(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.)
It hardly seems a coincidence that following the recording career of Joe Cuba in the early and mid 1960s takes us to Tico Records, since Tico is another record label deeply involved with the backstory and lead up to boogaloo in 1966. Indeed, it is more deeply important and enmeshed to the story than is Seeco.
Tico is the second oldest American record label dedicated to latin music, and in this case, cutting edge, commercial latin dance music, and more so than Seeco was in many ways. George Goldner (02-15-18; 04-15-70) formed the label in 1948 and named it from the song “Tico Tico”. He was apparently a latin music enthusiast and dancer and his second wife was a Latina. As it happened, Goldner’s timing at least for that moment, was perfect. Tito Puente and singer Tito Rodriguez had left their spots with Pupi Campo and Noro Morales respectively and were forming their own bands and Goldner was able to sign them up post haste. The label began issuing 78s in a 1000 series; to date there is very little discographical back-up for this, though the first Tito Puente 78 on Tico is 1011, “Un Corazon”/”Solos Tu Y Yo” and the second Tito Puente 78, “Mambo Macoco”/”Abaniquito” was popular and it was Tico 1012. Without much in the way of discography listings, it is very difficult to know how long the 1000 series lasted; all I have found is this further evidence: Tico 1019, “La Yuca,” by Tito Rodriguez and Tico 1048, “Cuban Cutie”/”Burujon Punao,” by Tito Puente, also issued on Tico 10-020. Conjecture concedes that Goldner started the 10-000 series by 1949, and it would last for many years. The second artist to have a 78 release on Tico was Tito Rodriguez con Los Lobos del Mambo. Singer Johnny Lopez, who sang on what was apparently the first Puente 78, “Un Corazon”/”Solos Tu Y Yo” was the third recording artist for the label on the 10-000 series and with the issue of that disc Tico was off and running.
Tico quickly achieved success and established Puente and Rodriguez as stars. By fall of 1951 new Tico 78s were being noticed in Billboard and the company ran a mambo centric advertisement in the 11-10-51 issue. This is not as quickly as Seeco established itself with Billboard but it is a marker of success. Goldner was able to persuade the pianist of Tito Rodriguez’s band to make his own records, and Joe Loco and His Muchachos hit with a mambo-ized version of “Tenderly.” The 03-22-52 issue of Billboard notes the Tico 78, though it misspells the name as “Logo”. Still, Loco went on to have a long and excellent career playing latinized and mambo-ized standards and pop tunes, with a rhythm group as well as an orchestra.
In 1953, Goldner could not keep still and he started the Rama label, primarily to release blues and r&b recordings. The fifth release, “Gee”, by an African American vocal group named The Crows, became a huge hit in the spring of 1954. Goldner started a second label, before the record “Gee” peaked, named, Gee, in late 1953. Some of Goldner’s r&b productions used the mambo as their beat and some of the mambo recordings on Tico were of the very same r&b songs that the doo wop groups recorded on Rama and Gee, as Joe Loco recorded “Gee” in late 1953 (Tico 10-208). Goldner had a ‘sound’, and an excellent ear; he was very good at picking hit songs and as a producer, made great sounding records, no matter what the sound was! He was also quite capable as a sales person and a promotion person. His work at Rama was helped greatly by his hiring Bert Keyes as pianist, arranger and sometime recording artist. By late 1956, Goldner, who already had gambling and personal problems, went into business with Joe Kolsky and Phil Kahl to form Roulette Records, a label that quickly acquired a pop rockabilly platter from the small Triple-D label and made it a hit for Buddy Knox. That record was “Party Doll.” Soon Morris Levy, owner of Birdland, would buy out Goldner, and by 1961, Kolsky and Kahl.
As poet John Milton might have written, Goldner’s association with Roulette and Morris Levy was perhaps the beginning of all his woe. Levy allegedly assisted RCA in signing Tito Puente away from Tico, thus weakening the label. (1) Goldner’s association with Roulette was brief; evidently Goldner did not like the kind of music the label targeted, which was much more pop than r&b. When Goldner wanted out of Roulette, his finances were so poor that Levy also bought Rama and Gee AND Tico. This did not end his ties with Tico, but it made them sporadic and via piece work. Nevertheless, Goldner went forward, starting two more r&b labels in 1957, End and Gone. He eventually lost these two labels as well. In 1964 when Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller began Red Bird Records, they recruited Goldner to produce and do promotions and were evidently sold on his talents, too. In 1966, tired of the complications Goldner and his “associates” caused, and for other reasons as well, Leiber & Stoller sold Goldner Red Bird for $1.00. Billboard notes this “sale” in the April 16, 1966 issue, p 7. By that time, or even earlier, perhaps as early as late 1965, Goldner started his second latin label, Cotique, a class operation (up to a point) he ran from addresses in NYC and in East Hartford, CT. At first, he even had a partner, Stanley Lewis. If nothing else, some of the class may be attributed to the beautiful Charles Stewart photos that graced almost every Cotique album cover until Goldner died in April, 1970.
