Professor Joe Torres, Pianist with Salsa Legends Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, Is Dead at 76

Apr 15, 2020

Professor Joe Torres, a pianist who came to the public’s attention with salsa bandleader and trombonist Willie Colón, died on Monday at a senior home in the Bronx. He was 76.

Percussionist José Mangual, Jr., a close friend and longtime band mate, said he died of natural causes.

Torres started his career with renowned bassist Bobby Valentín. He would go on to work with other leading bandleaders, like timbalero Willie Rosario; trombonist and vocalist Johnny Colón; and top charanga groups like Típica Novel. His discography also encompassed work with vocalists Rubén Blades, Celia Crúz and Héctor Lavoe.

But he was best known for his work in Willie Colón’s band, which burst on the scene in the mid-to-late 1960s. An instant hit with young Latin New Yorkers, the band featured a power front line of two trombones. That sound, paired with Lavoe, propelled the band to superstar status.

Its surging success provoked the disdain of some established bandleaders from the golden age of mambo: “Can you imagine Tito Puente’s big band playing at a dance with all those sophisticated arrangements?” says Mangual. “Then we would come on with just two trombones and the audience would rush the stage.” 

As the band’s pianist, Torres was at its vortex. “He’s very underrated; he was just excellent,” Colón said in a 2009 interview with New Music Box. “He used to do such strange things; he made a lot of those songs fly.”

Those flights can be heard on a number of Fania Records releases regarded as touchstones of salsa, like La Gran Fuga (1971), El Juicio (1972) and The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (1975). Torres also appears on Siembra (1978), a collaboration between Cólon and Blades often cited as the best-selling album in salsa history.

Then there was the album that got young Nuyoricans back in touch with our island’s roots through Colón’s reimagining of traditional Puerto Rican Christmas music, Asalto Navideño (1971). 

José Manuel Torres, Jr., was born in Manhattan on Nov. 29, 1943. His parents both hailed from Puerto Rico: José Manuel, Sr., came from Guayama, and Elena López Quilles came from Ponce, the city of musicians. Like many Nuyoricans, José Jr. was raised in the Bronx; he grew up on Fox Street, with his parents and four siblings.

He attended a grammar school that would become legendary in the annals of New York City Latin music history. Centrally located in the Longwood section of the South Bronx, P.S. 52 served the predominantly Puerto Rican community that had grown by leaps and bounds after World War II. Its student body included future NEA Jazz Masters Ray Barretto and Eddie Palmieri, timbalero Orlando Marin, percussionists Manny Oquendo and Benny Bonilla and a slew of other musicians.

Torres was inspired in his youth by virtuosic Latin piano players like Charlie Palmieri, Ray Coen and Noro Morales. According to a peer, Gilberto “Pulpo” Colón (no relation to Willie), his ultimate hero was a little-known Cuban pianist named Felo Bergaza.

It was his ability to sight-read music that earned Torres the nickname “Professor Joe.” Pulpo Colón recalls: “Joe could absolutely read anything. Charlie, Sonny Bravo and other well-known pianists would always call him first as a sub, because in those days arrangers like Tito Puente wrote out very detailed piano parts, like classical music. Joe would also save people a lot of time in the recording studio because of the ease he had in interpreting the parts.” 

Milton Cardona, Professor Joe Torres and Jose Mangual
Credit Sones y Soneros

In a 2010 interview with the salsa blog Sones Y Soneros, Torres says: “The young pianists of today should not only be able to play by ear, which is a good thing, but also be able to sight-read so they can be able to execute anything they are called upon to do on the instrument with seriousness and responsibility.”

Mangual says that skill set propelled Torres’ career. “Joe was a great sight-reader, very professional,” he says. “He was always in demand, especially [for] charangas. He must have played with every charanga orchestra that existed at the time.”

Torres came into Willie Colón’s orbit through a recommendation from concert promoter and manager Richie Bonilla. “At the time Willie Colón was looking for a new piano player, so I told him about Joe, who at the time was working with Orchestra Flamboyan,” Bonilla recalls. “I took Willie to hear him. The rest is history. I always remember that Joe was very professional and had a great sense of humor. He never complained on the road. He always did great work and was very well liked by everyone.”

But Colón’s internal conflicts with Lavoe — who would often show up late for a gig, or not at all — spelled the end of the group. “Willie couldn’t take it anymore with Hector and I had to tell promoters that he had broken up the band,” Bonilla says.

Professor Joe Torres with Hector Lavoe in the 1970s.

While Lavoe’s reputation for unreliability earned him a sarcastic moniker, “The King of Punctuality,” his charisma and unique improvisational skills made him a cult-like figure with audiences. “You can have the greatest band, with the greatest musicians in the world,” says pianist Gilberto “Pulpo” Colón (no relation to Willie). “But in this genre, if you don’t have a great vocalist that connects with the public, it doesn’t mean jack. Hector was beyond great. He was a genius.” 

Lavoe formed his own group, with Torres in the piano chair; he appears on the 1976 album De Ti Depende, best known for the song “Periódico de Ayer.”

Torres was succeeded in Lavoe’s band by Pulpo Colón, who maintained that association for many years. “I idolized him,” Pulpo says of Torres. “My generation of pianists — Oscar Hernández, Willie Rodriguez and others — were influenced by jazz through Eddie Palmieri. But Joe was true to the típico style of playing in octaves, which was rooted in Cuban music.” 

After his time with Lavoe, Torres would continue as a pianist in high demand, while working as a computer technician. Blades memorialized him on Facebook as “a true representative of the ‘hard sauce,’” adding: “Of excellent wit and sense of humor, ‘Professor Joe’ was always characterized by his kindness, equanimity and intelligence. In our conversations he always demonstrated his education and mental acuity.”

Torres is survived by his wife of 42 years, Nilda; a son, José Torres III; a daughter, Danielle Torres; a brother, Dennis; and two grandchildren.

In 2000, a reunion concert of P.S. 52 alumni, produced by noted folklorist Elena Martínez of City Lore, featured Torres along with Ray Barretto, Orlando Marin, Manny Oquendo, Ray Coen, Benny Bonilla and others. It was a standing-room-only event, portions of which were featured in the award-winning television documentary From Mambo To Hip Hop - A South Bronx Tale. Joe appears in a scene with other alumni in the school ’s auditorium, joking with the school’s principal.

Despite the respect that he commanded in Latin music, Torres never recorded as a leader. Mangual attributes this fact to his personality. “Joe was a very humble man,” he says. “But if he wasn’t there in the piano chair, believe me, you’d notice right away.”