Before he became known as a member of Cypress Hill, and before he performed with the Beastie Boys, percussionist Eric Bobo took over as director of his late father’s Latin jazz band. Bobo was 15 years-old at the time, which was a decade past the first time he performed with his dad.
“He never forced me to get on the stage,” recalls Bobo, if I didn’t do good in school I wouldn’t be playing. My treat was that I got to play.”
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His father was Willie Bobo, the Latin soulman and bugalú pioneer whose sound also fed psychedelic West Coast Latin rock. The quintessential cool cat, Bobo played timbales, congas and bongo with Tito Puente and Cal Tjader, in whose band the Nuyorican percussionist performed beside the great Cuban player Mongo Santamaria. In 1967, he made the first recording of “Evil Ways,” the song that later became a hit for Santana. Bobo tracks, like his signature “Spanish Grease,” captured the renegade Latin groove of his music and the streetwise Latino pride of the era.
“He was the life of the party,” says Eric Bobo, who adopted his father’s stage name, but is also known by the family’s given last name, Correa. “You’d go somewhere and the spotlight was on him. He took his music very seriously. He ruled it with an iron first and it had it be right; he was a great performer.”
Willie Bobo put out 14 solo albums on labels that included jazz bedrocks Verve and Blue Note, although, his son recalls, he was not so good at playing music industry politics.
“In 1969, he had a label deal with A&M Records,” Eric Bobo explains. “They had Sergio Mendes, the Carpenters; their sound was more safe. Coming off of his Verve years, his sound was the bugalú. He got a deal with A&M, and they were expecting an album like that. He gave them some psychedelic soul songs instead. So they shelved the record. My dad was on the cusp.”
Living with his family in Los Angeles, Willie Bobo was between labels for most of the Seventies, the time when he recorded the tracks on a just-released new album, Dig My Feeling. Eric Bobo found the forgotten demos decades later on reel-to-reel tapes in a box in a closet in his mother’s house. He produced Dig My Feeling with Mario Caldato Jr., best known for his work with the Beastie Boys.
“I think this album represents my father at his most free as far as wanting to blend in different sounds, different genres, different grooves,” says Bobo. Dig My Feeling, released earlier this month on Nacional Records, debuted at no. 17 on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart.
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“He came from a background of mambo and salsa; he also had his ear to jazz. He kept being progressive and he didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one kind of music. He wanted to bring his style to the present, and he always tried to put his flavor into it. Once he made it to the West Coast where Latin jazz and bugalú were more popular than in New York, it let him open up even more.”
Some of the same tracks were released on a 2006 album called Lost and Found (Concord Picante). Bobo says that for this new record, “We tried to preserve the essence of what he was trying to do and make things a bit clearer sounding and a bit more up to date.
“We didn’t do any overdubs,” he adds. “Everything there is original.”
Willie Bobo died in 1983 of cancer; he was only 49 years old. That was when Eric, who was in high school, took over his band for a year, before going his own way and finding himself in hip-hop. “It was all just instinct being around him and some of those great musicians,” Bobo says of his childhood years with his dad. “He never really gave me a formal lesson. I was just like a sponge, being able to see Weather Report live, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie. For me, it all came together. I couldn’t have had [hip-hop without jazz].
Bobo, who now lives in Buenos Aires, is “putting the finishing touches” on a new album with Cypress Hill, and also working on a new recording with his Latin project Ritmo Machine. He will be on tour with his DJ/percussion outfit Beat Junkies in Europe in October. A tour supporting Dig My Feeling could also be in the works.
“I haven”t played my dad’s music in over 25 years,” he says. “Now with this record, to be able to play this music live, and also play some of his classics, I think it would be really fun. And now, it’s not like I’m 15. I can explore the genius of my father with a different head. I believe it’s going to happen.”