Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Gilberto Miguel Calderon, nickname 'Sonny', 22 April 1931, Harlem, NYC; d 15 February 2009, Manhattan) Conga player, bandleader. Of Puerto Rican parentage, he grew up in Spanish Harlem and formed the Joe Cuba Sextet '54, recording for Mardi Gras, then Seeco for LPs Steppin' Out '62, Diggin' The Most '64, Comin' At You '65, Breakin' Out mid-'60s, Para Enamorados Solamente/José Cheo Feliciano (the latter two were compilations). Then he moved to the Tico label as a definitive 1960s unit.

The peak lineup was Cuba, conga; Tommy Berrios (b 23 December 1932, Ponce, Puerto Rico), vibes; Nick Jiménez (b 15 June 1929, Santurce, Puerto Rico), piano; Jules 'Slim' Codero (b 16 December 1925, NYC), bass; Jimmy Sabater (b Jaime Sabater, 11 April 1936, NYC; d 8 February 2012, Bronx), timbales; Sabater and José 'Cheo' Feliciano sharing lead vocals. The first Tico LP was Vagabundeando! Hangin' Out c.'64 including Feliciano's classic 'El Raton', lyrics referring either to drugs or to Puerto Rican liberation (a live version of the song on Latin Soul Rock '74 by the Fania All Stars was the first big hit of the '70s salsa boom). Other Tico LPs were El Alma del Barrio/The Soul Of Spanish Harlem '64, Bailadores '65 and Estamos Haciendo Algo Bien!/We Must Be Doing Something Right! '66 including the hit 'El Pito (I'll Never Go Back To Georgia)'; Feliciano went solo and earlier lead vocalist Willie Torres (b 30 October 1929, Spanish Harlem, NYC; he'd sung with Sextet '54-7) returned; the fifth Tico LP Wanted Dead Or Alive '66 incl.uded the crossover 'Bang Bang', the first boogaloo to sell a million (no. 63 on national USA pop chart '66) and 'Oh Yeah' (charted '67). (See the entry for boogaloo, an important dance craze in New York City.)

Joe Cuba Sextet Presents The Velvet Voice of Jimmy Sabater '67 (a ballad album) and My Man Speedy! '67 were further Tico LPs; compilation The Best Of/Lo Mejor de Joe Cuba '70 included 'Bang Bang', 'El Pito' (both written by Sabater and Cuba), 'To Be With You', and tracks from Speedy. The band had peaked; Torres left for a pensionable job with NYC Transit Authority (from which he retired '92) and was replaced by Willie Garcia, then by Mike Guagenti. Recuerdos de mi Querido Barrio (Memories Of My Beloved Neighborhood), Bustin' Out, Doin' It Right/Hecho y Derecho were '70-3 LPs with Afro-Cuban pianist/arranger/composer Alfredo Rodriguez (he'd replaced Jiménez, who'd relocated to Puerto Rico). Tico-Alegre All Stars Live At Carnegie Hall '74 included 'Boom Boom Lucumi' by the Cuba Sextet; Louie Ramirez produced the classic Cuba group's last two albums, the Grammy-nominated Cocinando la Salsa (Cookin' the Sauce) '76, and El Pirata del Caribe/The Caribbean Pirate '79.

Sabater stayed a Sextet member until '75 and recorded with Cuba up to his final album; he also recorded as a solo artist including Solo c.'69, El Hijo de Teresa/Teresa's Son c.'70, To Be With You '77 and Gusto '80, and went on to co-lead Combo Gigante with Charlie Palmieri in the '80s and shared lead vocals on the swinging, no frills Dance City '94 by ex-Tito Puente mambo dancer Eddie Torres and His Mambo Kings Orchestra. The Cuba Sextet re-formed in Madison Square Garden '84 to celebrate 25 years of Feliciano's career; Cuba made a comeback to performing '92 fronting a group called New Generation, and made Steppin' Out Again! '95 on Tiffany including guest Willie Torres, regarded as a disappointing album by many fans.

On Cuba's death, Ángel Franco wrote in the The New York Times, quoting Cuba's wife, Maria Calderón, at the wake: 'His Barrio was his people. He was born here. He lived here. He loved here. And he died here.'

Outside, a jam-packed crowd started clapping, dancing and whistling, becoming ecstatic when the combo started into 'Bang Bang', with its piano vamps and beep-beeps. 'Come and get it, baby!' yelled a man in the crowd. 'Come and get it!' Ms. Calderón shared a microphone with Mr. [disc jockey and friend of 50 years Joe] Gaines, and both belted out the lyrics. 'Cornbread, hog maws and chitlins,' they sang. 'Comiendo cuchifritos!' 'Lechón!' shouted someone else. 'Lechón!' As this joyful insanity swept the crowd, three middle-aged women with sad faces and clenched hands emerged from the other wake [in an adjoining chapel]. As the music washed over them, their stiffness melted, as they slowly began to sway their shoulders and clap.

Once again in his beloved barrio, Joe Cuba’s music made people happy.