Latin Music Maestro Ray Santos Dies at 90

Ray Santos
Isaac Brekken/WireImage

Ray Santos arrives at the 12th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards - 2011 Latin Recording Academy Special Awards held at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Nov. 9, 2011 in Las Vegas.

The Julliard-trained Nuyorican musician was widely known for arranging the Oscar-nominated theme song for the movie 'The Mambo Kings.'

Saxophonist, composer, arranger, orchestra leader and educator Ray Santos became widely known in the 1990s for arranging the Oscar-nominated theme song for the movie The Mambo Kings. The Julliard-trained Nuyorican musician, who died on Thursday (Oct. 17) at age 90, was himself a mambo king.

Santos started out playing Latin big band music at resorts in upstate New York's Catskills, and performed with Machito’s orchestra at New York's city's Palladium in the 1950s. Over his long career he collaborated with Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Tito Rodríguez, Paquito D’Rivera and many others.

He won a Grammy award with Linda Ronstadt for her 1992 album Frenesí.  Recently, he had arranged Jon Secada’s 2017 album tribute to Beny Moré, To Beny Moré With Love -- Santos had previously worked with the great Cuban musician himself. 

Often called “El Maestro,” Santos received the Latin Grammy Trustees Award in recognition of his career achievements in 2011. 

Palmieri was among the fellow musicians and fans who expressed their condolences and lauded Santos’ contributions to the New York mambo scene, the development of salsa in Puerto Rico -- where he lived during the 1970's and 1980s' -- and to Latin Jazz. Santos' peaceful passing in his home in New York was announced by his family on social media.  

“I am forever indebted to him as a musician and band leader and Ray forever impacted music,” Palmieri wrote on Twitter.

Santos, the son of a doorman and a doll-maker from Puerto Rico, was born in East Harlem; the family moved to The Bronx when he was 13 years old. Charlie Parker and Machito and his Afro-Cubans were among the artists Santos heard on the radio growing up who inspired his early love of jazz and Afro-Cuban music in the big band era. He started playing tenor sax in junior high, and graduated from Julliard in 1952. As an educator, Santos taught and directed a Latin orchestra at New York’s City College for over two decades, retiring in 2013 when he was 84-years-old. In 2011, he was teh recipient of the Latin Grammy's prestigious Trustees Award. 

“I had the best role model in my dad,” Santos’ daughter Ryhnna Santos -- who served as her father’s manager and documented his later career in photos -- told The New York Times in 2018. “He showed me you have to follow your passion regardless of financial gains. When I started to find out dad was famous, I wondered why we weren’t rich, why was I cleaning the house. But he made particular choices to stay true to the music and to us as a family man. At his age, a lot of musicians don’t have successful relationships with their families. My father’s integrity with his music has been long-lasting in my life.”

Santos is survived by his five children, Virna L. Santos, Cynthia Santos DeCure, Carmen Myriam Santos, Rhynna M. Santos and Raymond Santos, his eight grandchildren, Colin, Aidan, and Ethan DeCure; Enrique Little, Patryck and Sabina Santos Robso and Raymond Edward and Massimo Santos.

A wake for Santos will be held on Monday (Oct. 21) at the Thomas C. Montera Funeral Home in the Bronx. Funeral services will take place on Tuesday (Oct. 22) at the Church of St. Raymon in The Bronx at 10:00 a.m.