Through this Latino Music Café blog series, we’ve examined the history of El Gran Combo through the decades.
In this, the final part of this blog series, we examine how the current decade has been going for El Gran Combo, and what lies in the road ahead for Los Mulatos del Sabor.
More “Arroz con Habichuelas” in Paradise
It took El Gran Combo four long years to come out with a follow-up album to their smash hit “Arroz con Habichuelas“. They seem to have written down the formula this time, as “Sin Salsa No Hay Paraiso” took over where “Arroz con Habichuelas” left.
“Sin Salsa No Hay Paraiso“, released in 2010, opened with the title song, this time written by Ricky Martinez, debuting at #9 in the Billboard Tropical Airplay Chart. Juan Jose Hernandez contributed another 3 songs for this album, with the most prominent being “La Espuma y la Ola“.
Another favorite of Salsa fans was the version of “A Mi Me Gusta Mi Pueblo“. This is a song written and made famous by Puerto Rican folk singer Andres Jimenez. The Salsa arrangement came out great.
Another song that reinforced the album was the old song “Achilipu“. El Gran Combo first recorded this song in their first album with the trombone, the 1971 classic “De Punta a Punta“.
El Gran Combo 50th Anniversary and Banco Popular Tribute
As El Gran Combo was looking to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2012, Banco Popular decided to pay tribute to them in their 2010 Christmas special with “Salsa, un Homenaje a El Gran Combo“.
The special featured guest artists singing El Gran Combo songs, as well as El Gran Combo themselves. But the best part is perhaps the interview with most of the members, starting with Rafael Ithier, on how they entered El Gran Combo.
A couple of years later, they recorded “50 Aniversario, Parte 1” which ended up being released in 2013 (a year late if you ask me). Instead of just adding a compilation of old songs, el Combo actually recorded new versions of some of their old classics. Some sounded great in the new arrangements, others not so much.
One thing about this album was that it was Part 1. However, Part 2 never came out. Many of us Salsa fans remained waiting for that implied Part 2.
Significant Departures: Eddie Perez
The departures from El Gran Combo so far this decade will mark an inflection point in the future of this legendary band.
Eddie “La Bala” Perez left or was fired, in 2013. Eddie says he was fired and was fired unjustly. Eddie’s health had been deteriorating and in the middle of his illness, was fired. Rafael Ithier said he became unreliable and was affecting the band. He said, and then Eddie said. And this became a sorry spectacle in the press.
“La Bala” Perez had been with Ithier since the Cortijo y su Combo days. Additionally, he was the only remaining founding member of El Gran Combo other than Ithier. I believe they should have solved their differences in a better way, and the ball was on El Gran Combo. They dropped it on this one!
With the departure of Eddie, El Gran Combo lost the guy in the back that tilted backward and swung his shoulders (he called it “el meneito”). They also lost the child-like falsetto on the chorus during live performances. Eddie’s falsetto chorus was legendary and a trademark since the days with Cortijo.
Finally, El Gran Combo also lost that big finish to each of their songs with that unmistakable “Ahhhiiiiiiiiiii“. Every time I heard it, I felt as if he just punched an imaginary seal of “authentic Puerto Rican 100%” in each song. I remembered it since the very first time I saw El Gran Combo live in El Show de las 12 on my grandma’s TV when I was a kid. Perhaps it’s the one thing I miss the most.
Significant Departures: Charlie Aponte
About a year later (2014), singer Charlie Aponte abruptly called it quits. Charlie had been in El Gran Combo for 41 years.
Note: I wrote a blog to celebrate Charlie’s 40 years with El Gran Combo, and towards the end shared my thoughts on what I thought would happen when the day came he decided to retire. You can read to see if my predictions were true HERE.
Charlie Aponte brought that touch of “jibarito” (countryside) flavor to El Gran Combo. He has a flavorful singing style, can sing in clave as well as anyone, and is the best improviser / “sonero” El Gran Combo has ever had. Pellín Rodriguez and Andy Montañez were great singers. They could come up with some really unique “soneos”. But still, they were not as good at improvising as Charlie.
Besides singing perhaps more Salsa hits for El Gran Combo than any other singer in their history, Charlie also brought his dancing skills with him. He was a quick study of Mike Ramos on their 7 years together. And pretty much kept the dancing routines alive.
Another great quality was that Charlie made a great duo of voices with Jerry Rivas. Charlie can do the highs and Jerry the lows with a great harmony of voices.
As you see El Gran Combo perform these days, you can notice that the energy in the front line is not the same. When they play old numbers, the singers still follow the old dancing routines, but with less enthusiasm. In the newer songs, the dancing is almost unnoticeable.
Other Departures: Victor “Cano” Rodriguez
“Cano had been a trumpeter with El Gran Combo for 37 years; since 1980. He came from the great band of Tommy Olivencia to take over for Nelson Feliciano. Another of Cano’s great accomplishments was that he was the co-founder of Arecibo’s Escuela Libre de Música. During 2016, Cano’s health deteriorated quickly, and unfortunately passed away in 2017.
Once again there was some controversy in Cano’s illness and death, as it was said by the family that Ithier abandoned the long-time Gran Combo member.
