Remembering Willie Bobo: the famous Salsa musician



By: ©Max Salazar
Latin Beat Magazine,  March, 1997

It was June, 1983, Willie Bobo was performing alongside Mongo Santamaría at Hollywood's Playboy Club. At the end of the gig, both musicians sat at a table and Bobo told Santamaría, "Mongo, I have cancer. I'm going to die. I've lived my life, I've enjoyed it and did what I had to do. My son will follow in my footsteps." Back in New York, Mongo told a few musicians of Bobo's terminal illness. Percussionist and friend Angel René formed the Willie Bobo committee which would stage a tribute at New York City's Club Broadway on Friday, September 16, 1983, and whose proceeds would go to the Bobo family.

Promotion of the tribute got underway in August, 1983. On Saturday, September 9th, one week before the event, this writer hosted WKCR's The Latin Musicians Show and aired a 2-hour Willie Bobo tribute which consisted of interviews of family members and his recordings. The New York visit of Willie Bobo and family was anticipated. On Thursday morning, September 15, 1983, the news of Willie Bobo's death was heard over all New York radio stations.

On Friday, September 16th, close to 2,000 crowded the Club Broadway dance floor. Among them was CBS TV reporter David Diaz whose film crew presented this historic moment for posterity. Diaz, whose program "Visiones" was seen on a Sunday morning a month later, opened his program with: "We must honor our heroes during their lifetime, let them know we appreciate them... that we love them while they are still alive." That had been the plan here tonight at Club Broadway, to honor and pay tribute to Willie Bobo...tragically, Willie Bobo died yesterday, died at the very young age of 49... so Willie does not have a chance to see this outpour of affection for him tonight." The camera then focused on jazz flutist Herbie Mann, with whom Bobo worked for on and off between 1965-1970. "He was a great friend. I remember a time I needed a pianist and he gave me his, Chick Correa...he was there for me whenever I needed him...he was open to all types of music." Flutist Dave Valentín said: "I never met Willie...I knew of him through his recordings only...I learned of his genius from what Tito Puente and Mongo told me." The camera caught the white haired Tito Puente on stage, mike in hand, recalling his experiences with Bobo. "He was progressive, he was a percussionist, played timbales, conga, bongoes, trap drums, was a singer and had his own group...may he rest in peace."

Alicia, wife of Willie, said: "He wanted to come to New York...he wanted to come home...he once said that a great artist always gets recognized at the end." Willie, the eldest son spoke: "One of my father's memorable words was 'music is an international language, anyone can follow the music."' Eric, the youngest son: "He wanted everyone to be happy, no sorrow...this is how his life was, happy, smiling, to have a good time."

Max Salazar on the bandstand facing the Bobo family: "I feel honored to be the one to present this plaque with 50 names to Mrs. Alicia's our way of saying we love Willie Bobo, before and now, and our way of saying 'thanks' to Willie Bobo for giving us his brand of music over all those years." (the music I referred to was the recordings with the orchestras of Tito Puente, George Shearing, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaría, James Moody, Howard McGhee, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Cannonball Adderly, Hugo Montenegro, Sonny Stitt, Thad Jones, Mary Lou Williams, Herbie Mann and his own group).

On Wednesday, September 14, 1983, a weak and tired Willie Bobo told his family he didn't feel he was strong enough to make it to New York. He recorded a cassette tape which was aired at a quiet Club Broadway to close out the tribute. In a barely discernible voice he uttered, "your being here for me is a most wonderful thing...that has ever happened to me...I want to especially thank the Willie Bobo committee for this labor of love and all of you for being here for me and my family...and I want to thank you." The following morning Willie Bobo died.

Tomorrow Is Here is a 1977 Willie Bobo Blue Note LP in which he is sitting on top of a boulder looking pensively out to sea under an orange colored sky. Bobo never explained the riddle of the title or the photograph. Tomorrow Is Here is also a phrase uttered by musicians when they believe their moment for international recognition has arrived. It is a moment of truth. Everything is riding on the recording which may catapult them into world recognition or back to paying more dues on the band-stand. In 1963 you would have been given 10 to 1 odds that Willie Bobo would never get a chance to say that his tomorrow arrived. Bobo, one of Latin music's all-time great percussionists, was in a state of depression because he was not gigging steadily. A hint of the problem was in the liner notes of a 1966 Verve LP, Uno, Dos, Tres.

