Salsa Music History, Part 3: Fania All Stars


I finished Part 2 of this blog series with an explanation of the impact the Fania All-Stars had in making Salsa music popular around the world. In this blog, I’ll share my favorite Fania All-Stars recordings.

Fania All-Stars Early Live Recordings

The Fania All-Stars’ early “live” recordings were some of their best work. That is with the exception of their forgettable very 1st recording, “Live at the Red Garter” (1968). Some people loved the uncontrolled jams that were recorded on the album. It includes probably the only appearances in the Fania All-Stars by Tito Puente, and Eddie Palmieri. Still, no lasting hits came out of it.

Fania All Stars cover of "Live at Cheetah"
Fania All-Stars “Live at the Cheetah” was an iconic album for Salsa music.

The “Live at the Cheetah” recording (1971) was a totally different thing. Fania applied what they learned in the 1st recording, and came with a full line-up of stars, ready to rock the Cheetah. This, in my opinion, was their best work ever. The music sounded as powerful as it ever did, a showcase of what salsa should sound like.

The arrangements, most made by Bobby Valentin, were superb. The musicians were truly All-Star; the percussion had Ray Barretto (congas), Orestes Vilato (timbal), and Roberto Roena (bongo). For the subsequent albums Orestes was substituted by Nicky Marrero, an exceptional musician as well.

But Vilato played his heart out in this recording, and you can hear his timbal highlight almost every song. You could tell he and Ray Barretto were band mates, as they play each other perfectly in solos and improvised cuts during a song. Barretto didn’t hold back either and made the conga be felt at every opportunity. And as far as Roberto Roena in the bongo and “campana” (cowbell), I have just two words; “Ponte Duro”; amazing!

Rest of the Musicians at the Cheetah

The rhythm section had Larry Harlow on piano (Richie Ray played it in “Ahora Vengo Yo” to accompany his singer Bobby Cruz), Bobby Valentin on bass, and Yomo Toro on the Puerto Rican “cuatro” guitar. In the wind section, you had Barretto’s Roberto Rodriguez, Dominican Hector “Bomberito” Zarzuela, and Larry Spencer in trumpets, and Barry Rogers, Reynaldo Jorge, and Willie Colon on trombone!

You couldn’t assemble a better wind section in Latin music (perhaps with the exception of adding Panamanian trumpet player Victor Paz, who participated in the 1st recording and would have been welcomed back), and it shows. They sound so harmonic and powerful, you would think they’ve been playing together since 2nd grade.

The singers were the best of what was out there before all the band-singer splits started to occur. Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, Hector Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Adalberto Santiago, Cheo Feliciano, Santos Colon, and Bobby Cruz. All excellent signers, but in my opinion, Pete “El Conde” and Cheo Feliciano were the highlights, with their performance on songs “Macho Cimarron” and “Anacaona” respectively, as well as their “soneos” on the all-singers songs like “Estrellas de Fania” and “Quitate Tu”.

I can’t think of a single off song in this recording. All songs are a joy to listen to, even the “Intro” and “Closing” themes, and all made radio hits, even when they were much longer than what was the normal 3-4 minute playing time on the radio. The public in the Cheetah got very much into it, dancing and doing “la clave” in a couple of songs.

I think it’s evident this is my personal favorite Fania All-Stars recording, and no true salsa-lover should be without this 2-CD set (or LPs, as the case may be) in their collection. In my opinion, this recording is one of Salsa music’s standout classic hit recordings.

Recordings at Yankee Stadium and Coliseo Roberto Clemente

“Latin-Soul-Rock” (1974) followed the Cheetah recording. This recording was part of the songs recorded both at Yankee Stadium and in Puerto Rico. Keep in mind that the “Live at Yankee Stadium” album was mostly recorded by Coliseo Roberto Clemente in Puerto Rico. The original recording was later released as “San Juan ’73”.

Talk about going from way high to way low. Here the Fania started showing its intent to crossover, and do more than “Salsa Dura”. A good product of that was the version of “El Ratón” with Cheo Feliciano singing his Joe Cuba Sextet hit, with Jorge “El Malo” Santana (Carlos Santana’s brother) on the electric guitar. This was the song that sold most for this recording. Fania brought as a guest, African saxophone player Manu Dibango, and had some fusion songs in there of some interest, but this was not what “salseros” were waiting for in the Fania All Stars’ next recording.

Recorded Live at San Juan; Remixed for “Live at Yankee Stadium”

Fania All Stars "San Juan 73"
Fania All-Stars “San Juan 73” is the unedited recording of “Live at Yankee Stadium”.

The Fania All-Stars made up the lost ground with the double album “Live at Yankee Stadium” (1976), which provided another “home run” after “striking out” with “Latin-Soul-Rock”. The funny thing about this album was that most of it were not recorded at the Yankee Stadium, but at the Coliseo Roberto Clemente in San Juan.

The Yankee Stadium concert was ill-planned, and resulted in an early melee that caused severe destruction to the stadium and forced the cancellation of the concert. Emusica, the firm which purchased the rights to the Fania collection a few years ago, recently released the original “live” recording of the San Juan concert of 1973.

