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Forty years ago, while still enjoying the success of his previous album “Indestructible“, Ray Barretto faced another challenge for his next album “Barretto” which became a turning point on the careers of several Salsa artists.
The self-titled album “Barretto” was the follow-up album to what I consider a Salsa Hall of Fame album “Indestructible“. After many years of a stable band nucleus, which included 7 albums with singer Adalberto Santiago, “Indestructible” was the first album after the band mutiny of Santiago and 4 other members, who left in 1973 to form the Tipica 73.
When that happened, people thought Ray Barretto’s band would be destroyed by the split, but the opposite happened. Ray Barretto re-assembled his band and launched “Indestructible” which became a smash it with new singer Tito Allen. The title song (co-written by Ray Barretto) was a parable of him overcoming the band split situation, and the album cover with him showing a Superman outfit underneath, hit right on the spot.
Another Search for a New Singer
The ink hadn’t dried on the Salsa chart lists with the various hits in “Indestructible”, when Tito Allen departed the band. Ray suddenly found himself searching for a new singer for the 2nd album in a row.
Since this was a singing gig with a premier Salsa band, Ray Barretto immediately found two good candidates. Sonora Ponceña ex-singer Tito Gomez had left the legendary Puerto Rican band in 1973 to be founding member of Orquesta La Terrifica, but after a year, was again in search of new things. At the same time, Larry Harlow recommended Fania mailroom employee and aspiring musician Ruben Blades. Barretto auditioned both, and the experimented conguero bandleader decided to keep both singers, as their voices harmonized quite well.
“Barretto” the Album
“Barretto” launched in 1975, and it’s first single, an adaptation of an old Cuban “son” “Guararé” was an immediate hit. The song starts with both Tito Gomez and Ruben Blades singing in harmony (Tito on the high pitch; Ruben on the low), to then give way to Gomez on the “soneos”. The song was such a hit that the album was known as the “Guararé album”.
With this album Ruben Blades made his debut with Fania records. Despite Tito Gomez’s renown stature as a singer, Ruben had a prominent role in “Barretto“. He was lead singer in 5 of the 8 songs, co-sang in another 2 songs, and also wrote 2 songs; the bolero “Eso es Amar“, and the Yoruba inspired “Canto Abacua“.
Besides “Guararé“, other hits in the album included “Ban Ban Quere“, “Vale Mas un Guaguancó“, and “Canto Abacuá“, all sang by Ruben Blades, and “Vine Pa’ Echar Candela” and “Testigo Fui” sang by Tito Gomez.
“Vale Mas un Guaguancó” and “Testigo Fui” were written by the great Puerto Rican songwriter Tite Curet Alonso, which along with “Guararé” are my favorites of the album. Ruben Blades had his first Salsa big hit with “Vale Mas Un Guaguancó“, where he still sounded more like his idol Cheo Feliciano, a style he would refine later on.
But “Testigo Fui” is perhaps my favorite song in the album. The song relates the scene of early colonial Puerto Rico, when the native indians would help defend the island against the arrival of the Dutch pirates. The song narrative is extraordinary, storytelling a piece of history. The sound of Barretto’s band is full and heavy in a great arrangement by Sonny Bravo (ironically of Tipica 73), and Tito Gomez really gets into the song to sing it with the passion only a Puerto Rican singing about his homeland could do. All came together majestically in this song.
The Other Road After “Barretto“
“Barretto” marked another change in Ray Barretto’s career. After the album, the singes began to migrate once again. Tito Gomez (nicknamed “El Sonero Errante”) was on the move again, this time back to Puerto Rico and La Sonora Ponceña.
Ruben Blades perhaps would’ve stayed, had he found an outlet to his social songs. But Ray Barretto wanted no part of social songs. Barretto saw Salsa as entertainment for people to dance and forget problems, not to be reminded or made aware of them.
Willie Colon, who had just split from longtime singer Hector Lavoe, was more open to this idea. The two of them got together and when Colon agreed to Ruben Blades social songs, like “El Cazanguero” which Colon included in the 1975 “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” (the last album were Hector Lavoe participated with him). After that, Willie Colon and Ruben Blades decided to join forces, and as they say in every story, the rest is history.
This left Ray Barretto without singers yet again. He got so disillusioned with Salsa, that he decided to focus on his passion for Jazz. As he would be quoted as saying, “Tito Puente got it right“, referring to his former employer and mentor forming a smaller band to play Latin Jazz.
Ray Barretto’s next album would be a live recording of a concert as his farewell to Salsa, which was released by Atlantic and titled “Tomorrow: Barretto Live” (1976) where he had ex-members of his previous bands, including all his previous singers, and Tito Puente as guest.
“Barretto“: A Historic Album
With all the twists and turns that surrounded the “Barretto” album, and the quality of Salsa that came out of it, “Barretto” was a historical album in Salsa music. The phrase “the cream of the cream” really fits to this album, as it was one of the classics of the golden age of Salsa.
Ruben Blades would go to change Salsa with Willie Colon. Tito Gomez returned to the Sonora Ponceña to record their 20th anniversary album, and Ray Barretto would go to florish in Latin Jazz, not returning to a studio to record Salsa until 4 years later, when he released “Rican/Struction” (1979) with his former singer Adalberto Santiago, but having recruited in the coros his future singer Ray de la Paz.
Here are a couple of YouTube videos of “Guarare” and “Testigo Fui”