They read, "Willie Bobo grew up between two cultures (the Afro-American and Puerto Rican)...this is evident in his speech -- he is at ease in both English and Spanish and his leaning toward both jazz and the rhythms of Latin America." Bobo, like thousands who were reared in Spanish Harlem during thelast four decades, could not help being influenced by jazz, rhythm & blues, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. He, like Willie Torres, Joe Cuba, and Jimmy Sabater, grew up dancing to the fiery Afro-Cuban rhythms of Machito, Marcelino Guerra and Noro Morales. They also danced to the R&Bs of the Orioles, The Ravens and The Harptones. But there was also the overwhelming jazz of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Erskine Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine. Play one of the recordings made over thirty years ago like Billy Eckstine's I Want To Talk About You, Nellie Lutcher's The Guy Is In Love With You, The Beale Street Boys I Sold My Heart To The Junkman and you will see a faraway look in their eyes. This influence, a result of everyday experiences in El Barrio, was the one thing Bobo never thought would be a detriment. His strong feeling for jazz and blues, at times dominated his musical repertoire and the public showed its disinterest.

The Willie Bobo story began in Puerto Rico during 1923. Pedro Correa of Arecibo was a musician in a group that was going to play in the town of Cataño. On the night of the dance Pedro's eyes could not avoid the face of the young lovely Faustina who, as Puerto Rican tradition demanded, was chaperoned by her grandmother. When the social amenities were dispensed with, a two-year courtship resulted in marriage. Anna was the firs child. Like many of his countrymen at the time searching for a better life, Mr. Correa left his family in Puerto Rico, settled in Brooklyn, and gained employment in a sugar refinery. Months later he was awarded a small sum of money for the partial loss of a thumb. The money enabled wife and daughter to move to Brooklyn.

In 1930, Pura, the second child was born. On February 24, 1934, William was delivered by a midwife in an apartment at 115th Street and Lenox. At this time there was a nationwide economic depression. Jobs were scarce. A loaf of bread cost five cents. The loaf was visible on a grocery shelf, but not many people had the nickel to buy it. Welfare stamps provided food and clothing. All America was hurting. Then Helen and Laura Correa were born and Pedro had six mouths to feed.

Music became the salvation of the Correas. Whenever pop got the chance to supplement his employment income, he gigged as a guitarist.

"My father played a stunted instrument, like a guitar but a little smaller," Bobo recalled. "He worked as a musician on weekends and had a day job." The apartment rehearsals with a second guitarist and a vocalist-maraquero were thrilling moments for young Willie Bobo who wound up accompanying them with his bongos made of two empty Red Cross salt cardboard boxes.

In 1941 Willie ran around with other boys on 115th Street by the names of Narcisso "Popi" Torres, Popi Pagani and Victor Pantojas, all destined for careers in the New York Latin music world.

"He and negrito Pantoja," recalled Popi Torres, "were always banging on bottles and cans. Willie played bongos on the 7th Avenue train and people gave him money. He never went to school."

By 1943 the Correa's were living at 1338 5th Avenue, corner of 112th Street. At that time El Barrio was alive with all sorts of activities. On 117th Street there was a kid in the Navy called Ernest "Tito" Puente. At 113th Street and 5th Avenue José Estevez Jr.'s piano proficiency would enable him to someday become the renowned "Joe Loco." At 112th Street and Second Avenue Machito and Hilda Grillo were raising a family and Macho spent much time in his kitchen writing songs like Sopa De Pichon. There was a handsome kid named Pablito "Tito" Rodríguez on 110th Street who was singing with the orchestra of Noro Morales. There were the Saturday and Sunday crowded sidewalks and people looking from windows witnessing the skilled stickball players of the Madison Flashers, Prestos, The Home Relief, Furys, Devils and Shields. There was Maxie and his softball champs, The Royal Knights. There was the revered gang leaders of the Boca Chicas, Turbans, Rockys, Dragons and Viceroys. There was the bad dudes with the fists like Boton, Zorro, Indio, Bullseye and the three Gynn brothers, Robert, Jimmy and Johnny. Every kid in El Barrio envied them and looked for the spotlight of recognition.