You can confirm in the original recording that some songs were “re-touched” in the recording studio, Some songs were “re-touched” more than others. Hector Lavoe’s “Mi Gente” was kept pretty much as it was originally recorded. However, Ismael Miranda’s “Que Rico Suena mi Tambor” had most of the “soneos” re-done, for good reason (the original “soneos” were very repetitive and dull).

Fania All-Stars “Live at Yankee Stadium”

All in all, this Yankee Stadium recording is a good recording by the Fania All-Stars. The end product had good songs with good arrangements. Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz start showing their religious devotion to “Hermandad Fania”, while the addition of veterans Celia Cruz, Justo Betancourt, and Ismael Quintana were welcome additions to the singers’ line-up. That meant Cheo Feliciano didn’t get much chance to sing on this recording. That’s because “El Raton” was put as part of “Latin, Soul, Rock”.

Fania All Stars "Live at Yankee Stadium"
Fania All-Stars album “Live at Yankee Stadium” solidified the band as a game-changer in Latin music.

The music still sounds powerful, but not electrifying. This recording doesn’t have the magic of the Cheetah, and not all songs are as strong. You can hear the Cheetah double albums back-to-back, and at the end, feel like starting all over again.

When playing the Yankee Stadium double-albums back–to–back, you start to feel hints of boredom at some point. Much of the music just sounds the same. The Cheetah music had changes in pace or style (son montuno to guajira, to rumba, back to son), which made every song “fresh”.

The album has outstanding songs like “Mi Gente”, where the public does “coro” to Hector Lavoe. With a good home theater or headphones, you feel like in the middle of the concert in this song. The trombone solos of Barry Rogers and Willie Colon add the cherry to the top of this song.

Other notable songs are “Pueblo Latino” by Pete “El Conde”, and “Bemba Colora” by Celia Cruz. This latter one was a bit too long for my taste. Additionally, I like Justo Betancourt’s “Echate pa’lla”.  There is also the “descarga” “Congo Bongo” with Mongo Santamaria, and Ismael Quintana’s “Mi Debilidad”.

I still recommend buying this “Live at Yankee Stadium” double-album as it has some great songs.

Fania All-Stars – Studio Recordings

The Fania All Stars then decided to do some studio recordings. Their first one, which is my 2nd favorite Fania All Stars recording, is “Tribute to Tito Rodriguez” (1976).

Fania All Stars in "Tribute to Tito Rodriguez"
Fania All Stars album “Tribute to Tito Rodriguez” was their 1st studio album.

In this recording, Fania found the “original formula” again. This recording has a powerful sound, mixed well the rhythm of the songs, and brought back the full All-Star singers line-up, with then newcomer Ruben Blades filling in for Celia Cruz.

The young Panamanian did superbly in his Fania All Stars debut, with “Los Muchachos de Belen”. It has a very strong mambo, anchored by the trombone section of Barry Rogers, Reynaldo Jorge, and Willie Colon. Ruben’s soneos are right on; he sings his heart out and aces the song. The rest of this superbly well-recorded album is not to be dismissed.

It opens with a “bolero” medley of three of Tito Rodriguez’s favorites; “Inolvidable, “Lo Mismo Que a Usted”, and “Tiemblas”, interpreted by Cheo Feliciano, Chivirico Davila, and Bobby Cruz respectively. Cheo Feliciano is a bolero master and delivers exceptionally in “Inolvidable”. Chivirico comes back after appearing at the Red Garter with Armando Manzanero’s “Lo Mismo Que a Usted”. Lastly, Bobby Cruz, another maestro of the bolero, shines in “Tiemblas”.

Ismael Miranda does a good interpretation of “El Agua de Belen”, and I love Justo Bentancourt’s  superb interpretation of “Cara de Payaso”. Hector Lavoe’s fine-tuned voice in “Cuando, Cuando, Cuando”, and Ismael Quintana’s fresh interpretation of “Fue en Santiago”. Then all singers come together to pay homage to Tito Rodriguez in “Vuela la Paloma”.

“Tribute to Tito Rodriguez” is another recording that should not be missing from your collection. It has great songs, great performances, powerful Fania All-Star sound, and a great recording job was done at the studio for a clear quality sound.

Starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the Fania All-Stars worked very hard at crossing over to Latin Jazz, Jazz, and even Rock in order to attract a wider audience. Most of these crossover recordings were forgettable. These recordings started in the late ’70s with “Rhythm Machine” (1977) and “Spanish Fever” (1978).

Fania All Stars "Rhythm Machine"
Fania All-Stars’ album “Rhythm Machine” was their 1st experiment with music geared toward a cross-over.

“Havana Jam” (1979) was the Fania All-Stars’ last recording of the ’70s. This was a live concert in Cuba, in which the Fania All-Stars shared the stage with other American artists like Billy Joel, Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson, and with the participation of Cuba’s Irakere and Orquesta Aragon, in what was classified as a “cultural exchange”.

