Frank J. Oteri: Since you’ve named your brand new album El Malo, Volume II, it seems reasonable to begin our conversation talking about your very first record, which was called El Malo and which you made when you were only 17 years old. So many people in music go through periods of apprenticeship as a sideman with other bands and come up through the ranks that way. What’s amazing about that record is that you seemed to have come out of nowhere and you were already fully formed as a leader.
Willie Colón: Well, I had three or four years out on the sidewalk. I was like a street musician and we used to pass the hat around. I had a kid who played accordion, I played trumpet, then another guy played clarinet and there was a conga player. We called the group The Dandies, and we used to set up in front of the bar and play. People used to throw quarters at us; when we stopped, they’d throw dollars. I’m just kidding. But that’s how it all started. During that time, this record came out with a guy named Joe Cotto, a gas station owner who was a frustrated musician. He put a band together. He was terrible, but he had money so he paid for some arrangements. And he had Mon Rivera singing for him, and he had Barry Rogers on the trombone. I was playing trumpet, but when I heard Barry Rogers’s trombone solo on this song called “Dolores” I didn’t want to play trumpet anymore. I’d heard Barry roaring and ripping into that trombone, so that’s what I wanted to play.
FJO: One of the things that has always distinguished your sound from all the other Latin groups is this very heavy trombone sound: not just you playing trombone, but often a whole group of people playing trombone. That comes out of Mon Rivera’s music, too.
WC: Yeah, exactly. He was my main influence, and Barry. I’ve seen a lot of other trombone players, but the way Barry played just got to me. He spoke to me. I had a couple of different formations of groups. First I did the street band. Then I tried to start a big band, like Machito or Tito Puente-style, but I didn’t have the chops to do that. So I decided to go with just two trombones and a rhythm section. That was something I could handle. I didn’t know a lot about harmonies and stuff like that, so basically I’d pick any two notes that sounded good; I didn’t care what chord it was. Later on, I had jazz players like Grover Washington and Willie Campbell showing up at the gig and they’re asking me [about it], but I didn’t know what I was doing. It was just basically an instinctive kind of thing. We had a mixture of really rough, brassy, harsh trombones and a rhythm section. And on a couple of songs, we had Dwight Brewster playing a very light kind of jazzy piano. It was just an interesting thing that happened.
FJO: That first record has got so many different kinds of musics on it, not only jazz. This record came out during the height of the boogaloo movement, and the sounds of that music permeate this record, too.
WC: Yeah, yeah that’s right. We have “Willie Whopper” and “Skinny Poppa” on it. But the first hit we had was an instrumental called “Jazzy.”
Before this record, Hector [LaVoe] and I were competitors. He had a band called The New Yorkers. They were all right off the boat, but they made a band called The New Yorkers. We were born here and hardly spoke any Spanish, and I called our group “La Dinamica,” in Spanish. But we were kind of doing the same thing, and [Johnny] Pacheco said I should really ask Hector to sing with us. I wasn’t up for the idea. I was, like, 16 years old and there was a lot of competition between us. But he talked us both into it, and Hector says, “OK, I’m going to sing with you guys, but I’m only going to do one album, ’cause you guys suck.” So I said O.K. And then the first hit off the album was an instrumental, but the band’s sound started to catch on. I never asked him to be in the band because he said he was only going to do one album, but we stayed together for eight years.
FJO: A lot of the people who were sidemen in your band stayed with you a long time. It was a remarkably consistent lineup, which is probably why that music was so tight.
WC: One of my secret weapons that nobody knows about was that Charlie Palmieri was my mentor. Whenever I’d get in a jam and I was looking for musicians, I’d ask Charlie. And Charlie had a little book for whenever he’d run into a good musician. He used to teach too, so he had a list of kids that played good. It was through Charlie that I got Nicky Marrero and Eddie Guagua, young guys that were playing at a high level. I would have never known how to find these guys, but Charlie helped me a lot.
FJO: How’d you get Professor Joe Torres?
WC: I think [José] Mangual and Hector brought him in. Joe turned out to be such a great player. He’s very underrated; he was just excellent. He used to do such strange things; he made a lot of those songs fly.
