The Dilemma of El Gran Combo’s Future


El Gran Combo has survived previous singer changes despite the nay-sayers. However, I believe the recent change puts El Gran Combo in a dilemma about its future.

El Gran Combo Survived Departures of Pellin and Andy

“Los Mulatos del Sabor” have been there and done that, twice! Twice in their history they lost a singer, and twice many naysayers said they would not be the same nor as successful after the singer change. And twice they were wrong!

Pellin Rodriguez and Andy Montañez were the original singers of El Gran Combo. They helped build the Salsa band into a Latin music institution. (You can read more of El Gran Combo during the 60’s in my blog HERE)

Pellín Rodriguez and Andy Montañez were the first pillars of El Gran Combo by making a cohesive singing pair.
Pellín Rodriguez and Andy Montañez were the first pillars of El Gran Combo by making a cohesive singing pair.

Pellin Rodriguez was not only an accomplished singer, but a great entertainer. He was El Gran Combo’s MC, and would talk and sometimes joke in-between songs. He had the ability to attract and get an audience, and as we say, have them in his pocket.

When Pellin Rodriguez left to pursue a solo career, Latin music fans saw not only the loss of a singer, but of the true spirit of El Gran Combo. “They will never be the same” was heard frequently. That was the situation under which Charlie Aponte arrived to substitute Pellin.

During the 1972-1973 transition of Pellin to Charlie, Andy Montañez had recorded the album “En Accion” all by himself. He had become the voice of El Gran Combo, and went on to stay with “La Universidad de la Salsa” for another 5 years.

When Andy decided to leave for a lucrative offer to join Venezuela’s orchestra Dimension Latina, which was recuperating from the departure of singer-bassist Oscar D’Leon, the naysayers were at it again. Cries of “they will never be the same” were heard all over. A young Jerry Rivas was selected to substitute Andy. And the naysayer were wrong again! (You can read more on El Gran Combo during the 70’s in my blog HERE)

The Disruptive Departure of Charlie Aponte

Charlie Aponte‘s departure has awaken the naysayers once again. But this time the circumstances are different. Yes, Charlie will be missed for many reasons; his hits, his choreography, his affable personality. More importantly, there are 2 reasons why this change in singers is very different from previous ones:

El Gran Combo Salsa singers Jerry Rivas, Charlie Aponte, and Papo Rosario
Jerry Rivas, Charlie Aponte, and Papo Rosario almost grew up together in El Gran Combo.

Point #1 – consider this: Pellin Rodriguez remained in El Gran Combo for 10 years. Andy Montañez remained in El Gran Combo for 15 years. Charlie Aponte was with them for 41 years! Not only that’s a lot of songs and hits for people to remember, but that’s almost a full generation. In that period of 41 years, many people were born, got married, and even had kids.

Point #2 – the previous two new singers were contemporaries of the current singer and of the band as a whole. Here are some stats:

– Pellin Rodriguez and Andy Montañez: age difference = 16 years
– Andy Montañez and Charlie Aponte: age difference = 8 years
– Charlie Aponte and Jerry Rivas: age difference = 9 years (with Papo Rosario = 9 years)
– Jerry Rivas and Anthony Garcia: age difference = 27 years (with Papo Rosario = 35 years)

So previous singers of El Gran Combo were more or less contemporary of each other. Anthony Garcia, regardless of his skill as a singer, is about 3 decades younger than Jerry and Papo. With the aging Gran Combo, perhaps Jerry and Papo will follow Charlie into “retirement” in a few years, which will give Anthony time to become seasoned in the band. When the full renovation of front line of singers occurs in a few years, Anthony will be the one to lead them.

In the meantime, this will make it hard to make it a cohesive team of singers, and also creates a dilemma for El Gran Combo on how to use the new singer.

Bringing Newcomer Anthony Garcia Creates a Dilemma

El Gran Combo singers Papo Rosario, Anthony Garcia, and Jerry Rivas.
Regardless of his talent, Anthony Garcia’s 3 decades age difference with Jerry and Papo will challenge the cohesiveness of El Gran Combo singers.

