Colón, Willie: 1950—
Willie Colón: 1950—: Salsa performer, producer, composer, activist
Willie Colón was one of the founders of the jazz-inflected Latin American dance music known as salsa. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, he was "the unifier, the alche-mist, [and] the enabler" of the rhythmic salsa style. An unusually multitalented musician, Colón became a star himself and succeeded in bringing other musicians together to create new sounds. Colón is noted among historians and loved by audiences for his contributions as a trombonist, bandleader, producer, vocalist, composer, lyricist, and arranger on more than 40 top-selling salsa albums. Always a musician who tried to combine social commentary with danceable entertainment, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Colón became more and more involved with community issues in New York City, and ran for political office several times.
William Anthony Colón Román was born on April 28, 1950, in the New York City borough of the Bronx. His parents had come to New York from Puerto Rico. Colón was partially raised by his grandmother, who had performed music in the rural Puerto Rican jibaro style, and who gave him a trumpet and a paid-up time slot with a music teacher when he was 12. Before long Colón had organized a band that played at dances and local social functions. His classical training won him a spot in the New York Youth Symphony and would contribute to the striking versatility Colón showed later in his career.
Switched to Trombone
Colón found his own musical soul when he switched from trumpet to trombone, inspired by listening to the music of trombonist Barry Rogers in the pioneering band of Eddie Palmieri, and the three-trombone band performing under leader Mon Rivera. "The trombone used to be this sweet thing, a Tommy Dorsey, big band instrument," Colón told the Boston Globe. "Nobody had thought of having it as a front line instrument. But we saw the trombone could be a nasty, loud instrument with Barry Rogers." After a preliminary single on the Futura label, Colón was signed in 1967 to Fania, the label that eventually became central to the salsa recording industry. Recording as a trombonist and bandleader, Colón released El malo, an album that despite its rough edges spawned the regional hit "Jazzy" and announced a new force in Latin music.
By 1974 Colón had released 15 albums in partnership with his lead vocalist Hector Lavoe who, according to the Boston Globe, reluctantly came on board after telling Colón, "Your band stinks." However, Lavoe ended up co-composing many of the band's songs with Colón. Out of a swirl of new Latin styles that arose in the late 1960s grew a lasting form, known as salsa, that featured virtuoso, jazz-influenced brass playing; intense, upbeat rhythms influenced by Dominican merengue; Colombian cumbia; the pace of urban life in general; and a vocal focus that enabled songwriters to stretch beyond simple dance-and-have-fun themes. Some have credited Colón with originating the word "salsa," although its origins remain obscure. In any event, Colón showed sales muscle, and 1970's Cosa nuestra became the first in a string of 20 gold records awarded for sales of 500,000 or more copies, including five that were platinum million-sellers.
At a Glance . . .
Born on April 28, 1950, in Bronx, NY. Education: Studied music theory and composition.
Career: Signed to Fania label, 1967; released debut album El malo, 1968; released 15 albums as bandleader with lead vocalist Hector Lavoe, 1968-74; first gold record, Cosa nuestra, 1970; teamed with lead vocalist Rubén Blades; released bestselling album Siembra, 1978; released several solo albums, including Fantasmas, 1981; extensive production and arranging work, 1970s and 1980s; became community activist and entered politics, early 1990s; became member, President's Commission on the Arts and Humanities, 1993; ran for U.S. Congress, 1994; became spokesperson for CARE relief organization, 1997; ran for Public Advocate, City of New York, 2001.
Selected memberships: American Society of Composers, Authors & Performers (ASCAP); became first minority member, ASCAP National Board of Trustees, 1995; ASCAP Foundation.
Address: Office— ELMALO, Inc., 1333a North Ave., New Rochelle, NY 10804.
When Lavoe left Colón's band in 1975 for a solo career, Colón produced his first two solo albums. Colón also produced albums by Cuban-American superstar Celia Cruz and shared the spotlight with her on the Celia y Willie album of 1981. He also collaborated at various times with Mon Rivera, percussionist Ernie Agosto, and the Fania All Stars. But his most important collaboration was with Panamanian songwriter and vocalist Rubén Blades, whom Colón had met in Panama in 1969. Blades's eclectic and adventurous approach to Latin music paralleled Colón's own, and he replaced Lavoe as Colón's lead vocalist. Blades was subsequently featured on several Colón albums between 1977 and 1982.
