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East Harlem "Got a Hold on Me": The Musical History of Johnny Colón

In a scene from the 1985 film Crossover Dreams, the main character, Rudy Veloz, a frustrated salsa singer with aspirations of becoming a pop star, sees Johnny Colón performing with his band at an East Harlem roof party. “It doesn’t make any sense to me,” says Veloz, played by Rubén Blades. “This guy had a huge hit years ago; look where he ended up: back where he started on 104th Street.” This statement, though on some levels true, misrepresents Colón. His story is not so cliché. Colón's dreams are what kept him in East Harlem to start a music school for a new generation of salseros.

Colón's “huge hit”—“Boogaloo Blues”—came in 1966. It was a time of transition in the Latin music scene in New York. There was no such thing as salsa yet, the mambo craze was over, and Puerto Ricans were coming of age in the city—the Nuyorican was emerging. As many of their peers went off to fight in Vietnam, some of New York’s younger Puerto Ricans were losing interest in Latin music and beginning to identify more with R&B hits in English than with the music of their roots. “This is a time when Tito Puente could not get elected dogcatcher,” Colón says today. “Any band that you could name, it just wasn’t happening.”

Colón, then twenty-four, had been putting together his own bands since he was a teenager, writing songs and performing as much as he could on an independent streak that went against the trend for a young Latin musician at the time. “You usually did some kind of internship with guys like Puente or Eddie Palmieri or Ray Barretto, somebody who would take you under their wing, and we didn’t do that,” Colón says of his band then. “It was a struggle, man. It was a struggle. The band was playing around a lot. We were getting cheap gigs, but we were working, which is the most important thing.”

During the day, Colón toiled at a job he hated, working as a clerk for a company of naval architects. He wanted to devote himself to his music, but he had a wife and baby boy to support. It was a chance encounter with George Goldner and Stan Lewis that changed everything, not just for Colón, but for Latin music as well. Goldner and Lewis were influential record producers with hits dating back to the 1940s and 50s in R&B and Latin music. Goldner had founded the Tico Label and recorded artists like Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodríguez.

In 1965, Colón was paying dues inside the headquarters of the musicians’ union when Goldner and Lewis walked in and announced that they were looking for young Latin bands to record. Colón said nothing but eyed the card Lewis left with one of the union delegates. That same day, he went to the address he’d memorized off the card and convinced the producers to give his band an audition.

The members of the Johnny Colón Orchestra were all from East Harlem, a group that included two young singers, Rafael “Tito” Ramos and Tony Rojas. While still traditionally Latin, their sound mixed in jazz and blues influences. They were loud, raw, and less polished than any of the famous bands of the day. And the prominent use of Colón’s trombone—an instrument not commonly featured by other Latin band  to that point (other than Eddie Palmieri’s)—also set them apart.

Goldner’s initial response was lukewarm when he heard them. ‘“So, what do you think, Mr. Goldner?’” Colón recalls asking after the audition. “He says, ‘I like it, it’s got a nice sound. It swings, but it doesn’t have that chicka chicka cheeky—you know that Cuban stuff? I said, ‘Well, its not a Cuban group, this is a New York sound. This is what’s happening.’” He told Goldner to come see them play at the Colgate Gardens, a popular dance hall in the Bronx. “It was a very hot spot,” says Colón. “I think we were playing on a Friday or a Saturday night. So we go in, the place is jam-packed [with] very beautiful young kids, and many of them minors pretending that they were eighteen.”After the gig, Goldner, sensing the energy coming from the young crowd, changed his mind and told Colón he wanted to sign them to his new label, Cotique. “I signed the contracts in the studio,” Colón remembers. “I didn’t know what the hell I was signing. I just knew I wanted to record, like most kids at that time”.

For their first album, the band had a repertoire of songs they had been experimenting with since forming over a year earlier. Goldner persuaded the band to write one new tune based off a bluesy piano riff he had heard Colón use as an intro to the Latin standard “Anabacoa.” Goldner suggested they drop the “Anabacoa” and sticks with the blues. Colón, wanting to please the producer, agreed, and wrote the new song. The result would become the title track on the debut album, Boogaloo Blues, a record that would usher in a wave of new bands and bring about a resurgence of Latin music. The cover of the Boogaloo Blues LP, shot by the great music photographer Chuck Stewart, shows Colón holding the King 8-H copper bell trombone his mother had helped him buy years earlier.

