Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


GRAN COMBO, El (de Puerto Rico)

A band formed in 1962 by breakaway members of Rafael Cortijo y su Combo. Led by pianist Rafael Ithier (b 29 August 1926, Río Piedras, Puerto Rico), with Eddie Pérez (b 1935) and Héctor Santos on saxes, Martin Quiñones (d 1995, San Juan), congas, bongo player/dancer Roberto Roena (see his entry); Miguel Cruz, bass; Rogelio 'Kito' Vélez (d 1990) and Victor Pérez, trumpets; Milton Correa, timbales; vocalists Andy Montañez (see his entry) and Pellín Rodríguez (b Pedro Rodríguez de Gracia, 4 December 1926, Santurce; d 31 October 1984); a former vocalist with Noro Morales, he later reunited members of EGC as El Combo del Ayer ('The Combo of the Past'). Only Ithier and Perez remained in the '90s lineup.

They became a Puerto Rican institution, their post-'71 13-piece lineup (two saxes, two trumpets, trombone, piano, timbales, congas, bongos, bass, singers) considered the definitive salsa dance machine. NYC salsa was identified with fusion and experimentation; Ithier shaped EGC to a uniquely precise outfit with a decidedly Puerto Rican 'downhome' flavour. From '62 to '69 EGC made about 19 albums for Gema; first hit was 'La Muerte' ('Death') from El Gran Combo de Siempre '62, then 'Acángana' '63, from LP of that name; title track of Ojos Chinos ('Chinese Eyes') '64 written by Vélez (making his last album with the band) remains popular in a more refined version, performed live, along with the rest of their repertoire, with unison routines from the vocalists, whose choreographic ability belied their ages. Other hits from their Gema period included the title track of El Caballo Pelotero '65, 'La Calle Dolor' ('The Street Of Pain') from El Swing del Gran Combo '66, 'Falsaria' '68 (from Smile It's El Gran Combo), title track of mid-'60s Tu Querias Boogaloo? during the boogaloo era, 'Ponme El Alcolado Juana' from Este Si Que El Gran Combo '69. Thirty tracks from the '60s were collected on El Gran Combo Sus 15 Grandes Hits and 15 Grandes Exitos Vol. 2, both on Gema. Ithier and seven EGC members were the core of the '63 Latin jam session Puerto Rican All-Stars Featuring Kako.

They made eleven albums on their EGC Record Corp. label, then signed in '78 with Ralph Cartagena, whose Rico Records had been distributing their product since '73; since '79 all EGC's back catalogue and new releases '70-94 have been issued on Cartagena's Combo Records. Celebrated Puerto Rican composer Roberto Angleró penned several EGC hits, including 'Dos Copas y Un Olé' (from Este Si Que Es El Gran Combo '69), 'La Salsa de Hoy' (from Disfrútelo Hasta El Cabo! '74), 'La Soledad' (from Mejor Que Nunca/Better Than Ever '76) and 'Aquí No Pasado Nada' (from El Gran Combo En Las Vegas '78); Angleró made albums c'70 to '84 as bandleader and singer incl. the notable Tierra Negra '79, with the classic 'Si Dios Fuera Negro'. In '73 EGC appeared with the Fania All Stars in Yankee Stadium, in '76 in Jerry Masucci's film Salsa (and on soundtrack LP). Vélez left mid-'60s; he had composed and arranged for Cortijo with singer Ismael Rivera and EGC as well as playing trumpet; he led his own band in Puerto Rico with LPs on Ansonia, briefly worked with Nelson Feliciano Orchestra (two LPs on Coco early '70s); also played on Juntos Otra Vez ('Back Together Again') '74 on Coco, a Cortijo reunion which also incl. Ithier, Pérez, Quiñones, Roena, Santos and Cruz. After 27 albums with EGC, vocalist Andy Montañez left '77, joined Dimensión Latina (see Oscar D'León and Montañez entries). Twenty years of EGC hits were celebrated by a concert at Madison Square Garden and a two-disc set 20 Años -- 20 Exitos '82, a mixture of remixes and new tracks. In the '80s/'90s EGC personnel has largely been stable, with Ithier (piano, leader, arranger) and others all born in Puerto Rico: vocalists Charlie Aponte (b 1943; former lead singer with Serafin Cortez's band, featuring on their Naturalmente Serafin, '72; replaced Pellín Rodríguez on El Gran Combo 5 '73), Jerry Rivas (b August 1955; recommended by Sonora Ponceña leader Quique Lucca as replacement for Montañez; debuted on 5to Aniversario '78), Papo Rosario (b April 1947); Taty Maldonado (b April 1948) and Víctor E. Rodríguez (b 1941), trumpets; Pérez and Freddy Miranda, saxophones; trombonist Moisés Nogueras (b April 1962; replaced Fanny Ceballo: b 1946; d 1991; he had joined '71 as EGC's first and only trombonist); Fernando 'Freddy' Rivera (b September 1959), bass; Cuqui Santos (b September 1952; replaced Edgardo Morales on Amame! '89 onwards), timbales; Miguel Torres (b November 1951), conga; José Miguel Laboy (b June 1945), bongos; Baby Serrano played bongo on some of the LPs in the '80s.

The premature death of composer Perin Vázquez was a serious blow to EGC; 'Pico Pico' (from Unity '80), 'El Menú' (from Happy Days '81), 'Azuquita Pal' Café' (from In Alaska: Breaking The Ice '84) and 'Le Dicen Papá' (from Y Su Pueblo '86) are some of the chart-toppers written by Vázquez. Nearly all these albums went high in the Billboard salsa chart. The advent of the mid-'80s salsa romántica craze created difficulties; reserving their exuberant legacy for live performance, in the studio the band sweetened the sound and softened the attack, turning out weaker albums '88-93 and introducing outside arrangers for the first time (e.g. on '89 chart-topper Amame!). A balance began to be restored with Erupcíon! '91; they headlined at the New York Salsa Festival '92, and a two-CD set 30 Aniversario: Bailando Con El Mundo '92 compiled 32 hits; Gracias! 30 Años de Sabor '92 (dedicated to Fanny Ceballo) was nominated for a Grammy '93; sales of First Class International '93 were poor; El Ruta del Sabor '94, another poor chart performer, showed more signs that the band were regaining direction. After 21 years with Cartagena, EGC signed with the Mexican Fonovisa label mid-'94; their debut there was the lacklustre Para Todos Los Gustos '95, though Por Todo Lo A Ito '96 was regarded by some as their strongest in a decade.

Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times in May 2010 that the 'Puerto Rican band El Gran Combo' is 'still in good shape.' It's new album Sin Salsa No Hay Paraíso (Sony Music) featured

three lead singers — Jerry Rivas, Charlie Aponte, Papo Rosario — who make their voices ring, slicing up the tracks with swing phrasing and varying degrees of older-guy rasp. The trombonist Moises Nogueras trickles his lines from out of the brass section, then plays pure, clean high tones like a French horn. And staring down a good song from a much earlier point in its career — “Achilipu,” from 1971 — the band booms, with precision.