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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Johnny Pacheco: An appreciation

Performance from a tribute honoring Johnny Pacheco.

“To quote the late, great Juan Flores, Johnny Pacheco was perhaps New York Latin music's first rock star in the modern sense of the word,” says New York musician/educator Dawn Drake in assessing the significance of Pacheco, the Dominican-American musician/arranger/composer/bandleader/record producer and legendary salsa label Fania Records co-founder, who died Feb. 15 at 85.

Flores was professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and author of Salsa Rising: New York Latin Music of the Sixties Generation. Drake teaches Caribbean music at New York’s John Jay College when not playing bass and percussion in her world music band ZapOte.

“I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in those early days at the Tritons Club in the Bronx when he introduced the Cuban pachanga [dance music genre] and turned it into a youth dance craze,” continues Drake, “or several years later when he went on to spearhead Fania records and conceived the film Nuestra Cosa Latina [Our Latin Thing, the 1972 documentary film about New York’s thriving Latin music scene].”

As Drake submits, Johnny Pacheco was “a connector, collaborator and visionary, responsible for the Hector Lavoe/Willie Colón partnership and his timeless Celia-and-Johnny recordings with Celia Cruz. His youthful energy, drive, love and adherence to Afro-Cuban tradition from charanga [Cuban dance music band] Orquesta Aragón to his later conjunto [smaller Cuban salsa ensemble] style--which emulates the [vintage Cuban/Afro-Cuban Latin dance band] Sonora Matancera from Cuba--molded the sound of Latin music in New York and what came to be known as ‘salsa’ from the 1970s to the present. He had the formula for success—the ‘Fania formula,’ which he called it, that subsequently made the Fania record label’s story the most well-known narrative of the New York genre.”

The Latin Recording Academy’s president/CEO Gabriel Abaroa, Jr. echoed Drake in his statement about Pacheco.

“Johnny Pacheco was a creative composer, arranger, bandleader and producer, in addition to being a gifted musician and a charming performer,” stated Abaroa. “An original member of the acclaimed Fania All-Stars, and co-founder of Fania Records in the ’60s, Pacheco is widely considered as one of the ‘fathers of salsa.’ During his decades-long career, he worked with some of the most prominent salsa artists, including Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades, Cheo Feliciano and Pete ‘El Conde’ Rodríguez.”

Indeed, Pacheco received the 2005 Lifetime Achievement Award from The Latin Recording Academy, and was a multiple Grammy nominee for both Grammy and Latin Grammy awards.

“A lifetime achiever, Johnny Pacheco is an example of how one person’s tastes and creative choices can influence several generations of listeners,” notes Drake. “He changed the trajectory of Latin music as a whole by bringing his particular style of hit-making into an international arena with record production, radio dissemination, and tours with the Fania All-Stars. The monstrous monopoly of Fania Records under his musical leadership, arrangements and compositions defined the genre of salsa as it came to be known.”

On a more personal level, Drake loved that Pacheco, in addition to playing flute, saxophone and accordion, was also a percussionist.

“For me, this is important because I, too, am a percussionist, bandleader, bassist and singer. It shows that his deep knowledge of the intricacies and traditions of Afro-Cuban drumming were paramount in his successful bandleading, composition and arranging.”

Via Instagram, salsa star Marc Anthony, saluted Pacheco as “maestro of maestros and my good friend.”

Anthony added: “You were there for me from Day 1, and I am forever grateful for your support, for the opportunity to be in your presence and for your amazing legacy.”

Johnny Pacheco and Celia Cruz



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