Mercedes Vizcarrondo-Colón came to New York in 1932 from Santurce, Puerto Rico. She married three years later and in 1942 had her first child, John Colón. His father, Juan Colón, a merchant seaman, also from Puerto Rico, abandoned the family when his son was four years old. Colón grew up on 102nd Street and then on 106th Street, living with his mother, grandmother, younger sister, and an uncle. The area was not yet known as “El Barrio”, and Puerto Ricans still shared East Harlem. “East of Third Avenue, it was the Italian community, and if you walked east of Third Avenue, they would kick your a**,” says Colón. “From Third to Fifth, it was Puerto Rican. It was like West Side Story for real.”

But Colón’s interests were not in fighting or gangs—music had always been his thing. When he was a kid, his grandmother took him to Spanish vaudeville theaters in Harlem and the Bronx, where they would have a variety of performances, including musical acts. At an early age, he saw artists like Daniel Santos, Rafael Cortijo with Ismael Rivera, and even Puente. “I got to see a whole bunch of people that were legendary figures," Colón says. “It was that kind of setting that inspired me as a kid. My mother bought me a ukulele when I was three, and I started plucking out tunes right away.” A guitar soon followed, and at five, Colón played well enough to perform a song on a local radio station. The streets of East Harlem then afforded him the opportunity to hone his skills as a percussionist in an unorthodox way.  "What came next was playing conga, bongo, and timbales, self-taught on the best instrument in the world, these old 1940s cars,” says Colón. "We would jam until somebody said, 'Hey, get off my car!'"

He eventually picked up the piano and the bass, playing with other musicians in the neighborhood. But the trombone, the instrument he would become known for, did not come into his life until he joined his school band at Commerce High School. He had asked to play the saxophone or trumpet, but to his displeasure, those instruments were already taken. His teacher suggested the trombone. “His name was Mr. Siegel; I’ll never forget that,” Colón remembers. "So he gave me this thing. It looked like it was something left over from a plumbing job. I said, 'Oh man, well, how do you play this thing?' And he said, 'Don’t worry about it. Just sit in it and blow.' I didn’t  know what the f*** I was doing. The slide, I struggled with it, because it was all messed up. It was jammed, full of grease. It wasn’t cleaned. I remember I was just getting all this hair on my face, and Siegel said to me one time, 'The reason you’re no hitting the note is ‘cause you’ve got all the...hair on your face.' There was a girl in the class, and I remember I was so embarrassed. I thought, ‘This guy’s an [idiot].’”

After high school, Colón formed what he called his “first real salsa band.” They played mostly in the charanga style, which was made popular in the early ‘60s by artists like Johnny Pacheco and Charlie Palmieri. Colón was also giving music lessons to people from the neighborhood at the time, and he began working with Tito Ramos and Tony Rojas, who eventually asked to join his band. Colón says he spent a lot of time with Ramos, who he says was not a natural singer but had a tremendous ability to “tell stories” in songs.

On Boogaloo Blues, Ramos sang lead vocals on four tracks, including the title track. The song is a love story, explains Colón. But it was also a reflection of the times, with lyrics like “one two three, I feel so free” and “LSD has a hold on me.” Though the song is not about drugs, Colón admits exploiting the acronym because he knew it would catch people’s attention. “L stands for love, S for strong, D for dynamic,” Colón says. “But LSD was, like, a happening acronym. Anybody who was anybody was reading and talking about LSD, seeing Timothy Leary with LSD, the kids with LSD, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," you know, so that was it. But it really was not intended to mean anything about the drug; we just got in on the acronym because we knew it would have an effect.”

Still, the lyrics were controversial enough that Cotique had a hard time getting the record played at first. This was combined, Colón says, with the disdain many of the popular DJs had for Goldner because of his involvement with the payola scandal that sent legendary DJ Alan Freed to jail. “George was out of the scene for a while, and they felt they were big enough, you know; they don’t have to depend on George anymore,” Colón says of the DJs who refused to play the record. “Maybe George pushed them around a little bit before, and here’s their turn to say, ‘Screw you, George.” [So] George says, ‘We’re gonna go see Sid.’”

“Symphony” Sid Torin was an influential jazz DJ who in the 1960s became a champion for Latin music. He was also a friend of Goldner’s and the DJ to break "Boogaloo Blues." According to Colón, Goldner asked Torin to play the single a little earlier each night on his show—until reaction had grown after a few nights to the point that "the phone’s going off the hook asking for 'Boogaloo Blues.’ It became a monster hit,” says Colón. “He had to open the show with 'Boogaloo Blues,' and sometimes play ‘Boogaloo Blues’ again in the middle.”

