Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 29 September 1941, Brooklyn, NY; d 10 March 2009, Hackensack NJ of cancer) Promoter, producer, label boss, music publisher. For more than 30 years he was the most important figure in staging Latin music events worldwide, as well as building a record label, publishing companies, video and film production arms, and a catalog of hits that transformed the Latin music industry.

His father was Dominican, his mother Puerto Rican; he learned to dance as soon as he could walk. He found his future at the Palladium Nightclub in New York City when he was 16, watching the big bands of Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. 'Right then I knew I would be involved with this wonderful music one way or another.' As president of a neighborhood social club while still a teenager, he organized parties and dances, such as 'waistline parties', where guys were admitted free but had to pay a penny per inch of their dates' waistline. Mercado's parties then moved from a basement to the second floor above a garage on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, the new hotspot called the 3 & 1 Club, where he began booking local Latin bands such as Eddie Palmieri and Richie Ray & Bobby Cruz. He later said that it was a good thing he wasn't a musician, because he probably would have been mediocre, whereas he soon learned that he had a genius for promotion.

His first management, booking and promotions company was called Showstoppers. He promoted R&B acts including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Stylistics, the Chi-lites, and others, starting a salsa/soul music trend. From Brooklyn, Mercado spread into Manhattan, helping to expand the Fania All-Stars, promoting dances at the Cheetah Nightclub, presenting Latin jazz at the Red Garter and, later at the Village Gate and other downtown venues. In 1976 Mayor Abraham Beame presented Mercado with a proclamation of 'Official New York Salsa Day.' With Jack Hooke, Tito Puente's longtime manager and confidante, he created the Salsa Meets Jazz Series at the Village Gate and the Latin Jazz Jam as part of the JVC Jazz Festival.

Mercado had formed RMM Management in 1972, representing Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto, and went on to manage virtually every name in the industry, including its two biggest stars, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. By 1987, the wildly popular 'Latin Tinge' nights at the Palladium on New York's 14th Street were bringing 3,000 salseros to dance every Thursday night. By then he had also started a record label, also called RMM. It was at RMM that Marc Anthony changed styles and became one of music's biggest heart-throbs. Sergio George was staff producer, music director and arranger for RMM 1988-94, working on albums by Anthony, Tito Nieves, Cheo Feliciano, José Alberto, and La India, as well as the all-star Familia RMM; he was succeeded by Isidro Infante, the multi-talented leader of La Elite. With over 140 artists signed to RMM Records, the label sold millions of records a year, and spun off more enterprises, such as RMM Filmworks and two publishing houses. The former produced the acclaimed documentary on the history of Latin music, Yo Soy Del Son A La Salsa, and his publishing companies, Caribbean Wave and Crossing Borders, provided music for major feature films, television and soap operas. The recipient of countless awards and proclamations, Ralph Mercado was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Tribute by Billboard Magazine in 1999.

Always an innovator, Ralph Mercado pioneered the presentation of salsa music in Africa, South America, Asia, and Israel. In 1991 he opened an office in Europe and said to Forbes magazine, 'People in Germany dancing to salsa -- It's wild!' He was one of the first to bring Latin music concerts to such prestigious venues as Radio City Music Hall, Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, the Beacon Theater, and Madison Square Garden. He became a restaurateur, opening the American-themed steak house Alma Grill, the upscale Mexican Restaurant Zona Rosa, and the Latino Nouveau Restaurant and Lounge Babal in midtown New York, also reopening the former Club Broadway as LQ (the Latin Quarter). He sold off the RMM empire in 2001 and threw himself back into promoting salsa worldwide.

And all because he loved the music.