Beyond 'Despacito': Seymour Stein In Defense of Latin Music's Enduring Place in U.S. Pop Culture

Seymour Stein speaks at The Grammy Museum on Feb. 6, 2017 in Los Angeles.
Vivien Killilea/WireImage

Seymour Stein speaks at The Grammy Museum on Feb. 6, 2017 in Los Angeles.

'Latin music was always part of us, it’s time to celebrate it again.'

With 60 years behind me in music and my only real claim to fame being a fan, I can tell you that the United States and the world owe so much to the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American songwriters and recording artists who brought such great popular music to our shores and have been doing so for well over 100 years.

With all the brouhaha surrounding the absence of “Despacito” from the VMAs, please don’t confuse popularity -- as in the case of “Despacito” which is most certainly one of the best recordings I’ve heard this year -- with awards. It is the former that is the one and only true test of popularity.

And while it may seem like Latin music has gotten short shrift of late, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the history of Latin music in this country is as rich as the music itself and many of the big hits on the charts through the years have a Latin connection.

As far back as the 1920s, Americans have been dancing to Latin music, starting with the tango, followed by -- not in any exact order -- the samba, the conga, cha-cha-cha, salsa, the mambo and all else that followed. To me personally, historically the most outstanding writers were Mexico’s Agustin Lara and Cuba's Ernesto Lecuona.

Lara wrote songs like his classic “Granada” even though he had never been to Spain. In the 1960s, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco brought him to the country for the first time, gave him a home in Granada and built a magnificent statue of him in Madrid to show his appreciation. Lecuona’s greatest songs include “Malagueña” and “La Habanera.”

Another classic is Mexican ranchera “Allá en el Rancho Grande,” written by Tito Guizar, popularized by Bing Crosby, and also featured and sung by Gene Autry in the film Mexicali Rose, both in 1939. There’s also later versions by Elvis Presley and Dave Brubeck.

Another incredible Latin composer/bandleader was Cuban Dámaso Perez Prado, whose hit songs include “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” which spent an astounding ten weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts, making it one of the biggest instrumental hits of all time. Pérez Prado also wrote “Mambo #5,” “La Chunga” and “Patricia.”

The Latin classic “Perfidia,” written by Mexican Alberto Dominguez, had five different versions on the Billboard Top 15 in 1941: Xavier Cugat at No. 3, Jimmy Dorsey at No. 9, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, each at No. 11, and Gene Krupa at No.15. A new recording by The Four Aces in 1952 wound up at No. 7 on Billboard. Also by Domínguez, “Frenesi” was a No. 1 song in a version by Artie Shaw, but also had hit versions by Glenn Miller and Woody Herman.

The list goes on.

“Green Eyes” by Cubans Nilo Menendez and Adolfo Utrera was a No.1 hit in 1941 for Jimmy Dorsey, with another version as well by Xavier Cugat.

The Spanish-born Cugat may have had the most Latin hits, including “Say Si Si,” “Brazil,” “Amor,” “Babalu,” “Cuanto la gusta,” (which was spelled that way in the label copy) and others. In most cases, he did not have the most popular versions (Portuguese-born Carmen Miranda also recorded “Cuanto la gusta,” for example), but as far as the genre, he was a staple.

One of the biggest pop singers of the 1930s was Andy Russell, born Andres Rabago Perez in East Lost Angeles, who also had successful versions of both “Besame Mucho” and “Amor.”

Brazilian writer Zequinha de Abreu contributed “Tico Tico no Fuba” to the list of Latin hits in the 1940s; the song was recorded by Ethel Smith, The Andrews Sisters and Carmen Miranda, among others.

By the 1950s, there was a new wave of Latin artists: Celia Cruz, La Lupe, and the very young Flaco Jimenez. In California, Chicano music was starting to rear its head. George Goldner, one of my mentors, started the Tico label in New York in 1948, devoted exclusively to Latin music, mostly Mambo, cha cha cha, and merengue, with artists like Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Joe Cuba, Ray Barretto, Arsenio Rodriguez, Joe Loco, Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri and Richie Ray, among others.

Fania Records, another great Latin label which started years later in 1964, took up where Tico left off with many of their artists and their catalogue, adding acts like Willie Colon, Ruben Blades, and also Johnny Pacheco himself.

On the opposite coast in Los Angeles, other Latin artists were starting to emerge, perhaps most famously Ritchie Valens. Had his life not been cut short in the same plane that took Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper, I believe he would’ve been one of the biggest stars. Although Valens was perhaps best known for his double-sided smash, “La Bamba” and “Donna,” my favorite was “Come On Let’s Go.” I loved the Latin rock beats in that song so much, I suggested to my partner in Sire Records, Richard Gottehrer, that he record it with his band, The McCoys. They had a hit with it, and several years later I had Sire artists the Paley Brothers and the Ramones record a version as well.

By the early 1960s, many Latino artists living in America started to break through in Rock & Roll. Eddie Davis’ labels Pharaoh and Rampart signed some of the best East Los Angeles groups, including Cannibal & the Headhunters, Thee Midniters, The Premiers, and others. Both the Headhunters and Midniters had hits with “Land of a Thousand Dances.”

There are too many other acts to name, but we have to mention

Freddy Fender, born Baldemar Garza Huerta, from San Benito, Texas. He  scored a No.1 on Billboard with “Before The Next Teardrop Falls,” and then followed it up with “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” a song he originally recorded back in 1959.

Chris Montez hit Top Ten with “Let’s Dance,” and had follow-ups like “Call Me,” “The More I See You,” and “Time After Time.”

And of course, one of the all-time great female artists, and certainly my favorite, is Linda Ronstadt, who is proudly of Mexican ancestry on her father’s side.

Another major milestone in Latin music was the band Santana, fronted by guitarist Carlos Santana and brought to prominence through unbelievable live performances at the Fillmore and Avalon in San Francisco, and Woodstock in 1969. Best remembered for “Black Magic Woman,” he had other hits like “Evil Ways” and “Oye Como Va,” and of course, “Smooth” in his 1999 hit album Supernatural.  A little-known fact is that in 1972, Carlos’ brother, Jorge Santana and his band Malo had a Top 20 hit with “Suavecito.”

Then, of course, you have more recent arrivals, beginning with Julio Iglesias in 1980s, and then Ricky Martin, who started on boy band Menudo, launched a successful solo career in Spanish then crossed over with great hits like “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” co-written by my good friend and songwriter Desmond Child. Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and Shakira followed.

In my opinion, Latin’s music impact in this country suffered from two events. One was Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba in 1959; that small island had musical magic and was probably the most important contributor to Latin musical trends. The other was the Beatles’ invasion of 1964, which made the United Kingdom the second most important purveyor of musical tastes in the world.

Prior to that, there had been more international hits in America coming from Italy, France, and Germany than from the United Kingdom. Consider all the great Sanremo Festival hits, and in particular, “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu,” better known as “Volare” by Domenico Modugno, the biggest hit of 1958.

But once English became the official language of pop music, other languages, other influences were edged out.

Today, thanks to a more globalized streaming world, they are starting to return. But the fact is, Latin music was always part of us. It’s time to celebrate it again.

In addition to having an encyclopedic knowledge of music and being an irrepressible storyteller, Seymour Stein is a music industry icon. He began his career in 1957 working at Billboard and before landing at Syd Nathan’s King Records in Cincinnati and then New York’s Red Bird Records, (run by George Goldner and the songwriting/production team of Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber). He would find his greatest success at Sire Records, which he founded with producer Richard Gottehrer in 1966. The label’s estimable roster would come to include the Ramones, Talking Heads and Madonna among many others.