Colón and his band became instant celebrities in New York, and their performance were in demand, something Colón had trouble grasping the first time he played the Village Gate and shard the bill with Joe Quijano. “The Village Gate is the place to play,” Colón explains. “So we get to the Gate on the night of the appearance, with my homemade bass amp and my homemade system that I had put together and our uniform [blue jackets and tuxedo pants]. There’s a line going all the way around from Bleecker on the corner to Thompson and Houston. I said 'holy shit, wow! Man, this guy Joe Quijano really pulls them in.’ I did not know it was us. So we get on and we start playing, and everybody starts yelling and I’m going crazy because here I am at the Gate, the place is jam-packed, and people are yelling. So I’m thanking Joe Quijano in my head, and it takes me a few performances to realize that it was me.”

Colón’s band was the first Latin group to launch itself with a boogaloo hit. The Latin boogaloo was a dance and a style of music that often had lyrics in English and Spanish and mixed Latin rhythms and chords with the jazzy, mod sound popular at the time. After Boogaloo Blues, many other young Latin bands followed suit and recorded boogaloos, along with most of the established stars. But despite its popularity, there were people in the world of Latin music who felt threatened by the boogaloo. Tito Puente, who would eventually record his own, was known to have said he thought “Boogaloo Blues” sounded like a Coca-Cola commercial. While Colón is adamant that his band was more than just a boogaloo band because of the many styles of Latin music they played, he is proud of their role in launching the boogaloo craze of the late 1960s. “A lot of those kids that came back to Latin music,” Colón says, “came back because of ‘Boogaloo Blues.’ Once of the guys that sings coro [chorus] in my band today first heard ‘Boogaloo Blues’ while he was fighting in the trenches in Vietnam, and that turned him around. That’s what that record did. That’s what the boogaloo did. That’s what was happening in that era. That’s what was bringing in the young kids and the young men and the young women on the scene.”

Boogaloo revived Latin music, and young acts like Joey Pastrana, Chollo Rivera, and the Lebron Brothers were not the only ones to benefit. “In the ‘60s, there was nothing happening [in Latin music],” Colón says. “The boogaloo comes along and, pow, everything starts working again. The boogaloo, I think, was something that bridged people, that bridged cultures, that transcended cultures. It was truly an American experience and a New York experience, a youth experience. Without a doubt, something that comes from the result of an environmental effect. It’s like graffiti.”

A year after Boogaloo Blues, Colón band released their second album, Boogaloo ’67. Though the album did not have another major hit, it sold decently, doing about half the sale of Boogaloo Blues, Colón says. It was the last record he recorded with Ramos and Rojas, who would go on to form the TnT Band.

Colón continued recording on Cotique and performing with his band, but by late 1967, Colón believes there was already a plot afoot to bring down the young bands made popular by boogaloo. “The guys who were around before us, not all of them but many of them, resented the fact that all these young people came in and were playing,” says Colón, “but they didn’t stop to think that that’s what made it possible for the field to juice up again and offer jobs for them.” The plot to “assassinate the boogaloo," as Colón tells it, was orchestrated by two major players in the Latin music business, Morris Levy and José Curbelo. Levy, a reputed associated of the Genovese crime family, was rumored to have won Tico form Goldner on a bet and had absorbed it as subsidiary to his Roulette label. Curbelo was an ex-bandleader who became a powerful manager working with acts like Puente, Barretto, and Joe Cuba. Since signing with Cotique, Colón’s manager had been Jack Hook, a promoter at the Village Gate. In the end of 1967, Hook told Colón he needed to make Curbelo his manager, as a favor to Symphony Sid. “He insisted that I go over there because we had to save Symphony Sid,’ Colón recalls. “Allegedly, José Curbelo had something on Symphony Sid. All of the young bands were forced to go over to Curbelo.”

But Curbelo’s intention, once he had the young bands under his control, was to put an end to their success, not further it, Colón says. “All the promoters go together in Curbelo’s office, and Curbelo said, ‘We’re going to make a syndicate, we’re not going to fight each other, we’re going to put all these things together here and split everything, and the first thing we’re going to do is kick all this boogaloo junk out of here,’” Colón explains. “The guy who called the meeting was Morris Levy. Morris was mob—you didn’t say not to Morris or you’d find yourself without an eye or minus a leg. The result of that was that they would form this syndicate and push all the boogaloo bands out. They would control the scene again, and all their guys would get top billing.”

