The King is dead. Long live the King.
King Nando's death on February 2 didn't get much media attention. There was just a brief mention on Billboard's web site. His last hit records were heard on stations that catered to Latinos in New York and Puerto Rico in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and both his career and his personal life rode a downward spiral all too common among musicians.
But Nando helped define a genre that was important – and short-lived – maybe because it threatened traditional Latin music. Nando – along with Joe Bataan, Joe Cuba, the TNT Band, Johnny Colon, and Willie Colon – created "boogaloo" in the late 1960s, a fusion of Latin music and rhythm and blues that was all the rage for a brief period and set an important precedent for much of the "fusion" music that came decades later.
Fernando Rivera recruited me when we were both at Manhattan's High School of Commerce, a predominantly black and Hispanic institution which would soon be urban removed to make way for Lincoln Center. He saw me playing guitar in the school dance band and asked me to join an R&B group he was forming at the time. We both had Caribbean backgrounds. He was from Puerto Rico; I was from Haiti. His poor immigrant family lived in a dark railway flat in East Harlem. My middle class family lived on the Upper West Side.
Growing up in New York City, we both heard mambos at home (Celia Cruz, Perez Prado, Machito) and rock 'n roll on the radio (Ben E. King, Motown, The Rascals). The Radiant Seven, wearing white sweaters trimmed in orange and green, played amateur night at the Apollo and won a recording contract with Sylvester Bradford, composer of Little Anthony's "Tears on My Pillow." Mr. Bradford had us record a song tied to a movie that was expected to be a blockbuster, but when Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's "Cleopatra" bombed, the record was never released.
One day Nando handed me a bass guitar and said "Learn to play this!" He announced we were going to switch to Latin music because there was just more work. No matter how tough it gets, Latinos will dance. New York was chock full of Latin dance clubs then and we were soon playing three, four, five nights a week.
We learned traditional mambos, cha-chas and boleros, but we also began creating original songs that drew on the music we heard every day. I tried to reproduce the intricate, melodic bass lines that I heard James Jamerson play with the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. Our drummer, Steve Calderon, added funk rhythms borrowed from Booker T and the MGs. Nando played the electric guitar and wrote lyrics in English, the language that his generation of Hispanics used every day.
Our second appearance at the Apollo won us another record contract and this time we got an album out. Our first hit was "Orchard Beach Shing-a-Ling," a paean to a Bronx beach popular among young Latinos. The song had the repetitive bass lines of an R&B tune, arpeggio chords on electric guitar, but the background vocals, the horn parts and the rhythm section came straight out of salsa. Nando had an even bigger hit a few months later with a slow love song called "Fortuna."
We weren't alone in mixing genres. Latin music had a diverse following on those days. Latinos, African-Americans, Jews and Italian-Americans all showed up to "dance Latin." Our music was an acknowledgement of that diversity. Joe Bataan's "Gypsy Woman" and Johnny Colon's "Boogaloo Blues" were among the first Latin fusion records and the theme music for our generation. Soul music stations picked up some of our tunes. TNT Band's "The Meditation," another record I played on later, climbed the R&B charts until someone realized that some of the lyrics were X-rated.
Our success, and the large crowds we drew, led to friction with some of the traditional Latin musicians. We opened for salsa giants Tito Puente, Machito and Eddie Palmieri, even when we often outdrew the established bands. The older musicians were critical of our simple chord structures and our musical skills – criticisms that have dogged every new genre that threatens or challenges the old. Years later, Nando told interviewers that the older bandleaders pressured music promoters to limit the success of boogaloo bands. Even when Nando had a No. 1 hit on the Latin charts, he could not get top billing at a dance and he would be paired with several other boogaloo bands, cutting his revenue – and his ability to sustain his band.
For whatever reason, boogaloo died out in the early 1970s and the period all but disappeared from histories of Latin music. It was as if Nando and his contemporaries were erased from memory. Yet for several years, his bold melding of cultures filled the dance halls and the airwaves – long before Latin-rock and jazz-rock fusions and even today's reggaeton, which connects salsa and hip-hop.
Nando tried to keep his music going, playing fewer boogaloos and more traditional salsa. Then he saw his best friend killed in a bar fight and he was never the same. Yet in the last couple of years, Nando benefited from an unexpected revival. Someone reissued our old records as CDs (we got no money, of course) and DJs began playing the music again. One DJ even tracked me down last year to talk about the era and about Nando's music. It was fresh and different, he said, and people liked to dance to it. Sadly, the resurgence came too late to benefit King Nando.
Joel Dreyfuss is editor-in-chief of Red Herring, Inc.