A staircase on 86th St
Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi” was one of my favourite 45s of 1963, a sudden blast of exoticism amid the green shoots of Mersey Beat and New Wave R&B (as the emergent soul music was briefly known). Hispanic voices harangued each other over a basic Latin piano vamp and strategic handclaps. Eventually the rest of the band joined in: riffing violins, jaunty flute, the scrape of a guiro, a rattle of timbales and, of course, Barretto’s congas. There was no song, no lead vocal. The record faded out with the music stripped back again to piano and handclaps and the verbal exchanges still in full spate. I hadn’t a clue what the voices were saying, but it didn’t matter. To a 16-year-old in England it represented a slice of Spanish Harlem street life, two and a half minutes of riveting authenticity.
It was released in the UK on the Columbia label, EMI having picked up the rights via a deal with Roulette, on whose Tico imprint it was issued in the US, and it became an enduring Mod favourite. Roulette was Morris Levy’s company, and Tico was run by George Goldner. Both men were notorious for their connections, but between them they were responsible for a fair proportion of the great pop music that came out of New York in the pre-Beatles era. Teddy Reig, who had produced Charlie Parker’s Savoy sessions for the equally notorious Herman Lubinsky and Count Basie for Roulette, got the producer’s credit for “El Watusi”, which was recorded in October 1962 in the ballroom of New York’s Riverside Plaza Hotel, a very ornate bulding on West 73rd Street which had originally been a Masonic club. Now the record has been very nicely reissued by the Malanga label on a CD coupling two LPs by Ray Barretto y su Orquesta: Charanga Moderna and La Moderna de Siempre, both recorded in the same year and at the same venue.
This gives me an excuse to write about the first time I saw Barretto in person, at a club called the Corso at 205 East 86th Street, off the corner of 3rd Avenue, half a dozen blocks below East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio. From 1970 to 1985, a period encompassing the start and the flowering of the salsa era, the Corso was perhaps New York’s principal rendezvous for lovers of Latin music, as the Palladium had been in the 1960s. Its owner, a restaurateur and club owner named Tony Raimone, had bought it in 1968 and was soon persuaded by Pete Bonet, one of Barretto’s singers (and one of the voices on “El Watusi”), to institute a musical policy appealing to the city’s Cuban and Puerto Rican expatriates.
It was a great success. By the time I got there in 1974 the club — up a steep flight of steps, above a restaurant — was featuring three bands nightly, five nights a week, and was packed with dancers from the Latin community, the sort of people who hadn’t needed to take lessons in order to dance to a clave rhythm.
I was in New York on assignment from Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, who had made a deal with Jerry Masucci of Fania Records, the hot new salsa label. Blackwell wanted me to scope out the possibilities for UK releases and tours. I was there for a week, and just about every night I ended up at the Corso, leaning against the long bar at the back of the dance floor and absorbing some wonderful music while marvelling at the fluency and inventiveness of the dancers, young and old. Among the bands I saw there were that of the young pianist Larry Harlow and two excellent charanga outfits, Tipica ’73 and Tipica Ideal. Among the clearest memories is that of one of the speciality acts who performed between the sets: a tall, lithe woman wearing a top-to-toe catsuit in black lace who performed sinuous dance routines in partnership with what I think was a boa constrictor, at least 10ft long. I’m not sure you’d be able to find that sort of entertainment very easily now.
Good times at the Corso came to an end in the spring of 1985, the night the NYPD completed a sting and nabbed Tony Raimone, along with his son and his nephew. Over the preceding months an undercover agent had been buying heroin from them — about $5m of the stuff at street prices — in transactions made at another of Raimone’s establishments, further along 86th St. The final deal took place in the restaurant downstairs from the Corso. The cops pounced, and that was that. The dancers had to find another home.
I kept the handbill above as a souvenir of a wonderful experience, one we came close to replicating in West London the following year when Hector Lavoe and his brilliant orchestra played a one-off gig at the old Nashville Rooms on North End Road, with the marvellous Professor Jose Torres on piano. It was a sensational night, and a few months later Ray Barretto himself arrived with Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco and the rest of the Fania All Stars to play at the Lyceum, a much bigger gig, with Steve Winwood as a special guest.
It would be another 10 years before salsa found its place in UK dance culture. But if you’re browsing a second-hand vinyl store and you see a copy of one of the compilations I put together for Island’s budget-price HELP label at that time, Salsa! and Salsa Live!, don’t hesitate: just snap it up.
I have the Salsa! compilation – it’s wonderful. I didn’t get to see any salsa live until 1984 with Héctor Lavoe in a church hall in Pimlico. Fantastic concert but not exactly 86th St.
Sorry I missed the Pimlico gig. Lavoe was a fantastic singer; what a tragic end, too.
The last 15 years of Lavoe’s life were just awful. He still seemed in good health and was certainly in good voice in 1984. Great trombone-driven band too. Lots of great dancing but unfortunately no boa constrictors.
As ever a delight and a joy.
What I don’t understand is how come Joe Bataan (of Fania dnd later Salsoul) isn’t a household name?
Subway Joe! I loved his early stuff but I don’t know the Salsoul material. I see he’s still around.
I first heard “El Watusi” on a fantastic compilation issued by Charly in 1987 (“We Got Latin Soul”). After many years of rather poor quality reissues, there was an extensive remastering/repackaging of the Fania catalogue about six or seven years ago, including many albums by my personal favourite Eddie Palmieri. I see that these are already now rather hard to come by and/or expensive.