Broadened Topics of Salsa Lyrics
The creative partnership between Colón and Blades was a stormy but productive one, and the two parted company acrimoniously several times over the years. However, in 1978 they created Siembra, one of salsa's all-time bestselling albums. In the 1980s and 1990s, Colón began to diversify the topics addressed in his songs. "El gran varon" dealt with the AIDS scourge, and other songs dealt with such topics as poverty and military dictatorships in Latin America. "That's the magic, the real secret of what I do: balancing the commercial, the artistic and the social—without being heavy-handed or foisting something on people to the point they reject it," Colón told the Boston Globe.
Colón studied music theory and orchestration in the late 1970s, and his musical skills increased along with his poetic reach. He remained much in demand in the 1980s and 1990s as a producer and arranger, and made several solo recordings featuring his own vocals. Especially successful was Fantasmas, one of the best selling albums of his career. Colón recorded a few tracks in English, but for the most part he avoided crossover efforts. "I think what we do plays a very important role in the community and I want to remain true to the people we represent, who supported me from the beginning," he told the Boston Globe. Colón amassed 11 Grammy award nominations, and in 1991 the former Bronx high school dropout became the recipient of a Chubb fellowship from Yale University.
A legendary figure throughout the Spanish-speaking Western Hemisphere, Colón continued to make music in the 1990s and 2000s. When he performed in large outdoor settings, as he did at an Easter concert at Mexico City's central Zócalo in 2000, he often drew crowds of 100,000 or more. But Colón's interests increasingly turned to community activism and politics during the 1990s. "Sometimes writing a song is not enough," the singer told the New York Times, explaining his decision to challenge Bronx U.S. Representative Eliot Engel in the 1994 New York Democratic primary election.
Colón lost, but garnered a respectable 38 percent of the vote, and he also did well in a citywide race for New York Public Advocate in 2001, although it was an unsuccessful bid. Colón continued to turn his energies to the public good in various ways. He served on the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities under President Bill Clinton, became a spokesperson for the CARE International relief agency, joined the agitation against the U.S. Navy bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, and was instrumental in persuading New York Governor George Pataki to lend his support to the ultimately successful effort to halt the bombings. In 2001 Colón composed and produced a Spanish-language jingle for the successful mayoral campaign of Republican candidate Michael Bloom-berg. As he gained contacts and experience, it seemed possible that Colón might one day exert political influence to match the tremendous impact he had already made on the musical lives of Latin Americans, as well as on everyone else whose attention was ever snared by the musical flavor of salsa.
El malo, Fania, 1968.
Cosa nuestra, Fania, 1971.
Crime Pays, Fania, 1973.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, Fania, 1976.
Siembra, Fania, 1978.
Solo, Fania, 1979.
Fantasmas, Fania, 1981.
Criollos, RCA, 1984.
Altos secretos, Fania, 1989.
Grandes exitos, Fania, 1992.
Super exitos, Fania, 1992.
The Best, Sony Discos, 1992.
Best, Vol. 2, Sony, 1994.
Brillantes, Sony, 1996.
Best, Fania, 1996.
20th Anniversary, Sony Discos, 1999.
Colleción de Oro, Sony, 2002.
Boston Globe, September 21, 1990, p. Arts & Film-48; June 17, 1993, p. Calendar-9.
Daily News (New York), October 22, 1999, p. 4.
Houston Chronicle, June 27, 1993, p. Zest-7; June 17, 1996, p. Houston-4.
Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2002, p. Calendar-8.
New York Times, June 25, 1994, Section 1, p. 25; September 29, 2001, p. D2.
"Willie Colón," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (March 26, 2003).
"Willie Colón," Lycos.com, www.music.lycos.com (March 26, 2003).
"Willie Colón - Biography," Willie Colón Homepage, www.williecolon.com/bio.htm (March 26, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
Trombonist, bandleader, composer
New York-born musician Willie Colon has had enormous influence on contemporary Latin jazz. One of the pioneers of salsa, in the early 1970s he worked with legendary Puerto Rican singer Hector Lavoe (who died of AIDS in the late 1980s) to create this distinctive rhythm-charged blend of traditional Cuban dance music with the American big band sound. Strongly influenced by the forceful style of trombonists Barry Rogers and Jose Rodrigues (both of the Eddie Palmieri orchestra), Colon is also credited with being the first bandleader to put only trombones in the band’s front line. He has collaborated extensively with other leading Latin musical artists, most notably Ruben Blades and Celia Cruz. Although he has remained active on the Latin music scene, Colon has become increasingly involved in politics, running unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in New York’s 17th District to win a congressional seat in 1994, and in 2001 for public advocate of New York City. He also spent close to a year playing a recurring character in one of Mexico’s most popular telenovelas (soap operas).
