Sunday, January 22, 2012

The New York King of Latin Soul

 My all-time favorite: “Ordinary Guy”

Of all the time I lived in New York City, less than one-half mile from Spanish Harlem, I listened to Joe Bataan over WBAI Radio and bought his recordings. I never knew that Joe Bataan was dubbed as New York’s original King of Latin Soul. He was born Peter Nitollano in 1942 to an African-American father and a Filipino mother in Spanish Harlem, NYC. During his teen years, he was a leader of a local Puerto Rican street gang, the Dragons, which eventually led to his musical career. As a young teen, he hung out with older kids on street corners drinking wine. Eventually, he ended up doing five years in a correctional facility where he took an interest in music and theory. When he returned home, he started a band, and his life progressively changed.

 One of my favorite songs in Spanish: Aguanta La Lengua (Watch Your Mouth)

He was heavily influenced by the Latin Boogaloo of the 1960s as well as African-American Doo Wop that he picked up during his gang-running days. His first band was Joe Bataan & the Latin Swingers. By the year 1966, he and the Latin Swingers were the youngest band to sign on with the prominent Fania Records. After six months of rehearsing every day and learning the music business through trial and error, he and the Latin Swingers finally started to make records. Their first hit was the Latin version of Curtis Mayfield's ‘Gypsy Woman.’. The fact that Joe and his band had achieved such stardom, this became a big deal in his barrio/hood because it all happened within six months.

A Marvin Gaye tune: “If This World Were Mine

With eight albums under his belt, he went on to record for Fania Records energetic, dance tunes with Latin beats along with slower soul ballads sung in English with regular appearances on R&B charts. In 1973, he helped to coin the phrase ‘Salsoul (Salsa Soul)’ by making it the title of his first album after leaving Fania Records. He used funk and soulful Latin influences during the disco era of the 1970s. Eventually, SalSoul became a record company that he co-founded, which today is still regarded by many as the greatest disco label ever. 

My favorite love song in Spanish: Mujer Mía (My Woman)

Maintaining his street connections, Joe also picked up on the New York hip hop culture very early in the game with his 1979 single ‘Rap-O Clap-O.’  In 1981, after releasing three albums on Salsoul, Bataan retired from the music business to spend more time with his family, and ended up working as a youth counselor at one of the reformatories where he himself spent time as a teenager. In 2005, Joe made a comeback with the release of ‘Call My Name,’ a well-received album recorded for Spain’s VampiSoul label.

Today, I marvel at how Salsa music has grown to be appreciated worldwide. As a native New Yorker, I've always thought Salsa was just a New York barrio thing. Those days are over. The music of which Joe Bataan was involved as the New York King of Latin Soul since the very beginning, is now accepted as mainstream everywhere.

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