History of El Gran Combo: the 1960’s


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The ’60s saw El Gran Combo go through a rocky startup, develop their own musical identity, achieve success, see their demand decline due to over-exposure, and manage the departure of several key members. Yet, at the end of the decade, they came out on the other side a stronger band.

El Gran Combo’s Rocky Start

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog series, El Gran Combo had gained some negative public opinion for their founding members having left Cortijo. Recording their first album with a foreign singer (Dominican merengue star Joseito Mateo) did not help matters much.

El Gran Combo photo circa 1962
El Gran Combo circa 1962. Notice Rafael Ithier dressed like everyone else, a practice he would later change.

As they decided to continue together and recruit singers in preparation for the second album, which was really their first true one as a group, they couldn’t avoid some instability in the band. They recruited Pellín Rodriguez, a still relatively young but 20-year veteran singer who had been with the famed Noro Morales orchestra. They also recruited Jose Juan “Chiquitín” García, who had been a singer and musical director for the renown Placido Acevedo’s Cuarteto Mayarí, and also recruited Daniel Vazquez, who would do voice and play the bongos.

But wait a minute, wasn’t Roberto Roena playing the bongoes? Well, let’s see how this played out.

Changes Begin; Roena and Andy

A couple of days after playing on the radio, El Gran Combo made their live performance debut in Bayamón on May 26, 1962. A few days later, they played at the popular Hotel La Concha, at a party to homage, ironically, Rafael Cortijo. Shortly after the gig at La Concha, both Daniel Vazquez and Chiquitín García decided to leave the group. Maybe they perceived the public apathy towards the new group or weren’t comfortable in it. But the fact is they left.

Do you remember that meeting at the house of Roena’s mother? In Part 1 we discussed that a group of musicians from Cortijo’s Combo, among which was Roberto, decided to leave and form a new group. They also decided to name Rafael Ithier the group’s leader, and would eventually name the new group, El Gran Combo.

So far so good!

But in that meeting, Roberto Roena decided to stay with Cortijo. Rafael Cortijo was the one who started him in music. He taught him how to play the bongo and the cowbell. Cortijo’s idea was to use Roena’s dancing abilities to choreograph routines with the singers in the front line while he played the cowbell. This would make the combo more colorful. So Roena was not ready to abandon his musical godfather. But life is full of surprises!

Pellín Rodriguez and Andy Montañez latin music singers
Pellín Rodriguez and Andy Montañez made a great team of singers.

Rafael Cortijo had gone to New York for a short time while things cooled down in Puerto Rico. Roena and others decided to wait for him to come back. But while in New York, Cortijo changed his mind and decided to establish himself there and form a new band. Roberto Roena was not willing to move to New York and now was available for work in Puerto Rico, just as Daniel and Chiquitin were leaving El Gran Combo.

As for the vacancy of the second singer, someone had recommended Ithier a young 20-year-old who sang in trios. He went by the name of Junior Montañez, named after his father Andrés. But since there were so many Juniors around in the music business, they opted to call him Andy.

The second LP “El Gran Combo de Siempre”, released in 1963, served to introduce the band to the public for the first time. Pellín took the lead singer role as he sang most songs. Pellín alternated singing duties with Andy, who was singing Guarachas and Bombas for the first time. But the combo’s sound…it had that Cortijo stamp all over it. Eddie “La Bala” unmistakable falsetto on the chorus, Ithier arrangements (which he also did for Cortijo), and the selection of Guarachas and Bombas, all were Cortijo trademarks.

Backcover of LP "El Gran Combo de Siempre"
El Gran Combo was formally introduced in their 2nd LP “El Gran Combo de Siempre”. Note the mistake of calling Andy “Eddy”.

Here’s the Youtube audio cut of “La Muerte”, one of the hits in “de Siempre”. It was composed by Chiquitín García, who had left the group on good terms with Ithier, and would provide this and many more songs through the years for el Combo. “La Muerte” was Andy Montanez’s first hit, and you can hear not only his young voice, but that his performance was a bit flat compared to later hits, yet quite good for his first recording!

El Gran Combo Finds Success

El Gran Combo Acangana album cover
“Acangana” was a #1 hit in New York and Panama before it was in Puerto Rico. It earned El Gran Combo their 1st Gold album.

By the third album, El Gran Combo was finding their own musical identity. The band had found stability and Rafael Ithier began tweaking the arrangements a little differently, as well as finding good funny songs (I expand on this topic HERE), always keeping an ear for the latest musical preferences of the public. Pellín and Andy started to find harmony together. The song “Acángana” became such a hot single that it gave name to their third album, also released in 1963.

The song was a funny twist to the nuclear arms tensions that were still very much in the air just a short year after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. By the way, “Acángana” is an onomatopoeic or a word that phonetically imitates or suggests a sound; somewhat like “Bam”, or “Boom” (if you ever watched the fight scenes of the original Batman TV show you know what I’m talking about). The central message of the song is to live and enjoy your life now, because you never know when an atomic devil can come and… “acángana”, kill you. The “Acángana” LP became El Gran Combo’s first Gold album.

Here’s a YouTube audio of “Acángana”. You can hear that the brass arrangements start to evolve a bit from the previous album. Also, Pellín’s funny persona comes shining through in the song with his trademark “OYE”.

In the meantime, Roberto Roena started to make more flamboyant dance routines for him and the singers. This became a trademark of El Gran Combo, that lasted long after the departure of Roena.