Colon was born William Anthony Colon Roman on April 28, 1950, in the Bronx, New York, the grandson of Puerto Rican immigrants. His early interest in music was nurtured by his grandmother, Antonia, who sang Puerto Rican folk songs to lull him to sleep. Colon also traced his devotion to his cultural and ethnic roots to his grandmother’s accounts of family life in Puerto Rico, as well as her strong beliefs and personality. When he was 12 years old, Colon began studying the trumpet and within a short time had put together a band; he switched from trumpet to trombone soon afterward. The teenaged Colon and his band were discovered in 1967 by Al Santiago, the late founder of Alegre Records; Santiago produced Colon’s first recording session.
Unfortunately, Santiago’s new record label, Futura, on which he had hoped to launch Colon and company, folded before the deal could be done. However, waiting in the wings was renowned bandleader Johnny Pacheco, also in search of new talent for his foundling label, Fania. Pacheco, however, was less than impressed with the lead singer for Colon’s band and quickly recommended a replacement—Hector Lavoe.
At the outset Lavoe was less than enthused about working with Colon but wanted so desperately to be recorded that he accepted the offer. Their first collaboration, a 1967 album entitled El malo, was panned by the critics, who objected to the recording’s raw, amateurish sound. This did nothing, however, to dissuade the record-buying public, which found the raunchy new sound appealing despite its technical flaws. In time, Colon’s band, most of whose members were teenagers like Colon himself—including future instrumental stars trombonist Joe Santiago (he later switched to bass), pianist Mark Dimond, and percussionists Pablo Rosario and Nicky Marrero—was credited with launching the “New York sound.”
Born William Anthony Colon Roman on April 28, 1950, in the Bronx, NY; married to Julia; children: four sons.
Began studying trumpet, age 12; formed his own band, age 14; switched from trumpet to trombone shortly thereafter; recorded first album, El malo, for Fania, a salsa record label, 1967; recorded extensively with leading Latin artists, including Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, and Tito Puente; helped introduce American audiences to salsa and other Latin sounds through his work with David Byrnes on the 1989 album Reimomo; ran unsuccessfully for congressional seat.
Addresses: Record company —Azteca Records S.A. de C.V., Mexico City, Mexico. Business —El Malo Inc., 1333A North Ave., Ste. 153, New Rochelle, NY 10804. Website—Willie Colon Official Website: http://www.williecolon.com. E-mail —[email protected] Ion.com.
Two years later Colon crossed paths with Panamanianborn singer/songwriter Ruben Blades. Each would play an important role in the other’s career in the years to come. They first met during a concert tour made by Colon’s band in support of their hit single “Che Che Cole” from the album Cosa nuestra. After playing a date in Panama City, Colon and his band members were backstage when Blades popped in to meet them. (In addition to Colon and Lavoe, the band at that time consisted of Louis Romero on timbale, Milton Cardona on congas, Jose Mangual Jr. on drums, Santi Gonzalez on bass, William Campbell on trombone, and Jose Torres on keyboards.) Taken with the band’s sound, Blades gave them a handful of his latest compositions. It would be a few years, however, before Colon and Blades collaborated on a larger scale.
In the mid-1970s Colon’s band broke up. On the surface, Colon claimed the decision was motivated by his need for a break from the pressures of touring as well as a desire to expand his musical knowledge through further study. However, insiders suggested that Lavoe’s increasing problems with addiction were a significant factor. Colon had also become increasingly involved in producing records and was planning to produce an album that blended Puerto Rican folkloric themes with some of the new influences that had caught his interest, including Brazilian music. The project reunited the former band, vocalist Lavoe, Yomo Toro, and a handful of studio musicians. For this transitional effort, entitled The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Colon asked Blades to contribute the vocals for “El cazanguero,” which Blades had written. At the time, Blades was in New York and working as a member of Ray Barretto’s orchestra.
In 1976 Blades left the Barretto band, and shortly afterward recorded his first album as Colon’s lead vocalist. The album, Matiendo mano, represented a breakthrough for both men. Because critics had carped that Blades’ vocal style and timbre too closely mirrored that of Cheo Feliciano, the singer worked closely with Colon to create a new singing style. On the instrumental side, Colon’s band, now fronted by four trombones, had an exciting and elegant new sound, further enhanced by the thoughtful arrangements of the late Louie Ramirez, Sonny Bravo, Luis “Perico” Ortiz, and Colon himself. The album was a resounding critical and popular success.