After Goldner no longer owned Tico, Ralph Seijo became the head of A&R and expanded and diversified the roster. From 1957 forward Ralph Seijo also did most of the producing, but he left in 1960 and then Teddy Reig, who was already on staff at Roulette, became the main producer. Reig would produce Joe Cuba’s records until 1965 and those by Ray Barretto through the mid 1960s as well. Cuba did not have major hits with Reig, but Barretto had one, and it is a significant record inasmuch as it is a slight foreshadowing of boogaloo. This record was the 45, “El Watusi,” drawn for the Barretto album, Charanga Moderna.
Barretto and Reig brought Tico a significant track record of jazz, though perhaps surprisingly, neither of them did much in the way of latin jazz for the label. Barretto (04-29-29/02-17-06) was a powerful conga player whose career began with band leader and pianist Jose Curbelo and continued with Tito Puente from late 1957 through 1960. During this period he freelanced as a session musician for the jazz labels Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and Verve. His first jazz date was for Lou Donaldson and it became the Blue Note album Swing and Soul (1566, 1957). By the end of 1958 he had done dates for Red Garland, Gene Ammons, and another for Lou Donaldson; he also became part of the Art Blakey Percussion Ensemble. He doubled his sessions from 1959 to 1960 and this may have led the Riverside label to sign him as a band leader. One curious aspect of Barretto’s sideman experiences is that he participated in several early, great, smoldering, funky, soul jazz dates, like the classic, Kenny Burrell album Midnight Blue, (1963), which produced “Chitlins Con Carne,” an important and influential and fantastic track. Barretto’s work as band leader during this period has nothing of this vibe and one must wonder why. There are no answers.
On Riverside he made two albums, the first album retained in more than one version, either as Barretto Para Bailar or Pachanga With Barretto, while the second, Latino, employed some great Cuban players skilled in jazz descarga. Neither record sold well despite the then-current pachanga craze. Just why Barretto abandoned jazz and aspects of latin jazz and did not include any aspects of r&b, blues and real soul remains a mystery. The poor sales did not prevent Teddy Reig at Tico from signing him and continuing to record pachanga and allowing Barretto to use the same kind of flutes and violins charanga band that had failed to interest an audience before. His Tico debut was called Charanga Moderna (1087) and Billboard gave it a 4 Star review in the November 10, 1962 issue, on p 46.
By the time Reig produced his first session for Tico, which became a Lalo Schifrin album (Piano Espanol, 1070) in 1960, he had almost eighteen years of experience as a jazz producer. He had done an early session with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie backing Clyde Hart’s Allstars, as well as all of the sessions Parker and Miles Davis cut for Savoy. After leaving Savoy, where he did many more bebop influenced sessions, he freelanced, but from the early 1950s into the mid 1960s he did most of his work for Roost and Roulette, which acquired Roost after Morris Levy owned that label. The major artists Reig did extensive work with including Count Basie, Stan Getz, Johnny Smith, Sonny Stitt, and Sarah Vaughn. Just prior to his first Tico assignment, Reig produced a famous Machito album for Roulette, With Flute To Boot, released in the winter of 1959. Prior to this, the only latin or latin jazz Reig had done was one 78 for Roost, “Cubop City,” a collaboration between trumpeter Howard McGhee and the rhythm section of Machito’s orchestra, ten years earlier in 1948 or early 1949, though it is quite possible that Reig heard latin bands during his jazz days in the 1950s at Birdland, a club by then owned by Morris Levy as famous for bebop influenced jazz as well as progressive latin bands like Machito’s orchestra. (2)
Reig next worked with Tito Puente on El Rey: Bravo (1086), a mostly dull pachanga record which has the original version of “Oye Como Va,” a track made famous in 1969-70 by the rock group Santana. The next record he did for Tico was Barretto’s Charanga Moderna. The album is also a rather ordinary pachanga disc and though perhaps modestly popular, it went rather quietly, despite that 4 Star review, until a Roulette advertisement noted “El Watusi,” Tico 419, in the April 6, 1963 Billboard. Whoever made the decision to release “El Watusi” on 45, it proved to be a success, catching the mini wave of hits with “watusi” in the title or as the title. The first of those hits out of the gate was “Watusi”, by the Vibrations. The disc cracked the top 40, making #39 in the Billboard Hot 100 (03-13-61) and breaking top 15 R&B, netting the #13 slot (04-03-61). The groove and vibe is essentially borrowed from Hank Ballard’s 1960 discs of “Finger Poppin Time” and “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go,” though the driving rhythm guitar on “Watusi,” courtesy of Matt Murphy, is more distinctive than the guitar on the Ballard sides. Singing group The Orlons had the biggest hit with “The Wah-Watusi” during the summer of 1962, cracking the top five for the Hot 100 and R&B charts. The Cameo label had the Orlons, and tried the same song out on Chubby Checker, in 1963, but released it only in Italy.
