In this oral history, salsa legends share their memories -- good and bad -- of the most important tropical music label of all time
During the early 1960s, Johnny Pacheco was riding high on Cuban-based Latin music. Dominican-born and New York-raised, Pacheco was a Juilliard-trained multi-instrumentalist who found success performing and recording with his orchestra Pacheco y Su Charanga. On the scene he came to know Italian American cop-turned-lawyer Jerry Masucci, a passionate fan of New York’s Latin sound. When Pacheco’s marriage fell apart in 1962, he turned to Masucci to handle the divorce. While one union was dissolving, another was born: a Latin music label called Fania Records. The two put $5,000 into their venture and initially sold albums from the trunks of their cars in Spanish Harlem. The label, in short time, established the musical genre that would come to be known as salsa, a collision of traditional Cuban son and pan-Latin rhythms with American jazz and funk.
The ’70s saw the heyday of Fania, where the label’s top acts performed together as the Fania All-Stars and in 1973 played for more than 50,000 people at Yankee Stadium, becoming the first Latin act to headline the venue. Beyond the music, Fania took the diverse culture and look of the New York streets global with the 1972 documentary Our Latin Thing, which was directed by Academy Award winner Leon Gast (When We Were Kings).
New talent springboarded to the world stage through Fania as well: Larry Harlow, a Jewish pianist from Brooklyn; trombonist/arranger/bandleader Willie Colon, who released the street-tough El Malo, documenting life in the barrio, at 17; Hector Lavoe, the emotionally tortured singer who was the subject of the Marc Anthony-Jennifer Lopez biopic El Cantante; and Ruben Blades, who started in the Fania mailroom, then turned salsa into social commentary. As Fania grew, it became known as the Latin Motown and attracted other stars of the genre, including icon Celia Cruz and the velvety-voiced Cheo Feliciano.
When Fania quietly closed production in the early ’80s, it boasted more than 1,000 albums, 3,000 compositions (under Fania publishing) and approximately 10,000 master tracks. Masucci died in 1997 at age 63, and the Fania catalog was sold in 2005 to Emusica Entertainment Group for an estimated $10 million, and then again in 2009 to New York investment firm Signal Equity.
As Fania celebrates its 50th anniversary, the label’s legacy continues to reverberate through all aspects of tropical music. Many Fania stars, including Colon, Blades and 79-year-old Pacheco, remain active, and most -- if not all -- of today’s top tropical acts call themselves direct descendants of the Fania influence.
"Salsa music, as it’s known around the globe, would not exist today without the contributions of Fania Records," says Sergio George, a producer for Anthony and Lopez, among others, who founded Top Stop Music in 2009 to release albums by Prince Royce, Luis Enrique and Leslie Grace. "Until this day, their sound personifies what the public feels salsa music is and should sound like. It’s a very tough legacy to follow."
“It started in a broom closet"
Fania began with Pacheco and Masucci each investing $2,500. Their first album, from Pacheco, included an old Cuban song by Reinaldo Bolanos, "Fania Funche."
JOHNNY PACHECO: Between [Jerry and I] we couldn’t come up with a lot of money. So I said, "Let’s do the recording and see if we sell it." The Fania name came from a Cuban song called “Fania Funche” on that album. The word "Fania" was catchy. It sounded good. "Fania Records."
ALEX MASUCCI (former vp of Fania Records, brother of Jerry Masucci): I remember being 13 years old and Jerry borrowing the money to start the label and my mother writing the check. That was a lot of money, because my mother was a seamstress who worked in a sweatshop factory and my father was a Hertz truck mechanic. We lived in Brooklyn. It was the smallest apartment I’ve ever seen in my life. I remember Johnny Pacheco coming for dinner. We were sitting outside and he pulled up in a Mercedes. I had never seen a Mercedes before. Then his wife got out of the car, and she was like from another planet. She was gorgeous. And then they were talking about making this record.
PACHECO: Once I started selling, we expanded. The money we made from album sales, we put back into the company. We started signing musicians, and Larry Harlow was one of the first in 1966. And Bobby Valentin and Willie Colon.
MASUCCI: It started in a broom closet in Jerry’s law office at 305 Broadway. I used to take the 45s and the LPs and deliver them on the train to the stores. Our first act was [pianist] Larry Harlow, a Jewish guy. I mean, who’s going to sign a Jewish Latin bandleader? And then Willie was like 15 when we signed him.
WILLIE COLON: I had my own band. I was playing the teen circuit. We recorded an album ... but the recording studio embargoed the tapes. Recording engineer Herb Greenbaum said, "Do you mind if I play it for Jerry Masucci?" I took my business representative — my mother, a high school graduate — and they signed us for $500.
BOBBY VALENTIN (musician/salsa bandleader): I had worked as an arranger for Pacheco before, and when I formed my band [in 1965], I told him I wanted to sign with Fania. He said I had to audition so I took the whole band to 138th Street in the Bronx and we played for them. Fania was the most aggressive label back then.
COLON: Pacheco was my producer and he said, "You need to change the singer. You should get Hector Lavoe." It was a great combination. It was total New York. I barely spoke Spanish, and Hector spoke zero English. Hector had a repertoire of all that [Puerto Rican] stuff. He was also a very funny guy. I would write songs that were almost like parodies, satires. It was really something fresh from what was going on. We were doing what rappers are doing now.
