THE INTERVIEW – Part II – August, 2008 – April, 2009:
Conversations Between CHICO ALVAREZ PERAZA and HARVEY AVERNE
CAP: As we all know Harvey, your own career as a musician did not take you to the heights that you wanted to reach. In fact, years went by without any recording at all, until “My Dream” came along, which was phenomenal, so much so that shortly afterwards the industry began to see your name on backliners as “producer”. I have already cited “Acid” as a point of reference, but I’m sure there were many others that you are equally proud of.
HA: Yes, of course there were. I immediately think of the tune “My Dream”, which was on my debut album “Viva Soul”. That album gave me the first real taste of success in the record business. Fania Records made the deal for me with Atlantic Records. I co-wrote that tune with trumpeter Marty Sheller in 1967. I was so in love with the girl for whom I wrote it, and you know what? -the public felt that love. Also my lyrics spoke of the occupational captivity I was enduring. “To work when I could groove is a drag, this rut I’m in can’t be the right bag”. You know, just working for the money was destroying my soul. At that time my conscience and my heart were calling out to me – should I leave the money and take a big gamble that could wind up being a disaster? It was a critical point in my life. I had never written a song before Chico, but you know, people can feel the truth. Never underestimate the public, because they know what touches them deep down inside in a really meaningful way. I remember vividly that Jerry Wexler – the ultimate renaissance music man – personally signed me, and while I was excitedly explaining to him all the things I wanted to add to my (already overcrowded) production, he calmly said to me: “Harvey, most of the time it’s what you take ‘out’ of a production that creates the hit and ‘not’ what you add”. I will never forget that advice, as I will never forget Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, who mixed “Viva Soul”. I will always be thankful to Jerry Massucci for making that one album deal, simply because I asked him to. You see Chico, I felt that “Viva Soul” belonged on Atlantic, more so than on Fania. The vocalist on the album was Kenny Seymour, a talented and seasoned soul singer, formerly with Little Anthony and The Imperials. His vocals helped that recording cross-over, the band was really into it, it was a labor of love for all, but “My Dream” obviously put me in the spotlight. Jerry Massucci granted to me “My Dream” and helped set me on a completely different course. Suddenly, the buzz was out about the Harvey Averne Dozen and that’s when I started doing some freelance A&R work for other labels. I produced one album for music mogul Morris Levy’s Tico label that I’m especially proud of, “The Queen Does Her Thing”, which featured the incomparable and unpredictable La Lupe backed by many of the New York Philarmonic Orchestra’s top musicians. The superb orchestrations for that album were done by Marty Sheller. I wrote two songs especially for La Lupe, taking into consideration her heavily delicious Cuban accent -”Ciao My Love” and “Love Is So Fine”. “The Queen of Latin Song” did not disappoint me. The album also yielded the monster hit classic “Se Acabo”.
CAP: Any others which you might think of at this time?
HA: Sure. My favorite ballad album production is “Muy Amigos”, the Eydie Gorme/Danny Rivera recording for Gala Records, a label that I co-owned with Eydie’s husband and partner for life, Steve Lawrence. It included the classic hit “Para Decir Adios” and was nominated for a Grammy in 1977. I produced and mixed it, Don Costa was the conducter and arranger. We utilized the same studio musicians that Don used for Frank Sinatra’s recordings. And I just love my production of Danny Rivera’s “Alborada”. I am extremely proud of the way we presented the folkloric music of Puerto Rico within a symphonic setting. This time we used the best musicians from the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. The amazing arrangements were crafted by Pedro Rivera Toledo. Then we really got into some Cuban charanga with “Pasaporte” by Orchestra Broadway, which featured Gene Hernandez’ memorable composition, “Isla del Encanto”. This was, by the way, the first number one “hit” recorded by Broadway and the only one that has stood the test of time. Also, you must remember that charanga bands had not been popular in PR since the sixties, and in fact were not getting any quality air time on the island, no matter how good they were. “Isla Del Encanto” broke the taboo. Sadly, that kind of success was never repeated again by a charanga in PR. Coco also had great success with Lissette Alvarez’ Spanish version of “Copacabana” (produced by Frank Fiore). My Grammy nominated production of the Machito Orchestra’s “Fireworks” album with Lalo Rodriguez was a total labor of love – for all those involved. “Fireworks” by the way, brought back into the limelight a mighty musical institution, after many difficult and hard years.
CAP: Don’t forget the first Eddie Palmieri album, “Sentido”.
HA: (Smiles). How could I possibly forget that one? It was the one I cut my Eddie Palmieri recording teeth on. By the way Chico, I am a pretty good writer too, check out my “Sentido” and “Sun of Latin Music” liner notes. I could write a book about my experiences with Eddie, Jerry Massucci, Ralph Mercado and the underbelly of the latin record/music business in general.
