Fania Records is mostly known as a superpower of salsa, issuing records by some of salsa’s biggest names, including Rubén Blades, Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, and the Fania All-Stars. Yet between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, the label tapped into what has variously been called the boogaloo or Latin soul craze, issuing dozens of such singles in those years, a few hitting the mainstream charts but all of them capturing the moment for New York’s sizable Latin-American (and particularly Puerto Rican) communities, and similar scenes in Miami, L.A. and Chicago. A new reissue, It’s a Good Good Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania; The Singles, inspired Richie Unterberger to track down the back story for PKM readers.
For many soul and rock fans, boogaloo is what the Fantastic Johnny C. danced on the boulevard on his 1967 soul smash “Boogaloo Down Broadway.” Or maybe what James Brown danced at times onstage in the mid-1960s, even citing it by name in his mesmerizing 1967 hit “There Was a Time.” But the boogaloo wasn’t just a soul dance. It also gave the name to a whole style of soul music, if one that to this day remains relatively undiscovered, even by many soul fanatics.
Also reaching its heyday in the mid-‘60s, boogaloo was the ultimate fusion of soul music with Latin rhythms and melodies. Occasionally it would break into the pop charts, as it did with Joe Cuba’s “Bang Bang” in 1966. There were also boogaloo precursors of sorts by guys with a jazz background when Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi” and Mongo Santamaria’s “Watermelon Man” made the Top Twenty in 1963. Yet for the most part the audience for boogaloo records was confined to New York’s sizable Latin-American (and particularly Puerto Rican) community, as well as a few other similar pockets elsewhere in the United States.
Fania Records is mostly known as a superpower of salsa, issuing records by some of salsa’s biggest names, including Rubén Blades, Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, and the Fania All-Stars. Yet it too tapped into what has variously been called the boogaloo or Latin soul craze, issuing dozens of such singles between the mid-‘60s and mid-‘70s. Very few had the kind of crossover success with non-Latin audiences that the label and, at least sometimes, performers craved. But along the way, it cut a cache of infectious Latin soul discs that were known to few, especially as their distribution was limited both at the time and on reissues.
That’s changed with Craft Latino’s recent It’s a Good Good Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania: The Singles. The sheer quantity of this four-CD set is astounding, encompassing 89 tracks from 1967-1975 singles, just one of which dented the national charts. The quality might be less impressive than the sheer bulk. Many of the tracks are fairly similar in their uptempo fusion of period soul music with Latin rhythms, horns, and melodies. The Latin flavor is less prominent on the early-to-mid-‘70s selections, which are sometimes pretty derivative of straight soul artists like the Temptations and the Average White Band. However, the relentless party feel, varied with a few sentimental ballads, is pretty infectious and fun, and a distinctively different brand from the many other branches of the soul tree.
How did such a significant catalog remain so obscure for so long? There isn’t a simple answer, but part of it might lie in the label’s unusual and colorful early history. Although rooted in the Latin jazz side of New York, it often strained to stretch into different territory, with results that met with more artistic than commercial success.
The Birth of Fania Boogaloo
While Fania’s birth might seem like an improbably shaky foundation to build a salsa empire, it was reasonably typical of the seat-of-the-pants origins of many mid-20th-century record labels that went on to make a significant mark on regional (and, eventually, international) music. It was Joe McEwen—a longtime expert soul journalist and record label A&R man, now working in that capacity for Concord Records, which distributes Craft Latino—who came up with the idea to honor its legacy with the It’s a Good Good Feeling box.
“Johnny Pacheco was the founder with [his lawyer] Jerry Masucci,” McEwen explains. “Johnny was a big band leader. It started as a label just to put his records out in ’63. Then it became pretty quickly a successful venture, and Fania signed a lot of the major artists” in New York’s Latin jazz field. “They took Ray Barretto from Tico”—another label that would record a wealth of Latin soul—“and Joe Bataan,” one of Fania’s more prolific artists, with about a couple dozen tracks on the new box. “They had Willie Colón. They had a whole roster of these artists. So they kind of quickly took over the Latin market in New York, and had a very aggressive and distinctive sound. It was very ‘modern.’”
