Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco were two of Fania Records' biggest stars.Photo by Craft Recordings
For aficionados of Latin music in the 1960s and 70s, Fania Records was considered “The Motown of Salsa.” Based in New York, it was infused with that city’s rich makeup of Latin cultures and style. And while Fania was best known for bringing the dance-based salsa music to the world, it also delved into Afro-Caribbean-Cuban sounds, with heavy doses of more American jazz and R&B.
Fania was founded in 1964 by Italian-American lawyer Jerry Masucci and Dominican-born composer and bandleader Johnny Pacheco, and remained active until the late 1980s. Now, the original recordings of Fania and affiliated-labels have been acquired by Concord Music and its reissue label, Craft Recordings. It has already done some amazing things with their Stax and Savoy catalog reissues, bringing out records which have been out of print for decades.
“Fania single-handedly took on Tropical music and took it to the world. They had a vision for it, and it ended up beyond even where they thought it would go. Not many music labels become a brand,” says Bruce McIntosh, the VP of Latin Catalog for Craft Latino.
“It’s purely an American thing, not a Latin American thing, and New York was the center of it all – that’s where the studios and the performers were. And it came at a time when immigration in New York was just blowing up. Each country’s [immigrants] has their own little world, but they could all relate to this music on the streets and in the barrio, a unifying force.”
The first batch of Fania vinyl reissues includes three titles in conjunction with the record club Vinyl Me Please: Willie Colón’s The Hustler, Celia Cruz & Tito Puente’s Alma Con Alma, and a double LP 1973 live recording Live at Yankee Stadium. There was also the Record Store Day exclusive Asalto Navideño from Willie Colón & Hector Lavoe, club exclusive Celia & Johnny by Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco, and the digital-only compilation Fania Goes Psychedelic.
One of the label’s early employees was musician and producer Harvey Averne. And though he is white and Jewish, he’d been playing and studying Latin soul music since his teens (at one point billed as “Harvito” to give him a more ethnically-appropriate stage name). In the 1950s, Latin music was gaining in popularity, attracting celebrities in the club audiences, including Averne’s. “Marlon Brando got up on stage once and played congas. He couldn’t play worth a shit, but nobody was going to tell him to get off!” Averne laughs.
He befriended Masucci and in 1967 began working at the label as both General Manager/Senior VP and a recording artist and bandleader. Now 83, Averne looks back on his years with the label with fondness. Even though he and Masucci would part over musical and business differences in the early ‘70s, they remained personal friends. Averne would work for other labels and found the Latin soul-based CoCo Records.
“Jerry and I hit it off very well, and he asked me to run the company. But I had never been in a recording studio or played an original song! But he had faith in me. And you don’t get that kind of opportunity often,” he says. “Jerry was a philosopher, but a terrible teacher! The first day, I sold 500 records to a store and thought it was great! But when I got back to the office, Jerry told me ‘Are you aware that if they don’t sell them, they send them back?’ I said ‘no.’ I didn’t know what a consignment was!”
Ironically, Averne credits two white New York DJs - Symphony Sid and Dick “Ricardo” Sugar – with helping Latin music explode in popularity to a combination of Latin and Anglo listeners. And Fania music on the radio led to record sales.
The Fania All-Stars brought salsa and Latin music to live audiences around the world.
Photo by Craft Recordings
“Our main audience was a young Puerto Rican who spoke English. And Fania spoke to that audience. That was Jerry’s vision.” Other Fania stars over the years included Larry Harlow, Ray Baretto, Héctor Lavoe, Luis Ortiz, Ralfi Pagan, and a young Rubén Blades.
Concord’s holdings include the master tapes to more than 2,000 Fania records. As to which titles will get the reissue anointing, McIntosh says he wants to show the label’s breadth.
The initial reissues are no-frills with the record in a white sleeve and the original cover art, but future reissues will include original liner notes and more recently-penned historical essays. They will still be offered on vinyl and digital platforms only.
“The CD market is just not there to support it, and the stores aren’t just there anymore. There used to be Latin stores in every Latin neighborhood and they’re all gone. And no one is going to Wal-Mart to look for [records],” McIntosh says.
In the future, he hopes to release Pete Rodriguez’s boogaloo-inflected 1966 album I Like it Like That. Modern audiences might recognize the title track from use in TV commercials for Burger King and Hershey’s. It also was sampled in and partially inspired “I Like It,” Cardi B’s huge 2018 hit. McIntosh also believes that a lot of Hispanic youth are buying LPs now, not only for hip hop and sampling, but as a connection to their musical and cultural roots.
“At one point, there was a Willie Colón album in every Latin household in New York City,” McIntosh adds. “The same way later for other households it would be Dark Side of the Moon or Thriller.”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.