Mongo Santamaria’s cover version of “Watermelon Man,” a Herbie Hancock composition that appeared on his debut Blue Note recording, may well have blazed the trail, in some ways, for “El Watusi.” If nothing else, the Santamaria disc became a classic as a kind of latin soul, influenced by blues, jazz and early soul, but in a decidedly latin style with something of a hybrid groove and vibe. Before further investigating these two records, let it be noted that as a dance, the watusi became almost as popular as the twist and clearly co-existed with it in 1961, remaining popular right through competition from the Crawl, and the Monkey, both best represented by discs from Willie Mitchell and JC Davis respectively. Of course the dance steps hits kept coming and by 1964 had spawned “Twine Time”, “The Jerk” and “The Swim.” Some indication of the continued popularity of the watusi is that a cover of “Wah-Watusi” was included on the very, very dance step album, “Doin’ Mickey’s Monkey,” by the Miracles, with Claudette Robinson singing lead, and released in November, 1963. Certainly Watusi/the Watusi had as much appeal as the Twist.
If “El Watusi” had a Watusi wave to help it, perhaps two other things helped as well. There was already a latin record in the charts when “El Watusi” began its chart run. It is an early classic of latin soul, the Mongo Santamaria version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” The original was on Hancock’s Blue Note debut, Takin’ Off, noted in Billboard’s Special Merit Albums under Jazz, October 20, 1962. Blue Note released Watermelon Man on 45, and it, too, received attention in the Special Merit section for Singles, with a 4 Star review, December 1, 1962. The album made the jazz album charts at #20 by January 5, 1963. Within the next two months, the Mongo Santamaria version was in the Hot 100 at #83 (March 16, 1963). The record stayed in the Hot 100 through the week of May 25, peaked at #10 (April 27); it hit the R&B chart March 30 at #26, peaked at #8 (May 4) and remained until June 1 (at #11) only to appear no further. During this ride, it also made #18 on the MOR chart. The album made #42 on the Hot 100 album chart. A very nice ride for a classic latin-dance-jazz-soul disc. Santamaria’s follow up, “Yeh Yeh” had a much shorter shelf life, making a Singles Spotlight the week of May 25, 1963 and on June 22, it made the Hot 100 at #92 and after falling to #107 the following week, it disappeared. Eight months later, British musician and singer Georgie Fame took “Yeh Yeh” to the top of the UK chart and managed #21 on the US Hot 100 in an eight week run. Another very good latin version of “Watermelon Man” by Ray Terrace, was released on the Jubilee label (5515) in August-September of 1965. Terrace also recorded a classic latin-soul-jazz version of Cuchy Frito Man (Jubilee 5538) which also did well—better, in fact–for Cal Tjader and his Soul Burst album and on 45 (Verve 10397) all of which was in the first half of 1966. Santamaria must have been following some of this as he re-recorded the song for his new label, Columbia, and it was also released during the summer of 1965.
The chart run of “Watermelon Man” certainly may have helped “El Watusi,” and perhaps so did the Roulette advertisement that preceded its chart appearance. Quite possibly no one at Tico bothered to listen nor did any one hear a “hit’. At any rate, Tico did not decide to release “El Watusi” on a 45 until it received notice that it was getting radio play and that DJs were inquiring about it. Perhaps that is why it was included in a Roulette ad on April 6, 1963 (p31), five months after the album had been released.
