Larry Harlow’s Suite and (Sometimes) Sour Life in Salsa
Larry Harlow is the closest you’ll get to a missing link between the worlds of rock and salsa. In fact, as the ’60s bled into the ’70s, a friend with an open-topped biplane used to taxi the pianist-composer between gigs with his horn-heavy, LSD-stoked rock band, Ambergris, and Harlow’s increasingly vital Latin combo. But despite writing the world’s first rock-inspired salsa opera – Hommy – and cutting intriguing crossover tracks like “Me and My Monkey/Mi Mono y Yo,” Latin music ultimately won his allegiance.
Which is pretty surprising for a Brooklyn dude born Lawrence Ira Kahn in 1939, who later became known as El JudÃo Maravilloso – “the marvelous Jew” – of Latin music. In 1965, after several years steeped in Afro-Cuban sounds, including a pilgrimage to prerevolutionary Havana, Harlow released Heavy Smokin’, the second album on bandleader-composer Johnny Pacheco and lawyer Jerry Masucci’s legendary salsa label, Fania Records. Harlow eventually produced some 200 albums for Fania, including more than 40 under his own name (or that of Orquesta Harlow). Indeed, Harlow fell so deeply under the sway of Afro-Cuban culture that he became the first of the label’s musicians to achieve SanterÃa priesthood, one week before Tito Puente, and remains a practicing Santero to this day.
When I visited Harlow in his fascinatingly cluttered Upper West Side apartment, the bandleader was still basking in the glow of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors performance three days earlier of La Raza Latina: A Salsa Suite. Released on Fania in 1977, Harlow’s ambitious, somewhat Ellingtonian work traces the history of Latin music from its African and Caribbean roots to its ’70s New York heyday. Harlow explained how the work pieced together melodies from various sources, stitched together with the help of singer Rudy Calzado’s Spanish lyrics. These included 16 bars from Tito Puente’s “Night Ritual,” which, with Harlow’s English lyrics, was transformed into La Raza‘s New York section. Most of the album was sung by the great Panamanian salsero RubÃ©n Blades, who reprised his part at Lincoln Center as a personal favor to Harlow. Blades, who served as Panama’s minister of tourism for five years before returning to music in 2007, agreed to play the gig for a relative pittance. When Harlow asked him why, Blades replied, “Because when I worked for Fania, you were the only one who helped me.” Blades sang in Harlow’s band for about a year before joining trombonist Willie ColÃ³n’s group, with whom he recorded Siembra, the best-selling album in salsa history. “So this is a payback for back then,” he told Harlow, “and it’s a gift to New York.”
At Lincoln Center, Harlow filled out the half-hour album’s music with fiery extended solos and a 15-minute violin-throwdown version of “La Cartera,” a hit single from his 1975 album, Salsa. More than three dozen musicians, along with several impossibly lithe dancers, recreated Harlow’s brassy, string-swinging, polyrhythmic spectacle on a sultry Manhattan summer evening for a packed house and at least a thousand others who couldn’t get inside.
Before there was La Raza Latina, however, there was Hommy. Harlow’s work for a 50-piece salsa orchestra may have been inspired by Pete Townshend and the Who’s Tommy, but the music couldn’t be more different. “I had a friend named Hommy Sands, one letter different, who was a bandleader in Puerto Rico,” Harlow remembers. “The Who had a deaf, dumb and blind boy who played pinball; I had a deaf, dumb and blind boy who played the conga drum.” Hommy includes a “see me, touch me, feel me” anthem (“Mirame, Oyame”) but is otherwise musically distinct from its source material. While the Who had an Acid Queen, Hommy has La Gracia Divina, a sexy religious figure sung by the late salsa diva Celia Cruz. Hommy‘s 1973 performance at Carnegie Hall, Harlow says, marked the first time Latin music was played in an American concert space.
“It was great,” Harlow recalls enthusiastically. “Here were all my rough, scruffy, long-haired guys wearing tails. Elliott ["Reelin 'in the Years"] Randall painted a tie on his chest.” After those two shows, and two performances in Puerto Rico, Hommy has lain dormant for nearly four decades. Harlow, who still tours with the Latin Legends of Fania and records with acts ranging from the Mars Volta to rapper Criminal Ace, hopes to make its revival his next major work.
Harlow is thoroughly ambivalent about his long relationship with Fania Records owner Jerry Masucci. He reckons his own best work to include Salsa along with La Raza Latina, Tribute to Arsenio Rodriguez, Live in Quad, and Hommy. (You could of course simply start with Harlow’s Greatest Hits.) Also, “a couple of the Fania All-Stars dates were great, but that never happened again. They never reproduced the magic of that Cheetah night,” a 1971 New York salsa epiphany captured (partially) on Live at the Cheetah Volume 2. Thereafter, Harlow says, “the egos, the money, and Masucci” all got in the way.
“You ever notice the Fania logo?” Harlow asks me. “It started out with people’s pictures inside, and the dot on the ‘i ‘was empty. Then all of a sudden Masucci’s picture showed up in the ‘I ‘and the dot started getting bigger and bigger. Why was his picture on our poster? What did he play? He just put up the money.” But on the other hand: “Masucci had a great commercial ear. He was a great businessman. He marketed us into a giant company. He bought his own radio stations to force his music on the public – and it was great, great music. We were the Rolling Stones of Latin music. How would I ever have gotten to see the world without Jerry Masucci? Where would my career be without him? I give him a lot of credit. I even had a good time fighting with him. But I had to pull teeth to get my money.”