CAP: I bet you could. So tell us, is it safe to say that right around the time of Richard Nader’s first big “Latin Concert” at Madison Square Garden, Harvey Averne the producer began to feel the need to start his own label? To “flex his muscles”, as they say?
HA: Yeah, by that time I had gone as far as I could as a musician. I was thirty six, tired of rehearsing, practicing, touring and performing. I found working behind the scenes much more creative and interesting, and I realized that my forté was getting the best performances out of creative people, getting them all on the same page, to perform as a team you might say. Starting with the musical concepts, organizing, mixing, polishing, finishing, right on through to the creation of exciting promotional campaigns had become quite challenging and fulfilling to me. The producer is the glue that holds everything together, or else the concept could easily fall apart. I tried my hand at producing shows, such as the successful Latin Music Festival which was held at the Academy of Music Theatre (it marked the second such event in New York City history). But promoting spectacular events wasn’t really in the cards for me, even though in 1995 I did produce and promote a sold-out concert at Lehigh University for FunStuff starring Marc Anthony, India, Frankie Ruiz and Edwin Rivera. Ralph Mercado was the one destined to be the “padrino” of salsa festivals, not me. Still, it was a wonderful experience.
CAP: Then your real vocation was producing?
HA: I think so. Having been hired by Jerry Massucci and Johnny Pacheco during Fania’s infancy demonstrated that I could move forth on this. Being put in charge of promotion, production, sales, interacting with all the artists and running the company, made me feel that I had gained an edge. If you recall, that’s when I produced Ray Barretto’s groundbreaking “Acid” album, which was a life changing experience for me. For the first time I was able to see how a truly professional artist worked. Ray knew exactly what he wanted, he demanded and accepted only the best musicians, the best studios and the best engineers. He never settled for an expedient mix. He was the first artist that I worked with who really spent time on the mix. At the time most latin record companies expected a producer to mix a whole 10 or 12 track album in seven or eight hours. With Ray’s “Acid”, we would spend more than three hours on each tune, which was unheard of in the cuchifrito style of latin music recordings at the time. This was why his albums always excelled. His choice of material, amazing preparation and his professionalism were never exceeded by any other artist I ever worked with. Even though Jerry Masucci put his name on “Acid”as co-producer he never really had anything to do with the way it turned out musically. To this day, many record label executives feel entitled to list themselves as executive or co-producers. As for my own company Coco Records, I never put my name on anything that I did not produce myself, nor did I allow anyone else to do so.
CAP: Harvey, you’ve probably been asked this question a million times during the last forty plus years, but what exactly does a record producer really do?
HA: My man, do you also read minds? I was hoping that you would ask me that. A record producer functions in exactly the same way a movie director does. We should never have been called producers in the first place, because in the movie industry the producer handles mainly the financial part, while the director handles all the creative stuff. We should have been called directors and followed the movie business model because that’s what we are. That’s why my recent credits say “produced, directed and mixed” by Harvey Averne, in the hopes that people will finally understand what it is that a record producer does.
CAP: No doubt you exploited those early Tico and Fania experiences when you were involved in the recording of “Jungle Fever”.
HA: To be truthful, I was not involved in the production end of it. I was the bandleader of the Chakachás, whose big hit was “Jungle Fever” – which as you once pointed out may not have been the most musically challenging, but a huge commercial crossover hit nonetheless. It sold two million copies in 1972 and is considered by some to be the first real international “disco” hit. It has twice been used on the hit HBO series “Entourage”, in “Boogie Nights” and many other movies, as well as on TV and record compilations. We played the Apollo Theatre four times that year and did a lot of television as well. By then I had a different concept and approach, I knew how to get things done, the right way. I had acquired an understanding regarding the merging of the commercial and creative aspects of the business. After the colossal success of “Jungle Fever”, I accepted an offer from United Artists Records and was named head of their latin music division (UA Latino). Things were really beginning to move forward in the latin music industry and even though this was a very good position, I really didn’t see a future there for me. By the end of that year the Fania empire had grown by leaps and bounds, and I felt that I was seasoned and knowledgeable enough to go it alone. Finally, I made the big move and started my own label Coco Records. Right around that time, in 1972, I retired from performing altogether. I had learned the business from the inside out and I felt confident enough to put my own ideas to work in my own record company.
CAP: If my memory serves me correctly, when your company was still in its infancy, it was called Mango Records, which I really liked very much. What happened to make you change it to Coco Records?