Although Masucci is credited as a producer on many of Fania’s boogaloo-Latin soul 45s, his role might have been more on the business side than the musical one. “Jerry was running the business, and running his law offices as well,” notes Dean Rudland, another co-producer of the box, and author of the extensive liner notes. “It was a small operation until the salsa stuff took off. The bills had to be paid, or certainly Jerry’s own bills had to be paid somehow. And I think some of that was, he was still working as a lawyer.”
Pacheco’s background was in the Latin jazz scene, where he’d played in the bands of mambo stars Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. But a generational shift was underway in the enthusiasms of both the audience and the performers in the niche they were targeting. “There was two great migrations, one before the war, one after the war, of Puerto Rican immigrants to New York,” Rudland points out. “Those guys were into the traditional kind of Cuban-based ‘50s mambo, but their children were growing up in East Harlem and Alphabet City [in Manhattan’s East Village]. Particularly in East Harlem, in the Bronx, they were interacting with the African-American crowd there. They were going to dances.
“They were hearing the music that their older brothers and sisters were listening to, and their parents were listening to. But they were incorporating the culture of New York at the time with their own specific cultural heritage, and the music that was coming from the islands. And it created a fantastic sound in the kind of Latin boogaloo, Latin soul sound.”
That’s the sound spotlighted on the first half and a bit of the new Fania box, the label issuing a spate of Latin soul 45s between 1967 and 1969. The soul part of the equation is to the fore in the dance-oriented uptempo material, particularly in the upbeat-to-the-point-of-giddiness vocals, as if it’s a nonstop ballroom unveiling new steps blending funky beats and a Latin rhythm. The Latin flavor is also felt in the jazzy horn arrangements, while a somewhat more varied emotional palette is heard in the occasional heart-rending ballad that punctuates the program, like Joe Bataan’s yearning “Ordinary Guy” and his “What Good Is a Castle Part 1,” one of the few selections that ventures into melancholy territory. English vocals, Spanish vocals, and instrumentals mix, harmonies sometimes giving the arrangements their more soulful elements, and rousing anthemic chants a more pronounced Latin feel.
To understand how this mix evolved, it’s necessary to look at not just the music, but also the musical and social community that made it happen. “When I first got involved with Fania in 2005, I was brought in by someone I’d worked with before on catalogue stuff, and knew I knew a bit about this stuff,” Rudland observes. “But as soon as I stepped into the world, I realized I knew very little. I knew a lot about doing catalogue; I knew very little about this area of music. Not just the Latin soul area, but the whole salsa/Latino tropical/non-Mexican Latin music. It was an education into a music, but it was also an education into a culture, which stood outside the American mainstream. It was also an education in how that culture interacted with the American mainstream of the time, or at different times throughout the label’s history.”
Latin jazz and Latin soul: Bridging the Gap
Several artists on the new Fania box were coming from the Latin jazz world, or were primarily—sometimes almost exclusively—in the salsa bag. Were they moving into Latin soul as an opportunity to do something they weren’t able to do within the barriers of salsa? Or were they pressured to do so to sell more records? How much of the move was artistic, and how much commercial? Or was it a blend of both aspirations?
“I think it’s a combination of both,” feels McEwen. “I think some guys embraced it more than others. Some guys, from what I understand, weren’t really that into it, but felt like they needed to do it for the audience. That’s why some people had like one or two [soul] songs on a record, but did then the real music. It’s like there was a time in the ‘60s when [jazz trumpeter] Lee Morgan’s ‘Sidewinder’ became a big hit out of the blue,” even getting used without authorization for a Chrysler TV commercial during the 1965 World Series before legal action put a stop to it. “All the artists had one song like that on their record for a while. Like, ‘We’re gonna have this kind of quasi-funk jam. And then we’ll play the real stuff.’”
