b. 16 January 1947, Manhattan, New York City, USA. Of Puerto Rican and Italian American parentage, Fiol is a painter of sound and colour. From his rich musical palette emerged some of the most engaging Latin albums to come out of New York in the late 70s and 80s. Originally a doo-wop fan, he became a Latin music convert in the early 60s after seeing the band of Rafael Cortijo with Ismael Rivera while visiting his family in Puerto Rico. The craze for charangas (flute and violins bands) in the first half of the 60s inspired Fiol to teach himself the flute. With the mid-60s swing to brass, Fiol was so drawn to Johnny Pacheco’s pure Cuban trumpet conjunto (group/band) sound that he sought out the original conjunto recordings by Cuban names like Sonora Matancera, Félix Chapottín, Arsenio Rodríguez and others. Fiol acquired his skills as a singer and conga player by joining in with voices and percussion jam sessions called rumbones, which often occurred in the streets of Latin neighbourhoods, on beaches, or in parks.
Fiol’s research into Cuban roots led to a fascination with the Afro-Cuban form called son, and he started creating his own New York version. In the development of his own smooth and entrancing vocal style, he soaked up the influence of the great Cuban soneros (singers of son) Abelardo Barroso, Cheo Marquetti, Beny Moré, Joseito Fernández and Miguelito Cuní. ‘Nostalgia, however, ’ wrote Fiol in 1990, ‘has never been my objective. I’ve tried to stay close to the rhythmic roots, while at the same time adding a contemporary touch to the lyrics and the arrangements. If I had to label or categorize my sound, I wouldn’t really call it “Salsa”. I’d probably call it “Montuno”, “Típico”, “Son Moderno”, or as some have called it, “Corazón Music” (literally: Heart Music)’ - from the liner notes to the compilation Sonero.
Fiol’s childhood ambition was to be a painter. After graduating in Fine Arts from New York’s Hunter College, he began a career in education in 1968 (he has since had an involvement with the artwork for most of his recordings and painted the cover illustrations for many of them.). Between 1969 and 1974, Fiol played conga and sang in the chorus with various bands, including Orquesta Capri, Orquesta Broadway and Orquesta Típica New York. He made his recording debut with the latter, providing the lead vocals to his composition ‘Cundy Macundy’ on Mike Pérez Y Su Orq. Típica New York. Besides Mike Pérez (band leader, violinist, arranger and composer), the album featured ace Cuban flautist Don Gonzalo Fernández (who also wrote two arrangements and co-produced with Pérez), percussionist Osvaldo ‘Chi Hua Hua’ Martínez and pianist Mike Martínez. In 1974, Fiol founded and co-led (with bass and tres player, William Millán) the young two trumpet, rhythm section and vocals conjunto, Saoco. The outfit adopted a typical Cuban sound, but rather than simply imitate, Fiol’s and Millán’s progressive and creative arrangements infused the traditional Cuban structures with freshness and a distinctly urban feel. In 1975, Millán and another Saoco member, trumpeter Ken Fradley, performed on the notable Tierra Va A Temblar by former boogaloo star, Johnny Colón. Millán also assisted Colón with the album’s production and arrangements.
Saoco’s 1976 debut on Mericana Records, Siempre Seré Guajiro, was co-produced by Fiol, Millán and Al Santiago. The success of the album, which spawned the big hits ‘Lejos Del Batey’ and ‘Yo No Como Camarón’ (both written by Fiol, who composed three other tracks and co-wrote one with pianist Ray Santiago), took the band to the Madison Square Garden as one of the year’s hottest properties. Fiol sang the lead vocals to his five self-penned songs on Saoco’s follow-up, Macho Mumba, on Salsoul Records, a subsidiary of Mericana. Rafy Puente provided lead vocals to the album’s three remaining tracks, although he was not given a credit. Puente was the lead singer with Yambú and performed on their releases: Al Santiago Presents Yambú (1975) and Yambú’s Brew (late 70s). Fiol split acrimoniously with Saoco and the band continued under the name of William Millán Y Saoco, with mellow-voiced Ray Ramos and José Luis Ayala sharing lead vocals. The band issued a further three albums between 1978 and 1981: Curare, Papa Montero and El Quinto. Saoco disbanded and Ramos, who is also a gifted composer, turned band leader, releasing Ray Ramos Y Su Sonora (1983), Salsa Tracks (1985), Yo Soy El Son (1987) and Fiesta De Besos (1989). Ramos and his trumpet-led group specialized in a distinctive brand of subtly swinging salsa that benefited his gently flowing voice; however, they adopted a more aggressive edge on their 1987 album.