HA: You’re correct about the name change. I was initially inspired by an article which ran in New York Magazine titled “The Big Mango”. It dealt with the increasing influence of Spanish-speaking cultures on New York and was obviously a spinoff on the term “Big Apple”. In fact, the issue’s cover featured an illustration of the mango fruit. At the same time I was quite influenced by the artwork used on the vinyl LP label backdrop for The Beatles’ newly formed label Apple Records, which showed an apple cut in half. For Mango Records, we used the halved mango for my vinyl LP logo. Shortly after I had released the first few albums, and immediately after Eddie Palmieri’s “Sentido” album came out I received a lawyer’s letter. It seemed that Chris Blackwell (owner of Island Records) and Denny Cordell had a little known reggae label called Mango (which I had never heard of until then). It was a “cease and desist” notice informing us that we were infringing on their rights by using their name “Mango Records”. It felt like a David & Goliath situation to me, except I already had enough of a battle on my hands starting a new record company and struggling against Fania’s domination. It seemed to me that one Goliath at a time was challenging enough. I didn’t want to expend one minute’s worth of energy, nor did I wish to use up any of my limited resources fighting for a company name against a sophisticated, internationally well known, multi business savvy billionare like Chris Blackwell. By the time I reached the signatures on the bottom of the lawyer’s letter I had given up my beloved Mango Records name and had already mentally changed the name to “Coco Records”. I immediately called graphic artist Izzy Sanabria and gave him the idea for the new company logo, instructing him to replace the mango vinyl LP backdrop with the halved coconut. And that was that, case closed. Pa’lante as they say.
CAP:After you decided to become your own man, what exactly was your first move? Signing up talented and hungry musicians, I suppose. (I give Harvey my sarcastic smile)
HA: What else does the “new kid on the block” do? He buys two good ready-made recordings and artist contracts from Cuban dancer Ralph Lew and Puerto Rican promotion man Sammy Vargas. Then he establishes a distribution and promotion pipeline and network, finds cozy and free office space (compliments of singer/producer/composer Steve Tyrell) and gets everything ready and in place in order to put his concepts to work. That was me Chico, I was the new kid on the block. Naturally, I wasn’t about to start from scratch, so I began to search for a heavyweight I could hang with and develop a relationship with. Fania had just about everybody under contract who was anybody. I looked around for someone who was popular, still had big upside potential and was not financially or creatively satisfied.
CAP: Enter Mr. Eddie Palmieri, “el molestoso”.
HA: You got it Chico. And let me just state for the record that before I ever went into the studio to record “Sentido”, I bought Eddie Palmieri’s recording contract from Morris Levy for $35,000 cash. I also bought his management/booking contract from the Jose Curbelo agency for $10,000. I offered Ralph Mercado a partnership in the Avocado Booking Agency that I was creating after having acquired Eddie’s booking contract and I convinced Ralph to get out of the “Cheetah” (which had seen better days). Eddie would be our first and primary artist. I believed others would follow Eddie’s lead, that’s how much confidence I had in him as a trend setting artist. Ralph accepted my offer on the condition that I would remain a silent partner. My invisibility would insure that Massucci would not block his artists from signing with the agency and Ralph would not lose his valuable participation with the “Fania All Stars” concerts. A day after the contracts were signed, he called and mentioned that the name “Avocado” concerned him and that he didn’t want to be called an “aguacate”. He wanted to change our name to the Ralph Mercado Booking Agency. I agreed and after we were partners for about six months (during which time we had become the number one agency in New York), Ralph felt that he was doing too much work and that splitting the money with me was not fair to him, so he asked me to step aside. This was always Ralph’s pattern, with all his partners. I was doing so well with Coco that I said okay, but to even the score I expected Ralph to reciprocate and channel some artists Coco’s way (which he never did). Soon thereafter my dear friend Ray Aviles approached me and asked me to legally release Ralph from our deal and not sue, in order that he and Ralph could form a new partnership. Ray had Madison Square Garden connections from back in the days when he worked with Jack Hooke and Dick Clark. I really didn’t want to sue Ralph (that was the amazing charisma of the man), and truth be told I will always love him even though we had stopped speaking for several years. He was the only one who ever reneged on a deal with me that I ever let go without a lawsuit. You see Chico, when I enter into a contract I expect everyone to keep their word and do their part. They in turn should expect that I will also keep my word, or else we’ll see each other in court. Why would I do otherwise? We pay lawyers a fortune, we put an agreement down on paper, to remind everyone involved years later just what it was exactly that we originally agreed to. People have a tendency to forget, so a contract is the great reminder for everyone concerned. By the way, after a while Ralph did the same thing to Ray Aviles.
CAP: Harvey, this is some very interesting stuff, man. Why have you never revealed these things before?
