The Roots Of Cardi B’s “I Like It” In Boogaloo And Latin Soul: Seeco Records
(Independent scholar and cultural critic Paul Yamada has spent thirty years in different areas of the music business, in the midwest and the east. A founding editor of the pioneering rock zine Terminal Zone (1976-78), Paul has written on blues, rock, soul, jazz, and avant garde music. In addition, Yamada has written on cinema, art, and theater for a wide variety of local and national publications in Chicago, St. Louis and Washington DC. He has consulted for National Public Radio, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the Washington DC Performing Arts Society and Asian American theater companies in Chicago. His current works include a Chicago project, Wholesome, which includes music revues, essays, visual arts and daily streamed radio shows. Her also does DJ gigs.)
The Seeco record label was apparently formed in 1943 or 1944 in New York City by a jeweler named Sidney Siegel. Some sources indicate that his first 78 releases were actually made and marketed in Canada due to the shellac restrictions enforced in the United States during World War II. By the end of 1944, the operation was beginning to exist in the US and the first releases on the 500 series of 78s were released by the end of December, 1944. (1) Soon, the label had hits, most prominently by a pianist from Puerto Rico, Noro Morales. Morales had been recording since the late 1930s and had hits for a line of latin 78s produced and marketed by the Decca label. “Serenata Ritmica” was a significantly popular record on Decca for Morales. who went on to have the largest, early hit for Seeco, “Walter Winchell Mambo”, during the summer of 1945. But that shellac problem, coupled with a recording ban that was enforced by the American Federation of Musicians, would cause the major recording labels to discontinue their latin interests and release those artists from contracts, or simply not resign them. It is apparently this condition and opportunity that encouraged Siegel to start his own label, knowing that he could have his pick of recording artists, and probably get them to make records for next to nothing. Siegel and his labels did have hits in three decades, but the records and recording contracts never seem to have made anybody any money save Siegel and the holders of publishing rights. Still, it is worth noting that Seeco itself seems to have been the very first American owned and run record label to solely concentrate on various kinds of latin music. It even predates the very first independent record label in Cuba, Panart. (1)
In 1945 Seeco exposed an American market to experienced singers like Bobby Capo, Miguelito Valdes, Vitin Aviles, perhaps best known as the vocalist on Tito Puente’s early hit, Ran Kan Kan, and the mostly obscure Mario Gil, who recorded with Noro Morales. Whoever arranged these early session used some orchestra leaders older and less modern than Morales, like the venerable Augusto Coen, or the less known Roberto Ondino. In 1946 Siegel was able to sign well known Cuban composer Miguel Matamoros who recorded as Trio Matamoros and Conjunto Matamoros. The first 78s were done in March of 1946 and released in the 500 series (560 & 561). For a short time, Cuban singer par excellence, Benny More, sang with these groups. Probably more profitable for the label was the decision to sign sharp dressing and good looking band leader Pupi Campo. Campo also had had one release in 1946, but he became a hit maker for the label during what is considered the mambo era, from 1948 to 1950. His band was stacked with future stars: Tito Puente, pianist Joe Loco, singer Vitin Aviles, and a young Johnny Mandel on trombone. And yes, MASH fans, THAT Johnny Mandel! The most fortunate signing at the end of the 1940s was Sonora Matancera. This famous conjunto had a one-off release, (Seeco 78 S-513) in 1945 but later the group signed on for what proved to be a 16 year run with the label. The band’s second release was at the beginning of 1950 and by December of that year Seeco released S-7076, “Cao Cao Mani Picao,” with their new female vocalist, Celia Cruz. Cruz would remain with Sonora Matancera into 1965, and they all continued to record for Seeco into the beginning of the exciting boogaloo burst of 1966. This signing proved to be a goldmine becoming a kind of cottage industry of high profits and few expenses for the label. Through 1960, all their recordings were done in Havana and supervised and produced by group leader-founder Rogelio Martinez. But Cruz would depart for rival label Tico, and Sonora Matancera would change labels as well. These losses, and the overall failure to attract new, hip talent, would eventually lead to the demise and sale of Seeco. But let us first linger on some of the developments the label had in the later 1950s and during the 1960s. (2)
Sidney Siegal and his Seeco label benefited greatly from the North American popularity of Afro-Cuban music after WWII, which was also very popular in Mexico, an ignored part of North America. The label, however, was not just about mambo and Afro-Cuban dance music.
