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Tribute to the Masters: Willie Bobo

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Willie Bobo

WILLIAM CORREA, better known as WILLIE BOBO, was a consummate percussionist, drummer, vocalist and showman. He was born to Puerto Rican parents on February 28, 1934, in Spanish Harlem and influenced by a broad variety of music, including Latin rhythms, Jazz, Blues, and R&B.

His first gig was as a band boy with the legendary Cuban bandleader, Frank “Machito” Grillo, and The Afro-Cubans. Shortly after that, he appeared as a sideman on pianist George Shearing’s, The Shearing Spell (1955).

Tito Puente, Willie Bobo, going “toe to toe.” Photographer unknown.

At fourteen, he gravitated to the bongos, congas, timbales, and trap drums and studied under the legendary master Cuban percussionist, Mongo Santamaría. “Willie was mesmerized by Mongo,” says writer, historian Max Salazar, “Mongo took him on as a student and taught him everything about the drums.”

In 1954, Santamaría convinced Tito Puente to hire Bobo and replace Manny Oquendo on bongos. According to Joe Conzo Sr., “There was a bit of a rivalry between them,” but Puente grudgingly conceded, “He was a guy who could go toe to toe with me and not even blink.”

In 1955, Bobo appeared on the album, Piano Contempo: Modern Jazz Piano with the jazz pianist, Mary Lou Williams. For reasons that are not clear, it was she who gave Correa the nickname, “Bobo.”

1963 saw the release of the album Bobo’s Beat (Roulette), his first as a leader, followed quickly by Bobo! Do That Thing/Guajira [Tico]. The albums were moderately successful.

Willie Bobo’s album covers: Bobo’s Beat, Bobo! Do That Thing/Guajira

In 1965, Bobo was invited to perform as a sideman on the Swedish vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s phenomenally successful record, Soul Sauce (Verve). “Tjader invited Bobo to overdub the jawbone (a percussion instrument made from the jawbone of a donkey, known as a Quijada, or Charrasca). His inspirations, ‘Sabor, Sabor, Salsa Ahi Na Ma,’ satisfied Tjader. Bobo explained to Tjader the tracks Pantano, Maramoor, Tanya, and Leyte, were fiery and exciting, like a well-seasoned sauce. As a result, the album cover exhibits a fork on a plate of red beans and chili alongside an opened bottle of Tabasco sauce labeled, ‘Cal Tjader, Soul Sauce.'”

Shortly after that, Bobo signed with Verve Records and launched his career as a soloist, followed by a string of successful recordings including Spanish Grease (1965), Feelin’ So Good (1966), Uno Dos Tres 1-2-3 (1966), Bobo Motion (1967), Juicy (1967), The Spanish Blues Band (1968) and A New Dimension (1968).

Willie Bobo · Spanish Grease

During the late 1960s and 1970s, Bobo was very active. In 1969 he moved to Los Angeles, where he led several combos. Also, from 1969 to 1971, he appeared as a member of the cast of the Bill Cosby Show. During that period he also traveled to Ghana with guitarist, Carlos Santana, and appeared in the documentary film Soul to Soul. Moreover, in 1976, Bobo appeared in a short-lived variety show and recorded for the labels, Sussex, Blue Note, and CBS Records as a sideman with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Herbie Mann, Gene Ammons, Shelly Mann, and Terry Gibbs.

Despite being diagnosed with cancer Bobo reunited with Mongo Santamaria, at the 1983 Playboy Jazz Festival and was active up until the end of his life.

In 2010 I interviewed master conguero, Poncho Sánchez, and he spoke candidly about the last time he saw Bobo. “I was playing at a club called, The Baked Potato with the (pianist) Claire Fischer and the group Salsa Picante. Willie came by to see us play, and he had a patch behind his ear. I asked him about it and he told me he had just come from the doctor and had a malignant cyst removed. He died six months later. The last time I saw Willie was when me and other musicians got together and raised money for his medical expenses. He was in a wheelchair and wanted no one to see him in that condition, so he came to the venue’s back door and asked me to thank everyone for what they were doing. Then he got into a van and drove off.”

Bobo died on September 15, 1983, at the age of 49. The cause of death was brain cancer. For a time, Bobo’s son, Eric, a drummer and percussionist led his father’s band. He also performed with Cypress Hill and toured with the Beastie Boys. His grandson, William Valen Correa, is the co-founder of the Los Angeles-based non-profit organization HNDP.

Some of my favorite Willie Bobo classics include Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions (Blue Note), Tito Puente’s Top Percussion (1957), featuring Puente, Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, and Carlos “Patato” Valdés, Cal Tjader’s Soul Sauce (1965), Latino! (1960) and Spanish Grease (1965).

