Al Santiago

b. Albert Santiago, 1932, Spanish Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA, of Puerto Rican parentage. Pianist, saxophonist, composer, arranger, band leader, conductor, record producer, Latin retail…
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Artist Biography

b. Albert Santiago, 1932, Spanish Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA, of Puerto Rican parentage. Pianist, saxophonist, composer, arranger, band leader, conductor, record producer, Latin retail record store owner/manager, Latin record label founder and boss, Santiago, describes himself as ‘an extrovert of manic proportions, an over-achiever, pioneer, catalyst and innovator’. Santiago was born into a musical family. His father was a professional musician who played violin, saxophones, clarinet and trombone with various Latin dance bands and his uncle led a Latin big band. His older sister studied piano with a female professional musician who worked on the New York Latin scene and frequently performed in the same band as his father. Santiago began piano tuition with the same teacher in the early 40s, but did not take to the instrument. ‘I disliked piano so much that I used to play ‘The Minute Waltz’ in 30 seconds so I could get out to play softball’, he later joked. He decided to switch to saxophone, which he found easier to play. Santiago became the band-boy for his uncle’s big band. When he was 15 years old, his uncle told him to take over his tenor saxophone chair. In 1950, Santiago’s uncle quit band leading to open the Casa Latina, which became one of New York’s leading Latin record shops. He handed his orchestra over to the 18-year-old Santiago, who found himself surrounded by ‘old men’ in their thirties and forties, including his father on saxophone. Santiago gradually introduced new younger personnel, so that eventually only his father remained as an original member. He called the band the Chack-a-nunu Boys. ‘Chack-a-nunu’ was his attempt at a verbal interpretation of the sound made by a Latin rhythm section playing alone. Between 1948 and 1960, Santiago also performed with Carlos Pizarro, El Combo Ponce, Jack Portalatin, Quique Monsanto and Pepi LaSalle. He also sat-in with various other orchestras including Machito and Tito Puente.

A great admirer of Buck Clayton, when Santiago was about 19 years old, an incident involving the jazz trumpeter/arranger occurred that proved to be a major turning point in his life. A skeleton version of the Chack-a-nunu Boys was booked for a Latin wedding. However, the band’s regular trumpeter was unable to attend and telephoned Santiago to say he was sending a substitute. Santiago explained what happened on the night of the gig: ‘Buck Clayton walks in. Now I’m stunned... (He) never had rehearsed, looks at the music as he’s playing it, sight reads it to perfection. And my thoughts that night were: if a guy like Buck Clayton can come to play with an unknown kiddie band... for 20 bucks on a Saturday night, I’ve got to get out of the performing end of music. Because I know I am not an exceptional instrumentalist, and the only way you are going to make bucks is you have to be a superstar performer/leader, not a sideman. If Buck can play this gig - I don’t want to perform!’ Santiago remembered his uncle mentioning someone was selling a record store.

With money borrowed from his family, he acquired the premises. Santiago ran the shop, called Casa Latina del Bronx, between 1951 and 1955 while studying at college. At his father’s insistence, he switched subjects from music to business. Towards the end of his course, the demolition of local residential blocks caused him to lose virtually half of his trade. He sold the store and took jobs in various department stores until one day a record business friend told him of a large vacant shop on Prospect Avenue and Westchester in the Bronx. The following day he put a deposit on the property and signed a lease. He opened the premises under the name of Casalegre Record Store in November 1955, and ran it until 1975. Santiago achieved his goal of becoming ‘the most famous, hippest, successful record shop in the Latin field’ within the first year by using the gimmick of giving a record away free (from a cut-price stock he had acquired) with each disc purchased, and advertising this promotion heavily in a local movie-house and on the radio. He also placed advertisements in whatever Hispanic publication ‘popped-up’, including a television guide that later converted into the Latin music magazine Farándula, which its founder, Cuban Bernardo Hevia, still publishes in Puerto Rico in the 90s.