Rival labels would spring up in later years, (most notably Tico on 1948) which would tend to cover the “New York Latin” sound of the most popular mambo bands. Seeco’s catalogue, though, included not just the Afro-Cuban and mambo sounds, but also the native music from the French Antilles, South America, Western Europe, the Caribbean and all over the Latin diaspora.
It was a “world music” label long before the term had been coined. Seeco was the direct forerunner of present day companies like Putumayo and Island Records. Although originally intended as a strictly latin music label, by the late 1950s, its artist roster had diversified to include, jazz, music hall and cabaret artists such as Cy Coleman, controversial sex kitten Eartha Kitt and cocktail pianist Hildegard.
The heart of Seeco, especially the 9000 series of albums, remained latin, even though it became more and more diverse as the 1950s progressed into the 1960s. But there were surprises before the label signed Joe Cuba, who is intrinsic to our latin boogaloo story, and assigned him to producer Joe Cain.
The biggest surprise, and it has nothing to do with this story or even latin music, is that in 1957, Seeco released records by Pat Boone! There were at least two 45s, SR 15570X, “Love Letters In The Sand,” and SR 15660X, “April Love”, which the label itself indicates as a “10-57” release. There are also pressings of the album, Pat, Seeco 3012, which also existed on Dot. Seeco 3002 was by Vincentico Valdes and 3003 Daniel Santos. I have no idea what 3004-3011 were. How this happened seems to have eluded collectors and music historians; this could have made the label quite a bit of money, or not, as the cliché goes. (3)
Taking advantage of the way Tito Puente seems to have handled his vocalists–to be blunt, early on, Puente never gave them any public or recording credit and does not seem to have valued them very much–Seeco signed Vincentico Valdes to the label and Valdes soon became a staff producer, handling many sessions and a wide variety of acts into the mid 1960s, when he, too, left the label. Perhaps the most significant producers the label used during the 1960s were Joe Cain and briefly, Pancho Cristal (real name, Morris “Morrie” Pelsman). I have been able to confirm only one session Cristal did for Seeco, in 1965, for vibes player and composer Bobby Paunetto, before Cristal moved on to more prominent, but perhaps murkier, circumstances for the Alegre and Tico labels; he will return to this story.
Cain, or Caiani, (01-31-29) came from South Philadelphia and became a trumpet player with strong sight reading abilities. Early on he was attracted to records by Woody Herman, Harry James and Stan Kenton, but hearing early recordings by Machito and then Tito Puente had a significant effect on his musical interests. During the 1950s he free-lanced as a player-arranger and also sat in the pit for numerous Broadway shows. He eventually was hired by Vincentico Valdes and this led to work at Seeco, first as an arranger, along with Rene Hernandez, Machito’s long time pianist, and eventually as a producer. One of the first acts he produced exclusively for Seeco was Joe Cuba; Cuba (04-22-31; 02-15-09), a conguero whose real name was Gilberto Miguel Calderon. In the mid 1950s he was playing in a group led by percussionist Joe Panama. Leaving Panama, by the end of 1954, and christened “Cuba”, he formed his own Sextet and began recording first for Rainbow and then Mardi-Gras labels while gigging in New York City as well as in the Catskills. He had some success on Rainbow, with the original version of “Mambo of the Times,” slightly retitled from Pines, which noted the resort where they had been gigging. After Mardi-Gras the group worked for Discos Embajador, a subsidiary of Synthetic Plastics Company; Synthetic owned many labels but is best known for Peter Pan Records and Industries and a throng of children’s records. After Embajador, Cuba and his vibes-piano-singers Sextet were signed by Seeco and assigned to producer Joe Cain. Cuba and Cain began working on the first release for Seeco in late 1962. But let’s take a closer look at the career trajectory.
Originally billed, on the Rainbow label, as Joe Cuba & His Cha-Cha Boys, the group produced two singles in 1955; the second “Mambo of the Times”, became popular and its flip side, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” was sung in English, by vocalist Willie Torres.