Should El Gran Combo use Anthony as another singer of its style of music, or should it go after the younger generations of Salsa lovers, who prefer the softer Salsa Romantica? Anthony Garcia will appeal more to fans of the latter than of the former.

If Anthony sings traditional style Gran Combo songs, he will have to fit in with Jerry and Papo, and with a 3-decade difference, that will be a tall order. If he sings more Salsa Romantica style songs, El Gran Combo will be defecting their core style their followers are used to.

New Song with Anthony Points to Salsa Romantica

The new released song “Yo Soy Tu Amigo” seems to indicate that El Gran Combo is willing to use Anthony as magnet for younger generations with a softer Salsa, which has already caused some Gran Combo fans to say the song does not sound like El Gran Combo. (You can read my review of “Yo Soy Tu Amigo” HERE)

Despite the ups and downs, El Gran Combo has lasted this long for a reason. Most people seem to agree that the young substitute of Charlie Aponte is talented, so I’m sure El Gran Combo will figure out how to best use him and navigate through this transition to continue the long musical tradition they have provided for over 50 years!

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  1. Héctor L González says

    Rafael Ithier is testing the waters with his new pupil .As all others who have had part in the Gran Combo de Puerto Rico they ‘ve all had to make major adjustments in their careers .
    Anthony will not be the exception.Rafael wants Him to be the sponge of the group for a while, absorb and grow. He is definitely talented in that there should be no doubt. His voice will surely mature and so will his improvisational skills .He has only been assigned one song so far but there will be variety like always in The Gran Combos developing musical repertoire.

    ***Don Rafael Ithier is masterful Teacher and survivor of the business .He has created more than just and orchestra. He has created a corporation of Music that is masterfully being prepared to survive long after He leaves. Him and all the Gran Combo members, past and present, will go into the music hall of fame.

    Like Charlie some of his beginning most liked songs had romantic elements to appeal to all ages and generations of the Gran Combo audience.
    Fitting in with the veterans of the group is just another skill that Anthony will have to learn to develop. The evolution of this orchestra has been continuous and constant and that is what makes it the great school or university of Salsa for the whole Salsa World.

    Great orchestras are always able and willing to make adjustment until they hit that nerve or keys that sits well with the public.

    The salsa world does not digest change very well.

    This has been the case in some of the most famous Salsa Orchestras in the business in and out of the Island.
    Examples : Out of all of the most famous musical institutions the Gran Combo is the one that has had the least amount of changes in it’s singers.

    Take for ex:Just to mention a few,

    La Sonora Ponceña,Willie Rosario, El Gran Combo,Tommy Olivencia, Bobby Valentin , Grupo Niche(Colombian ) ,Puertorican Power, Eddie Palmieri ,La Dimensión Latina(Venzuela) Tito Puente(New York) ,They’ve all been schools of music though-out the ages they developed some of the best Singers and musicians in the business and in the plateau of their talent all have transitioned into solo artist , and yet they have survived and continued their long successful runs as great Musical entities and or Musical corporations .

    What makes an Orchestra Great is the talent they develop, it is what gives any Orchestra their great social standings, acceptance, and legacies. The most important part of greatness in any of these above mentioned orchestras is the ability to develop and further ,talent, bring it to it’s culmination.

    The Gran Combo although has not had that many different singers all have been greatly talented. The oldest of all the Gran Combo singers was Pellin Rodriguez who came from the Old school of Music from street corners of Santurce and Barrio Obreo, into dancing halls all over the world. I believe that all great singers bring with them their street getto experience, and compliment it with the orchestra culture and formation that completes them.

    He too had to make some serious changes and adjustments, mainly Musical order and discipline, which is what is taking place now with Anthony Garcia. I think that He has been given a position that many will envy and a position that some of the best formed singers were not able to obtain.

    Don Rafael Ithier molds and forms His Pupils into artist and showmen.
    Yeah, His musicians and singers are His pupils, his family.He is a Professor in His art field as are all the others above mentioned. He writes Music and arranges it individually for all His singers and in all Musical projects has talent development in the forefront to please his existing fans and the ones that are yet to be conquered.