HA: Chico, a good poker player must always have an ace in the hole. A lot of this stuff has never been told, but because you have a certain way with your interviewing style, you opened me up. Believe me, everything I’m telling you is relevant, and you can quote me. For example, I paid Morris Levy $3,500 a month in cash over a period of ten months, so he turns around and tells his mafia partners/backers that he sold the contract for $3,500 flat, instead of $35,000 total. That’s what I mean when I say that I know the underbelly of the beast known as show business. For the record, I never set out to be the biggest or most powerful latin record company, I did however set out to be the best. After I announced the formation of Coco, I put out the word that I was looking for talented artists. I was not looking for rapid growth and I definitely wanted to remain (relatively) small, with not too many artists, a boutique record company that provided a creative environment where a half dozen or so artists could become superstars or at least become bigger than they were prior to signing with Coco. I believed I could achieve this by respectfully giving their careers anglo quality direction, big company service, concentrated promotion/publicity and customized production. A big company with a large roster of artists could never provide or achieve that kind of individualized attention to their careers.
CAP: So then, “Sentido” gave you and Eddie a shot in the arm, right? I mean it was the start of something big, as the song says.
HA: Sure did. It put Coco on the map, so to speak. But every good project has its good points and its drawbacks. Marketing Eddie Palmieri’s “Sentido” had several unusual hurdles to overcome. I realized early on that while Eddie was very popular in New York and sold very well in the big U.S. urban markets, his sales were weaker in Puerto Rico. All the other latin artists sold twice as many albums in PR than they did in the U.S. Jerry Massucci had all the deejays and radio stations down there in his pocket. He was even able to dictate to them whether or not to play artists who recorded for other record labels. That’s how powerful the Fania machine was. I told Eddie that we needed a great record, one that couldn’t miss and that would go over big in PR. Truth is we both needed that market Chico. Eddie came up with two monsters, “Puerto Rico” and “Adoracion”. The rest of the material on that album were fillers, which was typical of most Palmieri records. This had been Eddie’s pattern over the years and during the recording sessions I was so mesmerized by his artistry and his music that he got me too! But I learned my lesson well, and never again accepted fillers or lame material from any of my artists. The public was buying an album, not a single, so I insisted that they deserved an album’s worth of quality material for their money. As long as I had four or five originals with “hit” potential (which I called my rice and beans tracks) I was a satisfied, happy producer and record company owner. I would then have enough material to work, promote and keep them on the radio until the next album came out. As for the rest of the tracks, I always encouraged my artists to experiment, to express themselves and let their music grow. That way they could expand their fan base and none of us would get trapped in a box and forced to be repetitive. The music was no longer just about dancing. Lyrics now took a front seat and the arrangement became a more crucial element in the success of a recording that now was quite dependent on the story. My arrangers were instructed to take into consideration the mood of the song, the story line, the hooks and even the impact that breaks had on the story line.
CAP: And the musicians, were they behind you on this?
HA: Chico, they came through with flying colors! I made them all aware that it was imperative they provide strong rhythmic support, sensitivity and embellishment for every word of every sentence that came out of the singer’s mouth. Eddie and I both knew how important that was, and so did Fania. Massucci’s blockade notwithstanding, “Adoración” was such a powerful recorded performance that the minute it hit the turntables in PR, the radio deejays could not resist playing it. They knew Coco had made them the proverbial “offer that they couldn’t refuse”. It was that good Chico, they had to play it, or else their audience would flip the dial to another station that was spinning that track. After Eddie’s first single shook up the island, we followed it up with “Puerto Rico” and the rest is history. Those two cuts carried the album and it was really a giant step forward for such a new company. With the follow up album “The Sun of Latin Music” my approach was different. I waited until we had five potential hits before recording the album. “Deseo Salvaje”, a bolero from an unknown sixteen year old singer named Lalo was a real sleeper. “Nada De Ti”, “Un Dia Bonito”, “Nunca Contigo” and “Una Rosa Española” were all winners. It was really an album full of great hits as opposed to an album that had maybe one or two big hits. Overall, no “one-hit” album could ever come close to the total album concept we achieved with “Sun Of Latin Music”. So here was little Coco Records, with Eddie Palmieri and the greatest salsa band of the moment, with producer Harvey Averne at the helm, winning the first Grammy ever given in the “latin music” category. Throughout the years, I have been told by many music critics that “The Sun Of Latin Music” established for our music what the Beatles’ “Sargeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” did for rock. To this day, every “salsa” recording is invariably compared to”The Sun Of Latin Music”. Also, our album covers had turned away from using the recording artist’s photos and toward fine artwork and graphics. I think that it was right after that when you came on board as freelance art director. The Coco concept was definitely working.
CAP: Well Harvey, it certainly has been a helluva long time since we collaborated on all those great Coco releases. Or rather, I should say, since I worked for you in that capacity, designing numerous album covers, including “Unfinished Masterpiece”, which sadly, my original design and the original title were never used. A great opportunity was missed there, but hey, that’s all water under the bridge anyway.
