,” says Rudland. “It’s difficult to stay relevant doing the same thing. But then, after 20 or so years, you have the perspective to look back and say: ‘This was really important.’”

Pacheco continued to fly the flag for salsa until his death this year, at 85. Masucci, meanwhile, moved to Argentina in the 80s to raise his family; he died of a heart attack in 1997, at 63. His business savvy remained keen to the end. “Jerry started a modelling agency with Eileen Ford and, when Aids hit Argentina, he invested in a condom factory,” says Averne.

“Jerry got burned out after disco came in,” he says. “I thought he was crazy sometimes, and he threw more money at this business than anybody ever. But he did it. He created the iconic Latin label of all time.”

It’s a Good, Good Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania Records is released on 8 October on Craft Recordings


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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