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El Gran Combo

El Gran Combo

Salsa group

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

The legendary Puerto Rican band El Gran Combo played their first gig in San Juan in 1962 and soon became the islands most popular salsa group. While many bands formed and dissolved during the 1960s and 1970s, El Gran Combo had unusual staying power. Throughout the next several decades, the bands style altered and evolved to fit Latin dance-music trends, from boogaloo and merengue to tango and bomba. While an influx of talented young singers and musicians kept the 12- or 13-member band sounding fresh, the steady presence of a few founding membersincluding the pianist-songwriter Rafael Ithiergave El Gran Combo their signature style and their venerable reputation as a premier salsa band.

El Gran Combo originated as an offshoot of the popular Puerto Rican band El Combo de Rafael Cortigo. Invited to start a new group with Joseito Mateo, a singer from the Dominican Republic, Ithier and six fellow musicians dropped out of Cortigos band to start their new enterprise. The move shocked the Latin music world. You were not supposed to leave Puerto Ricos favorite group like that, Ithier told Montreals Gazette, but the discipline was not very good anymore. I did not want to be with a band that was not ready to work.

The new band was not lacking in discipline. Its membersincluding Rafael Alvarez Guedes (who chose the bands name), Eddie Pérez, Héctor Santos, Roberto Rohena, Rogelio Vélez, Martin Quiñones, and Miguel Cruzprized teamwork and organization as much as they did musical talent. In 1962 the group recorded its first album, Meneame los Mangos (Shake My Mangos). The album was not a hit and the band was not an overnight sensation, but El Gran Combo were willing to work for their success.

It was three or four years before El Gran Combo reached that success, which arrived not long after the group recruited a promising young singer named Junior Montañez (later known as Andy Montañez). With Montañez joining singer Pellin Rodriguez on vocals, the band turned out hit after hitcatchy dance tunes with such names as El Menu, Telefono, and Goyito Sabater. The songwriting talent behind these and other hits was Perin Vazquez, whose lyrics told tales of everyday passions and universal longings. Working closely with Vazquez, Ithier created lively arrangements for piano, bass, trumpets, saxophone, congas, timbales, and bongos.

The group had released the album Acangana in 1963, just two days before the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Although distribution of the album was postponed because of the tragedy, the recording eventually reached gold-record status. In 1970 the band created EGC, an independent record label under which they released a number of albums, beginning with that years recording, El Momo de Oro.

El Gran Combo gradually rose to become the first name in salsa within Puerto Rico, winning the islands

For the Record

Members include Charlie Aponte, vocals; Rafael Ithier, musical director, piano;Mitchell Laboy, bongo;Taty Maldonadob, trumpet;Freddi Miranda, saxophone;Moises Nogueras, trom-bone;Eddie Perez, alto saxophone;Jerry Rivas (replaced Andy Montañez, 1977), vocals;Freddie Rivera, bass;Victor Rodriguez, trombone;Papo Rosario, vocals;Domingo Santos, timbales;Miguel Torres, congas.

Group formed in Puerto Rico, 1962; released first album, Meneame los Mangos (Shake My Mangos), 1962; created independent record label, EGC, 1970; peaked in international popularity, 1971-86; Breaking the IceEl Gran Combo en Alaska received Grammy nomination, 1984; held 25th anniversary concert, Madison Square Garden, New York, 1987.

Awards: Agueybana de Oro prize for Best Band (Puerto Rico), 1969; Billboard magazine, Lifetime Achievement Award, 2002.

Addresses: Record company Combo Records, 904 23rd St., 1st Floor, Union City, NJ 07087, website; http://www.comborecords.com.

prestigious Agueybana de Oro prize for the Best Band of 1969. Slowly, word about the band began to spread beyond the islands borders, and from 1971 to 1986 the bands international popularity was at its peak. During this time, El Gran Combo attracted a series of gifted young salsa performersincluding singers Charlie Aponte, Johnny Ventura, Celia Cruz, and Jerry Rivas, and musicians Miguel Marrero, Milton Correa, Edwin Cortes, and Martin Quinones. In fact, so many exceptional salsa performers graduated from El Gran Combo that the band became affectionately known as the University of Salsa.

For many fans, El Gran Combo is synonymous with salsaa musical genre that fuses Cuban and Puerto Rican sounds. Headed by three lead singers, El Gran Combo has always drawn dynamic energy from vocals. True to the salsa style, the group balances a vibrant horn section and a rhythmic percussion beat, tempered by the less-prominent bass and piano. One secret to El Gran Combos long-lived success has been the groups ability to keep its music evolving and to remain open to new, fresh sounds. In 1971 the band added a trombone to its repertoire, played by Epifanio (Fanny) Ceballo. The recording De Punta a Punta, which won best album at Miamis Gold Record Festival, marked the debut of Ceballo, who remained with the band until his death in 1991.

More changes came for El Gran Combo in the mid-1970s, when Pellin Rodriguez left the band and was eventually replaced by the popular vocalist Charlie Aponte. By 1977 the vocalist Montañez also departed, joining the Venezuelan group La Dimensión Latina. Montañezs departure shocked and saddened fans, but his replacement, Jerry Rivas, soon won over audiences.

In 1984 El Gran Combo toured Alaska, where they produced Breaking the IceEl Gran Combo en Alaska, which received a Grammy Award nomination. The band toured internationally throughout the 1980s and celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1987 with a historic concert at New York Citys Madison Square Garden.

Although many music critics thought El Gran Combo was past its peak by the 1990s, the band held on to its core group of devoted fans. When they had singer Andy Montañez, they used to be the music machine of the Caribbean, Rudolph Mangual, publisher of the Los Angeles dance-music magazine Latin Beat, told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. Obviously, theyre way past their prime, but theyre so good that they still matter. [T]heir collective presence has a unique magnetism.

Although the band is an ensemble, one key figure stands out in El Gran Combo: Ithier, who has either outlasted or outlived the bands other cofounders. Many fans regard him as the groups heart and soul, yet Ithier has always emphasized the bands lack of hierarchy. [El Gran Combo] has persevered because of its system, Ithier told Billboard magazine. We share everything: our successes, our failures, our earnings. Everything is evenly distributed. And this is an incentive for the band. Everything we make, we divide.

In May of 2002, celebrating its fortieth anniversary, El Gran Combo received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Billboard. The groupknown by many as La Bandera de la Salsa (The Salsa Flag)has shown no signs of retiring, kicking off a series of concerts and tributes and keeping fans dancing in Puerto Rico and abroad.

Selected discography

Estamos Primeros, EGC, 1970.

Nuestra Musica, Combo, 1971.

De Punta a Punta, Combo, 1971.

El Gran Combo 7, EGC, 1975.

Mejor Que Nunca, EGC, 1976.

El Historia Musical de el Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, EGC, 1982.

Innovations, Combo, 1985.

25th Anniversary, Vols. I & II, CMO, 1987.

Romantico Y Sabroso, CMO, 1988.

35th Anniversary, Combo, 1997.

Sources

Periodicals

Billboard, May 11, 2002, p. 3.

Boston Globe, March 29, 1997, p. C6.

Gazette (Montreal), April 20, 1995, p. C11.

Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1996, p. F6.

Online

El Gran Combo, All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 17, 2002).

El Gran Combo: Salsa, Music of Puerto Rico, http://musicofpuertorico.com/en/el_gran_combo.html (June 19, 2002).

Wendy Kagan

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