History of El Gran Combo: the 1980’s


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The ’80s was a decade of stability and success for El Gran Combo, as they kept their singers and released consistently good Salsa albums.

However, towards the end of the decade, Rafael Ithier had to seek some outside help to deal with the growing popularity of Salsa Romántica while trying to maintain a suitable sound for their fans.

New Faces in El Gran Combo

I just said this was a decade of stability, right? But first, let’s review the changes of the last year of the past decade and go through a few changes as the ’80s started en route to that stability I mentioned.

Taking a short step back in time to 1979, Martin Quiñónez Jr. had left the band just a couple of years after substituting his dad on congas. Also that year, timbalero Mike “Malaret” Marrero had to leave the group for health reasons. He would end up passing away just 3 years later.

Martin Jr. was eventually replaced by Miguel “El Pollo” Torres, who is still with El Gran Combo. Mike “Malaret” was replaced by Edgardo Morales.

El Gran Combo "Unity" back cover
“Unity” was the 1st album of the ’80s for El Gran Combo, and one of the strongest.

The following year El Gran Combo started the 80s with the departures of Nelson Feliciano (trumpet) and Keko Duchesne (saxophone). Feliciano had replaced “Grillo” only a couple of years before.  They were replaced by trumpet player Victor (Cano) Rodriguez and saxophonist-flautist-arranger Freddie Miranda respectively. Cano also arrived from Tommy Olivencia’s orchestra.

New Singer and Chorus

Perhaps the biggest impact on El Gran Combo was the departure of Mike Ramos as a choreographer. This paved the way for the inclusion of Luís “Papo” Rosario in 1980. Rafael Ithier had seen Papo singing with Tempo 70 and also knew his dad from a ’50s-’60s TV show in Puerto Rico called “Tribuna del Arte“.

Papo Rosario wasn’t a superb singer, but he was good enough that Ithier decided to bring him in for the chorus. Additionally, he was a decent dancer. Ithier made it clear to him that Charlie and Jerry were the main singers. However, Papo would get to sing occasionally as well.

El Gran Combo "Nuestra Musica" cover art
“Nuestra Musica” (1985) was the 1st Christmas album for El Gran Combo in 10 years. It is a very solid album that re-established its dominance during the yearly Christmas season.

With the addition of Papo Rosario, the era of guest chorus singers for El Gran Combo recordings came to an end. Paquito Guzmán served the role from 1971-1977, and Yayo El Indio did it from 1978-1979. With Papo now doing chorus, their live performances sounded almost identical to the recordings.

So you may ask; what about the dance routines, which were part of the Gran Combo trademark?

Well, with the departure of Mike Ramos to Tommy Olivencia’s band, Charlie Aponte made sure the choreographies kept going on without losing a beat. Charlie was a quick learner of Mike’s dance routines and would continue to make up some of his own.

Meanwhile, Mike Ramos didn’t have the same luck in Olivencia’s La Primerísima. There, neither of the main singers, first Chamaco Ramirez and later Frankie Ruiz, showed any interest (or ability) to follow Mike’s elaborate dance routines. Therefore,  Mike’s stay with Olivencia was short.

Consistently Good Salsa Music

Now, with a mostly steady lineup, El Gran Combo was able to produce consistently great albums. In my opinion, the last two albums of the ’70s, starting with “En Las Vegas“, all the way to “Nuestra Música” in 1985 have been the best stretch of consistently good albums that El Gran Combo has had in its history. I had the privilege to see them in person and dance with them many times through all those years.

El Gran Combo "Nuestro Aniversario" cover art.
“Nuestro Aniversario” celebrated El Gran Combo’s 20th and became one of their most popular albums until then.

Unity” (1980) started the 80’s with an immediate hit. To this day it remains one of my favorite Gran Combo albums. “Compañera Mía” was the first single, but all other songs eventually became hits as well.

Happy Days” followed, and although not as strong, it had three huge hits for El Gran Combo. “A la Reina“, sung by Jerry Rivas, was the first big hit. Here Papo Rosario filled the role of funnyman during live presentations left vacant by Pellín and Martin. Papo wore a wig and live shows, pretending to be the lady referenced as the queen in the song. The other two big hits were “El Menú“, and “Timbalero“. These songs are still two all-time Salsa fan favorites.

