Salsa music lost one of its founding fathers on Feb. 15, when the Dominican-born musician, bandleader and producer Johnny Pacheco died at the age of 85. Self-taught on instruments including the flute, saxophone and accordion, Pacheco studied percussion at Juilliard before founding his own bands and rising to fame with pachanga, a musical style and dance craze from Cuba that fused the merengue, son montuno and cha-cha-cha. In 1964, Pacheco joined forces with lawyer Jerry Masucci to found Fania Records, the label that would help define the sound of salsa and launch the careers of such stars as Willie Colón, Celia Cruz, Rubén Blades, Larry Harlow, Ray Barretto and Héctor Lavoe. One of Pacheco’s earliest collaborators was the legendary pianist Eddie Palmieri, who took the burgeoning salsa sound in more of a jazz-influenced direction. Now 84, Palmieri shared his memories of his lifelong friend and the foundation of the music both men helped to create. – Shaun Brady
I was raised with Johnny Pacheco. I met Johnny around 15 years of age. At that time he was playing saxophone. He had a great sense of humor and so do I, and I told him that he was the worst-sounding saxophone player I ever heard in my life. But he had an incredible career. He was very, very special.
At that time there were three big orchestras: Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez. It was the height of our music because the mambo and the cha-cha-cha were coming out of Cuba. Everything came out of Cuba, starting from the ’20s and then rising through the ’40s. In the ’40s you had Arsenio Rodríguez. In classical music you talk before and after Claude Debussy; in our music, you talk before and after Arsenio Rodríguez. Cuba was the umbilical cord for information about what was happening with the new rhythms and the great composers. Johnny and I were hearing the music that was being played by the Big Three while we were playing stickball in the street — that was our imitation of baseball, with a broomstick. We could hear the bodegas playing the dance music of Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez on the radio.
Johnny started with my brother, Charlie Palmieri, at a supper club called the International in 1958. By 1959, my brother had formed La Charanga Dubonéy, and Pacheco played flute on [the band’s] recording Let’s Dance the Charanga! Then Pacheco formed his own charanga — a Cuban-style orchestra with strings and flute. He recorded a composition called “El Güiro de Macorina” that became such a hit. He was there at the right time. The pachanga became the hit dance here, and Pacheco was leading the way.
Then he formed the band Pacheco y su Tumbao, which [took inspiration from] the Cuban band La Sonora Matancera. He used to jam at the World’s Fair here, and that’s where he broke that band in. By that time he’d met Jerry Masucci, a lawyer who represented Johnny in a divorce case. They both put in 2,500 dollars apiece and started Fania. They had a whole system that worked really well because of the combination of Johnny in the studio and Jerry dealing with all the bankers and the producers.
Johnny called and invited me to play the first Fania All-Stars [concert] at the Red Garter. I’m on their first recording [released in 1968], but then I went in another direction at a new company, and Johnny stayed with that sound. I would do tours with Fania once in a while. I joined [again] in 1980, but they were already on a decline. Fania had a run, I would say, from 1964 to 1986.
Celia Cruz had started with La Sonora Matancera and had her hits with them. When she came to the United States, the first thing they did was bring her to record with Tito Puente. That wasn’t really happening, but then she went with Fania, and because Johnny had the same sound as La Sonora Matancera, they made history together.
He established something so wonderful that made the world dance. He’ll always be remembered, not only for what he did on his own; by having the record label and traveling together with all the different artists, they became a whole family unit. And they broke all the records. They put 40,000 people into Yankee Stadium. It was happening.