FJO: You were saying that for a lot of those weird harmonies you were just sort of fishing around intuitively. Did some of those weird harmonies also come from what Joe Torres was playing? Who made that happen?
WC: I did. I just heard those sounds in my head. I enjoyed writing some of the lines one step away so they had to just grate against each other. I did that a lot. I didn’t know what I was doing, though; I just liked the way it sounded.
FJO: From that very first record, you also included a traditional Puerto Rican bomba, showing that salsa was a lot more than Cuban music.
WC: A lot of people like to characterize salsa as a pastiche of Cuban son. There’s no denying that there is a Cuban influence and a Cuban base to it, but it’s so much more. Salsa is not a rhythm, it’s a concept. It’s a way of making music. It’s an open concept and the reason that it became so popular is because it was able to evolve and accept all of these other musics. We put the bombas and plenas in it; we put calypso, samba, bossa, and cumbia in it. It’s definitely not even a Puerto Rican or a Cuban music. It’s a reconciliation of everything you can find. And I think it could have only happened here in New York, where you had so many different kinds of people living and playing together. We used to get a lot of the black jazz players. They wanted to come and play salsa so they can blow over the changes. Where are you going to find players like than other than in a big city like New York? This was not going to happen in Cuba or Puerto Rico; it had to be here.
FJO: One of my favorite records of yours is Lo Mato, especially the first track, “Calle Luna Calle Sol” which is so thoroughly chromatic. How did something like that happen?
WC: I wanted something that sounded kind of spooky and creepy. It’s a scary song. So I just started messing. I used to write most of my songs on a keyboard. The first songs like “Che Che Cole” and all those songs were written on an ebony chord organ.
The story that inspired that song ["Calle Luna Calle Sol"] was an incident at a bar in Puerto Rico by the docks [involving] me, Hector, a cousin of mine, and two friends [of his] that were in the Navy. It was a cathouse and we went in to have a few drinks. Hector had a very great sense of humor sometimes. And if he felt like it, he was able to really frustrate people until they wanted to blow up and kill him, kind of like Groucho Marx. Anyway, we’re in this place. And we’re sitting at the bar and every time one of the bouncers passes by, he throws a raspberry, the Bronx cheer. But he’s hiding. And the guy turns around to see who does it. The third time he does it, the bouncer turns around to me and grabs me by the shoulders and says, “Hey, you do that to your mother?” And everybody’s just cracking up. They think it’s really funny that the gorilla’s coming down on me. And I’m having a couple of drinks, so by the end of the night when we’re leaving I decide I’m going to let this guy have it. So when we’re leaving I said, “Look, I did it. What the hell!” Anyway, it hits the fan. And we get into a big bar fight. We’re out on the sidewalk. My cousin and his two friends take off. By the end, me and Hector are fighting in the middle of a circle. Long story short, everybody gets beat up pretty bad and I get thrown in the alley in the garbage. The union delegate is making his rounds and he says, “Hey, that’s Willie Colon there.” And they say, “I don’t give a hell if he’s Willie Shit.” Anyway, he cleans me up and takes me back to the hotel. The place where that happened was on Calle Luna. So that’s where “Calle Luna Calle Sol” came from. It was after a real good bucket of whoop ass we got. It made me think chromatically.
FJO: Since you bring up this bar fight, you’ve reminded me of the covers of all your early records. Every one of them has some kind of gangster theme. Where did that come from?
WC: I grew up on 139th Street, and it was a really rough neighborhood. I had my horn stolen a couple of times. I’d have to do all kind of things to make people not want to mess with me. Even if I’d have to wait and jab them later on, when they weren’t looking. That became my trademark. If I don’t leave this guy alone, later on he’s gonna come and hit me with a bat on the back of the head when I’m talking to somebody. So I got the nickname El Malo and they left me alone. But it was basically a tongue in cheek thing, too. On Lo Mato, I’ve got a gun on this guy’s head on the cover, but on the back he’s sitting on my back beating me. The Santa Claus thing on Asalto Navideño, if you really look, we’re taking stuff and putting it in the bag. We’re not taking stuff out of the bag and giving it. It’s kind of subtle, but it was always a joke. I see the kids now and they do gangster, but they really mean it. They think it’s real. And you know, that’s not how we meant it.
