This week an unobtrusive Salsa music legend quietly celebrates his birthday. Raphy Leavitt has made some of the best Salsa music there is, and I want to highlight him as he celebrates his 62nd birthday this week.
The history of Puerto Rican band leader Raphy Leavitt and his orchestra “La Selecta” is long and full with ups and downs. And here I mean high ups and deep (almost deadly) downs. I’m not going to cover all his career here. You can find that information at Salsa Clasica.com or in Music of Puerto Rico. However, I do want to share with you why Raphy Leavitt is an important part of why I love Salsa music. I also want to highlight why he had a positive impact on Salsa music.
Raphy Leavitt Uncompromised Originality
Resilience, professionalism, and quality are the attributes I would use to describe one of my favorite band leaders. Raphy Leavitt had just released his 2nd Salsa album with his band “La Selecta” when he and some of his band members where involved in a horrific car accident while in tour in Connecticut, Massachusetts, USA.
Trumpet player Luisito Maisonet died in the accident and Raphy had severe injuries that left him limping for life. Yet, despite the adversities, “La Selecta” went on against the odds and bad wishers.
After the car accident, Raphy wrote the Salsa song “La Cuna Blanca”, based on a vision he had while comatose in the hospital bed. “La Cuna Blanca” became a huge hit, and is still used to commemorate those close to us who depart this world.
I was about 11 or 12 years old when “La Cuna Blanca” came out. I was still forming my musical preferences then. There were 3 main songs that pushed me over to become a mad Salsa music fan:
1. “Ah-ah, Oh-No” by Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe
2. “Dime Por Que” by Ismael Rivera
3. “La Cuna Blanca” by Raphy Leavitt and La Selecta
I couldn’t have enough of these songs. The only LP I end up getting was Willie Colon’s “El Juicio”. I memorized every single song in that Salsa album, and could sing it (still can) from the 1st song to the last, in order. I didn’t get “La Selecta” Salsa albums until a couple years later. A friend of mine with whom I played baseball was a huge Raphy Leavitt fan. He had most of his Salsa albums, and I would borrow them from him. I then became a huge fan.
Raphy Leavitt, Salsa Storyteller Before Ruben Blades
Before Ruben Blades, there was Raphy Leavitt. The Salsa songs by “La Selecta” had meaning and a message. They could be political, social, love, or of personal development/improvement, but they were always positive. “Le traigo un mensaje, a la humanidad” (I bring a message to humanity) said one of his early Salsa songs.
“Jibaro Soy” in which a countryside “campesino” states he wants independence, without proclaiming a revolution or violence. “Amor y Paz” and “El Buen Pastor” give a religious message without being too “preachy”. “Café Colao” talks about how coffee drinking is part of our culture. “Ambiente” and “Somos el Son” which talk about being proud of our music and culture, and a bunch of love songs, most with great swing to dance, and others classic “boleros” like “Dueña y Señora”.
Sammy Marrero, Raphy’s faithful singer thoughout the entire lifespan of “La Selecta” could sing it all. This was a unique association, where Sammy always sang with “La Selecta” and “La Selecta” always had Sammy Marrero, something you don’t see very often. The closest thing to this association are Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, and even them do their own separate projects every now and then (like the last solo release by Bobby Cruz, without Richie, although he used him as a guest artist in one song).
Good Salsa, Without Showmanship
Besides being consistently good and always with a Salsa song of “La Selecta” in the radio from the early 70’s to the early 90’s, Raphy Leavitt was a relatively quiet band leader. He was not in any All-Stars, didn’t record for Fania or any big label, nor did any extravagant things that would give him bad press. Raphy was a consummate professional that just dedicated himself to doing good music.
Raphy studied music early on, but didn’t pursue a music education. He graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a degree in Business Administration. His music, therefore, is simple. Not overly simple, but his arrangements are not as sophisticated as others. Yet, he made solid salsa music with meaningful lyrics. He surely knew how to make a catchy tune.
Raphy Leavitt 30 Aniversario “Live” Album
The last Salsa album we have from Raphy Leavitt is a real high in his career. The CD/DVD set “30 Aniversario” recorded Live at the Tito Puente theater in San Juan, P.R., is a jewel. It followed many years of recording silence by “La Selecta” which had a tough time during the “Salsa Romantica” era. Raphy tried and adjusted his band for that craze, but “La Selecta” was not favored by the public preference in that style of Salsa. Therefore, the band went quiet.
Yet, if you want to experience Raphy Leavitt fully, his “30 Aniversario” is a must have. Not only does it collect the most important hits by “La Selecta”, but I have yet to listen to a Live recording of old Salsa music hits by any band that with few exceptions (La Cuna Blanca being one of them) where the live recording sounds much better than the original song.
Raphy beefed-up “La Selecta” nicely with extra horns and chorus. He brought in Prodigio Claudio in the Puerto Rican “cuatro”. He also added an electric guitar, and invited the beloved Andres Jimenez “El Jibaro” as guest singer in “Jibaro Soy”. This was a treat! The arrangements were faithful to the original arrangements, but yet were “updated” for a bigger band. The sound quality is excellent and Sammy Marrero signs like if “father time” is just a myth.
Here’s the video of “Jibaro Soy” during that 30 Aniversario concert.
Raphy Leavitt and La Selecta – Classic Salsa Greats!
When Salsa music was enjoying its best time in the 70’s, Raphy Leavitt and “La Selecta” were a shining star among stars, even without the spotlight of participating in an “All Stars” or of a big record label. Resilience, professionalism, and quality always served to bubble Raphy Leavitt to the top, no matter how deep he could have fallen.
Feliz Cumpleaños Maestro!