Willie Correa, nicknamed "Babalu" grew up on 112th Street between 5th and Madison. He played stickball, flew kites, was an expert marble shooter. When he entered his teens he became disinterested in school and street activities. He became preoccupied with music. At Pop Correa's rehearsals he learned the lyrics of a few much requested tunes like Menealo Que Se Empelota, Cachita, Babalu, Incertidumbre, Vereda Tropical, and launched his informal singing career. If he was not playing the "duzzins" (humiliating a person in rhyme), he was swapping punches in defense of the Viceroys turf, or watching drummer "Montesino" (Los Happy Boys) rap out staccato beats on timbales metal sides. There was also the daily meeting in his apartment where the Viceroys listened to the latest Latin, R&B, and jazz. At 14 he began learning to play bongos, later graduating to conga, timbales and trap drums.

In 1947, when the Machito orchestra played uptown at the Park Plaza, Hunts Point Palace and Tropicana, Willie became his bandboy just so he could gain admission. During the last set and if a Local 802 delegate of the musician's union was not in view, Willie would sit in on bongos and drum along with José Mangual. Through Machito he landed jobs in the bands of José Budet, Johnny Segui and Marcelino Guerra. In 1948, when percussionists Mongo Santamaría and Armando Peraza came to the United States from Mexico with an Afro-Cuban dance group called "The Black Diamonds," Bobo's serious drum studies began. After work with Segui or Guerra, they hung out, drummed at the bembes and Los Santos days. Santamaría tutored the eager musician for a few months before he left for Mexico. In 1950 Santamaría returned to New York and the drum studies continued. Willie and Mongo hit it off well. "I was Mongo's English return he showed me the different shades of sounds the drum is capable of producing."

In 1952, while the mambo was the rage, Latin music percussionists were in demand for recording dates. During a recording session with jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams she called him "Willie Bobo" and the name stuck. During the summer of '52 Santamaría joined the Tito Puente orchestra when he replaced Frankie Colón. In September, 1954, Mongo tried to convince Puente that Bobo would be an excellent replacement for Manny Oquendo who had left the band. "Willie and I," recalled Santamaría," met while playing for Marcelino Guerra's orchestra. Tito got mad at Manny (Oquendo),me and Bobby (Rodríguez) because we helped Vicentico (Valdés) record Plazos Traicioneros for Seeco Records. Manny left and Tito needed a I suggested Willie Bobo. At first Tito said 'no' because he thought Willie was crazy. After two hours I convinced Tito to hire him. Tito said 'okay' but you'll be responsible for him. Willie's first night with the Puente band was a Wednesday at the Palladium, the contest night. Willie, all excited, arrived early. When it was time for the band to play, Tito had not arrived yet. So Willie walked up to Tito's timbales, called out Mambo Inn and the band began to play. Halfway through the number Puente walked in, saw Bobo drumming and stood by the stage until the tunes ended. Puente looked at Bobo and said 'you haven't even started yet and you're already trying to take over my band."' Immediately after becoming a Puente sideman, the percussion team of Ti-Mon-Bo (Tito-Mongo-Bobo) became a hit. The bongocero took part in all the legendary Puente recordings between 1954 and 1957. He also played timbales whenever Tito Puente switched to vibes, sang chorus on cha cha cha's, banged the cowbell, scraped el güiro, danced, made Puente sweat whenever they had timbal duels, and worked the 1957 Birdland gig.

Then unexpectedly, Bobo got international exposure in 1955 via his fiery timbal work on the tunes Strange, Out Of This World, and Cuban Carnival, which are in George Shearing's Capitol LP The Shearing Spell.

"It was from the Machito orchestra, Al McKibbon (bassist), Armando Peraza (conga/bongos) and Willie Bobo," said George Shearing, "that I learned what Latin music was about. After I had heard Machito I wanted to record Latin music. But the opportunity did not appear until I met Al McKibbon...who had learned from Chano Pozo while both were in Dizzy's band. Music is a language. If the language is not pronounced correctly, it loses its beauty. My ears became attuned to authentic Afro-Cuban sounds thanks to Machito, McKibbon, Peraza and Bobo. For my first Latin recording, The Shearing Spell (1955) I depended on Peraza to select the Latin sidemen. It was Armando who called my attention to Willie Bobo."