Whatever the alchemy, something worked, for by the following week, “El Watusi” was listed in Billboard as a Regional Breakout, and the next week, April 20, listed again AND in the Bubbling Under the Hot 100 at #103. For the final week of April it began its journey on the Hot 100 at #90 and it also received radio notice, at KYA, in San Francisco, DJ Russ Syracuse noted “El Watusi” as “the highest newcomer on the survey… at #14” (p.40) The run on the Hot 100 peaked at #17 the week of June 1. On June 22 it is #38 and that is the final appearance on the Hot 100. On the Hot R&B chart it makes first entry May 26, at #26 and peaks at #17 (as well!) on June 8. Overall, the chart positions are not quite as strong as “Watermelon Man” and there is no entry to the MOR chart at all. The run is almost the same, eleven weeks for “Watermelon Man” and ten (counting the week at #103) for “El Watusi.” Barretto did get more media coverage, though as the week of May 11 had a biography of him, in which it states that DJ interest led to the release of “El Watusi” on 45. (p12) The previous week also noted more regional radio interest, through the Regional Breakout listing: Don Asti at KFWB in Los Angeles listed it as #1. (p42) It is too bad that the DJ interest which occurred before the release of the 45 was not more fully verified, especially since it seems that “El Watusi” might not have broken in the NYC area or east coast at all, but strictly in California—recall KYA, in San Francisco–which is indeed interesting.
Unlike Santamaria, who had some slight success with a follow up, Barretto was not so fortunate. The next Barretto album, On Fire Again, despite a 4 Star review (10-12-63) did nothing. A 4 Star review of the next 45, “Theme From The Victors” (Tico 426, 11-23-63) also did nothing despite several ads. In all fairness, the 45 sucks, as it is a terrible, string riddled ballad for a mediocre WWII film. ‘Tis hardly an invitation to youthful dancers. Neither On Fire Again nor the next Barretto release in 1964 included the 45.
Clearly, nobody at Tico knew how to go from the unexpected pop and R&B hit to further, continued success. Barretto, years later, bemoaned this commercial failure and felt that Tico just wanted more cuts like “El Watusi” and he felt that he was a victim of poor management. Perhaps he was also a victim of his own poor judgement. Except for the even dumber “El Bantu,” with its interesting but moronic electric guitar part, his recollection seems off base and is not supported by the follow up release of “Theme From The Victors.” The further release of The Big Hits Latin Style, no matter whose decision it was, might have been the real problem.
The Big Hits might have been a good idea had it abandoned the charanga instrumentation for these twelve “hits”:
“Easier Said Than Done”
“If You Want To Be Happy”
“Swingin’ Shpeherd Blues”
“So Much In Love”
“If I Had A Hammer”
“Can’t Get Used To Losing You”
The imagination that put something by the Sufaris (“Wipeout”) with something from Andy Williams (“Can’t Get Used To Losing You”) seems, well, very out of touch, and the results, such as they are, are pathetic. “Wipeout” sounds like silly cartoon music, and so does the version of Jimmy Soul’s slightly calypso “If You Want To Be Happy.” The flutes and violins make everything sound like music for children, not pop rock or r&b. Tico apparently let him do even more pachanga just like he wanted, though Barretto, well after the fact, allegedly said he did not even like pachanga! What producer Teddy Reig’s role was in creating this is anybody’s guess. Honestly, everyone involved, including Barretto deserves criticism for these calumnies! It is worth considering that administrative decisions “chose” at least some of these tunes, especially the two by The Essex, since the songs were published by companies Morris Levy owned or was connected to, and the records were on Levy’s Roulette label. The other 10 do not have direct publishing or label links to Levy, Roulette or Tico. However, nine of the twelve songs were hits earlier in 1963, so there was some decision to be “current”. Still, the selections and the approach (arrangements as well as instrumentation) were ill-advised and made for a terrible and uncommercial album despite what were very commercial motives.
Despite adding brass on future records to alter his sound, by 1965, Barretto had enough of Tico and he moved to United Artists, a label that DID want another similar hit, and tried, without as much success, with “Watusi 65”: it had one notice, September 11, 1965 listing it among 45s predicted to make the Hot 100, which it never did. By the end of his time on United Artists, Barretto, while keeping the flutes and violins, was using a more profound approach to arranging including trumpets, conjunto style and he made more interesting music on his last two releases for the label, El “Ray” Criollo and Latino Con Soul, before finding even more soul in 1968 on the Fania label with his latin soul oriented disc, Acid. Why this musician, with so much jazz and soul jazz experience made so many wilted, silly and screechy pachanga influenced records remains a mystery, though he certainly did come around to a different hybrid and some very interesting latin soul a few years later. (3)
These two records, “Watermelon Man” and “El Watusi” set the stage for the major developments of 1966 and 1967, but before starting that part of this story, let me take a few moments to comment on the merits and background to “Watermelon Man” and “El Watusi”.