    I truly believe that Anthony Garcia will do just fine if he follows humbly the lead of Don Rafael and Jerry Zayas who is the lead singer and will be for many a years, and of course we can’t leave out Willie Sotelo who is a Maestro in his own right.

    Each artist reaches his, her plateau and has to move on .That’s what music is about , reaching higher and higher!
    It is what happened to all who came before Anthony Garcia. In My estimation the age difference has not much to do with the Gift. I personally think that Anthony Garcia has been blessed to fit into the Gran Combo’s development plans.
    The God honest truth is that Anthony is navigating in a sea of Musical Pirates.
    I wish Don Rafael Ithier and Anthony the best in their endeavors. For they are mixing a new chemical formula of talent. Their is always the possibility that I may be wrong but ,don’t think so! Continue to enjoy Salsa , for every new member brings to the mix a new condiment.
    ***Once again my most sincere thanks to Latino Music Café and to Mr Héctor Aviles for allowing me the opportunity to express my humble thoughts on what is my passion.

    Respectfully submitted : Héctor González Falcón

    1. Hector Aviles says

      Tocayo Hector,
      As always thanks for your thoughtful insights. I agree with you that Anthony Garcia is very talented. He has a sweet voice and comes with good soneos. I have not seen his improvisational skills yet, so I can’t judge those (recordings are not a good gauge).

      To no fault of Anthony, I believe the age difference will affect El Gran Combo as they figure out how to use him. It’s evident that there isn’t and will not be the same chemistry as if all singers were contemporaries. But I also think Jerry and Papo won’t stay too many more years, and El Gran Combo will then complete an evolution that will take them into the next 50 years. It’s a good long term plan, but in the meantime, they will navigate some rough seas until they get through.

      But I’m with you, I think they eventually will get through the rough times and continue to provide good Salsa for many more years.



      1. Anonymous says

        I’m sorry but I went to see them recently and think that Anthony sucks As a salsa singer his voice is not powerful like Charlie or Andy and I’m sorry but the other two guys are old and can’t carry the sound either try sounded like one hot mess with the soft andy Garcia and two old guys who have lost power in their voices they need to regroup and bring in a power singer start over I could barely hear their words when I saw them just a lot of out of sync voices with some good background music I know Charlie won’t be back but he really carried that group

        1. Hector Aviles says

          I hear you and respect your opinion. Anthony Garcia has certainly received mixed reviews from Salsa fans that have seen EGC recently.

  2. Mike Diaz says

    Went on a salsa cruise with the gran combo that old school style still has it the new singer anthony has a strong voice but needs that special seasoning and that comes with time and who but the greatest Latin salsa band El Gran Combo to do it with.

    1. Hector Aviles says

      Good point Mike. Anthony still has lots to learn. Let’s give him a break and wait and see how it turns out in the next few years. If Jerry retires, that will help him.

  3. Luyando says

    Just listen to Antony Garcia’s interpretation of Yo Soy Tu Amigo. I am a fan of EGC since the Pellín and Andy days. Just as hard-core fans gave Jerry Rivas the benefit of the doubt, hard-core fans may afford Anthony García the time to blossom into a great sonero. Jerry Rivas will probably retire sooner than later, and it will be the time to revamp the front three that has made EGC so famous. Nevertheless, the true test comes during Live performances at Night Clubs, where the dancers feels the band. After all, EGC is a dance band, I hope I am not disappointed, like I am with with another famous dance band, Los Van-Van from Cuba. Since Pedrito Calvo left the band and Juan Formell passed away, their signature sound, their tumbao just does not feels right when you hit the dance floor.

    1. Hector Aviles says

      Thanks for your comments. You are right. Perhaps Anthony will become a great sonero. He has decent improvisation skills. I just don’t like his style and how it fits with El Combo.
      Yet, again trying to be optimistic, perhaps when Jerry retires and they get 3 contemporary singers that complement each other well, perhaps things will look different.

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