With the debut in 1965 of the noon local TV variety show “El Show de las 12” by WKAQ Telemundo channel 2, producer Paquito Cordero recruited El Gran Combo as the house band. They will now appear every weekday on the show, except when they were traveling. The show was a big success, and El Gran Combo enjoyed premier marketing exposure.

El Gran Combo "Ojos Chinos Jala Jala" album cover
Conga player Martin Quiñonez was the funny figure of El Gran Combo, and often used in covers, like here in “Ojos Chinos – Jala Jala”, named that way because both singles were big hits.

As a young boy, I would stay at my grandmother’s house as she babysat my sister and me while both my parents worked. She watched the show every day and would alternate with channel 4’s “Show del Mediodia” mostly to watch José Miguel Agrelot’s “Don Cholito” segment, where he read the news of the day and made funny twists of them.

Conga player Martín Quiñonez was my favorite as I watched El Gran Combo on TV besides my granma. He would make funny faces at the cameras during the songs and El Gran Combo used him many times as the central figure of funny album covers (as a Chinese in “Ojos Chinos”, as Santa Clause in “En Navidad”, as a weird doctor in “Maldito Callo”, as a Spaniard woman in “Esos Ojitos Negros”, etc.). With their catchy songs, Pellín and Andy “guy next door” personalities, Roberto Roena’s dance routines, and Martin’s funny faces, El Gran Combo was perfect for TV and movies.

Here are a couple of movie clips where El Gran Combo appeared. Pay attention to Roberto Roena’s choreography. In the clip below, they play the song “A Que No lo Coges” which I believe was specially made for the movie and not included in any of their albums. You can see Puerto Rican actor Adalberto Rodriguez “Machuchal” as part of the scene.

In this clip, El Gran Combo plays “Jala-Jala”, and watch Roberto Roena’s footwork. In the clip, you can see “Machuchal” along with one of the most popular (and eventually durable) singers of the time, Chucho Avellanet. It’s not a good quality clip as it seems to be a video of the showing of the old movie “Millonario a Go Go”, but good enough to watch El Gran Combo’s routine.

Overexposure Decline

As you’ve probably heard, anything in excess (including good things) can be bad for you. Tell that to El Gran Combo!

El Gran Combo "Guarachas" album cover
“Gurachas” was one of 6 compilation albums released by El Gran Combo in the ’60s.

“Los Mulatos del Sabor”, the nickname radio personality Mariano Artau gave them, were daily on TV and also were appearing in local movies (which was a booming industry in the 60s). To keep a fresh repertoire for their TV appearances, they ramped up their number of recordings.

After releasing two LPs in 1965 and two in 1966, they released eight (8) in 1967 and another six (6) in 1968. Six of these albums (three in 1967 and three in 1968) were compilations. The GEMA label decided to theme the compilations by music type. They released “Boleros Romanticos”, “Boogaloos con El Gran Combo”, and “Tangos” in 1967, and “Merengues”, “Guarachas”, and “Bombas, Bombas, Bombas” in 1968.

El Gran Combo even tried to crossover to the North American public with their album “Latin Power”, which had most of its songs in English. The main theme of the album was “Aquarius”, the mega-hit popularized in the United States by The Fifth Dimension. If you can’t wait to hear El Gran Combo’s version of it, here it is below:

All this exposure was too much Gran Combo for the public. As a result, demand for the Combo diminished significantly. Another impact, which occurred before the downturn in demand, was that some musicians burnt out and left. Others left to do their own thing.

In 1969 Roberto Roena and Elias Lopes left El Gran Combo to form the Apollo Sound (they chose the name because their first rehearsal coincided with the launch of the Apollo 11 mission that would put the first man on the moon). Roena had formed a small moonlighting group called “Los Megatones” a couple of years earlier to play Latin Jazz at a San Juan hotel on Wednesdays. Trumpet player Elias Lopes had joined El Gran Combo in 1964 substituting departing founder Kito Velez. Also in 1969, Mike Duchesne left the combo.

El Gran Combo Prepares for the ’70s

"Este Si Es El Gran Combo" album cover
The title of “Este Si Que Es El Gran Combo”, their last album of the 60s, seemed to reaffirm their identity after the departure of founders Roberto Roena and Mike Duchesne, along with premier trumpeter Elias Lopes. It shows the new faces of Baby Serrano (bongo), Kike Duchesne (sax), Gerardo “Grillo Cruz (trumpet), and Mike Ramos (choreographer).

Despite all the ups and downs, the ’60s were a successful eight years for El Gran Combo. They won back the Puerto Rican and Latin American public with hard work, discipline, good musical selections, and the conviction they could entertain as well as any band in Latin Music.

They won awards, appeared daily on a local TV show, and had a prolific recording decade, releasing 23 LPs (6 of them compilations) in those 8 years, which surpassed by far (nearly doubled) the total number released by Cortijo y Su Combo in their 8 years of existence before their breakup. El Gran Combo would never again come close to that number of recordings and releases in one decade (the closest was 13 in the 90s).

Despite all their success, the road ahead for “Los Mulatos del Sabor” would not be peaches n cream. The ’70s would bring a slew of more challenges and changes right from the start of the decade, that would once again test El Gran Combo’s resilience.

Follow us to the next chapter, the 1970s, to learn more about the History of El Gran Combo.

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