Santiago’s next goal was to launch a record company, and in 1956 he went into partnership with the clothing entrepreneur, Ben Perlman, to co-found the Alegre Recording Corp. During the first four years of the firm, the label issued 44 singles, including recordings by Vitín Avilés, Joe Cotto, Kako and Cuarteto Mayari. Continued promotion, by way of ‘freebie’ records and radio advertisements for Casalegre featuring Alegre Records products, led to the success of the label. In late 1959, a Casalegre shop assistant urged Santiago to visit the Tritons social club on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx to hear Johnny Pacheco and his charanga (violins and flute group). ‘I don’t think the band had reached its eighth bar, when I decided I’m recording this band’, he later said. Suspecting that Pacheco would be a big hit, Santiago insisted that he sign a recording contract, otherwise he would not record him. Pacheco yielded, and 1960’s Johnny Pacheco Y Su Charanga Vol. 1 - Alegre’s first album release - became the biggest-selling album up to that point in the history of Latin music. A few months after the smash hit success of Pacheco’s album, Santiago saw Charlie Palmieri’s Charanga ‘La Duboney’ performing. ‘I assume Charlie has been signed up and I speak to him. My parents and his parents knew each other before Charlie, Eddie (Palmieri) and I were born. Charlie tells me he’s not under contract to anybody. I cannot believe the stupidity of the record industry. And a lot of my success has to be contributed to a lack of competition and foresight. If I’ve got Pacheco who sold a 100, 000 albums in six months, how come the other record companies don’t say: “hey, Charlie may be the number 2 group, let’s sign him up”. So I end up with the two top charangas’.

In total, Santiago produced 49 albums on Alegre between 1960 and 1966, including further releases by Pacheco, the debut albums by Kako, Eddie Palmieri and Willie Rosario, recordings by Sabú Martínez, Charlie Palmieri, Dioris Valladares, Orlando Marín, César Concepción, Johnny Rodríguez (the older brother of Tito Rodríguez), Mon Rivera (Santiago’s three trombone band instrumentation on Que Gente Averigua gave new life to Rivera’s career), Tito Puente, Louie Ramírez, Celio González and the legendary first four Alegre All-Stars volumes. ‘The Alegre All-Stars was my baby’, said Santiago in 1989, ‘I conceived it. I had it in my mind two years before I put it into action, because I had heard the Panart releases, the Cuban Jam Session ’s... the hippest Latin jazz thing I had ever heard in my life. And the same impact those records had on me, I was told later the Alegre All-Stars had on other musicians... I decided why don’t I put all band leaders together. Form a band, and whatever chairs are missing, get the best musicians in the bands that I have under contract... I knew it was going to be difficult for many reasons; one, Pacheco and Charlie already had a difference unto their musical visions. Dioris was the ‘King of the Merengue’. Kako was an introvert. How do I get this band together. It was solved at the Tritons on Tuesday nights... There was no music. It was strictly improvised. There was no leader. I was like the supervisor... At the first things at the Tritons I had no musical input, other than I would suggest a tune or two. They worked it out among themselves. I heard them every Tuesday and then took them into the studio and we had a very easy time with the first album, because although there was no music written, the guys had been playing these things for the last six or eight Tuesdays.’