Cuba next recorded for the Mardi-Gras label, vibing out five albums: Out of this World Cha Cha was first, followed by I Tried To Dance All Night—which has a distinctive cover photo; Cha Cha Chas to Soothe the Savage Beast; Red, Hot and Cha Cha Cha; and finally, breaking from the cha cha cha focus, Brava Pachanga. The first four Mard-Gras albums had performances sung in English. It is not clear that this can be said of the pachanga recording, pachanga being a dance that took over from the cha cha cha and was widely popularized in NYC by Johnny Pacheco and Charlie Palmieri in the late 1950s.
In 1961 the Cuba group moved to the Embajador label, quickly producing Merenge Loca and Joe Cuba (s/t). They were then signed to Seeco and work with producer Joe Cain. It is worth noting a willingness to diversify, on the part of the band, and change repertoire, but perhaps a sense of desperation as well as a ‘do anything to keep making records’ was also taking charge. The band rapidly cut FOUR cha cha cha records and then abruptly changed to the more current pachanga and changed again to merengue, a beat more associated with the Dominican Republic. What was next? Did this portend something actually different?
Since singer Willie Torres had departed and returned, Cuba was primarily using Cheo Feliciano and Jimmy Sabater as lead singers with Torres and Santos Colon as coro or background singers. The first Seeco album, Steppin’ Out (9246) has highlights of up-tempo mambo influences (“A La Seis”) and also a popular bolero-ballad (“Como Rien”). It is frequently noted that it has the first version of a song written by Torres, “To Be With You”, and that many fans of Cuba’s music consider this to be an or the origin of one strain of Latin soul. Origin or not, “To Be With You” was popular and has been recorded by other artists. But it is NOT soul music in the way we think of soul music in the 1960s. Rather, it borrows from many other interesting aspects of popular music: The Four Freshman; smooth, jazz inflected doo-wop; Johnny Mathis (4); Mel Torme and the Mel-Tones; and maybe hints of pop soul via Chuck Jackson or Jerry Butler. Even though it remained in the Cuba repertoire sung by Sabater, the song would always be associated with Willie Torres. Cuba’s band would re-record it for Tico and in 1967. Torres himself would record it for an Alegre All-Stars album, and the notes would call it “bolero gas”, giving it an unusual pedigree. If one looks hard enough, it is possible to discover that “To Be With You” had influence and importance far afield from NYC and Puerto Rico. The famous and multi-talented, Mexican American rock band, Thee Midnighters, included “To Be With You” on their debut album in 1966. This from a band that was as hard edged when it came to garage and proto-psyche, r&b driven rock music as any that was appearing on Sunset Strip in that year. Willie Bobo did it as an album track also in 1966.
These facts, and influence aside, it seems necessary to speculate about the audience for the song. Who really was listening and buying?
There are no simple and immediate answers.
For all its influence and importance and sophistication, “To Be With You” as recorded by Joe Cuba is NOT a Ben E King or Chuck Jackson record of that time, nor does it have the pop and pop soul touches of anything on Scepter produced by Luther Dixon, nor is it like the (usually neglected) gems cut by Johnny Nash in the period, nor the early forays into pop and soul overseen by Burt Bacharach. It does not really have many qualities resembling the currency of black soul or pop soul of the early 1960s. Sometimes when I hear “To Be With You” it even reminds me of the worst, ADULT CONTEMPORARY or MOR Sinatra-type slop that was often on the old Mike Douglas Show: usually sentimental schlock sung by someone like Jerry Vale.
So the question remains, who liked this? What was the audience? Who bought it? Did any youthful audience, including teens, really like this?
Why is this important? Well, because some music related to this sound was still being recorded and played on the radio in NYC in the early 1970s and so this “strain” of smooth, ‘muy romantic’, latin soul also penetrated the Caribbean market, and not just in Puerto Rico, during the same time period. In fact, it seems to have become a tag, a marketing tool, as one discovers Puerto Rican band leader Johnny Lopez (or, Johnny El Bravo Lopez) calling his debut album on Venezuela’s Velvet label, Fabulous Latin Soul, despite the fact that there is nothing even remotely like that on the record!
