Benny Moré: Cuba’s King of Rhythm and Improvisation

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Benny Moré revolutionized the Latin music scene with his singing and superb sense of music. His improvisations while singing, prolific songwriting, and his “Giant Band”, made him one of the greats of Latin music.

Note: this blog was originally published Aug 25, 2009. I updated it in June 2018. 

Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré Gutierrez, was born on August 24th, 1919 in the neighborhood of “Pueblo Nuevo” in the town of Santa Isabel de las Lajas in Cuba. He died on February of 1963. Therefore, this year we commemorate the 55th year of his passing.

Benny’s Career Highlights:

Benny Moré was not a very educated musician, as he was self-thought. This was not unusual in those days in Cuba. For instance, the Cuban master of the Son Montuno, Arsenio Rodriguez, a contemporary of Benny Moré, learned to play the Cuban “tres” guitar mostly by himself.

Cuban singer Benny Moré
Benny Moré had a great voice and sense of singing, a combination unmatched in Latin music at the time.

However, Benny was a superb Latin music singer. He started at a very early age, by singing in bars and cafes when he was a teenager. He developed a unique style, and besides having a great ear for the various Cuban rhythms, he became a prolific songwriter as well.

His professional career began after having lost in a Cuban radio show singing competition. I guess we could think of it as the very 1st version of “American Idol”. Resilient, he decided to compete again, getting to win that time. From there, Benny started singing and recording with various groups.

His big break came when Miguel Matamoros, founder of the famous “Trio Matamoros” could not sing one night and had Benny substitute for him. From there, Benny Moré became the group’s main singer, and Miguel Matamoros stayed as the group’s leader.

Benny Moré with Mataroros

In 1945, Benny traveled to Mexico with the “Trio Matamorros” and became very popular there. That was when the Trio expanded to become the Conjunto Matamoros, with Benny as lead singer.

With the Conjunto Matamoros, Benny Moré recorded several albums. The time with them served Benny well as his name gained popularity which would serve him well in his solo career.

In the video below, you can hear Benny Moré with the Conjunto Matamoros singing a song that was later made popular by Johnny Pacheco in his 1977 album “The Artist“. The song is “Me La Llevo“, although Pacheco renamed it “Esa Prieta“.

Benny Moré Goes Solo

Benny left the Matamoros to sing and record with other groups in Mexico. Additionally, he participated in approximately 15 movies. Some of the footage of those movies is what we have left of Benny, besides his numerous recordings.

His fame spread to other countries in Latin America, like Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama, but not in Cuba. For that reason, he decided to returned to Cuba in 1950. Upon his return, he first sang with Bebo Valdes (father of Irakere’s founder Chucho Valdes). Later, he joined in with the famous Orquesta Aragón.

Benny was offered to record with La Sonora Matancera, as it was that group’s custom to record with the most famous artist of the time. La Matancera had guest singers from Cuba and from other countries. However, Benny refused, supposedly because he didn’t like the sound of the Sonora Matancera.

In the mid-1950’s Benny Moré put together his “Giant Band” composed of 40 musicians. His “Giant Band” became a hit, and he again traveled throughout Latin America. The below video shows Benny Moré with his “Giant Band” performing “Vertiente Camaguey“. The video also includes some short interviews with some of his ex-band members, as well as with Celia Cruz.

Benny Moré; Great singer and Songwriter

Benny Moré was a versatile singer. He could sing Son, Son Montuno, Guaguancó, Rumba, and many other Latin music rhythms, including Boleros. But one of the most important qualities that distinguished him as a singer was his ability for improvisation. Benny Moré could improvise on almost any occasion.

Besides his most famous nickname “El Bárbaro del Ritmo” (The Barbarous of Rhythm) he was also known as “Sonero Mayor”. This is a fact which I just learned from an article I read in MSN Latino (“Cuba Celebra a Benny Moré en su Natalicio Noventa”).

However, the artist most people associate with “El Sonero Mayor” is Puerto Rico’s Ismael Rivera. Maelo was another great improviser and Benny’s contemporary. As Benny, Ismael Rivera could improvise in various rhythms. These included Bomba, Plena, Son, Guaracha, or almost any Latin music rhythm.

Benny Moré knew how to use his superb voice in boleros. In the video below, he sings one of his most famous.

Who is the Real “Sonero Mayor”?

There is a great story about who was the real “Sonero Mayor“. Benny Moré was invited to Puerto Rico several times. The great musicologist and producer Gilbert Mamery brought Benny to an activity in Mayagüez. As a backup band for Benny, he hired the young Cortijo y Su Combo so that Benny could sing with them.

But it turns out that the event in Mayagüez wasn’t the only one where they played together. Puerto Rico’s TV station Telemundo (WKAQ) in San Juan invited Benny to their main show “La Taberna India“. Cortijo was the house band of the popular TV variety show.

Elias Lopes was just a kid and trumpet student at that time. He would go on to become a great Puerto Rican trumpeter and bandleader. Elias went to see the show at the studio with the intent to see Cortijo’s trumpeter Kito Velez rather than for Benny. However he witnessed a great event that happened in the studio that day.

In this video, the late Elias Lopes (who would eventually grow up to play with Ithier in El Gran Combo, and become a founding member of Roberto Roena’s Apollo Sound) and the late comedian Shorty Castro tell the story of how Ismael Rivera got the nickname “El Sonero Mayor“.

Benny Moré Songs and Tribute Albums:

I’m not a collector of Benny Moré recordings, so I can’t recommend you anything first hand. Although I’m in the process of expanding my collection. Like the music of Arsenio Rodriguez, almost anything from Benny Moré will be good.

Before we get into albums, it’s worth mentioning that one of the current singers that always admired Benny Moré is Oscar D’Leon. He has recorded many Cuban classics including a handful of Benny’s songs.

Oscar finally was able to visit Cuba, and there played the Benny Moré song that gave Oscar wide name recognition in the international Salsa world. This live rendition by Oscar D’Leon of Benny’s “Mata Siguaraya” is one of the best Salsa videos I’ve ever seen.

However, I will recommend you get Tito Puente’s album “Homenaje a Benny Moré” (the 1st one, not Vol. 2).

Cover of Tito Puente's "Homenaje a Benny Moré" album.
Tito Puente’s “Homenaje a Benny Moré” is an excellent album with Salsa and Latin music artists.

This is a Grammy Award winning 1979 recording, with Tito Puente bringing together an All Star cast of musicians and singers. These  include Cheo Feliciano, Celia Cruz, Adalberto Santiago, Santos Colón, Héctor Casanova, Nestor Sanchez, Junior Gonzalez, and Luigi Texidor among others.

Almost all tracks in this recording are excellent, but my favorite in this recording full of son montunos and guaguancos, is the bolero “Encantado de la Vida”. It is performed masterfully by a duet of Celia Cruz and Cheo Feliciano, with Tito Puente displaying superbly his art at the vibraphone. This is one recording that should not be missing in your Salsa collection.

Enjoy below the video clip of the song “Encantado de la Vida”, with Celia Cruz and Cheo Feliciano.

I would love to hear what are your Benny Moré favorites! Feel free to add your comments below!

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2 Comments
  1. JB says

    Check out Candido Fabre and other greats on this Cuban track

  2. […] Su Combo, alternating with Ismael Rivera. Per Lopes story, Ismael Rivera won hands down. And it was Benny Moré himself who went to Ismael and baptized him on the spot as “El Sonero […]

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