Album cover designer, MC and former Latin NY magazine publisher, Izzy Sanabria, came up with the idea of releasing The Alegre All-Stars Vol. 4 before Vol. 3. They advertised in newspapers that the tapes to Vol. 3 were lost. Santiago went to the dancehalls and the bands permitted him to stop the proceedings, and after a fanfare and drum-roll, he would announce: ‘“The Alegre All-Stars Vol. 3 is lost in the subway, please there is a reward”... we got to the point where we got to believe it ourselves. And when we put out Vol. 3, the cover is that description of losing the tapes and we’re blaming Kako.’ In 1966, Santiago and Perlman sold Alegre to Branston Music, Inc., which was the umbrella organization that owned Roulette and Tico Records. While remaining the owner and manager of Casalegre, Santiago worked for Tico, producing Cuba Y Puerto Rico Son... by Celia Cruz and Tito Puente (her first album with the band leader), Celia’s Son Con Guaguanco, one of her greatest albums, and They Call Me La Lupe/A Mí Me Llaman La Lupe by La Lupe with Chico O’Farrill. Next, Santiago and Perlman co-founded Futura Records, which put out a single for Kako as well as Willie Colón’s debut. In 1968, Santiago began a stint as staff producer with Musicor Records, producing albums by Bobby Capó (with Tito Puente), Kako (two albums - the first with Camilo Azuquita, the second with Meñique), Orquesta Broadway, Mark Weinstein (the avant garde Cuban Roots), Willie Rosario, Dioris Valladares, Tito Rodríguez, La Playa Sextet (recorded in Puerto Rico) and Tato Díaz. After his spell with Musicor, Santiago freelanced with various companies. He continued the tradition of the Alegre All-Stars in the guise (for contractual reasons) of the Salsa All-Stars, which he produced for Salsa Records in 1968, and two albums by the Cesta All-Stars, which he co-produced for Joe Quijano’s Cesta Records. He also produced albums by Orquesta Capri and Orquesta Tentación on the Salsa label.

In 1970, Santiago began Mañana Records. In addition to producing albums by Capri and Tentación for the label, he conceived and produced the 1971 masterpiece Saxofobia Vol. 1 by Orlando Marín’s ‘La Saxofonica’. The record was the first Latin album to be recorded on 16 tracks. The band ‘La Saxofonica’ featured a unique frontline of five saxophones (including Panamanian Mauricio Smith, who doubled on flute and arranged two tracks, and Mexican Dick ‘Taco’ Meza), with rhythm section and voices. Louie Ramírez wrote half the arrangements and composed one track. Charlie Palmieri and Paquito Pastor shared the piano playing chores. The album was a musical success, but regrettably not a commercial one.

In 1975, Santiago co-founded Montuno Records with two other partners, and produced three albums for the company, including the debut releases by Yambú and Saoco (co-produced by the band’s co-leaders, Henry Fiol and William Millán, and released on Mericana Records). In 1976, he wrote the liner notes for the Alegre All-Stars compilation They Just Don’t Makim Like Us Any More. The following year he returned to Alegre, which by that stage was controlled by Jerry Musucci’s Fania Records empire, to produce Pa’ Bailar Na’ Ma’ by Dioris Valladares and the Alegre All-Stars 17th anniversary reunion Perdido (Vol. 5 or 6). The All-Stars also marked the event with an appearance at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

In 1978, Santiago became the Director of Special Projects for Fania Records and was responsible for the reissue of classic albums and/or immaculately selected compilations by the irreverent and controversial Dominican singer, band leader and composer Frankie Dante and his Orquesta Flamboyán, Charlie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, Willie Rosario, Mongo Santamaría, Tito Puente, Ismael Rivera and Rafael Cortijo, Sonora Ponceña, Orlando Marín, Típica 73 and Tommy Olivencia. Back with Alegre in 1978, Santiago acted as consultant on Charlie Palmieri’s The Heavyweight and produced the self-titled debut album by the young band, Fuego ’77.

In 1980, he prepared a compilation for the Miami-based company, Armada and Rodríguez (now Armado and Fernández), titled Al Santiago Presents The Best Of Cuba, which was released on their Funny label. During the 80s, the mainstream salsa industry, which by the second half of the decade was predominantly pumping out bland and uninspired salsa romántica product, criminally neglected to employ Santiago’s vast pool of skills and experience. In 1982, he produced and hosted the Big Band Latino radio show. In 1984 and 1985, Santiago worked as a music teacher for the New York City Board of Education. More radio work followed in 1989 and 1990, when he was the disc jockey on the programme Jazz Retrospect. At the end of the decade, the ever versatile Santiago attended graduate school to become a psychologist.