Henry "Pucho" Brown

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Bandleader and timbalero Henry "Pucho" Brown was among the architects of Latin soul, pioneering the boogaloo sound alongside the better-known likes of Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. According…
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Bandleader and timbalero Henry "Pucho" Brown was among the architects of Latin soul, pioneering the boogaloo sound alongside the better-known likes of Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. According to Matt Rogers' exhaustive profile in the summer 2004 issue of Wax Poetics magazine, Brown was born in Harlem, New York on November 1, 1938 -- although he was first exposed to the legendary swing of Duke Ellington and Count Basie while accompanying his mother to their performances at the famed Apollo Theater; as a teen he discovered mambo via some Latino schoolmates, falling deeply under the spell of Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodriguez. He even earned his lifelong nickname thanks to his affection for the music of the group Pucho & the Alfarona X. After dropping out of high school, Brown worked a series of dead-end jobs while imitating his musical heroes on a set of timbales given to him by an aunt and uncle; he eventually learned to play well enough to form his first group, Los Locos Diablos, and by the age of 17 he was playing professionally with the Joe Panama Sextet. After Panama fired his sidemen in 1959, rival Joe Cuba snapped them up, renaming them the Cha-Cha Boys; Brown eventually left Cuba to re-join Panama, but when Panama also dismissed this lineup, Brown stepped in as leader, renaming the group Pucho & the Cha-Cha Boys.

With a sound ingeniously melding jazz, mambo and R&B, Pucho & the Cha-Cha Boys quickly developed into crowd favorites on the Latino nightclub circuit; by 1962 they were headlining their own Harlem club, the Purple Banner. Brown possessed a rare knack for discovering talent, with musicians including Chick Corea, Hubert Laws, Willie Allen, and Sonny Henry passing through the Cha-Cha Boys' ranks; however, both Santamaria and Bobo regularly cherry-picked the top talent for their own bands, forcing Brown to dig even deeper for new blood. Following the massive success of his 1963 reading of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man," Santamaria emerged as a mainstream star, essentially igniting a nationwide interest in Latin soul -- equally encouraged by the seemingly endless series of pop hits generated by the Motown label, Brown pushed his music into even funkier territory, culminating in a deal with Epic that yielded his first-ever single, "Darin's Mambo." When the record failed to piggyback on the success of "Watermelon Man," Epic terminated Brown's contract; he and the Cha-Cha Boys would not make another record until 1966, when they signed with the Prestige label -- at which time producer Cal Lampley suggested the group (now including vibist Willie "Yambo" Bivins, pianist John "Mad Hatter" Spruill, reedist Harold Alexander, bassist Jimmy Phillips, conga player Richard Landrum, and bongo player Norberto Apellaniz) re-name themselves the Latin Soul Brothers. Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers' Prestige debut Tough! essentially created acid jazz with its ferocious, funky spin on the mambo tradition, but neither the album nor its follow-up, Saffron Soul, generated much commercial interest. Brown also sat in on sessions headlined by George Benson (Finger Lickin' Good) and Lonnie Smith (Think!), but the group survived largely on the strength of its relentless live schedule, consistently playing a minimum of six nights a week -- most notably with an eight-week run at the Apollo. After Spruill exited to sign up with Lionel Hampton, pianist Neal Creque joined the Latin Soul Brothers in time for 1967's Shuckin' and Jivin', which not only marked the debut of vocalist Jackie Soul, but was the most pop-oriented of Brown's LPs to date; it paved the way for 1968's lackluster Big Stick, which sacrificed the energy and intensity of previous efforts in favor of an uncharacteristic and ill-fitting mellow vibe. But the follow-up, Heat!, would prove aptly titled, reclaiming the fiery passion of the Latin Soul Brothers' finest material -- Columbia then managed to lure away Jackie Soul with a solo deal, however, and the group returned to the instrumental approach of its first two Prestige LPs with 1969's Dateline. The following year's Bob Porter-produced Jungle Fire is perhaps the most sought-after Brown record among breakbeat collectors, due in no small part to the presence of drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, who pushed the group deeper and deeper into Latin funk.

Desiring greater creative control over his records, Brown left Prestige for the independent Right On label to cut 1971's Yaina, which heralded the Latin Soul Brothers' full immersion into psychedelic funk -- 1972's Super Freak upped the ante with its 15-minute Curtis Mayfield medley and some superior wah-wah guitar courtesy of Cornell Dupree. But at the peak of their creativity, Brown dissolved the Latin Soul Brothers, taking a year off from music before relocating to the Catskills, trading in his timbales for a conventional drum kit and reuniting with former sidemen Spruill and bassist John Hart in a lounge trio headlined by his sister-in-law Amanda on vocals. The group remained a Catskills institution for close to two decades, until a falling out with management at the Raleigh Hotel prompted Brown to return to New York City just in time for Latin soul to experience something of a renaissance thanks to the growing popularity and influence of the British acid jazz club scene. He soon played Japan, with the Tokyo-based Lexington label convincing him to re-form the Latin Soul Brothers for a new LP -- complete with Purdie on drums -- Jungle Strut -- Brown's first new album in over 20 years -- appeared in 1994. Rip a Dip appeared a year later, soon followed by 1997's Groovin' High, 1999's Caliente con Soul!, and 2000's How'm I Doin'?. In 2003, Brown was enshrined in the International Latin Music Hall of Fame, becoming just the second African-American so honored after Dizzy Gillespie.