Meanwhile, in 1980, Fiol made his solo debut with the deservedly bestselling Fe, Esperanza Y Caridad on SAR Records, on which the label’s co-founder, Roberto Torres, produced and performed. On this album and his 1981 follow-up, El Secreto, Fiol was backed by a two-trumpet conjunto of session musicians, including Alfredo ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros (trumpet), Alfredo Valdés Jnr. (piano), Johnny ‘Dandy’ Rodríguez (percussion) and Charlie Rodríguez (tres). In 1982, Fiol organized his own conjunto with a frontline of one trumpet and a tenor saxophone, plus conga, bongo, güiro, acoustic bass, piano, tres and voices (his lead vocals plus chorus). ‘My decision to change to the trumpet/tenor saxophone combination was based on years of listening to jazz’, explained Fiol in 1986. He recorded his final album for SAR in 1983, the self-produced La Ley De La Jungla, with this conjunto. In 1983, Fiol formed his own Corazón Records label and named his conjunto Corazón. Between 1983 and 1986, he issued three essential albums on Corazón. In 1988, the shrinking salsa circuit forced him to disband his group and he decided to discontinue Corazón Records. He worked on an English language ‘salsa-pop’ concept with a view to hooking up with a major label, but: ‘some American companies found the sound too Latin’, explained Fiol in 1988, ‘and there are many negative attitudes and prejudices here (in the USA) regarding anything “Latin” or “Hispanic”.’ So he aborted the project.
In the meantime, ex-Saoco and ex-Corazón member, Puerto Rican pianist, arranger and composer Ray Santiago (he performed on all Fiol’s Corazón releases), debuted as the leader of his own conjunto on Lluvia Con Salsa in 1988 on El Abuelo Records. The label was founded that year by Humberto Corredor and Henry Cárdenas. Ray’s former Saoco colleague, William Millán, played bass on the album and shared arranging and production chores with Santiago. Fiol signed with El Abuelo at the end of 1988 and released Renacimiento (Rebirth) the following year. On the album, Fiol and his 16-year-old blind son, Orlando, created an idiosyncratic blending of the typical Cuban sound with new musical technology. Apart from the two trumpets and tenor saxophone everything was performed, arranged and produced by the father/son duo (Fiol: lead vocal, chorus and percussion; Orlando: piano, synthesizer and chorus). Talented Orlando, who won the Itzak Perlman Award in 1988 for his excellence on classical piano, played all bass and tres parts, and other effects, on the synthesizer.
In 1990, David Barton (with Trevor Herman) of the UK’s Earthworks label compiled the critically acclaimed Sonero, which was a selection of some of Fiol’s best material from his three albums on the Corazón label. Fiol, who had been using ‘pick-up’ groups for his ‘live’ appearances, re-formed his band in 1991 (with a two-trumpet/tenor saxophone frontline) and took them into the studio to record Creativo. Orlando, who started studying music at Columbia University in 1990, performed on the album, acted as musical director and shared production and arranging chores with his father. A long-time associate of Henry’s Russell ‘Skee’ Farnsworth, carried out the task of transcription. Farnsworth, who worked with Ricardo Ray in the 60s and Pedro Rafael Chaparro in the 70s, assisted with arrangements and transcriptions on the majority of Fiol’s solo albums, and performed on both of Fiol’s 1983 releases. Fiol has toured Colombia - where he is incredibly popular - Venezuela, Ecuador, Curaçao, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Canada, Switzerland and Italy.