Tribute to the Masters: Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez

Pedro Juan Rodríguez Ferrer, better known as Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez, was a consummate sonero (vocalist), dancer, and showman. His good looks, coiffed hair, chic attire, and regal deportment earned him the moniker, “El Conde” (The Count).

His primary influences were Cuban: Pedro Ortíz Dávila (Davilita), Miguelito Cuní, Cheo Marquetti, Abelardo Barroso, Benny Moré, and the trumpeter Felix Chappotín y sus Estrellas. For this reason, Rodríguez was known by Cuban connoisseurs as, “the most Cuban of Puerto Rican soneros.”

Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez
Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez

Rodríguez was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1933, the second of three children to Emiliano Rodríguez and Anatilde Ferrer Colón. He grew up in the barrio La Cantera. At an early age, he played the bongos with his father’s quartet, El Conjunto Gondolero.

At thirteen, Rodriguez moved to New York and lived in Spanish Harlem (El Barrio). He graduated from Patrick Henry High School and The New York School of Printing and worked in the field briefly before he was drafted by the U.S. Army.

From 1953 to 1956, Rodríguez served as a paratrooper and was stationed at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg in the southern part of the United States, where racial segregation was rampant.

After discharge, he returned to New York. There, he honed his “chops” with La Oriental Cubana, followed by Los Jovenes del Estrella de Cuba (1958-1961), directed by the trumpeter, singer Roberto Rodríguez. The internship led to his first recording.

Rodríguez was also a member of Willie Ellis’s Típica Novel (1961 to 1962). Also, he Chivirico Dávila and Monguito (El Único) replaced Rudy Calzado and Elliot Romero in Johnny Pacheco’s charanga, which led to the hits “Suavito” (1963), “Alto Songo” (1964), “Guachinango” (1965) and “Soy del Monte” (1965), among others.

Due to friction between him and Monguito, Rodríguez left the group and joined pianist Roy Roig’s group (1964-1966). When Monguito joined Larry Harlow’s band, Rodríguez returned to Pacheco’s charanga. During this period, Rodríguez and Pacheco recorded some of their most successful albums including Cañonazo (1964), Pacheco at the World’s Fair (1964), La Perfecta Combinación (1970), Los Compadres (1972), Tres De Café y Dos De Azúcar (1973), and Pacheco y El Conde con Celia Cruz (1980).

Johnny Pacheco and Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez

As a member of the Fania All-Stars, Rodríguez and the all-star cast traveled the world and took the genre to its highest level. In 1979, 1980, the group traveled to Cuba to record the album, Havana Jam. The trip was significant because Rodríguez was able to meet his idols Miguelito Cuní, Félix Chappotín, Tito Gómez, and Pello El Afrokán among others, shortly before they died.

In 1974, Rodríguez left the Fania All-Stars and embarked on a career as a soloist. During this period he recorded some of his most memorable and socially conscious works: El Conde (1974), Este Negro Sí Es Sabroso (1976) and A Touch of Class (1977).

Pete Rodríguez El Conde – Este Negro Sí Es Sabroso

In 1980, Rodríguez and his family settled in Puerto Rico, however, the merengue and salsa erótica crazes made it difficult to find work. Consequently, the family returned to New York.

Between 1983 and 1989, Rodríguez recorded several albums, including the Grammy-nominated Salsobita, with Johnny Pacheco.

On September 8, 1996, Johnny Pacheco, Papo Lucca and La Sonora Ponceña, Andy Montañéz, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Valentín, Camilo Azuquita, Los Guayacanos de San Antón, Ruth Fernández, Cita Rodríguez and Pete Jr. gathered at Ponce’s Teatro La Perla to celebrate “35 Years of Royalty.” It was one of the most memorable and significant events of Rodríguez’s career (the event was recorded for posterity).

Rodríguez recorded two acclaimed albums in the 90s: Generaciones (with Cita and Pete Jr.) and Pete and Papo (Lucca, 1995), which featured Rodríguez as a formidable ballad (bolero) singer. Also, in 2000, Rodriguez participated in the release of Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri’s Masterpiece – La Obra Maestra at the Tito Puente Amphitheater in San Juan, and he toured South America with Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz.

Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez Generaciones – Pete & Papo

On December 1, 2000, at 67, Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez died in his sleep. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest. He is buried in Bayamón’s National Cemetery.

In Ponce, the neighborhood where Rodríguez grew up was renamed in his honor. Also, his legacy survives through his daughter, Cita, a vocalist (sonera) and creator of the one-woman show El Conde y La Condesa, which tells the story of her relationship with her father.

Also, the trumpeter Pete Rodríguez Jr’s highly acclaimed albums, Caminando con Papi (2014) and El Conde Negro (2015), celebrate his father’s music in a jazz context.

Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez was a Puerto Rican icon and a national treasure. Emerging salseros would do well to study his distinctive phrasing, timbre, swing, mastery of the Cuban son, and socially conscious lyrics.

REFERENCE

  • Lechner, Ernesto Pete El Conde Rodríguez Profile (Fania)
  • Kent, Mary – Salsa Talks, A Musical Heritage Uncovered (Digital Domain, 2005)
  • Ortíz, López Miguel Rodríguez, Article: Fundación Nacional Para La Cultural Popular.
  • Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez Biography – www.lost.fm/music
  • Wikipedia – Rodríguez, Conde, Pete,

Tomas Peña
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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