For the following two years Bobo and Santamaría enjoyed their celebrity roles in all the communities that played mambo music. Their percussion work, along with Puente's for the Tico LP Puente In Percussion, and the RCA Victor albums Cuban Carnival, Puente Goes Jazz, and Top Percussion, are the text books for drummers. The tunes Ti-Mon-Bo (recorded July 29, 1957) is the tune that was most often heard in street jams during the '50s and '60s. In early 1957, Bobo and Mongo's photos appeared as guest artists on Cal Tjader's Fantasy LP Mas Ritmo Caliente. Puente let them and bassist Bobby Rodríguez know he was displeased. Bobo and Mongo, offended by Puente's heated words, approached Tjader at Birdland and told him they wanted to join his band. Tjader, stunned by their offers, couldn't believe they wanted to leave Puente, who at the time was Latin music's most hottest attraction. While recalling the events of this time period Santamaría said, "The first time Tjader saw Willie and me was with Puente in 1957 when we played San Francisco's Club Macumba. One night, Willie, Bobby Rodríguez and I sat in with Tjader and the audience went crazy. They loved us. After the gig, Willie and I played several Cuban rhythms for Tjader. We taught him 6/8 time and we explained it to him until 6 a.m. Everywhere we played after that, Tjader was in the audience watching us. Willie, Bobby and I recorded with Tjader and Tito got mad when the album came out. In November, 1957, we saw Tjader at Birdland and told him we were leaving Puente. Tjader couldn't believe it. Tjader mentioned he was going to reorganize his band in six months and would love to have us. In the meantime Willie and I organized a band with Ray Coen, Chombo Silva and Marcelino Guerra which Federico Pagani baptized 'El Conjunto Manhattan.' In March, 1958, 'Manhattan' was hot so I told Willie I was not going to join Tjader. Willie became upset. The next day Willie called me to say that Tjader was forming a new group and that our plane tickets were on the way. I broke up Manhattan and went to California with Willie."

For the following two and a half years Bobo and Mongo contributed to a unique Tjader sound for the classic Fantasy LPs Tjader Goes Latin, Latin For Lovers, Tjader's Latin Concert, and Demasiado Caliente. In 1960, the duo left Tjader, formed a band Santamaría directed, and recorded the arousing Linda Guajira for the Fantasy LP Our Man In Havana.

Twelve months later, when "Charanga" and "Pachanga" were the popular cries of the day, Bobo recorded with Mongo Sabroso Charanga, another excellent LR Santamaría moved to New York and Bobo remained in San Francisco. In Frisco he worked with a few popular jazz groups and for the Latin bands of René Bloch and René Touzet. "I kept in touch with Mongo," said Bobo, "my idea was to build a bridge between Latin music and jazz...but Mongo, who is very Latin in his heart, had other ideas."

Bobo moved to New York and became a member of Santamaría's band. The union lasted four months as Bobo disliked his role of vocalist, dancer, and all-around utility man. He organized his band, recorded Bobo for Tico Records and landed a few gigs. After a while the job offers came less and less. "If you're Latin, people expect you to play typical Latin music...they want to keep you in one bag and I will not allow it."