Every era has popular records that even the most hardened, beat oriented individuals like: records which entice all kinds of couples to dance slow, easy and maybe sweaty. For me, in the midst of craving and loving and living for psyche, mod garage and the roots of acid rock, I loved “Cherish,” by the Association. Perhaps “To Be With You” also had that effect on latin teens, and because it was in English, perhaps that made it even more special for a cross-section of a bilingual scene or audience. However, the only trade paper clue, which comes from Billboard, October 10, 1963, p50 only covers Puerto Rico, noting that Cuba and Seeco Records “has had an unprecedented record set by its album Steppin Out…Three numbers from this album, “A la Seis,” “Oriente” and “To Be With You” have placed second, third and seventh respectively in the Puerto Rico Teen Age Hit Parade that appears every Wednesday in Puerto Rico’s oldest and most important daily, “El Mundo.” “ Indeed, this verifies popularity in Puerto Rico—though not NYC—and perhaps with teens, and I write perhaps because of the senescence and establishment aspects of “El Mundo.” Perhaps there were no teen press alternatives, but being popular in a major newspaper in 1963 is NOT a sure sign of hipness or accuracy, and it is also worth noting that “To Be With You” had the lowest chart action of the three singles. This is worth noticing and cannot be dismissed, but is, I think somewhat equivocal in the information it provides. As already noted, the hard rocking Rolling Stones-ish influenced Thee Midnighters recorded the song and presumably performed it live. If only we could see the record collections of the band members and discuss which, and how many, Joe Cuba records these cats from the Los Angeles barrio owned! And as previously mentioned, in late 1966, percussionist Willie Bobo recorded it for his Verve album, Feelin’ So Good. Clearly the song resonated somewhere, somehow, with somebody.
While Joe Cuba’s arrangement with Seeco may have been established in 1962, exactly when his first recording, Steppin’ Out, was released remains unclear. There are clues from Billboard, but even they add to the uncertainty. The March 9 issue has a notice of Steppin’ Out on page 41(Seeco 9248/92480) but an earlier notice, from January 12, 1963, on page 27, lists new Seeco albums releases, one of which is Suave, by Vincentico Valdes (Seeco 9249), so it is quite possible that Steppin’ Out was released in January, or even December of 1962. One other source adds to the confusion, or uncertainty, but indeed establishes that the record was out by January or February of 1963 and this comes from the notes to a Rhino CD release of music Celia Cruz and Sonora Matancera made for the Seeco label. In the notes to The Best of Celia Cruz con Sonora Matancera, RZ 72816, the booklet lists 12 Cruz & Matancera albums on Seeco and lists catalogue numbers and release information, and Seeco 9246—two releases prior to Steppin’ Out—La Tierna, conmovedora, Bamboleadora Celia Cruz, is listed with a release date of 01-18-63. Inasmuch as the Cuba disc is 9248, this would indicate an early 1963 release as well, even though many accounts of this album are certain it was released in 1962. The Rhino booklet does not provide sources for its “research”, and the specificity of the release date is not the kind of thing Billboard usually provided, though Rhino has had a longstanding relationship with that trade paper.
The uncertainty is compounded by further information in the notes to the Cruz CD. It lists two recordings, Homanaje A Los Santos, 9269 and Sabor Y Ritmo De Puebla 9271 and listed the release date as 09-10-64 and 04-10-65 respectively. It is perhaps a strange piece of business that it took the company SEVEN months to release a second record after 9269. Besides being inexplicable, it does make the assertion of accurate and specific information in these notes suspect, and the inquiry into the exact release date for Cuba’s Steppin’ Out continues to be something of a mystery, though clearly it was available sometime in early 1963. This excursion into the problems and vagaries of dating a Seeco release is indeed important because it establishes the problems a researcher encounters trying to answer simple questions about the time frame of the recordings.
One further significant aspect of the album Steppin’ Out, is in the title, which preferred “Steppin’” to “Stepping”, and that is because it is English rather than Spanish. Prior to this release, the previous album in the Seeco catalogue with English in the title was 9118, perhaps from 1958, by Leo Marini and Elsa Miranda: Songs of Love – Noche Azul. Even that was not entirely English. Furthermore, the pattern of English titles for Cuba releases would continue for several more releases, as would the slang spelling of a present participle.