Following up on their success with Matiendo mano, Colon and Blades released Siembra, which became one of the biggest selling salsa albums ever released. At about this same time Colon produced a number of albums for Cuban songstress Celia Cruz (Only They Could Have Done This Album and Celia & Willie) and Puerto Rican salsa singer Ismael Miranda (Doble energia), as well as most of the recordings of his former vocalist, Hector Lavoe. In the early 1980s, Colon and Blades teamed up again to release a two-part Latin suite entitled Maestra we/a, which showcased the full spectrum of Blades’ compositions in the context of a Broadway-type musical drama. In 1981 the two collaborated on Fantasmas, on which Colon performed solo vocals, and Canciones del solar de los aburridos, which contained such hit singles as Tiburon,” “Ligia Elena,” and “Te estan buscando.” Two years later Colon and Blades worked together again on the soundtrack of a motion picture entitled The Last Fight It was to be their last collaboration for several years.
As their recording careers progressed, both Colon and Blades became upset and frustrated with the treatment they received from Fania record executives. They left the label, despite Blades’ remaining contractual commitment to another three albums, and Colon’s to another six. After disappointing experiences with both the RCA and Sonotone labels, however, Colon returned to Fania in the late 1980s to produce the last two albums for which he was obligated. He collaborated again with Celia Cruz on The Winners, released in 1987, and in 1988 released Top Secrets, which included his hit single, “El gran varon.” Colon also produced Hector Lavoe’s last album, Hector Lavoe Strikes Back. Despite their claims to the contrary, however, it later became clear that the relationship between the two artists had deteriorated dramatically.
Beginning in 1989 and running into the mid-1990s, Colon worked for the Sony label as both an artist and a producer, releasing three solo albums, American Color in 1990, Honra y cultura in 1991, and Hecho en Puerto Rico in 1993. Although he was increasingly discouraged by Sony’s lack of promotion for his efforts, Colon was persuaded to take part in a Sony project that reunited him with longtime collaborator Blades. That album, Tras la tormenta, released in 1995, was an artistic disappointment, largely because the tracks of each were recorded separately and later merged in the recording studio. They didn’t even get together for the album cover photo session.
In the latter half of the 1990s, Colon moved his home base to Mexico City, recording for Azteca Records there and later appearing for a time in a recurring role in the television Azteca telenovela (soap opera), Demasiado Corazon. A CD by the same name was a big success in Latin markets and was later released in the United States. Although he had chosen to live in Mexico City, Colon remained keenly interested in American political developments, and he returned frequently to the land of his birth.
In addition to their passion for music, Colon and Blades shared a profound interest in politics. In 1994, both men ran unsuccessfully for office in their respective countries. Blades fell short in his bid for the presidency of Panama, while Colon failed to win the Democratic nomination for New York’s 17th District congressional seat. Both men have used their music as a vehicle for their political philosophies. Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza banned Colon’s songs in that country in the 1970s, and Colon has been arrested a number of times in Latin American countries for his outspoken views. In 1993, after performing at President Clinton’s inaugural festivities, Colon was invited by Clinton to join the president’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He turned down the invitation so that he could devote his full attention to his bid for the congressional seat.
Colon reunited once again with Blades in the fall of 1998 for a smashingly successful concert at La Carlota Airport in Caracas, Venezuela—more than 140,000 tickets were sold. His political consciousness was aroused by the controversy surrounding the American military’s use of Vieques, an island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, for bombing practice. In 2001 Colon mounted a campaign for public advocate in New York City. In the end, he threw his support to former opponent Betsy Gotbaum, who won the job in a runoff election in October of 2001.
Away from the concert hall and political arena, Colon enjoys a quiet family life with his wife Julia and their four sons. Among his interests are flying and computer programming. His contribution to Latin music—and more specifically the unique sound of salsa—has been immeasurable.
El malo, Fania, 1968.
The Hustler, Fania, 1968.
Guisando, Fania, 1969.
Cosa nuestra, Fania, 1971.
Asalto navideno, Fania, 1972.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Fania, 1975.
(With Ruben Blades) Metiendo mano, Fania, 1977.
(With Ruben Blades) Siembra, Fania, 1978.
(With Ismael Miranda) Doble energia, Fania, 1980.
(With Ruben Blades) Canciones del solar de los aburridos, Fania, 1981.
Honra y cultura, Sony International, 1991.
Hecho en Puerto Rico, Sony International, 1993.
(With Ruben Blades) Tras la tormenta, Sony International, 1995.
Demasiado Corazon, Lederes Entertainment Group, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1997.
“Colon, Willie—Salsa,” Music of Puerto Rico, http://www.musicofpuertorico.com/es/willie_colon.html (February 15, 2002).
“Wille Colon,” Celebrating Hispanic Heritage—Music, http://www.galegroup.com/free_resources/chh/bio/colon_w.htm (February 15, 2002).
“Willie Colon: Biography,” La Musica, http://www.lamusica.com/williecolon/bio.htm (February 15, 2002).
Willie Colon Official Website, http://www.williecolon.com (February 15, 2002).