In some ways, says Rudland, “Latin soul seems like a fairly unsophisticated attempt to cross over. ‘We’ll make soul covers records that fit, are made by largely New York-based people of Puerto Rican descent.’ It was a bit more complicated than that. It’s like British R&B groups” from the ‘60s. “The reason what they made was incredible was ‘cause they couldn’t make records that sounded like American R&B records. They tried; they came out with their own thing. I think that’s what you get here. You get a form of music that’s kind of trying to be something, doesn’t quite get there, but what it does become is exceptional in its own right.
“So it was always that look for crossover, as is so often the case, when people are trying something that they don’t quite get right. Most of these records aren’t really gonna fool you into thinking they’re Motown records. Maybe Joe’s [Bataan’s] records will, but to be honest, Joe’s records are uniquely Joe, because of Joe’s voice and Joe’s experience. They’re a thing on their own. I don’t think anyone was really forced, except possibly by that desire for better economics and success.”
Kind of like how some young British guys who started out as jazzbos—like Manfred Mann, Charlie Watts, and Ginger Baker, among others—moved into blues and rock, at least in part, because jazz gigs were rapidly shrinking as the British Invasion exploded? “I think the comparison is true,” Rudland responds. “Some of those players hated it, and some of those players ended up embracing it. Coming through and finding your freak flag, if you’re Graham Bond,” in whose band Baker and Jack Bruce played before forming Cream with Eric Clapton. “If you’re Brian Auger, you’re finding a kind of way of making hits out of it. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, the same thing.”
How much the Fania acts’ heart was in Latin soul, in Rudland’s view, “ultimately depends on the act. Ray Barretto, as a percussionist, was making Latin records. But he was also very much involved in the ‘50s in the jazz scene, and with African-American culture. So the idea that he would make soul records, he was clearly on board with that, as well as more traditional Latin and jazz stuff.” Indeed, Barretto can be seen performing in the recent superb documentary Summer of Soul, Questlove’s look at a 1969 Harlem free summer concert series that spotlighted plenty of soul greats like Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder. “He’s on there singing ‘Together,’ right at the end of his period of doing Latin soul. He was clearly really into that.
“So he was like, ‘There’s Latin soul? I’ll make this Latin soul record.’ In many ways [his 1967 album] Acid is a brilliant album, and the height of that music. It’s a more mature musician doing the recording, and being rather brilliant. Whereas, a lot of the younger acts, this is what they did. A lot of the acts that already existed, it was what we have to do to keep working.”
Major salsa figure Larry Harlow did a few fairly convincing boogaloo and Latin soul tracks, as heard on the Fania box with his 1968 single “Mess Around”/“That Groovy Shingaling,” as well as a Spanish-language version of ”Grazin’ in the Grass” credited to Orchestra Harlow (and sung by future salsa star Ismael Miranda). But according to Rudland, “He didn’t really enjoy it. It was very much, ‘We better do this.’”
Harlow, Rudland quickly clarifies, “was not someone who wasn’t influenced by contemporary music. He did Hommy, which was his version of a rock opera, kind of a Latin version of Tommy. He did arrangements for Ambergris, who were kind of a prog rock/late psych band. He wasn’t removed from modern music, from non-traditional music. He just felt he was dumbing himself down, doing Latin soul I think, from the interviews and discussions we had with him.
“Whereas Harvey Averne”—whose band has several tracks on the new compilation, and “was the person who was being hands-on most of the time in the studio” with production and arrangements for Fania’s Latin soul artists—“loved it. Harvey’s a hustler, and was always looking for the main chance. That was great for him. He then went into producing Eddie Palmieri’s albums in the ‘70s, and completely removed, very high-class salsa records.”
Another salsa star, Willie Colón, is also on the Fania box, but with just one track, doing no more than dipping his toe into the Latin soul pool with the 1967 single “Willie Baby.” “He was the biggest salsa act in the world, and the most important salsa act in the world. His ability on the trombone was not phenomenal; it was a bit punk rock. But his first record”—cut when he was still a teenager—“he had like a boogaloo on there. And after that, nothing again. He just wasn’t interested. He went down that traditional route very early.”