According to his wife, Alicia, “He once said that a great artist always gets recognized at the end.” “He wanted everyone to be happy, no sorrow,” said Eric. “This is how his life was, happy, smiling, to have a good time.” Thankfully, Willie Bobo’s extensive body of work is widely available.

SOURCES

  • Cerra, Steven – Remembering Willie Bobo: 1934-1983 (2016)
  • Conzo, Joe with David A. Perez – Mambo Diablo, My Journey with Tito Puente (AuthorHouse, 2010)
  • Diamond, Richard – Bobo’s Beat – Liner Notes (1963)
  • Last.fm.com – Willie Bobo Biography
  • Salazar, Max – Origins of Salsa (Latin Beat Magazine, 1991)
  • Wolff, Carlo – Willie Bobo’s Finest Hour – Liner Notes (2003)

© 2020 Tomas Peña
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mark Cathcart

    Sep 9, 2021 at 9:20 am

    Enjoyed the article, I’ve included some of the details in mine, here https://www.ctproduced.com/spanish-grease/

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Tribute to the Masters

Tribute to the Masters: Mario Rivera

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Mario Rivera "El Comandante"

Mario Rivera was a gifted musician, composer and arranger that played more than 15 instruments, which included piano, vibraphone, drums, trumpet, timbales, congas, flute, and piccolo. But Rivera was known for how he kissed and caressed the tenor, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones. He could play all of the family of saxophones on a virtuosic level as a soloist and section player and was one of the very few saxophonists who also mastered of the flute in the Cuban charanga style. Unlike most musicians, Rivera played all these instruments at an exceedingly high level of musicianship. Rivera dominated the “straight- ahead” jazz and Latin Jazz, Salsa and many other genres.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante"
Mario Rivera “El Comandante”

Mario was born July 22, 1939 in Santo Domingo, The Dominican Republic. After he arrived in NYC in 1961, he worked with Puerto Rican vocalist Joe Valle. His most significant musical associations through the years include Tito Rodríguez (1963-65), The Machito Orchestra, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Típica 73, The George Coleman Octet, Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra, Slide Hampton’s Jazz Masters, the Afro Blue Band, Giovanni Hidalgo, Chico O’Farrill’s Orchestra and especially Tito Puente’s Orchestra and Latin Jazz Ensemble with whom he worked for on and off for decades.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante" the merengue-jazz - Guest: George Coleman - Groovin High
Mario Rivera “El Comandante” the merengue-jazz – Guest: George Coleman – Groovin High

Even though Rivera was one of the hardest working sidemen in the jazz and Latin music business he also led two groups of his own Salsa Refugees and The Mario Rivera Sextet. Although having appeared on virtually hundreds of recording, Mario recorded only one disc as a leader named after his sobriquet, “El Comandante.” It has fine examples of combinations of the native rhythm of his homeland, merengue from the Dominican Republic and jazz improvisation. Indeed it can be considered not only a tribute to his homeland and his mastery of jazz harmony but an homage also to one of his inspirations and yet another unsung hero, fellow Dominican saxophone master, Tavito Vásquez.

Mario Rivera "El Comandante" and "The Salsa Refugees" - Back row L-R: Mario Rivera, Andy González, Jorge Dalto, Jerry González, Papo Vázquez, Nicky Marrero - Bottom Row L-R: Elías Peguero, César Ozuna
Mario Rivera “El Comandante” and “The Salsa Refugees” – Back row L-R: Mario Rivera, Andy González, Jorge Dalto, Jerry González, Papo Vázquez, Nicky Marrero – Bottom Row L-R: Elías Peguero, César Ozuna

Rivera’s passing has been felt very hard in the Latin music and jazz community and he is sorely missed. But we have his stories, music recordings, photos, and videos to remember this grand musician because what he left us makes him truly immortal.


We leave the readers with these final thoughts from Mario himself: “In my case, the day becomes the night and the night becomes the day. There are no vehicles on the street; there are no sirens at night. There is nothing that could block the inspiration. My home is like a musical laboratory because I have to accomplish so many things, I have to learn to play so many instruments. I spend all of my free time at home, practicing like a maniac, refining my chops. This is why I play 24 instruments. When it comes to music, one must be actively militant. Music demands your entire attention and dedication. If a musician is not willing to make that commitment, he will end up floating on a sea of turds, along with the other idle and mediocre characters.”

Mario Rivera passed in August, 2007, may he play on.

Content source: James Nadal

Photos from the Facebook Tribute Page: Mario Rivera “el Comandante”

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