FJO: On Cosa Nuestra you’re standing over a body ready to be dumped into the river and you’ve got a case pointed at the body, but it’s a trombone case. Another one I really love is La Gran Fuga which on one side has an FBI Wanted Poster of you with a personal message from FBI director J. Edgar Gonzalez, and on the other side a fake Daily News with a story about your band saying that these guys are dangerous because they’ll make you start dancing.
WC: Yeah, armed with a trombone and considered dangerous. We always tried to keep a lot of humor in the thing. It’s kind of dry humor, but we really didn’t mean it. We didn’t really think we were gangsters, but it did present a problem as we went to play in a lot of places. Kids would come up and stand up in front of the band and start flipping the bird; they wanted to test El Malo out. And we did get into a lot of altercations. That was partially one of the reasons why I retired a little early, because it was broken jaws and broken ankles a couple of times.
FJO: It’s bad if you’re a brass player.
WC: Yeah it is. It’s not easy to play with a wired jaw.
FJO: Getting back to the Christmas albums. We’ve been talking about all the innovations in your music, but at the same time there’s a consistent respect for tradition, and that’s why I think your music works so well. It’s moving forward, but it’s bringing the past with it. And it’s making people aware of the tradition that way. On those Christmas records, you featured Yomo Toro on cuatro, which is a traditional Puerto Rican folk instrument.
WC: I was raised by my grandmother. She even bought me my first trumpet. She had a son that was a musician who died of meningitis and I think that after I was born, she’d look at me and still see him. My mother was very young; she was 16 when I was born. And my father was in jail most of the time. So I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She taught me how to speak Spanish, and I’d read the paper to her, and she’d play her music for me. She’d play danzas on the victrola and a lot of jibaro music. We used to laugh. The teenagers used to laugh at anything which had strings. In those days Puerto Ricans were listening to Trio Los Panchos. But those were the jibaros, the hicks. Guys who knew what was going on were listening to Tito Puente, Cuban stuff and jazzy stuff. They used to call the other stuff galinging-galinging. So I decided I was gonna put in some galinging-galinging and make it hip.
The reason I thought about Yomo was that my mother used to work on 149th Street, and when I used to walk over to see her after school, there was a bar next door called La Campana Bar and Yomo Toro used to play in there. Sometimes I’d stop and listen. When it came time to do this Christmas album, I said to Hector, “You know Yomo Toro?” And he says, “Yeah, I know him.” So I said, “You think you could get him to play on this?” And he got him and so the Asalto Navideño was born.
I had a really good idea of the chord progressions and what the music was like. And between Hector and I, we composed a bunch of stuff that was pretty much on the money as far as jibaro style came. We put in a salsa kind of montuno movement and kind of—how do you say it—surrendered to it. Anyway it just worked out really great, and Yomo was really easy to work with. He’s a genius, a virtuoso, and galinging-galinging was not a joke anymore. He became a member of the Fania All-Stars and the guy works more than I do now.
FJO: And a few years later, you wound up doing this really avant-garde record with him called The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.
WC: That was my retirement record. I didn’t want Hector to sing the whole record because I knew I was going into some kind of transition. So he sang two songs, and I decided I was just going to go crazy with it. We changed the orchestration to a little big band. I had Tom Malone do a couple of charts. And I had gotten a commission. I went and looked for some gig; I was looking to do some work with other medias. So I went to WNET and there were a bunch of Latinos there working on a thing called Realidades, and they said, “Hey, you want to be the musical director.” And I said, “Yeah, great.” So they asked me to write a theme. So I wrote, “I Feel Campesino” and “MC2″ for them.
FJO: Those are some of the oddest tracks on that album. “MC2″ sounds like progressive rock.
WC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a great opportunity for me because I wouldn’t have had a chance to write anything like that for no reason. So they gave me a reason to be able to go out in that direction. And it turned pretty good.
FJO: And you later did a longer film score, El Baquiné de Angelitos Negros—
WC: —which was also with WNET. They didn’t have a lot of money, but what I liked about it was that they had no agenda. They didn’t want to make money either. They had no political agenda. You could do whatever you wanted. So I tried out an experiment doing classical strings as sweetening. We’ve heard plenty of strings with the Philly sound and all that stuff, and disco, so I was hearing strings with John Lucien and the tenor sax player Stanley Turrentine. So I wanted to do strings with salsa also, and they said great. Everybody wanted to participate so we said, OK, we’re going to do a dance. We’re going to do ballet with salsa, with a poem, and film it. We covered all of these bases with El Baquiné de Angelitos Negros.