Bobo, like many of his contemporaries, was heavily jazz influenced. In 1963 his renditions of Latin jazz were fingerpoppers. But no one was listening to them. The problem was that the record buyers who knew of him were whirling a handkerchief around their heads and yelling "A Caballo" while dancing the Pachanga. Bobo's band would play a Charlie Parker tune in a very hip mambo tempo or Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight in a ballad tempo. Even though his music arrangements were different and stimulating, Latin New Yorkers were not interested in them. Only a few pure jazz buffs appreciated Bobo's offerings. Recording dates with Miles Davis, Gabor Szabo, Lalo Schifrin and other widely known jazz artists kept him busy up until late 1964 when he recorded Soul Sauce with Cal Tjader. In recalling the session, Tjader said, "Willie was the icing on the cake...his inspiration helped make the tune a big hit...he overdubbed on the jawbone, clapped his hands and inspired the Spanish phrases 'Ahi na ma, sabor sabor and salsa na ma...he's a pro." Tjader's Soul Sauce was heard throughout the nation and sold over 150,000 copies. All of a sudden the world "Salsa" (sauce) was being heard and used in all Hispanic communities. The success of Soul Sauce prompted Bobo to try again. His timing was perfect. The Pachanga was "resting in peace" and a new rhythm El Dengue had died a few months after birth. His hunch paid off. New material, proficient sidemen, and finger poppin' arrangements enabled this Bobo band to click in 1965. Months later on September 8, he finished the Verve LP Spanish Grease, in which the outstanding track Haitian Lady became the key that opened the doors of Count Basie's Harlem cabaret and kept Bobo gigging steadily for the following three years. Lady is the type of tune Latin jazz buffs close their eyes to in euphoric concentration. The blood-warming performances of Clarence Henry on guitar, Melvin Lastie on cornet, Bobby Brown's alto sax rifts and Bobo's stick work on cymbals and sides of the timbales is one of AfroCuban jazz's artistic masterpieces. In hip talk Lady is a mother...and a mambo dancer's fantasy. Bobo's top billing status was not too far off. It appeared that it would arrive in 1967 after recording his guitarist Sonny Henry's Evilways. Two years later, Santana got the airplay with his version of Evilways and became an international star. Bobo's popularity with Latinos had been increasing steadily. Then without any warning, Bobo departed for the West Coast in 1969 and left many wondering why.

Months later he appeared coast to coast as a regular on the Bill Cosby weekly television show. On November 10, 1972, Bobo was reunited with Tjader and Mongo by impresario Richard Nader for the first Annual Latin Music Festival at Madison Square Garden. In the musicians' dressing room, Felipe Luciano and I were listening to Cal Tjader speak to Mongo, Tito Puente, and Chocolate Armenteros. A few minutes after 9 p.m., the dressing room door opened and Bobo's head popped in the door. He smiled and said, "OK Cal, none of that 'one, two, one, two, tonight'...we all have equal billing." Tjader and Mongo burst out in grins. They shook hands and embraced each other. As anticipated, Tjader, Mongo and Bobo brought the packed Garden to its feet time after time. Two days later, Monday at 2:30 a.m., while answering Felipe Luciano's questions on the Latin Roots WRVR show, Bobo explained his sudden move to Los Angeles. "I'd rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond." It was his way of saying he was better appreciated in California and he didn't have to fight for the top billing he deserved.

There is evidence which indicates that the exposure Bobo and Mongo received up to 1957 had enabled them to outgrow the sideman's role and become featured stars, a goal that Cal Tjader made possible. Evidence of this occurred April 20, 1959, at the 2nd Monterey Jazz Festival which has been preserved for posterity via the Fantasy label album, The Cal Tjader Quintet Concert By the Sea, which features Willie Bobo on drum, Lonnie Hewitt on piano, Al McKibbon on bass, Mongo Santamaría on conga and Cal Tjader on vibes. 13 breathtaking tunes were performed but Lover Come Back To Me stole the show. It was during this tune that Bobo's Tomorrow arrived. Bobo's greatest moment arrived midway through the tune when the audience leaped from their seats to applaud his outstanding drumming skills. After Lover ended, the audience, apparently mesmerized by what occurred in front of them, rose from their seats in unison and offered deafening applause. A smiling Tjader pointed his mallets toward a surprised and smiling Willie Bobo, who was savoring the supreme moment in his life.

After three years with Tjader it was all upward for Bobo and Santamaría. Mongo became a national name with his Columbia label recording of Watermelon Man. Bobo blazed a trail with his brand of Latin Jazz at Count Basie's Harlem club and for the Tico, Roulette, Verve, Blue Note and Columbia labels. In 1969 he was seen weekly on TV as a regular member of Bill Cosby's show. He recorded with prominent jazz artists and was always an invited guest to all the important Latin and Latin jazz concerts.

In 1980, a medical examination found Willie Bobo exhausted and underweight. A spot on his lung, a lump on the side of his throat and a brain scan which revealed a tumor were the causes of his terminal illness. For the following years he lived with the dreaded reality. At 7:09 a.m., Thursday, September 15, 1983, Bobo awoke and asked his wife for a pill. She left the room and within minutes was at his bedside. The time had arrived in which Bobo aficionados would no longer see the flashy drumming or hear the unique voice sing Dindi, A Little Tear or Father and Son, a duet of Willie and Eric's. The pain would no longer torment him. Willie Bobo was resting in peace.

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