Willie Torres, whose bell-like tone and nimble phrasing helped make him one of the most recorded singers in Latin music, died at South Lake Hospital in Claremont, Fla. on Aug. 13. He was 90.
His wife, Rose, said he died of natural causes.
Torres is best recognized for his tenure in the Joe Cuba Sextet, which had a string of crossover hits in the early 1960s. But that was just one association in a career both prolific and enduring, mainly in Afro-Cuban dance music — and not as a solo artist, but in the supportive role of background vocalist.
Although he never recorded a solo album, you would be hard pressed to say you hadn’t heard Torres. His voice graced almost the entirety of modern Latin music; if you were to describe his career in a word, it would be “omnipresence.” In a 1999 radio interview on WKCR-FM, Torres himself said that “for every 10 records you heard on the radio, I was on seven.”
He was certainly the most requested background vocalist on any Latin music recording date, particularly in the 1970s, when salsa became the gospel of the masses in New York and throughout Latin America. His voice rang through the sections of salsa tunes known as the montuno: repetitive vamps that feature a sonero (vocal improvisor), often joined by musical soloists, in call-and-response interplay with a coro (harmonized repetitive vocal chorus).
“Wille was a true professional,” says noted Latin music record producer Bobby Marin. “He could readily harmonize anything, make up background riffs, phrases, lyrics... I’m a producer and songwriter, but Willie gave me the courage to sing myself, as he encouraged me to do background vocals on certain things I would be working on. I’d say he’s on literally thousands of sessions.”
William Manuel Ramón Torres was born on Oct. 30, 1929 in the upper Manhattan enclave known as Spanish Harlem or “El Barrio.” His father, Gustavo Herbert Torres, was a supervisor at a meatpacking plant, and his mother, Guadalupe Méndez, was a shop steward for the Hotel Worker’s Union; both had come to New York from Puerto Rico.
Willie’s boyhood friends included drummer and percussionist Willie Bobo and pianist, composer and arranger Nick Jiménez, with whom he went to school at Patrick Henry Junior High School 171. His friendship with Jiménez would later bear fruit through a song called “To Be With You,” a Latin-soul crossover hit for the Joe Cuba Sextet, and a piece of pop history.
Like many New Yorkers of his generation, Torres grew up obsessed with stickball. “When I was a kid,” he once told Latin music historian Max Salazar in Latin Beat, “my dream was to defeat the Devils or the 109th Street Fury’s for bragging rights.” But music soon took over. The sounds of big-band mambo fused with jazz — as performed by the Machito Afro-Cubans, the pop singers of the day, and the progressive jazz movement known as bebop — were the sounds of his youth.
By his own admission, Torres was heavily influenced by Mel Tormé, whose smooth vocal approach earned him a backhanded moniker, “The Velvet Fog.” But Tormé was a serious jazz artist and virtuosic scat vocal improviser, as well as an accomplished pianist and arranger. Torres took his cue and became adept at singing standards in English. Complementing a multicultural New York upbringing, he was also inspired by the singers Bobby Capó, from Puerto Rico, and Miguelito Valdés, from Cuba.
Torres played his first professional gigs in 1943, with Pappy Ali Y Sus Rumberos. But he left the group in 1947, working as a truck driver in the garment district for the next five years. In 1952 he reunited with Jiménez, who had just completed his service with the U.S. Army occupational forces in Japan; they formed a small combo, Nicky and His Cha-Cha Boys, with Torres as lead vocalist. While in the Army, Jiménez had written a bolero that he called “Nunca.” The tune became part of the group’s repertory, with Torres singing its Spanish lyrics in a Tormé-like style.
At the time, mambo and cha-cha reigned supreme in the Catskill region of the Hudson Valley, at hotels and resorts like Grossinger’s and Kutsher’s. Popular as summer vacation spots with New York’s Jewish community, they collectively became known as the Borscht Belt.
A contemporary of Willie’s, a budding conga player named Gilberto “Sonny” Calderón, had also grown up in Spanish Harlem. He, too, had become engulfed in the mambo madness that swept New York, in particular at the famed Palladium Ballroom on West 53rd Street and Broadway. Calderon formed a group that would rule in the Catskills, based on the sound of the Joe Panama Sextet: vibes with an Afro-Cuban rhythm section. Promoter Catalino Rolón gave Calderón his nom de plume, Joe Cuba.
The newly formed Joe Cuba Sextet (originally Joe Cuba and his Cha-Cha Boys) featured tight rhythm with synchronized stop-time breaks (cierres) provided by timbalero Jimmy Sabater, who also sang. The band also featured Cuba on congas, Jiménez on piano, Roy Rosa on bass and Tommy Berríos on vibraphone. Torres sang lead with other members of the group harmonizing. It was akin to the vibes-driven groups of Cal Tjader and George Shearing, but with vocals. More importantly, it was strictly for dancing mambo and cha-cha-cha.