The second Joe Cuba release, also done with producer Joe Cain, is titled Diggin’ the Most (9259), and is mentioned as a new release in the December 14, 1963 issue of Billboard. It has an English language recording that will receive attention later. Sometime after this record came out, Cuba moved to the Tico label, supposedly at the insistence of Morris Levy, who owned Tico since 1957. The contract may have been bought, but there might also have been coercion. Hence, the next release by Joe Cuba was Hangin’ Out (Tico 1112) and it is mentioned as a new release in the September 19, 1964 Billboard. This new label and producer, Teddy Reig, continued using titles with an incomplete present participle, and Hangin’ Out would not be the last one of these. Since Cuba’s music plays a large role in the main part of this essay, I shall conclude this section on Seeco with a quick review of Cuba’s activities on the label.
A third album of all new material was released by Seeco while Cuba was recording for Tico. Comin’ At You seems to have been released in late 1965, perhaps at the same time as Cuba’s FOURTH album for Tico was released, which was We Must Be Doing Something Right. As this record will receive attention later, at the appropriate time, nothing more needs to be said about it or the other albums on Tico prior to it. I have seen nothing commenting on this arrangement, that both labels continued to release product, and at least for a time, new product, and while it is not rare, it is not altogether common. Like Steppin’ Out, Comin’ At You had another extra smooth, crooning piece of latin soul, “This Is Love,” sung by Willie Torres this time. Seeco did not give up and it put out two more Cuba albums over the next several years, though both of them were recycled materials that had been previously released: Breaking Out (9292, November, 1966, and with a “g”, though it was also listed as a new release in the March 4, 1967 Billboard) and With Cheo Feliciano (9349, at least as late as 1968, perhaps even later). What Levy and others associated with Tico felt about this does not seem to have been documented, and Billboard makes no mention of any of this. For now, this survey of roots and background must leave Seeco (though it will return) and head to Tico. Though the label did release a few great latin boogaloo related records, boogaloo and market currency is not what Seeco did with regard to the music after the Joe Cuba Sextet left for Tico in 1965.
Keeping current is not all that happened, of course, as Celia Cruz and Vincentico Valdes left in 1965 and 1966 respectively, and Siegal sold out in 1969, not long before he died. Met Richmond Record Sales was the first owner–and it is now with Codigo, owner of Fania–though the company has done little with this catalogue and has ignored music prior to 1960 for the most part. Sad, sad, and VERY sad. A box of the first 200 Seeco 78s would be a great addition to the world of 1940s latin music.
1 There were efforts to record and release latin music before Seeco, for details see Deborah Pacini Hernandez, Oye Como Va! Hybridity and Identity in Latino Popular Music, (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2010), 22-24.
2 See Seeco Album Discography, Text by Don Charles/Don Charles Hampton, p1-2: http://www.bsnpubs.com/latin/seeco.html and Donny Jacobs, “Sidney Siegel’s House of Gold The Seeco Records Story”, The Pop Culture Cantina (February 9, 2011). http://popculturecantina.blogspot.com.au/2011_02_01_archive.html?zx=6de62760e4069b22 .
3 There is no thorough discography for Seeco 78s and/or 45s. I have been able to discover some releases, and this is as far as I could get regarding the early releases by the label:
Seeco 500 series through the initial 22 releases, I have found ten:
501 Illusion Perdida/Gitana; Grupo Marcano
507 Tambo o cuchu el eco/Te quiero dijiste; Miguelito Valdes
509 Nuestras vidas; Bobby Campo
511 Por Eso so debes; Chucho Martinez Gill with Noro Morales orchestra
512 Reflexion; Bobby Capo with Noro Morales
513 (unknown titles); Sonora Matancera
514 Walter Winchell Mambo; Noro Morales (Billboard hit notice, 07-28-45)
520 Lacho/Adiosito; Miguelito Valdes
521 Pare que safras; Chucho Martinez Gill with Noro Morales
522 Serenata Ritmica; Noro Morales (Billboard hit notice 11-03-45)]
4 Mathis who, incidentally, recorded the song that made Miguelito Valdes famous, Babalu, and which Desi Arnaz appropriated, may have been a special reference for these musicians and singers.