After we finished, it was sitting in the can. And we’re like “Man, Jerry [Masucci of Fania Records], you’ve gotta hear these tracks.” So I got Jerry together with WNET, and he bought the rights to be able to publish it. But more importantly for me and the music, I was able to use that experience to do to “Periodico de Ayer” for Hector, who was on his own now. We were trying to find a way to get him out there with something new and exciting. So I told Jerry, let’s do the strings with Hector. He didn’t want to go for it. But I said, “Look, I feel it so much that if this thing is not a hit, I’ll pay for the strings out of my pocket.” So he said “O.K.” It was monstrous man. That’s one of Hector’s biggest songs.
Today you write a song to get played on the radio, and it should be about four minutes long. In those days, we’d go four, eight, whatever it took. The song would go wherever you wanted to take it. Jerry was not the kind of executive producer that would sit on you and check on what you were doing. A lot of times, I’d do a record and I’d tell Jerry, “I’m really excited. You’ve got to hear it!” And he’d say, “Just bring me the record.” It was great. But later on I found out. I left Jerry because I got a great offer from RCA Records; it was a two million dollar contract. So I told Jerry I was leaving and going into the real record world. And Jerry said, “I’ll give you whatever they give you Willie.” But I said, “No Jerry, it’s time for me to go now.” It was the biggest mistake I ever made. I started working for a corporation that was conservative, that had political agendas, and that had to micromanage everything. I just couldn’t deal in that culture. It was death for me. I should have never have left Fania.
FJO: Wow. But we’re jumping ahead in this story. I want to take it back to right after you made the record that you said was your retirement record. You didn’t exactly retire. You did these amazing records with Mon Rivera and Celia Cruz [There Goes the Neighborhood and Only They Could Have Made This Album] which are a really strange follow-up to The Good, The Bad, The Ugly which was super avant-garde. The records with Mon and Celia are probably the most traditional stuff you ever did.
WC: With Mon, I tried to just have a very light touch on it and use the familiar melodies that he used for the horns and the structures. I just changed the chord progressions a little, so it sounds a little hipper, but I didn’t want to go with a heavy hand. First of all because Mon was up in age and he was not really flexible. I was gonna freak him out if I went too far. I freaked him out in the end anyway, and we couldn’t do a second album.
With Celia we started trying to stretch out. I wanted to do “Usted Abuso.” That’s not Cuban chord changes at all. And she said, “Ay Willie, yo no puedo cantar eso; I don’t want to do that song.” But I said, “Celia, you can.” So she tried to sing along with it and I said, “Just sing it the same way you sing the other stuff. Don’t pay attention to [what we're doing]. It sounds a little different, but it’s exactly the same thing.” So that’s what happened. “Usted Abuso” was a big hit. People accepted it and it kind of got her out of that Sonora Matancera thing and got her more into what was going on in more mainstream salsa.
FJO: If I’m not mistaken, that record also has the very first merengue that you ever recorded, I guess since Celia always liked to include merengues on her albums.
WC: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s funny that the old timers would say, “Salsa doesn’t exist.” One of most hard-headed guys was Tito Puente. “Ah, salsa doesn’t exist. I put that on my French fries or spaghetti.” On Puente’s records, he’d serve them up as separate tracks: he’d have a secho real and another track would be a Brazilian bossa nova, so he had already gone through all of those musics. What we did is just mix them all together because we didn’t have the same prejudices. We got a lot of flack at the beginning. A lot of the old timers said, “What are you doing? You can’t put Dominican music with Cuban music or Puerto Rican music.” And I’m going, “Why not?” “Because it’s wrong.” Finally we had to tell them, “Look, this is salsa.” So then they said there’s no such thing as salsa. But it’s just the difference between those musics by themselves as folklore and what salsa is, which is a way of reconciling them all together. Anybody—Colombians, Venezuelans, if you play them a straight Cuban record and a salsa record, they’ll tell you which one is which. It’s very easy to discern.