Fania Latin Soul in the Late ‘60s: Extending and Reaching the Limits
In their bids to both branch into new sounds and reach wider audiences, Fania Latin soul singles sometimes revamped popular soul hits with a decidedly boogaloo slant. While some of these were fairly faithful covers, other reworkings were almost radical. Bataan’s 1967 version of the Impressions’ 1961 classic “Gypsy Woman” was almost unrecognizably different, ebullient and jazzy where the original was wistful and flamenco-flecked. The Harvey Averne Band turned Sly & the Family Stone’s “Stand” into a jazzy psychedelic instrumental, horns weaving around vibraphone, swirling organ, and sharp bluesy guitar licks. Bataan took a crack at “Shaft” that injected rapid Latin percussion into the mix, and dug deep into the soul ballad catalog for “Sad Girl,” a 1963 gem by Jay Wiggins that only made #116, but got plenty of regional airplay in cities like Philadelphia. “It’s a Good Feeling,” the title that inspired the new box’s, was itself a cover of an LP track by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles that was stretched into a two-part 45.
Did Latin soul catch on outside of New York, not just with listeners, but also with other Latino musicians who might have been thinking along the same lines? The closest equivalent to such a regional scene might have flowered in East Los Angeles, where acts—usually, but not always, groups—developed what the community itself calls a “brown-eyed soul” sound. In some ways it’s similar to New York Latin soul, combining elements of African-American soul with a Latin feel, whether on upbeat dance tunes or sentimental ballads.
As with Latin soul, there were few breakout national brown-eyed soul hits, with some exceptions like Cannibal & the Headhunters’ “Land of a Thousand Dances,” while some singles by East L.A. acts like Thee Midniters enjoyed huge local popularity. The sub-genre was documented on reissues like Rhino’s three-volume East Side Story series and Varese Sarabande’s four-part The West Coast East Side Sound series. Like It’s a Good Good Feeling, the recent four-CD box Land of 1000 Dances: The Rampart Records 58th Anniversary Complete Singles Collection focuses on the singles of one label, in this case a Los Angeles company that issued a lot of brown-eyed soul in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
But there were key differences between the New York and L.A. scenes. The L.A. acts often came more from rock and R&B backgrounds than jazz, and were more wont to employ harmony vocals. The jazz ingredients that were so much a part of the Latin soul stew were largely missing from brown-eyed soul, even if such Southern California artists sometimes used horns.
“I think you’re right, I think that’s the difference,” agrees Rudland. With Fania, “The thing that’s always worth remembering, except for maybe Joe Bataan’s group and early Willie Colón records, is you are tending to deal with very established musicians in those records. Which you’re not getting so much on those L.A. harmony things going on. You’ve got a fairly basic rhythm section on a lot of those records. Maybe there’s horn arrangements, but they’re horn arrangements by arrangers who are used to doing soul records.
“The whole [New York] Latin music community had pretty much come up by playing the Palladium, playing for Puente and Tito Rodriguez and maybe sometimes playing the pit bands at the Apollo. But mainly, those were where the musicians earned their money.”
As heavily grounded in New York as Latin soul was, couldn’t Fania have found sales with their boogaloo discs in similar neighborhoods throughout the country? “Mainly it was confined to [the] New York area,” says McEwen. “I grew up in Philly; it was only a very few records that I remember. I happened to live in the Bronx in the summer of ’71, near Yankee Stadium. You’d hear that music coming out of everything.” But “the records themselves outside of the East, and New York specifically, weren’t massive hits like Gamble and Huff or Motown or anything else.” They were only heard “in pockets, Miami or places where there was a Puerto Rican population.”
Picks up Rudland, “Black records could cross over because there was a distribution network, and there was a wide spread of African-American communities throughout America. With Latin communities, they were very regionally based. You can see this if you look at the Billboard Latin charts. Billboard would print a Latin chart. It wasn’t a national one; it would be Latin chart Miami or Latin chart L.A., Latin chart Chicago, or Latin chart New York. Pretty much that was the four places they’d put it for. You’d see Fania Records a lot in the New York chart, obviously. The Miami one, you’d see a few. Chicago you’d see one or two, maybe. L.A., never anything. It was all Mexican records.” Although, as McEwen notes, “Ralfi Pagan and Joe Bataan were big low rider artists. Ralfi’s voice was so perfect for that. The Chicano audience was completely different for the most part, except those guys—the Ralfi Pagan singles, some of the Joe Bataan. They really kind of crossed the divide.”