Anthony Garcia’s Moon Landing
The young singer Anthony Garcia joined El Gran Combo in 2015 to replace Charlie Aponte. To get El Gran Combo fans acquainted with their new singer, the band quickly released a new single “Yo Soy Tu Amigo“ (2015).
Then, the following year, the band released their first recording featuring Anthony Garcia titled “Alunizando” (Moon Landing). The album reached Billboard’s #1 spot for Tropical Albums, a spot it held for 3 weeks. And fan reviews were mostly positive, although there are a lot of dissatisfied fans with Anthony Garcia. This is somewhat expected for new singers entering El Gran Combo.
For me, Anthony’s voice and singing style are well-suited for Salsa Romantica. El Gran Combo is using him mostly for romantic songs. Anthony does have a good sense of clave in his “soneos”. However, his voice has a low pitch and therefore does not contrast well with Jerry’s voice.
If we look back at the band singers, Pellin Rodriguez had a high-pitched voice vs. Andy’s lower pitch (although Andy can go as high as he wants with that super voice of his). When Pellin left, Charlie substituted him with his high-pitch voice. When Andy left, Jerry substituted him with his low-pitched voice. So all along, the balance of high pitch/low pitch voices was maintained. That was broken with Anthony, and now El Combo has two low pitch voices as main singers.
On the other hand, Anthony does seem to have a pleasant personality that suits well with El Gran Combo.
El Gran Combo de Ayer, Hoy…Manaña y Siempre?
So where is El Gran Combo going from here? Well, they have a steady following almost around the world. They also have a huge catalog of songs, and so many hits, that they can go without recording another album for decades and still be solicited.
We all have ups and downs, and artists and bands are not excluded from this reality. Despite the good showing of their most recent albums, El Gran Combo is in decline.
Their live performances are not as energetic as they used to be. How can they? The band is aging! Since the departure of Charlie Aponte, they lack energy upfront. Jerry Rivas voice is showing signs of fatigue; Papo Rosario is having health issues and can’t dance or even stand through a whole set. Two veterans of the brass section died. And the new singer has probably as many admirers as detractors.
And then, there’s the new management of Willie Sotelo. It’s been said he’s the cause behind the issues causing the departures of Eddie Perez and Charlie Aponte. Since he was appointed by Rafael Ithier to manage the band, the current members are quietly following directions instead of participating in decisions as they did in the past. But I’m getting into La Compay’s gossip territory, and that’s not my thing.
Let’s stay with the facts. Anyone that has seen La Universidad de la Salsa live can notice that the chemistry in the front line is amicable, but certainly not the same. As I’ve noted before, two of the singers in the front are approaching retiring age, and the other one is pretty much beginning his career. Anthony’s voice, which some consider good, others too soft for this band, is certainly not as good a match to Jerry’s.
Finally, the dancing routine of the frontline singers, which was a trademark of the group, is still there, although pathetic.
BTW…did you notice the faces of the people in the above video of “Arepa con Bacalao”? That was shot just 4 months after “Alunizando” was released. Did they look to you that they were excited or happily engaged listening to the new song?
All-in-all, the band still sounds good but lacks energy. Hard-core Gran Combo fans, of which there are thousands if not millions, will still support and go see the band. But they have certainly lost a few fans and the trend will probably continue unless they find a way to reinvent themselves.
El Gran Combo – Series Epilogue
As I conclude this blog series, I’ve come to believe that El Gran Combo needs to slow down.
Ok, so if I just said that los mulatos don’t have the same energy as before. Am I suggesting they need to slow down?
Yes! I do!
They need to accept the fact that they are an aging band and the wheels are coming off the wagon. In their quest to maximize playing time, individual income, and band revenue, they are burning themselves. They’ve been working and traveling with their pedal to the metal for a very long time, and it has taken a toll on the band and its members.
Perhaps they should charge more per event, and accept fewer gigs. This will give them more rest time, which could bring with it a lot of non-economic benefits. That includes spending more time with their families.
The word on the street (oh, oh, here I go again) is that Charlie Aponte left because the band wanted to take some gigs in January. That’s the month when they are traditionally off on vacation. Charlie wanted to spend time with his family and protested. Although others thought the same way, Charlie was the only one to speak up. Finding himself in an opposite position to the rest of the band, he resigned.
But back to my suggestion. There could be several benefits to El Gran Combo by accepting fewer gigs and trips. They will have more time to work on their music. They’ll have more time for singers to rest their voices. They’ll get proper medical attention. Finally, they’ll get the increased rest older human bodies need!
Perhaps they’ll have time to record more frequently, as travel won’t interfere as much with album planning and preparation time. Or they may choose to participate in other activities, like community events or music clinics for our young aspiring musicians.
As older members of the group retire, and younger members replace them, there may come a time when the band is young enough to step on the pedal again!
While that happens, the wise move right now might be to slow down! By doing this, they’ll probably earn less money. Perhaps even charging more per gig might not fully compensate for the lost wages of playing fewer gigs. At this point in their careers, that might be a good tradeoff!
El Gran Combo may find that slowing down will keep the group together longer, and healthier, and ultimately happier! And that happiness and rested energy will show up on stage for all of us to enjoy!
Note: if you haven’t read it, you can find the 1st part of this blog series HERE.