Johnny Pacheco, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and composer, who instigated the sound of salsa to a generation of young teenagers in the Bronx that swung around the world along with his co-founding of the Fania Record label and forming the Fania All-Stars, died on Feb. 15, in Teaneck, New Jersey. He was 85.
His wife, Maria Elena Pacheco, confirmed the death, at Holy Name Medical Center. After being hospitalized for complications stemming from pneumonia.
Pacheco’s fan base began in the Bronx where he was raised following his family’s move from the Dominican Republic. For teenagers in the Edenwald Projects and the surrounding areas the only way to prove your coolness was to have Pacheco’s album ”Pacheco y Su Charanga Vol. 3” (1962) featuring his salsa anthem “Acuyuye,” under your arm. Another album worth carrying was Tito Puente’s “El Rey Bravo” with Pacheo’s flute soaring above the band on the hit tune “Oye Cómo Va” (1962). Pacheco was a superhero in the Bronx where weekend parties under red lights watched ambitious salsa and Pachanga steps turn into a frantic dance contest.
“Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” a top 10 Billboard hit both in the United States and globally for singer Eydie Gormé, demonstrated another side of Pacheco hitting beats in the pop genre, as the percussionist on the track.
Pacheco didn’t have a long collaboration with jazz musicians similar to his Latin counter-parts conga player Chano Pozo and bandleader Mario Bauza with trumpeter and composer Dizzy Gillespie. However, he did perform on the tune “Searchin’” from the album “McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington” (1965) that featured (the rhythm section of the John Coltrane Quartet) pianist Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones and the prominent percussions of Pacheco. He plays congas on this date.
The young group Fania All-Stars established by Pacheo became the gold-standard act for Fania Records. The group was essential in making New York Salsa one of the city’s most popular music and dance forms during the 1970s. With Pacheco as the group’s bandleader and musician, they played Bronx clubs from the Concourse Plaza to Carlton Terrace and eventually larger clubs like the Red Garter in Greenwich Village to selling out Yankee Stadium (45,000 fans). The band recorded two live albums at the Red Garter and the Cheetah, both performances were celebrated in the 1972 documentary “Our Latin Thing.”
Pacheco, in 1964 founded Fania Records with Jerry Masucci, an attorney and big fan of Latin music. Pacheco was the company’s musical director, songwriter, arranger and producer. He named the company after a song he had previously recorded (made famous by Estrellas de Chocolate in Cuba in 1960). “I originally sold Fania albums directly to the record stores delivering them in the trunk of my Mercedes,” said Pacheco during an interview with writer, bandleader and Latin music historian Aurora Flores.
Pacheco signed a string of young Latin musicians; many became music architects in their own right such as Celia Cruz, Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe and Rubén Blades. Members of the Fania All Stars, salsa’s first supergroup originally consisted of Ray Barretto, Joe Bataan, Willie Colón, Larry Harlow, Monguito, Louie Ramirez, Ralph Robles, Mongo Santamaría and Bobby Valentín. Singers: Hector Lavoe, Adalberto Santiago, Pete “Conde” Rodríguez and Ismael Miranda. Many of these musicians grew up in the Bronx with Pacheco.
They all contributed an urbane New York City edge to the sound of Latin music. When people hear that boisterous salsa band blaring (clave rhythm pattern), trumpet, trombones, saxophones and congas permeating the air …Wow what a sound.
Pacheco once noted Fania Records was the Spanish version of Motown Records, the powerhouse of Latin music.
Pacheco and Celia Cruz recorded their first collaborative album ”Celia & Johnny,” a blast of hard-hitting salsa rhythms, in the early 1970s. The combination of Cruz’s vibrating vocals and Pacheco’s big band direction led to the album going gold and propelling Cruz to her reign as Queen of Salsa. They released over 10 albums together and Pacheco produced her last solo recording, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” which won the Grammy for best salsa album in 2002.
Fania dissolved in the mid-1980s and in 2005, Emusica, a Miami company, purchased the Fania catalog and began releasing remastered versions of its classic recordings.
The live performance that propelled Pacheco and the Fania All-Stars into the international limelight that stretched to Japan was their 1974 appearance in Zaire for the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight title fight, as one of the opening acts for James Brown.
“At first we didn’t think we were anything special,” Pacheco told NPR in 2006. “Until every place we went, the lines were unbelievable. They tried to rip the shirts off our backs. It reminded me of The Beatles.”
The Johnny Pacheco Latin Music and Jazz Festival is an annual event held in mid-November at Lehman College in the Bronx, a collaboration with the college that provides a live platform for young musicians studying music in New York City schools. In 2005 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Latin Grammys.
During his career, he composed over 150 songs and worked on the Hollywood soundtracks “Something Wild” (collaborating with Talking Heads leader David Byrne) and “The Mambo Kings,” a 1992 film based on Oscar Hijuelos’ novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.”
Juan Azarías Pacheco Knipping was born on March 25, 1935 in Santiago de los Caballeros, a city in the Dominican Republic. His father, Rafael Azarías Pacheco was the leader and clarinetist of the Orquesta Santa Cecilia. One of the leading Dominican big bands of the 1930s. His mother, Octavia Knipping Rochet, was the granddaughter of a French colonist. The family moved to New York City when Pacheco was 11 years old. By then he had already learned to play multiple instruments including the violin, flute, saxophone and clarinet. He later attended Brooklyn Technical High School studying electrical engineering. After leaving a job in that field due to low wages he attended Julliard School of Music where he studied percussion.
In 1953, Pacheco played percussion and sang with Gil Suárez’s band. The following year he co-founded The Chuchulecos Boys with pianist Eddie Palmieri and trombonist Barry Rogers. He later played percussion for late-night TV shows (Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett), and the orchestras of Tito Puente, Xavier Cugat and Dioris Valladares.
In 1958, Pacheco met pianist Charlie Palmieri and they recorded the Latin jazz album ”Easy Does It,” released by Gone Records. Pacheco played congas and bongos. The two went on to form the charanga La Duboney in 1959, where Pacheco played flute. After only one album, ”Let’s Dance the Charanga,” Pacheco left to form his own group.
He formed Pacheco Y Su Charanga in 1960. The first promotional single ”El güiro de Macorina”/”Óyeme mulata,” received heavy airplay in New York from DJ Rafael Font. The debut album Pacheco Y Su Charanga Vol. 1 sold 100,000 copies and Al Santiago signed him to his Alegre Records label. The album’s music led to a dance craze, the pachanga (combination of “Pacheco” and “charanga”). The music was heavily influenced by the uptempo merengue and cha-cha-cha originated by Eduardo Davidson in 1959 and popularized in Cuba by José Fajardo.
“Pacheco saw the music could go far beyond New York City, Puerto Rico and Santiago, he recognized it as a business and made it main stream,” stated Flores.
In addition to his wife, Pacheco’s survivors include two daughters, Norma and Joanne; and two sons, Elis and Phillip.