Continues Rudland, “It was pretty much impossible to break something if you didn’t have a national distribution, or a national radio, ability to cover radio through communities. So there was no pressure; there was no upsurge. And as such, it was literally within its own community. I’m sure it stretched to New Jersey; not the shore, the bit across from New York. There was a lot of gigs that happened there as well. It may have stretched slightly up the coast to Boston, slightly down to Philly. But probably not massively.
“It was also why the hits that happened in Latin music tended to happen from [the] Tico [label], because Roulette had national distribution. But even then, very few – ‘Bang Bang,’ Joe Cuba, maybe one or two others. I guess they were largely seen as novelty records as well.”
If Fania wanted to be seen as a non-novelty enterprise, it might have hurt its cause a bit by some rather gimmicky tunes like Bobby Valentin’s “Bad Breath,” about a girl with exactly that, and the same artist’s “Funky Big Feet.” Some more serious singles still had some scenarios that might have struck some as goofy, like Bataan’s “Subway Joe,” which begins with the singer taking a subway downtown to find some Chinese food. Harvey Averne’s “The Micro Mini” tapped into a trendy but quickly dated fashion craze, and though Ray Barretto’s “Love Beads” was instrumental, its title likewise latched onto hippie lingo.
Larger trends in the music world might also have had a hand in limiting Fania’s reach. As McEwen acknowledges, “The boogaloo craze itself only lasted for a very short period. It was probably two years maybe at most in the way of being a vital, explosive music genre.” With a new decade the label would make a more determined effort to cross over into the pop mainstream, though with only slight commercial returns.
The ‘70s Crossover
During the early-to-mid-‘70s, Fania soul singles started to sound more and more like—well, soul singles, not particularly Latin soul ones. Many of the ones collected on the latter part of the new box are rather straightahead soul cuts without much or any of the spices that set boogaloo apart. Some of those efforts could be quite good. For instance, Butter Scotch, an act of whom virtually nothing is known, sang lush orchestrated harmony soul on their “Today” single that sounded more likely to have been concocted in Philadelphia than the Bronx.
Joe Bataan was nothing if not versatile, and his 1971 single “Johnny’s No Good” is the most accurate replication of the Temptations in their psychedelic soul “Ball of Confusion” period you’re likely to come across. His cover of crooner Johnny Ray’s early-‘50s smash “Cry” updated the lyric with a spoken intro where he assumed the character of a soldier with his buddy in a Vietnam foxhole. He even tried a sweet soul version of the Beatles’ “This Boy,” again with a Philly feel. In 1975, W.R.L.C. would dip into Fania’s own catalog to rework “Johnny’s No Good” as an instrumental with a rock-soul vibe reminiscent of the Average White Band.
High-voiced Ralfi Pagan, who can sound like a more mature Little Anthony on tunes like “My Dream,” came closest to getting Fania into the soul and pop market. His 1971 cover of Bread’s “Make It With You” made #32 in the national R&B charts. But neither he nor others on Fania could reach even those modest heights, though he followed it up with another Bread cover, “Baby I’m a Want You.” “I just loved his voice,” effuses McEwen, who remembers hearing “Make It With You” on New York soul station WBLS. “It just had such a romantic, vulnerable, heartbreaking all at once voice.”
Adds Rudland, “I think by the ‘70s, the people who were making soul records for Fania were more accomplished at making those records. So they sounded more like soul records. It seems a crazy way of putting it, but I think they really did. For instance, the Ralfi Pagan records, they were made by people like Kenny Vance” of Jay & the Americans, “whose day job was making mainstream soul records.
“They wanted people to cross over. They tried everything. They tried a label [Uptite] that was completely a soul label, where they’d take tracks off the albums, put them out on single, appeal to that market. He was releasing it on a different label in hope to fool the radio programmers. It didn’t work.