HA: Chico, I may have never told you this, but I really did love your design with the four pieces of coconuts laying face up on a wooden floor, dye-cut and all. Had the album title remained “Kinkamache”, which had the same musical content as “Unfinished Masterpiece”, your cover most certainly would have been the Grammy winning cover that year. But When Eddie tried to blackmail me and threatened to tell everyone in the media not to play the album because it was “unfinished” I knew I had to get creative. I immediately went on the offense, changing the album title to “Unfinished Masterpiece”, thereby answering Eddie’s claim right on the front cover. Unfinished? Perhaps. Masterpiece? You decide. My marketing concept was to get the media to listen to the album and then to critique it. That was the tricky part. I knew they would love it once they heard it and that ultimately they would give the album rave reviews.
CAP: So then marketing was the name of the game.
HA: You got it! And what a brainstorm of a marketing concept that was, if I do say so myself! Certainly the proof is in the pudding. Another Grammy winner, in fact, the second Grammy awarded in the newly created “latin music” category. All Eddie’s guys gladly came back to re-record their parts, because no one except him knew what was going on within the chaos he created. His piano tracks were the only performances that were acceptable to him and me on the entire recording. On “Resemblance” I was faced with a different problem. Eddie wanted to record the big band live. The tempo was extremely erratic and fluctuated like crazy. The arrangement was by Edy Martinez, who played electric keyboard and conducted this huge monster size orchestra. However, Martinez as conductor was not in total control of the orchestra, due to the fact that they were playing a jazz waltz, which is in 3/4 time and was then basically uncharted territory for a latin band. It was chaotic and overwhelming, but once again, Eddie’s part on the acoustic piano and Martinez on electric keyboard were cool. After the President of the United States turned down my request to declare “Resemblance” a federal disaster area, I was forced to bring in two acknowledged jazz greats for major damage control (laughter). First, Ron Carter (the number one jazz bassist in the world), had to play in-between the cracks and underneath a previously recorded band track (with major tempo problems). I asked him to even out the time by playing through this mine field and without a drummer no less. God bless Ron Carter, he saved my ass! Then I brought in Steve Gadd (the world’s greatest session drummer) to deal with the messed-up tempo, but at least Steve could follow the road map which Ron had laid out. I edited, overdubbed, directed and mixed everything just like I did in “Sentido” and “The Sun of Latin Music”, pretty much without Eddie’s help or distractions. Usually, after the band sessions and maybe some overdubs, Eddie would let me do my thing and when I finished my work I would present it to him for his final approval. We never had any real disagreements at all over the final mixes. I can recall him asking for some adjustments which I was happy to do especially since he was always on the money.
CAP: And rightfully so, since it was his music to begin with.
HA: And I respected that it was his music. I also knew how he wanted it and that’s exactly how he got it. His was the most progressive and complicated latin music of its day, more so than even “Siembra”, but it was being attempted with the least amount of preparation or rehearsal than any music I had ever worked on before. Eddie was always a “no show” at rehearsals, yet he was the only one who was fully prepared for the record dates. The band members never had a clue about anything regarding new material, unless Eddie had already tried it out on a gig, which he rarely did. This made everyone extremely alert and on their toes, and they never knew what to expect. Let me add that the musicians in Eddie’s band were the best in the business, and were all about the music. We were each willing to go through anything that was thrown at us for the sake of the music and no band ever had a better swing than the Eddie Palmieri band. When those guys were on, they were on fire! Working with a genius will never be easy and most always will be crazy difficult. But therein resides the greatest music, and make no mistake about it Mr. Alvarez, Eddie Palmieri was and still is a bona fide genius. I have found that the best way to deal with any problem in the music business is to find a musical solution. Pure and simple. And that’s what I always tried to do. Anyway, a “hit” record fixes everything (laughter).
CAP: But surely, there was enough material on that album for you to have released it “as is”, no?
HA: Chico, the truth is that without “Resemblance” and “Random Thoughts” I did not have enough quality material to put the album out. Believe me I would have never put it out if it had not been up to mine and Eddie’s standards. My reputation and integrity were on the line and the latin business would have killed this gringo if it wasn’t top quality Palmieri material. It was a hard fought battle. Eddie is a formidable opponent and a great salesman. The assumption of the public and the media automatically was and is as follows; the poor, innocent, sweet, always mistreated and abused artist goes against the Big, Always Bad, Certainly Crooked, Always Doing Bad Shit Record Company. At his peak, Eddie Palmieri was a latin god, and as such easily managed to get his side of the Coco-Palmieri conflict on the front pages of Billboard magazine, as well as Cash Box, Record World and in many newspapers, radio, TV, anglo and latino publications wordwide, and for free. You see, publications know that the fans enjoy reading juicy sorted stories, including how their beloved idols are being taken advantage of and mistreated by us awful business types, which is really a crock. I am not saying that record companies are never in the wrong, but more often than not it’s the talented diva type artists who are taking advantage of their celebrity and playing head games, because they know that the labels need their product and sales in order to survive. So they squeeze and they demand and if they are important enough they receive. Such is life in the music business.