The original “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock is a magnificent record. It is thoroughly jazz and it also oozes the inflections of early soul and New Orleans rhythm and blues. Hancock’s piano playing is soulful, gospel tinged and crisp simultaneously. Freddie Hubbard has the first solo, on trumpet of course, followed by some of the hardest, booting tenor sax Dexter Gordon ever recorded. To my ears Gordon quotes the opening riff from Freddy King’s “San-Ho-Zay” (3:11 to 3:25) and then riffs on it (3:40 to 3:57); he also makes a nod to the sax solo work on part 2 of Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Hill’s record was very successful: top 5 r&b and top 30 Hot 100 in the spring and early summer of 1960. Hancock has moments behind Gordon and during his own solo that also seem drawn from Hill’s big hit. Just for the record, the sax on Hill’s disc is probably David Lastie, and producer Allen Toussaint is probably playing piano. Overall, the recorded performance of “Watermelon Man” is breathtaking.
Santamaria’s approach, compared to the seven minute version from Hancock and company, is brief and eliminates all solos but trumpet. It conjures a melody line from the horns that is slinkier and slicker than on the Hancock recording. The trumpet playing on the solo is broken, shuffling and pausing, and backed by both saxes gently riffing behind it, but with just enough oomph to make it all bounce in a go-go dancer kind of way and swing while the latin percussion, which is four players thick, adds to the bounce and swing. The results sway and pivot with ease AND force.
The vocal interjections of “oh come on baby” add humour and tension. It is energizing to listen to this record intently, and certainly a sustained groove on the dance floor. Now this does not mean it competes with the brilliance and potency of Hancock’s original, but as done by Mongo Santamaria and his band, their version moves in its own way and sway, also combining aspects of soul, rock and jazz with a well defined latin beat.
“El Watusi”, despite its charge, does not approach either of these records though it does have a certain kind of power and pulse. “El Watusi” is 75% its piano part, which never varies. It is a partial montuno part, a repetitive riff of seven strokes, making a strong, driving, hard to ignore pulse and beat. There is conversation, almost all of it in Spanish, from Wito Kortwright and Willie Torres. Then there are sawing violins, light, sprightly and annoying, as well as dry, shrill and also annoying flute. The piano pounding never quits; it just repeats and repeats and repeats while the talking continues to interject, also unabated; hence the pulse begins to cover for the lack of content and musical development. The voices do amuse, in an arch way and the piano continues to provide punch, finally fading out with the interjection of an almost inaudible, “blah, blah, blah,” perhaps an honest assessment of how little it all adds up to.
While it is difficult to claim “El Watusi”is not at all enjoyable, as it does encourage “movement”, though perhaps not exactly in the same way as other styles of its moment in time—the r&b watusi, for example—the pulse that pervades it is probably part of its popularity. Musically, it is essentially a simplistic pachanga variation, with incidentals that are reflective and anticipatory of the boogaloo and that amused, amusing aspect, though much increased in merriment and party vibe, did become an element of later latin boogaloo. Nevertheless, its musical achievement is not considerable, and to some extent, it has, through age, become a novelty record, while maintaining some cache as much for being attached, however so slightly, to the r&b watusi hits and their dance phase-rage.
For general background, consult:
David Edwards and Mike Callahan, The George Goldner Story.
Stuffed Animal (produced and arranged by Mike Patrick and Phil Chapman), Mambo Gee The Story of George Goldner and Tico Records.
1 Fredric Dannen, Hit Men Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, (Times Books, Random House, New York, 1990) 40.
2 Teddy Reig with Edward Berger, Reminiscing in Tempo: the Life and Times of a Jazz Hustler, (The Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz Studies, Metuchen, NJ & London, 1990) Studies in Jazz 10.
3 With a thorough sense of opprobrium, Rondon writes, “the watusi was theft, a simple variation on the historical development of the ‘modern charanga,” one of those spontaneous but short-lived movements that emerged during the period of musical experimentation.” Cesar Miguel Rendon, The Book of Salsa, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2008, Caracas, Editorial Arts, 1980, 29.
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