The 1980s were mostly devoted to crossover recordings, with some exceptions of “Lo Que Pide la Gente” which highlighted Hector Lavoe’s “El Rey de la Puntualidad”, where Hector made a self-mock of his infamous tardiness to gigs. One of my favorite albums from this cross-over recording was “Rhythm Machine”.

Besides having Ruben Blades’s super-hit “Juan Pachanga”, the other jazzy songs are pretty decent, anchored by the trumpet (and arrangements) of Puerto Rican maestro Luis “Perico” Ortiz. Perico is a natural for jazz, being jazz one of his musical loves, and it shows in this recording. Perico’s arrangements mostly tend to have either element of jazz or of “big band”. His own band had a very powerful “big band” sound, with very jazzy arrangements.

The Fall of the Fania All-Stars

The 1980s and the cross-over attempts weakened the Fania All-Stars in particular and Salsa music in general.  The cross-over attempts were understandable, given the popularity and commercial success Rock and Disco were having during this period. Fania was trying to ride that wave of commercial success in any way it could. The strategy didn’t work.

The album “Cross Over” (1979) was actually NOT a cross-over recording, but rather the 1st pure “salsa” album since the Tito Rodriguez one. Why they called this one “Cross Over” beats me, but it is a decent recording, with Salvador Cuevas taking over bass duties for Bobby Valentin.

The prestige of having participated with the Fania All-Stars never died. To this date, musicians who played with the Fania All-Stars have that as a golden star in their resume. The Fania All-Stars traveled all over the world, even making recordings in Africa (for the Mohammed Ali –George Foreman fight in Zaire) and also in Japan and Cuba. They visited Europe and South America frequently. They spread the gospel of Salsa, and people were receptive to it. Because of that, salsa is listened to and danced to all over the world.

My Favorites (summary)

The good Fania All-Stars recordings are in the early to mid-70s, as I mentioned above. If you like dancing or listening to real salsa, my recommendation is “Live at the Cheetah” and “Tribute to Tito Rodriguez”. You can’t go wrong with these recordings, with the “Live at Yankee Stadium” in a close 3rd. If you come along with some of the cross-over albums, just make sure you reset your expectations before purchasing.

Fania All Stars "Our Latin Thing"
“Our Latin Thing” is the movie of the Fania All-Stars concert at the Cheetah (40th Anniversary Ed.)

And, I do recommend two of the Fania All-Star movies, as they show more than just the music. One is “Our Latin Thing”, which opens with Barretto’s theme “Cocinando”, a nice “Latin Jazz” tune that became very popular at the time. The film highlights the concert at the Cheetah but also shows life in the Barrio of New York, and the role salsa played in that neighborhood during those years.

The other film I recommend is “Salsa”. In this documentary, Gerardo Rivera narrates the history of Salsa. He goes from the early influences of Latinos in the music scene of the United States to the Fania All-Stars and El Gran Combo. Good informative documentary, with not that much music. It does include “Mi Gente” by the Fania All-Stars, and “Julia” by El Gran Combo as the musical highlights.

The Fania All-Stars were a game-changer for Salsa music, and perhaps Salsa owns its durability to the solid foundation this group provided during the pivotal years of the early 1970s. This group wrote many golden pages in the history of Salsa.

Latin Music USA: The Salsa Revolution

The documentary Latin Music USA has a whole episode dedicated to “the Salsa Revolution”. It skims over some of the things we’ve covered in the first 3 parts of this Salsa Music History blog series. However, it really focuses more on all that surrounds the Fania All-Stars.

This is a made-for-TV 55-minute episode, so I’m embedding it below for your enjoyment. If you want to view the entire Latin Music USA documentary, you can go to their homepage HERE.

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  1. Name luis Huertas says

    Thanks for posting something in english. I tell friends all the time about SALSEROS. They always ask me for reading material in english. I will direct them here . The more salsa is exposed,the more support there will be to keep it alive and progress to a higher level. The music has no boundry , from english to Japanese. The world loves salsa dancing, I’m glad my friends enjoy my collection, I wish the best for the future of salsa

  2. Ralph Brown says

    Excellent blog and thank you – my Spanish is rudimentary (and improving slowly). I have a one key question – where did Fania record their albums that were not Live Albums? Did they always use the same studio ?? Is it still in use today (2022?). Many thanks, Ralph Brown, Brooklyn

    1. Hector Aviles says

      Ralph – thanks for your comments. The Fania label used a recording studio located in Manhattan, called Latin Sound Studios in 1733 Broadway. It was later remodeled and renamed La Tierra Sound Studios. Jon Fausty was the chief recording engineer there. Not sure if there is a recording studio there today.

      1. Ralph Brown says

        Many thanks Hector ! I will talk a walk over there one day and see what the vibe is.

  3. […] Toro was a well-known personality in New York, even before recording with Willie Colon and the Fania All-Stars. He had his own TV show, which started in the late ’60s and went into the early ’70s. […]

  4. […] world a glimpse of the electrifying energy the attendees experienced that night. It showcased the Fania All-Stars and Salsa music at its best. And it also showed the context in which this music was created; life […]

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