CAP: And what was your response to all the media hype, and to their so-called uneven coverage?
HA: Well, if I had decided to present my side to the public, I would have been compelled to take out very expensive full page ads, in order to answer Eddie’s accusations. Let’s face it, the record mogul’s side of the story does not make interesting copy. In spite of Eddie, we both came out okay in the end. I was fighting for my professional integrity and my company’s survival. Thank God it turned out alright. Not great, but okay. I have learned that music artists, sports figures, movie stars and the like all have great leverage against the companies which they are signed to, if they generate dollars for them. This is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If you sell product or you fill up the seats, any CEO (including me) will do anything short of committing professional suicide to get you to perform. They need the sales and the dollars. That’s why we always read stories about Stephon Marbury, Terrel Owens, Manny Ramirez, Lindsey Lohan and other stars who are not living up to the terms of their contracts. Agreements which they, their lawyers, managers and accountants had negotiated for months and signed off on. All of a sudden, one fine day, they wake up feeling that these agreements have become insufficient and are a great inconvenience. Words like honor and ethics, coupled with signed contracts become meaningless, and the lawyers get richer. I needed Eddie Palmieri for those very reasons, but I also harbored a deep love for latin music, which superceeced all of the above, or else I would have gone into the more lucrative r&b, soul, rock or even country music fields. The music that I chose to perform and to which I have devoted my entire life to has fulfilled and motivated me from my early years in the Catskills right on through “Unfinished Masterpiece”. In spite of everything, right up until this very moment latin music has satisfied me beyond my wildest dreams.
CAP: I don’t think anyone ever questioned your professionalism or your love for the music. We all knew you long before that period, as a musician and recording artist. You were always part of the popular culture. You certainly did have that “latin” look, in an Italian sort of way.
HA: Chico, I guess I am a guy who is enchanted by cultures. From my late teens on, Spanish-speaking cultures, music, food and customs fascinated me. Latin American music became my epicenter, the most dominant, enriching and influential factor in my life. To this day it’s who I am, how I will be and want to be remembered. However, while growing up in the Jewish-Italian neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn, my earliest friendships were with Italians. Their culture, music, food, cars, dress, jewelry, happy homes, really good family ties, interesting and powerful men (some with unusual life styles) had an amazing impact on me at a very early age. From the time I was 13 years old my first gigs were Italian and Jewish affairs. I played all types of weddings, block parties, sweet sixteens, as well as bar-mitzvahs and the like. I thank you for the compliment, that I looked Italian when I was a young man. I think I learned a lot from the guys on the block, my old friends are still in touch with me to this day. The old Italian idea of integrity, where your word or a hand shake is as good as a signed contract, “Omerta” (sworn to silence), never rat on your own and never mess with a friend’s woman. Respect is important in their culture and very important to me also. All this teaches you to act like a man. In the “Unfinished Masterpiece” situation, I think I acted like a man, and I have my Italian and Jewish upbringing and influences to thank for that. Eventually Eddie proved me right. First, by rejecting all year long the many awards “Unfinished Masterpiece” received (this was his way of not recognizing the album). Then by boycotting, rejecting and refusing to accept the Latin New York magazine award for the “Album of the Year”, while on the same night and on the same stage of the Beacon Theatre here in New York he accepted the “Pianist Of The Year” award (for the same album). I was voted “Producer of The Year” and many of Eddie’s guys also won awards for the album. That night he publicly acknowledged only the original piano tracks he recorded on the initial session and nothing else. In the end, he showed his true colors by going to the 1976 NARAS ceremony and accepting the Grammy award for “Best Album” in the Latin Music category for “Unfinished Masterpiece”. So much for the controversy. I guess the Eddie Palmieri boycott kinda ended that night.
CAP: All that cultural street savvy may have helped you in your personal life, and even in your business dealings, but did the album actually do well, I mean in terms of sales?
HA: Chico, it was the best marketing work I ever did. “Unfinished Masterpiece” was the most profitable Palmieri album to date and historic in many ways. Working with Eddie forced all of us to dig way down and come up with something better than we ever knew we were capable of doing. Musically, it was very good, but certainly not his best. As far as it creating a demand, it was a monster and still remains one of his best selling albums. Due to all the negative publicity at first, in addition to the excellent publicity that it received later on, the entire latin music industry and the latino community knew all about this album. All that negative publicity stimulated curiosity, and then winning the Grammy created big time publicity, sales and profits. We have a saying in show business: “There is no such thing as bad publicity, as long as they spell your name right”.