"The capacity was 800. We put in close to 2,000"
In 1968, Pacheo had the idea for a supergroup of the label's top talent, which he would conduct: the Fania All-Stars. Live albums and a concert documentary, Our Latin Thing, followed. Fueled by the success, Jerry Masucci rented Yankee Stadium for $280,000. On the night of Aug. 23, 1973, a crowd of nearly 50,000 turned out to see the world's greatest Latin musicians -- and rushed the field. The planned documentary and live album had to be finished at a concert a year later in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
IZZY SANABRIA (publisher of Latin NY magazine, Fania album designer and MC): There was a cultural evolution going on in New York with the young, English-speaking Latinos. The Puerto Rican baby boomers were the sons and daughters of a huge migration to New York in the ’50s. Tito Puente [had] completely modernized Cuban music [in the ’50s], taking the basic Cuban son with the energy of New York and the influence of jazz and creating a whole pumped-up style. Then, with the Fania All-Stars, it was all in-your-face -- brassy, crazy, wild.
PACHECO: [The Fania All-Stars] did a concert at the Cheetah [on 53rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan] in 1971 that really put us on the map. And we had the good fortune, or the vision, to record that concert. I remember the capacity at the Cheetah was something like 800 people and we put in close to 2,000.
MASUCCI: [Calling the music “salsa”] I would give that 100 percent to Izzy Sanabria. I remember Izzy standing up in front of these crowds of 20,000 people going, "Sal-saaaaa!" And having half do “sal” and the other half do "sa," and somehow it caught on. We made [Our Latin Thing] in 1972 and we showed it all over South America and Europe.
SANABRIA: Once Our Latin Thing came out, I became the official master of ceremonies for Fania and traveled all over the world with them.
MASUCCI: To go from the Cheetah to Yankee Stadium was pretty amazing. I said to Jerry, "What if nobody comes?" And then they started coming and coming and coming. We put $50,000 on the field for security and then there was a riot. I was on the stage and I was trying to stop the band because I saw people charging. They were coming down from the loge to the field.
PACHECO: We never finished playing the Yankee concert. We played "Congo Bongo," which featured Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria. As soon as they started slapping the congas, people went crazy. I had my back to the audience, and when I turned around I said, "This is going to hell." I saw a guy running with a trombone and I thought he was stealing the trombone, but it was Willie. People grabbed everything onstage. They took all the microphones.
“It was just a big party”
The boom years continued with a concert for more than 80,000 people in Zaire, Africa, surrounded the famed Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight in 1974, the signing of Cuban-born superstar Celia Cruz, and politically charged albums from Ruben Blades and pianist Eddie Palmieri. But complaints about onerous contracts began to surface, and in 1984, Blades filed a lawsuit over unpaid royalties. The label ceased recording not long after.
JON FAUSTY (Fania recording engineer, 1972-1985): At one point there was so much work from Fania, I was doing three sessions a day, working from nine in the morning until three in the morning. Everyone knew each other from playing live gigs. So they go in the studio and there were a lot of drugs ... it was just a big party.
RUBEN BLADES: [In 1974] I already had two songs that had been recorded by Fania artists and were very popular. So I called Fania and asked if they needed a songwriter but they said [no]. I said, "Do you have any job?" They said they had a job in the mailroom. One day, Ray Barretto asked me if I’d be interested in auditioning for his band. My first show in New York, I played Madison Square Garden. There were like 19,000 people there.
SANABRIA: The music in New York wasn’t growing. We’re in the land of the skyscrapers, and they were still copying Cuban tunes and talking about the Cuban countryside. It took someone like Ruben Blades to come in.
BLADES: I had to sign a contract. So although the band was Ray Barretto’s, I had to sign a contract as a soloist. It’s like looking over a contract when you buy a ticket to board a plane. You see things that you don’t like, but if you don’t take the plane, how do you get to where you’re going?
MASUCCI: The contracts were normal contracts.
BLADES: I have to say one thing for Jerry. He loved the music and was astute enough to see the talent and give it an opportunity to flourish and to do what we did. But the way that the musicians were treated economically was totally disrespectful. Every time someone died we’d have to be passing the hat. It was awful.
VALENTIN: I never had an issue. Even though they were the owners, it was like a family, like we were all musicians. And we all had our style, our identity, our instrumentation. Now, everything sounds the same.
BLADES: My songs were about urban things. I really started to get my stuff done properly with Willie Colon. Not only were we close in age, but Willie understood Pan-Americanism. I was saying, "I come from Panama. There’s a whole world out there in Latin America, and I’m going to address issues important to Latin American people wherever they will be."
COLON: Siembra [by Blades and Colon] came at the right time [in 1978]. There were a lot of political things going on in Latin America. It was more than just a record and more than just salsa. It became a movement ... We played around a lot with the production. Fania supported it. You needed money to be able to create and make these projects. And a lot of people either don’t have the money, or the faith, or the courage.
PACHECO: I’m proud of all the careers we launched. I was very proud of what I did. I put together a group that was unbelievable. It’s been 50 years, and we’re still like a family.
MARC ANTHONY'S LOVE LETTER TO FANIA RECORDS
Fania was one of the soundtracks of my life growing up in New York. It’s not only the cultural significance of it all, but the artistic importance. For anybody interested in any kind of art, this is like opening a treasure chest. There is a world of music you can just dive into. Playing [Fania artist] Hector Lavoe in El Cantante was one of the biggest challenges for me, not only as an actor, but as a singer. His voice, his timing was brilliant.
If I were to introduce you to just his music, you would want to know the man. If I were to tell you his amazingly crazy story, you would want to hear his music. And when you have both, it’s a story that needs to be told. And not only because it’s the story behind some of the most important music of our time. No one can sit there and tell me his music is less important than Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. Artistically it’s just as important. That’s why you get these young kids, these new up-and-coming reggaetoneros and young salseros who are still influenced by his music 20 years after he’s passed. When you have somebody like Daddy Yankee saying his only regret was he didn’t get to perform with Hector, it’s a whole generation removed, and it still is important. Hector, and the artists of Fania, were and still are the pioneers and the artists responsible for opening doors to the artists of my generation.
This article first appeared in the Aug. 30 issue of Billboard.