The hit albums continued with “Nuestro Aniversario” (1982), celebrating their 20th anniversary. In “20th Aniversary” they recorded some older hits with the new band members. Then came “La Universidad de la Salsa” (1983), a title that evolved into another nickname for the band. “In Alaska” (1984) and “Innovations” (1985) were the following albums. “Innovations” remained as the #1 album on the Billboard charts for 24 weeks.

Also in 1985, they released the hugely successful Christmas album “Nuestra Música“. It was El Gran Combo’s first Christmas album in 10 years. The next two albums were also good. The albums “Y Su Pueblo” (1986) and “25th Anniversary” (1987) did well in the charts.

El Gran Combo and Salsa Romántica

By this time, Salsa Romántica was making a strong push in radio stations and into the preference of the younger Salsa audience. Frankie Ruiz had come out with his first hugely successful solo album. Pianist Willie Sotelo was the musical director of Frankie’s orchestra. Sotelo would eventually take Ithier’s chair at the piano of El Gran Combo. Additionally, others singers like Eddie Santiago and Lalo Rodriguez were crafting huge hits.

The Salsa Romántica craze began in the mid-80s and was clearly established by the late 80s as a commercial boom. Rafael Itheir, who has always kept an ear on the latest in the music scene, didn’t want El Gran Combo to fall behind and miss this opportunity.

El Gran Combo "Amame" cover art
“Amame” was El Gran Combo’s successful jump into Salsa Romantica, without losing their identity.

In 1988, El Gran Combo released “Romántico y Sabroso” to a sluggish reaction from Salsa music fans. The traditional sound with new romantic lyrics didn’t quite do it for younger Salsa fans. Loyal fans of classic Salsa weren’t impressed either. The song “Cupido” was by far the best song of the album and was responsible for lifting the album on the charts. Despite some radio airplay for “Potro Amarrao” and “Quince Años“, the album didn’t have much more to offer.

El Gran Combo Gets Some Help

As Rafael Itheir said in a recent interview that for the next album, El Gran Combo decided to seek help from outside the group. For the album “Amame“, named after the album’s first hit single, they hired Puerto Rican saxophonist Ernesto Sanchez as co-producer and album arranger. Sanchez had just arranged huge Salsa Romántica hits for Andy Montañez (“Casi Te Envidio“) and Lalo Rodriguez (“Ven Devorame Otra Vez“. This latter song earned Ernesto the award of Arranger of the Year in 1988.

At 28 years old, the graduate from Berkley College of Music was young and had a good idea of the musical taste of the younger generation. He also had the keen talent to make arrangements that would not sacrifice the classic Salsa essence. Ernesto Sanchez arranged six of the eight songs of the album. Rafael Ithier also invited Luis Garcia to arrange one song and Ithier only arranged “Todo Bien“. Ernesto also made the bold move to bring in for the chorus the experienced singer Ray de la Paz. In New York, Ray had been working on some Salsa Romántica hits with Louis Ramirez.

Keep in mind that this was the first time Rafael Ithier gave up the bulk of the musical arrangement to someone else, particularly outside of El Gran Combo. This was also the first time in 10 years that El Gran Combo brought in someone to help with the chorus.

The results spoke for themselves. El Gran Combo’s last album of the ’80s was “Amame” (1989), which reached the #1 position in the Tropical Album charts twice. It spent a combined 12 weeks at the top, despite heavy competition from Eddie Santiago (“Invasion de la Privacidad“) and Luis Enrique (“Mi Mundo“).

El Gran Combo Prepares for the ’90s

Propelled by the huge momentum of a very successful decade, El Gran Combo went into the 90s with a steady band lineup and a strong closing with “Amame“. This gave them a confidence boost for facing the Salsa Romántica challenge heading into the 90s.

But El Gran Combo still faced a key question. Would they need to change their identity to keep succeeding in the Salsa Romántica-dominated 90s?

I’ll get into that in the next blog of this series, the 1990s.

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  1. […] With that, El Gran Combo just needed some stability. Will they finally find that stability in the 80s? […]

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