CAP: An old saying, but one that still holds true. Go on, please.
HA: Chico, I’ve needed to get all of this stuff off my chest for a long time. Sorry it had to be on you, but you’re the one who opened Pandora’s Box. I still can’t believe to this day that Eddie tried to hold me up me for an additional $10,000 to do the final session which he had already been paid for. He was way overdrawn and owed Coco more than $50,000 in advances. These were 1972 dollars, an amount that was considered a fortune back then. Coco Records gave him the best contract any “salsa” artist ever had at that time. More than $10,000 advance per album. Fania and Tico were still paying something like $500, or $1,000 per album maybe a little more to their bigger artists. We also gave him co-ownership in Ying Yang publishing, which was unheard of at the time. Chico, this was Eddie’s history and pattern long before he signed with Coco, so I guess I should not have been too surprised. That the split happened after only three studio albums, well, that came as a big surprise to me. The shame of it all is that if we had completed four or five albums together without any problems, indicating a change in his output and pattern at the time, then the majors would have gained sufficient confidence in his credibility and dependability factor, thus they would have been more than willing to put millions of dollars on the table for both of us.
CAP: Talk about an opportunity being lost! But let’s get back for a moment to the subject of “latin jazz”, okay?
HA: Go for it baby. It’s your interview.
CAP: At the height of the “salsa boom”, which by the way coincided with the period in which you and Eddie were riding the crest of a wave of success, was “latin jazz” an important element in your releases? Or had it already become passe? I can certainly hear that element on the three Palmieri albums, as I do on that one particular Cortijo album, but I never did hear much latin jazz coming from the other artists who were on the Coco label.
HA: Chico, if any of the artists who were signed to my label wanted to explore new concepts or experiment with jazz and other genres, I would always encourage them, but hardly anyone wanted to record latin jazz at that time, not even Cortijo. As a matter of fact, the album which you referenced, “La Maquina Del Tiempo” (Time Machine), did not really represent him musically. That was the only album on Coco where I gave someone else co-producer credits. So allow me to give credit where it is due. The entire concept was created by keyboardist Pepe Castillo and guitarist/cuatrista Edgardo Miranda. They were the brains behind that project, they worked together on all those great arrangements. However, it was Pepe who convinced Cortijo and I to try something different. They both came to me with a proposition for a very jazz oriented project, which had a bit of a Brazilian flavor on a couple of songs. I listened to what they had in mind and liked it very much.
CAP: And how did Cortijo feel about it?
HA:You have to remember that Cortijo was already at an advanced age and that this type of music was for him really way out there. It was radically different than anything he had done before. In those days we had a couple of often-used expressions; “if you’re more than twenty two, it just won’t do” and another one was “if it doesn’t dance it doesn’t sell”. Keep that in mind and picture me listening to this magnificent music – it literally took me out there- and here was Cortijo at his age and still playing his ass off, so I say “okay, I probably won’t make any money with this, but what the hell, this is great music, so let’s do it”. Deep down inside, I knew that financially this was going to be my pie in the face production, but I was so enchanted with the music that I forgot the golden “if it don’t dance it don’t sell” rule. The tempos were way too fast, but somehow I didn’t notice. When Cortijo mentioned this to Pepe, he disagreed with him and told him not to mention it to me, and you know what Chico? The old man was right! This is something that has really bothered me -no-tortured me- all these years. I get so many compliments about that album, people from all over the world keep telling me how great it is.
CAP: And you obviously disagree?
HA: It eats away at me because I know that the shit was way too fast and that’s why it didn’t sell well. Pepe confessed to me many years later that Cortijo had complained to him that it was too fast, and that he (Pepe) was an arrogant, opinionated and radical young man who wouldn’t listen to anyone. Cortijo was the one who caught it, and in hindsight it shows me (once again) the genius of the old man. This is why we producers must give the artists their proper due, always hear them out and calmly discuss and talk out our differences of opinions. Often times they know what’s best. Because what this genius of a percussionist said in private never reached my ears, I was deprived of his input. I missed the whole point of that project and subsequently the album never got the necessary airplay it deserved. It could easily have been heard by a lot more people, if we had only slowed the tempos down. Today, that album is mostly beloved by musicians, critics and latin jazz devotees because of the artistry of the personnel and the hipness of the arrangements, which were beautifully executed. It’s basically a musician’s album, made by and for musicians, and that’s the essence of latin jazz itself. And I think possibly therein lies the problem. But you know what Chico? That album could still be saved, for lack of a better word. The tempos could be slowed down electronically, without messing up the pitch or altering the keys. I know that by utilizing today’s technology – which was non-existent when “Time Machine” was recorded – I could fix the time on that machine and make it happen for them. “La Maquina Del Tiempo” slowed down kicks ass, as a latin jazz dance album. And by the way Chico, Coco Records and I have been honored with two albums that are included in the top ten greatest salsa albums of all time. One of them is “The Sun Of Latin Music” and the other (surprisingly) is “La Maquina Del Tiempo (Time Machine)”. Ironic, isn’t it? The subtitle could have been “The Salsa Album That Doesn’t Dance”.