Colón says he went from playing shows seven days a week to three days, if he was lucky. Colón approached Curbelo about the situation, and Curbelo let him know right away what kind of relationship they had. “The first thing that Curbelo said to me was, ‘Kid, you got to know that when you come over here, you’re in my stable,’” Colón recalls, “I said, ‘Your stable? I don’t get it.’ I knew I wasn’t a horse. He said, ‘Well, I become your pimp.' I said, 'Holy s***, this guy’s crazy.’”

Colón asked Hook, his old manager, for help dealing with Curbelo, but Hook refused. Colón had seen no royalties from Boogaloo Blues, or his other record, and needed to perform to support his family. Colón decided he had to leave Curbelo, even if it meant he was on his own. “I was persona non grata because I took them on, you know,” Colón says. “Just fighting for my rights meant I was taking them on.” He could no longer play at the Village Gate or some of the other hot clubs under Curbelo and Levy’s syndicate. But despite the blacklist, Colón persevered. He was still under contract by Cotique and continued recording. He performed wherever there were gigs, even spending a stint on the Jazzmobile, a float that drove bands around Harlem.

In 1970, George Goldner died suddenly of a heart attack. By then, the admiration Colón had once felt for the producer was long gone. “Goldner had tremendous charm and personality and was simpático with people, but he was a con man; they’ll do that,” Colón says.

He took the opportunity to get out his contract with Cotique and went to Jerry Massucci, co-owner of Fania Records, and asked to record on the label’s new subsidiary, Vaya. Massucci signed Colón, and he recorded his fifth album, Hot! Hot! Hot Caliente de Vicio, released in 1972, but to his surprise, it would not come out on Vaya. “We finished the record,” Colón says. “Larry Harlow took the pictures for the cover. Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco are in the room, and Jerry’s telling me, ‘Listen you’ve got to put this out on Cotique.”I said, ‘I just came from Cotique. You know I don’t want to be with Cotique anymore; that’s why I signed with you.’ He says, ‘Well, you know, we’re trying to work something out.' So Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco are cracking up in the corner. I don’t know what’s going on. I get out of the room, and I’m sitting with Larry, and I’m saying, ‘Man, I’m so disappointed.’ And he says, ‘Man, don’t you know, Johnny?' I said, ‘No, what’s happening?’ He says, ‘They’re in the process of buying Cotique.’”

Released on the now Fania-controlled Cotique, the album, with no boogaloos, did well, and Colón had another big hit with “Merecumbe,” an aggressive salsa song that has since become a classic in the genre. He would record one more record, Tierra Va a Temblar, under the new Cotique, but by 1972, his contract was up, and Colón was becoming fed up with the business. “I got frustrated because it’s the same old thing—nobody pays you,” Colón says. "I didn’t want to go back to Fania or any other recording company.’’

By then, he had been able to get around some of the restrictions created by his being blacklisted and was performing enough gigs to feel comfortable. He decided to leave the recording business and pursue another passion. “I was still getting jobs with the band on my own, so I said, ‘Why don’t I just keep doing what I’m doing with the band and continue my other dream? Which was to start a school. And that’s the way it went,” says Colón. With public funding, along with much of Colóns own money, he established the East Harlem Music School, offering free lessons to the community. His impact as a music instructor for more than three decades may be even greater than the effect of his recordings. Students like the singer Tito Nieves, percussionists Jimmy Delgado and Robin Loeb, bass player Rubén Rodríguez, and Marc Anthony would all go on to become stars in contemporary salsa music.

Though Colón has done some recording on his own in recent years, he has no regrets about leaving the business behind. By the 1970s, Colón had discovered he was more comfortable working for his community than as a commercial artist. The scene in Crossover Dreams is from an actual rooftop performance Colón gave as a benefit for his school. He never appreciated what Blades' character said of him, especially considering the filmmakers had come to him for help getting permits to shoot in East Harlem.

But Colón would not be discouraged. By the mid-1990s, after the death of his second wife, who had helped him run the administrative side of the school, Colón was struggling to maintain funding. In 2004, unable to keep a permanent space for his school, Colón was given the opportunity to bring his brand of music education to New York City public schools. Today, as well as teaching in schools around the city, Colón has begun giving music classes to patients at drug treatment centers. He continues to perform and is hoping to raise enough money to establish a new permanent location for his school. “Teaching is a constant refueling of myself, and it keeps me grounded,” says Colón. “It’s never about me; it’s about giving as much as you can so that when it’s time to die, hopefully, you’ve given it all the way.”

© Mathew Ramirez Warren. Republished by permission from Wax Poetics in Centro Voices on 5 June 2015.