Jiménez wrote the group’s slick arrangements, which, combined with Torres’ ability to effortlessly sing in English and Spanish, made up a unique small-band contrast to the powerhouse horn-driven big bands of mambo kings Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez. It’s best exemplified by the Jiménez-penned “Mambo of The Times.” Dedicated to the Pines Hotel resort in the Catskills, the song finds Torres singing the main lyric in English, then improvising in Spanish in the montuno section — a supreme example of musical code switching.
In 1957 Torres left the Joe Cuba Sextet to sing with pianist José Curbelo’s Orchestra. (He replaced Santos Colón, who had left to sing with the Tito Puente Orchestra.) A virtuosic pianist from a distinguished family of musicians in Cuba, Curbelo had achieved some national exposure on America’s Greatest Bands, a network television show hosted by Paul Whiteman; he left the band business to become the top booking agent in New York for Latin music.
By 1961, Torres was singing in Charlie Palmieri & His Charanga “La Duboney,” whose leader was the older brother of future NEA Jazz Master Eddie Palmieri. Despite this, he maintained his association with the Joe Cuba Sextet, often called upon to sing background vocals on their recordings. He also wrote English lyrics to “Nunca,” the bolero that Jiménez had written while stationed in Japan. “He liked them, and Joe wanted me to record the lead on the tune,” Torres recalled. “I was gracious and refused because I wasn’t with the band anymore. I told Joe to let Jimmy [Sabater] sing it. It was the biggest mistake I've ever made in my career.”
The song, “To Be With You”, first released in 1961 and then included on the 1962 album Steppin’ Out, became the stuff of legend. Bringing together the disparate strains of Cuban bolero, doo-wop and R&B vocals, with a nod to jazz harmony, it became a hit on Black stations and Top 40 radio. A must on any knowledgeable DJ’s playlist, it’s often featured on Felix Hernandez’s WBGO show Rhythm Revue.
Janis Siegel, of The Manhattan Transfer, commented on the timeless quality of the song. “That La-La-La opening immediately instantly grabbed me,” she says. “My parents danced mambo and cha-cha-cha, but I had never heard a real bolero before. The romance of the tune resonated immediately with me. It was an awakening. I recorded it for my first solo album, Experiment In White, and [producer] Joel Dorn surrounded me with the real-deal musicians from that scene that lived and breathed that culture.”
If “To Be With You” represented a missed opportunity for Torres as a singer, he had other crossover hits with Joe Cuba, like “Bang Bang” and “El Pito,” which became iconic historical markers for the city’s short-lived Latin Boogaloo scene. And Torres did eventually record “To Be With You” with the Alegre All Stars, a super group made up of NYC's finest Latin musicians for the Alegre record label. (José "Chombo" Silva is featured on tenor sax with some muted trombone provided by Barry Rogers.)
He appeared on an endless series of recording sessions for artists like Eddie Palmieri, Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, La Lupe, Celia Cruz, Graciela and hundreds more while also doing TV and radio commercial jingle work.
Here he is singing a Stevie Wonder tune on a classic date by Ray Barretto, with Charlie Palmieri on piano, Tito Puente on timbales, Joe Farrell on piccolo and tenor sax, John Trlopea on guitar and Steve Gadd on drums.
In 1965 alone, Torres appeared on no fewer than 17 albums as a background vocalist, while occasionally appearing as a lead vocalist, often uncredited. He even has an association with WBGO’s Latin Jazz Cruise, having recorded as a lead vocalist for the show’s first host, pianist Chico Mendoza and his group Ocho.
While he continued to work as an in-demand background studio singer, Torres decided in 1970 to take a job as a bus driver for the New York City Transit Authority; he finally retired in 1991. It afforded him financial security, health benefits for his entire family, and the freedom from having to perform in nightclubs while he kept doing studio work. His route was the M15 between First and Second Avenue — going right through the heart of his boyhood home, El Barrio.
Along with his wife, Torres is survived by two daughters, Rose and Celeste; a son, Steven; and seven grandchildren.
Torres did his final recording date in 2012; he had been personally requested by salsa superstar Gilberto Santa Rosa for his self-titled debut album for Sony U.S. Latin. The following year, a photo of Torres dancing mambo was used to promote the national traveling exhibit American Sabor, documenting the contributions of Latin culture to the U.S.
His final live performance was on Nov. 11, 2016 at S.O.B.’s, where he was given a lifetime achievement award by Nando Albericci of WBAI. He sang “To Be With You” accompanied by the New Swing Sextet, a group modeled after Joe Cuba’s.
Special thanks to April Jimenez, Bobby Marin, Louis Lafitte, and the late Edwin Garcia, whose incredible Willie Torres discography is available here.