CAP: Reverting back to my earlier comments on age differences, did the Cheetah generation bring to the dance floor a completely new and different set of criteria for the music? In your opinion was this period a sort “changing of the guard”, with the old being replaced by the new?
HA: I think that in essence, yes, they definitely did. Most clubs had a dress code, while the Cheetah had an “anything goes” dress code, and so the older bands started losing their appeal, precisely because of the generational difference. This new image, by the way, was induced by Fania. Their artists were so dominant that they inspired the young latinos, not only in terms of the music but also in terms of clothing, speech, attitude, etc. With the release of the film “Our Latin Thing” the
Fania label and its roster of artists knowingly and deliberately created what was considered by outsiders as the “Latin New York” image. You might say it was a hispanic “subculture”. And Coco (with Eddie Palmieri and the most radical band of the moment) picked up on it and brought “rock-n-roll style-no more damn uniforms-everybody do your own thing” all the way home. The “salsa generation” emerged out of this subculture, and the hip latin jazz audience started to wane. Even as all these changes were taking place, many young bands were still including latin jazz in their recordings and live performances, myself included. Prior to our disbanding, the three Harvey Averne Dozen recordings each included at least a couple of instrumental latin jazz numbers. I have recently listened to the “The Harvey Averne Anthology” album (1967-71) for the first time and I realize now that we were not so radical, at least not with the latin jazz genre. We were able to stay true to that style while incorporating such Cuban elements as Beny Moré type guajeos, enveloped within our blues/soul fusion thing. At this time (1971) I was mentally gearing up to take latin music into another direction, which was “latin rock”. With the Harvey Averne Barrio Band (influenced by Santana) we were moving further away from latin jazz. The underlying element in our latin rock was still the traditional sound of son montuno, brought to fruition by the presence of our unique personnel, many of whom were destined to become future Fania All Stars. In other words, the Barrio Band respected and built upon tradition, but [they] were never glued to it.
CAP:And yet, there was a continued widening of the gap. It is interesting to note Harvey, that this type of rift was not just happening in New York City. The generational divide that rocked the United States during the sixties also occurred in Cuba, not to mention the effects that international politics had on the music. We both know that shortly after 1960, jazz itself was being stiffled on the island, because it was considered by the new revolutionary government as “music of the enemy”. I’m curious, do you think that this had any effect on our brand of “latin jazz” – as a style?
HA: Yes I think so, and that’s a very good observation on your part Chico, which now makes me see the common denominator between the “traditionalist” jazz elitist’s “enemy of the music” mentality (totally against all experimentation, change and artist growth) and the Castro government’s “music of the enemy” position. Views which may appear diametrically opposed, but which in effect yield the same result. The latin jazz I loved – stuff by Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, etc. and even some of the earlier big band dance music – that’s what I call “latin jazz”. This was the music that I listened to way before I started producing. There was for example Machito in his heyday, when he used Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips, Buddy Rich and all those jazz greats. I know that they weren’t calling it latin jazz then, so they just put it under the overall jazz umbrella, and this is what it was eventually tagged as. When the Machito band did “Fireworks” for Coco, we produced one of the best latin big band jazz cuts of the decade, namely “Macho”, an awesome piece of music. Machito was the one who came in with the idea for the santería introduction with batá drums and what-not, and then arranger Jorge Millet laid down the road map for all those great jazz soloists, including Charlie Palmieri’s great piano solo, Jon Faddis, Nicky Marrero, etc. And let me tell you Chico, any jazz artist I called for that session, when I told them it was for Machito, they were down for it. No one ever asked me how much money the gig payed, they simply said to me: “what time should I be there”? That was because of the special relationship that began decades earlier, with Mario Bauza, Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and the Machito Orchestra, resulting in “Manteca” and other equally masterful classics. Jazz musicians loved Machito, and so did I. If you were a really good player, and were playing straight ahead jazz all the time, whenever you got a chance to blow on top of Machito’s Afro-Cuban rhythms, it was a welcome change of pace for you – it was kinda like being in heaven.