Johnny Pacheco’s recent passing rocked the Latin music community. Without him, salsa would never have coalesced, been codified, and spread throughout the world.
But Pacheco was also a master of Cuban charanga-style flute and percussion, as well as a skilled producer and showman. But his career wasn't just confined to salsa, as we’ll explore in this choice assortment of tracks.
Johnny Pacheco, “Treinta Kilos,” from Pacheco y Su Charanga Vol. 2 (1961)
Johnny soars on flute in this swinging example of the charanga style, as the conga drives while the small cowbell of the timbales and scraped guïro ride. On vocals is the legendary Rudy Calzado. The timbale solo is none other than Manny Oquendo, who would later become famous in Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta. A “kilo” in Cuba was a penny. The song is about having 30 cents and still having something left over to continue partying.
Johnny Pacheco, “Acuyuye,” from Pacheco y Su Charange Vol. 3 (1962)
One of Johnny’s most famous compositions, “Acuyeye” was perfect for the dance Pacheco called the Pachanga, which featured a hopping motion mimicking the rhythm played by the conga drum. He would hold a white handkerchief while doing it. The dance in and of itself was developed at the Tritons in the Bronx, and became a total Nuyorican thing. (The name of the dance is not to be confused with a song by the same title, composed by Cuban Eduardo Davison in 1959.)
Tito Puente, “Oye Cómo Va” (1962)
Guess who the flute player is on the original 1962 version of this tune? You guessed it. Johnny beautifully fills in with hip “típico” phrases in the Cuban flute tradition, soaring over the band on Tito Puente's most famous composition.
Eydie Gormé, “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” (1963)
A Top 10 Billboard hit both in the States and worldwide for Edyie Gormé, “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” shows another side of Johnny’s work, as the percussionist on the track. Legend has it that Eydie Gormé purposely sang badly on the song, because she hated it so much that she hoped Columbia wouldn’t release it. But it became the last solo Top 40 hit of her career.
Johnny Pacheco, “Sugar Frost (Azúcar)” from His Flute and Latin Jam (1965)
Although Johnny had replaced his charanga-oriented group with a trumpet driven conjunto, he returned to the format for this production. Done in the spirit of the Alegre All Stars, it was a total descarga (jam session) with some of New York’s heaviest hitters: tenor saxophonist José "Chombo" Silva and trombonist Barry Rogers are featured in mambo tempo along with Johnny on flute.
McCoy Tyner, “Searchin’,” from McCoy Tyner Plays Ellingrton (1965)
Another example of Johnny’s percussive work in a jazz context. He plays congas on this date, joining the mighty rhythm section of the John Coltrane Quartet: Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums.
Cheo Feliciano, “Anacaona,” from Cheo (1971)
Cheo Feliciano made his vocal debut in the Joe Cuba Sextet, and later found a platform with the Eddie Palmieri Orchestra. Johnny Pacheco played congas and supervised the session on Cheo, his solo debut. It was the first in a series of successful albums on Fania over the next decade.
Melanie, “Brand New Key” (1971)
The scope of Johnny’s work encompassed pop music as well: he plays all the percussion on this 1971 Billboard No. 1 hit for Melanie.
Fania All Stars, Our Latin Thing closing theme (1971)
The closing of the movie that redefined Cuban music into salsa. Izzy Sanabria introduces famed jazz DJ Symphony Sid Torin, who had moved on to work exclusively on Latin radio in New York City. He introduces Johnny Pacheco and Johnny humorously rebuffs an audience member for asking him to speak in only Spanish. He proceeds to introduce the entire Fania All Stars.
Fania All Stars, “Congo Bongo,” Yankee Stadium (1973)
The word was already out on the streets among New York City’s Latin community that Mongo Santamaria and Ray Barretto were going to participate in a conga duel at the Fania All Stars concert at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees had stipulated that if fans rushed the infield, producers Jerry Masucci, Alex Masucci, and Johnny Pacheco of Fania Records would be liable for $25,000 to replace the damaged infield. The 40,000 attendees couldn't contain themselves as Johnny Pacheco lead the band through pianist Larry Harlo’s “Conga Bongo,” in what became known as salsa’s Woodstock.
George Benson, “No Sooner Said Than Done,” from Bad Benson (1974)
Johnny continued to do studio work when called upon. Here he is playing congas on a Phil Upchurch tune from George Benson’s CTI album Bad Benson, alongside players like pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Steve Gadd.
Celia Cruz and the Fania All Stars, “Quimbara,” Zaire, Africa (1974)
According to Oscar-winning filmmaker Leon Gast, who made the films Our Latin Thing and Salsa: “When we got off the plane in Zaire, everyone at the airport was singing songs by the Fania All Stars. It was amazing. They knew of the music and they treated them like super stars.” Johnny was responsible for bringing Celia to the Fania label, producing hit after hit like this one. Check out Pacheco as he dances rumba with Celia on this tune, which became a megahit, revitalizing her career.