Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 29 April 1929, Brooklyn NY; d 17 February 2006) Conga drummer, bandleader, songwriter, arranger. Played while in US Army in Germany; jammed with jazz musicians in NYC, turned pro and joined Eddie Bonnemere's Latin Jazz Combo, then two years with José Curbelo's band; to Tito Puente '57 for four years replacing Mongo Santamaria. Sessioned on R&B singles and as a sideman with Lou Donaldson, Gene Ammons, Red Garland '57-8; then the Riverside jazz label decided to do a Latin album '61 and asked Barretto to form a charanga: Pachanga With Barretto was his first LP as a leader, tracks written by Héctor Rivera. This was an adventurous move by label boss Orrin Keepnews; the album didn't sell well partly because Riverside and the Latin market were unfamiliar with each other, but Barretto used many of the sidemen forming his own band Charanga Moderna: the follow-up was Latino '62, with guests Alejandro 'El Negro' Vivar (1923-79) on trumpet, José 'Chombo' Silva on tenor sax (both alumni of the influential '50s Cuban Jam Session albums on Panart), Alfredo Valdés Jr on piano; the LPs were repackaged '73 as two-disc Carnaval on Fantasy, reissued '93 on CD.

Barretto sessioned with Kenny Burrell, Freddie Hubbard, Cal Tjader, George Benson, the Rolling Stones, Bee Gees, Average White Band in the '70s and many others, but his most important work was for the Latin audience: he retained authenticity while stretching the charanga format by including brass. Charanga Moderna '62 on the Tico label was on the market for several months before the track 'El Watusi' reached the top 20 of the USA pop chart '63: that this crossover success was short-lived he blamed on poor management. Other LPs on Tico were On Fire Again '63, The Big Hits Latin Style '63 (crossover attempts with 'If I Had A Hammer', etc), La Moderna de Siempre '64 (straight charanga), Guajira y Guaguancó '64 (with jam session flavour, including Pedro 'Puchi' Boulong on trumpet), compilation Lo Mejor de Ray Barretto '74. He went to UA hoping for better distribution, became a 'little artist in a huge bowl'; LPs included Viva Watusi! '65, Señor 007 c.'65 (movie themes), El Ray Criollo '66, Latino Con Soul '66 (lead singer Adalberto Santiago); the notable CD compilation Descarga Criolla '92 featured tracks from the '65-6 UA period.
He joined the Fania label '67; Acid was a logical R&B fusion and brought major popularity with Latin audiences. Personnel in the two-trumpet conjunto included René López and Roberto Rodríguez, with Orestes Vilató on timbales and vocalist Santiago. Hard Hands '68 had trumpeter Joseph 'Papy' Román replacing López, who'd been drafted; Tony Fuentes joined on bongos and the LP gave Barretto a new nickname. For Together '69 Andy González joined on bass; Head Sounds '69 was a compilation plus 'Drum Poem (Free Spirit) For Ray Barretto', a poem by Victor Hernández Cruz spoken over Latin percussion. On Power '70 López returned (three trumpets); on The Message '71 Barretto co-produced and Johnny 'Dandy' Rodríguez replaced Fuentes on bongos; From The Beginning '71 was another compilation. Que Viva La Musica '72 was produced by Barretto, with Dave Pérez replacing Andy González on bass, who had departed to Eddie Palmieri's band; Barretto's tune 'Cocinando' was theme of film Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa). Some personnel including Santiago left at this point to form Tipica 73. The Other Road '73 was an instrumental Latin jazz set; Indestructible '73 was produced by Barretto; new personnel included Manuel Duran doubling on trumpet/flugelhorn and Art Webb on flute, lead vocalist Tito Allen. Barretto '75 was his biggest hit LP so far, nominated for a Grammy, included hit single 'Guararé'. Rubén Blades shared lead vocals with ex-Sonora Ponceña and La Terrifica member Tito Gómez, and wrote two songs including the hit 'Canto Abacua'.

Barretto was voted Best Conga Player of the Year for '75 and '76 in Latin NY magazine annual poll, but had tired of gigging in clubs and was pessimistic about reaching a larger audience with pure salsa; his band carried on as Guararé (debut LP Guararé '77 on TR label with lead vocals by Ray de la Paz) and Fania issued the compilation Energy To Burn '77. Meanwhile he formed a large jazz/rock/Latin fusion group and recorded for Atlantic: Barretto Live: Tomorrow was made '76 at NYC's Beacon Theatre with two trumpets, trombone, two reeds and Blades. Indifferent fusion LPs were Eye Of The Beholder '77 (produced by the Crusaders; Joe Sample and Wilton Felder played on it) and Can You Feel It '78. The fusion group flopped and he later said of the period with Atlantic, 'I let them dictate which way to go with my music. As a result, I neither made it with non-Latinos or with Latinos.' He won the '77 Latin NY titles for Musician of the Year and Best Conga Player of the Year. Gracias '79 on Fania was a live LP, probably from the Beacon concert, versions of earlier hits including Santiago. He produced Guararé's eponymous '79 LP on Inca, with de la Paz on lead vocals and pianist Oscar Hernández.
Rican/Struction '79, a new Fania LP with Santiago, was a return to progressive and intense salsa bringing Latin NY poll awards '80 for Best Conga Player, Musician of the Year, Album of the Year: the lineup included three trumpets, trombone, tenor and soprano sax, with pianist/arranger Hernández, Ralph Irrizary joining on timbales and de la Paz in the chorus, who sang lead on Giant Force/Fuerza Gigante '80. An all-star fusion LP made in '79 was released as La Cuna '81 on CTI, Tito Puente on timbales, Charlie Palmieri on piano, singer Willie Torres, Joe Farrell on reeds and Steve Gadd on drums; it was a good seller and 'Pastime Paradise' was UK club hit. Rhythm Of Life/Ritmo de la Vida '82 with de la Paz was nominated for a Grammy; Tremendo Trio! '83 included Celia Cruz and Santiago and won an ACE (Hispanic Association of Entertainment Critics of New York) Award for Salsa Album of the Year; Hernández and Irrizary left to join Blades's Seis del Solar; Todo Se Vá Poder '84 included many new younger musicians, lead singers Cali Aleman (who'd replaced de la Paz at Barretto's UK appearance mid-'82) and ex-Los Kimy singer Ray Saba (aka Del Rey Xaba). A London appearance '86 included many of the personnel from Todo Se Vá Poder, with Saba singing lead; Aleman had gone to Eddie Palmieri. Aqui Se Puede '87 featured lead vocals by Saba and Carlos Ferrer; his second collaboration with Cruz: Ritmo En El Corazón '88 won them a Grammy in '90. Irresistible '89 was his conspicuously reluctant contribution to the ill-conceived salsa romántica trend. Saba, who only sang chorus vocals on Barretto's '88, '89 and '92 albums, made a solo debut with Necesito Una Mirada Tuya '90, produced by former Los Kimy leader, Kimmy Solis.

Ray switched to Concord Picante for a series of Latin-jazz albums including Handprints '91, Ancestral Messages '93 and Taboo '94, but returned to solid salsa for his final release on Fania, outstanding Grammy-nominated Soy Dichoso '92, with lead vocals by ex-Grupo Fascinación member Alfredo 'Tito' González. In an interview '94 he said that he'd been forced out of salsa; perceived as too old, none of the dance halls would hire his band. He toured/recorded with Fania All Stars from '68 into the '80s, and a 30th anniversary reunion tour '94; he continued in the Latin-jazz vein with Grammy-nominated sextet album My Summertime '96 on Owl/Blue Note.