“I think Jerry [Masucci] was hoping that somehow Fania’s distribution would be able to push these through. Or they would be pushed through [at an] international level. Island released ‘A Wonderful Thing’ by Ralfi Pagan on single in the UK.”
As the titles of Bataan’s early-‘70s albums Singin’ Some Soul and Sweet Soul make clear, Fania was certainly hoping to get him into the soul market. “They were so carefully crafted to be soul records, and cross Joe over,” says Rudland. “And it didn’t happen. But clearly every effort was being made. The cost of the sessions for those two albums—compared with not just Joe’s normal albums, but everyone else’s albums—were astronomical. There was just so many arrangers, so many musicians, so much recording done. It wasn’t like they were cheap-skating and still hoping to have hits. They were really trying hard. They had to go out and sell a bucketload more of albums of salsa to cover it, I suppose, when it didn’t work.
“It was kind of those things where everyone’s trying to make a hit, but not quite getting there. It was very regional, and that’s why the only hit was when they went with Wand for [distributing] ‘Make It With You.’ That’s also why Jerry tried to put records through Columbia and Atlantic later. In fact, very early on, he put a Harvey Averne album through Atlantic in ’67.”
By the mid-‘70s, Fania’s soul roster was running out of steam, and the label putting more of its focus on its increasingly lucrative salsa sales. “Joe Bataan left in the early ‘70s,” explains McEwen. “He did an album that never came out for Fania, had a big fight, and left. But he was already feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m not that important anymore.’ Ralfi became the main soul stylist, almost the only one.” Pagan disappeared—murdered, according to some—in Colombia in mysterious circumstances by the late 1970s. By the 1980s, the international market for Fania salsa stalwarts Colón, Blades, and the Fania All-Stars had grown so much that the label was finding greater commercial success than ever, though not with the pop and soul crossover audience they’d aimed for with their Latin soul and boogaloo records.
Reviving the Fania Latin Soul Catalogue
Awareness of Fania’s Latin soul heritage hasn’t been too widespread, and it’s still uncertain how much more can be curated with as much care as It’s a Good Good Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania: The Singles. There are plenty of LP-only cuts that can be considered for future reissue. “Obviously there’s a lot of great album cuts that would have been tremendous to put on,” surmises McEwen. “But I wanted a concept to just sort of grab onto. We felt like trying to have the most complete possible single comp would be different. It was inspired by that series of Motown singles,” which collected everything from Motown 45s on year-by-year Complete Motown Singles compilations spanning 1959-1972, though of course Motown released many more 45s than Fania did.
“There’s so many LP-only tracks that are absolutely genius that deserve to be heard,” confirms Rudland. “ We got like [two tracks] by Ralph Robles on this. He recorded two albums, I think, for Fania in about ’67-68, both of which have like five or six brilliant Latin soul tracks, or boogaloo tracks. But for some reason, Fania decided not to release any of them on seven-inch. He’s got a kind of nice doo woppy type ballad on this box set. But it’s stuff that I’d love people to be able to hear more easily.
“The catalog is vast, beyond vast. I’m glad it’s organized, and it’s with safe hands. But just the sheer logistics of it passing through three different companies in fifteen years has meant that it’s perhaps not been able to be ingested and explored quite as much.”
At least McEwen’s planning a compilation of Latin soul from the period on the Tico label, Fania’s chief competitor. “It’s just gonna be a double album. I think there are 26 or 28 songs. It’s soul-ish, soul-jazz-salsaish. The early Ray Barretto stuff is on there, and Willie Bobo. It just seemed like a natural follow-up. There’s more than just Joe Cuba and early Ray Barretto; there’s a lot of really good records. But there’s not gonna be a CD component, I don’t think. It’s just gonna be the vinyl. I think it would be cool to do a Ralfi Pagan retrospective. That guy was just tremendous.”
As to why this music continues to excite listeners and get rediscovered, McEwen doesn’t have to overthink the issue. “It’s just such a fun, life-affirming music. Like you hear it today, it’s just really cool.”