How did the pianist JOE LOCO (Crazy Joe) acquire the nickname? Theories abound. According to Jose Mangual, Sr., “The ‘loco’ tag was hung on him around the mid-1940s after Verne Records recorded his tune, ‘Cada Loco Con Su Tema.'” Loco’s wife, Irma, begs to differ: “Joe suffered a head injury after being hit by a bus. Shortly after that, his friends began calling him ‘Loco.'” Another source suggests it was Tito Puente, who, for reasons unknown, gave him the name. Perhaps we will never know for sure, but, without question, Joe Loco was one of Latin music’s most talented and revered artists.
He was born Joseph Estevez Jr. on March 26, 1921, to Puerto Rican parents José and Frances Estevez in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. At eight, he began violin and dance lessons and participated in the Stars of the Future project run by Spanish Harlem’s La Milagrosa Church. In 1934, he left school and went on the road. According to jazz historian John Storm Roberts, “Loco started as a dancer at the Apollo Theater and appeared with the Chick Webb Orchestra (featuring Ella Fitzgerald) in the 1930s.”
In 1937 a truant officer caught up with Loco and compelled him to attend Harren High School, where he befriended the music teacher, Charles Pickells, who taught him the rudiments of the piano and trombone (multiple sources indicate Loco started out as a trombonist before switching to the piano).
Loco began his career as a pianist with the Montecino Happy Boys (1938) when the band performed in Spanish Harlem. In 1943, at the height of World War II, Frank Machito Grillo’s pianist, Frank Gilberto Ayala, was drafted and replaced by Luis Varona. Shortly after that, Varona was drafted, and Loco replaced him. According to José Mangual, “Immediately after Loco joined Machito, the band sounded different because of his solo’s. They were hot! The dancers started calling us the Latin Count Basie Orchestra.”
Two years later (1945), it was Loco’s turn to serve. While in the Air Force, he taught himself the art of arranging and wrote charts for Vincent López, Noro Morales, and Xavier Cugat among others. After his discharge, Loco and Tito Puente worked as sidemen in Fernando Álvarez’s Copacabana Samba Band. Also, the same year Loco joined Jack López’s band.
According to Max Salazar, “One evening Loco substituted for (Pupi) Campo’s pianist Al Escobar and the event turned into a spur-of-the-moment event. Loco’s piano was searing hot, Tito Puente’s timbal and Johnny ‘La Vaca’ Rodriguez’s cascara made for an exciting, exotic sound that created delirium.” Fortunately, someone had the wherewithal to record the performance for posterity. The result is the rare album, Pupi Campo’s Latin Dance Party (Seeco, 1948).
Loco took part in another historical event at the Park Palace on 110th Street and Fifth Avenue when he composed twenty original tunes, directed Julio Andino’s Orchestra, and challenged the Machito Orchestra to a duel. “It was a David and Goliath battle,” says Salazar, “except Machito was not slain.” In spite of the loss, Andino’s orchestra made a good showing.
In 1951, Loco’s trio made his first recordings for Tico Records. Shortly after that, George Goldner scheduled a recording session for Tito Rodríguez. When Rodríguez came down with laryngitis, Goldner salvaged the session by recording Loco’s trio. The song “Tenderly” was a hit, and Goldner offered him a recording contract.
Loco also worked in jazz clubs such as the Blue Note, Denver’s Melody Lounge, the Apollo Theater, and Birdland, which transmitted Loco’s live performances via radio. Moreover, he participated in the Mambo USA Tour, which sold-out Carnegie Hall and traveled to 56 cities.
At one point, unhappy with royalties, Loco confronted Goldner, who wisely granted him permission to record for Columbia Records in exchange for a percentage of record sales.
In 1959, Loco and his family relocated to Los Angeles. The same year, The Pete Terrace Quintet released the album Going Loco. Also, to satisfy the Pachanga craze, Fantasy released Pachanga with Loco. Over the years Loco also recorded for the labels GNP (Gene Norman Presents) and Orfeon.
By 1967, it was evident Loco was losing his edge. “This was painfully evident on the album Puerto Rico 67,” says Salazar, “where it seemed that Loco’s fiery piano solos were a thing of the past.” Around the same time, Loco separated from his wife and partnered with Charlie Palmieri and Tito Puente, and formed the music-arranging company, Bandaide.
In 1968, Loco moved to Puerto Rico and took advantage of San Juan’s booming hotel scene. Also, he founded The Loco Recording and Publishing Companies and performed at a variety of nightclubs in San Juan.
Joe Loco succumbed to diabetes on February 18, 1988. A veteran of World War II, Loco’s grave is located in Bayamón’s military cemetery, where his tombstone reads: “U.S. Army Corporal, Joseph Esteves Vargas.”
Boricua Jazz Pioneer Joe Loco was a consummate musician, showman, and a significant figure in the development of Latin music, jazz, and Latin jazz. Thankfully, his body of work is available on a broad variety of digital platforms and YouTube.
• discogs.com – Joe Loco discography
• Roberts, John Storm – Latin Jazz – The First Fusions, the 1880s to Today (Schirmer Books, 1999)
• Salazar, Max – Mambo Kingdom – Latin Music in New York (Schirmer Trade Books, 2002)
• Serrano, Basilio – Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz – 1900-1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015)
© 2020 Tomas Peña
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