ANDY HILL INTERVIEWS THE KING OF LATIN SOUL JOE BATAAN
Joe Bataan was born in Spanish Harlem, New York City, USA in 1942 and was one of the major pioneers of Boogaloo & Latin Soul in the 1960’s . I caught up with him in New York to chat to this great man about his early life, musical influences and career....
Good morning Joe, Where did your early musical influences come from?
Life for me was a mystery in the ‘40’s. As a child growing up without brothers or sisters, my friends in Spanish Harlem were my family. It was mostly trial and error trying to find who I wanted to be in life. The ups and downs help shape my life and passion for life. I was a romantic so Music was a natural for me... a universal language!
Where did you learn to play & sing and what instruments were they?
My early music influences were movies, mostly musicals like Annie, Get Your Gun, George Gershwin Story, Cole Porter Story, Bandwagon etc. My idols were Sammy Davis, Jackie Robinson, Smoky Robinson and Frankie Lymon.. later on Tito Rodriquez, Joe Cuba and Eddie Palmeri. I am a street singer and we learned from the radio and singing Doo Wop on the street corners of Spanish Harlem. Later on while at Coxackie reformatory I learned theory and some piano playing while incarcerated. But most of my early training came in Spanish Harlem school on 106th Street William Ettiger after work. I learned to sing by myself, being self-taught, listening to records and radio which was huge in my life! Wherever I could find a piano, I would go there.. neighbours, churches and community centres!
Tell us Joe, about the church?
Some time ago I made a key to the rectory basement, which housed a piano. I would sneak in at all hours of the night... we were crazy adolescents! Then one day the priest came in and caught us, we ran like crazy before we tried to explain that we hadn’t taken anything. We were full of nerve!
What was life like in the ‘60’s for a young man in NYC? The Clubs, clothes and music etc and where did you go?
The ‘60’s was a great new scene and lifestyle. Clothes became bright and alive. Music was in the air and everything was exciting in Spanish Harlem and throughout the City. They were violent times with street gangs mixed with girls and drugs. We did all these things as a part of growing up. I was no different. However, I have this passion to excel and my aggression would not be curtailed at any cost. Dodging bullets and fights, I was determined to excel where others failed and never recovered from the pits of poverty and disillusion.
ell me about your band Joe?
My band was formed after many attempts of trying to find people to play with me. Many did not believe in my dream or were not committed as I was. Finally I found those seven kids practicing in my school space without my permission! That’s how we did things then! I walked in and questioned each one, but no one spoke! I then stuck a knife into the piano and announced that “ I was the leader of the group!” ... no one objected lol!
Boogaloo was already about when I first heard the sound.... bands like Pete Rodriques, Johnny Colon and Richie Ray were doing their Latin versions already! When I came on the scene, I added my lyrics and ballads to my repertoire and it instantly caught on with the public and youngsters. Finally in 1966 after organising my band.. The Latin Swingers we hit pay dirt by practicing for 6 months non stop! Jerry Masacci came to hear my band at the Boricua Theatre in East Harlem and was impressed and we agreed to record and get paid. We recorded a Latin soul version of Gypsy Woman which became a hit! We were the youngest band on the scene... 12,13,14 year old musicians! The rest was a Cinderella Story... Hit after hit... Subway Joe, Riot, Poor Boy, Ordinary Guy etc. Boogaloo was like The Twist in the ‘60’s .. everybody was doing it! The most exciting time for us was this time!
Yes I understand going from a Street Band to being signed for Fania Records must have been fantastic for all of you!
All this time I was hanging out in all the clubs in New York... The Garage, Corsova, Village Gate, Colgate Gardens, Hunts Point etc... I was going crazy with this new found popularity. Non stop performing all over the Tri-State area... it was a dream come true! we did hang out with other groups because we were always in competition with the likes of Tito Puente, Joe Cuba, Willie Colon, TNT Band, Pete Rodriques.... and the list goes on!
Describe Joe to our readers exactly what “Boogaloo” is? Boogaloo is a dance first played by a soul band in Chicago. NY style Boogall became Boogaloo in the Latin scene with a Cha Cha Beat!
Why did the Boogaloo scene not sustain itself when it was so successful at this time?
Politics was the cause of its demise... the purists became agitated with the young bands taking all of the work from them and after I left Fania Records, the record companies took another approach in pure Salsa
What was it like for you becoming a star?
Becoming a star was a Cinderella Story.... a dream come true! Everyone knew me and was the most exciting period in my life at that time!
After 8 great singles, why did you leave Fania Records?
I left Fania because they had blackballed me from being on the radio and not paying me proper royalties. It took me almost three years to get released from my contract!
Joe tell us about the Latin scene then?
The Latin scene was vibrant and exciting, new sounds were hitting the radio stations all of the time! People were dancing every minute they could! The talk around town was where folks were going to dance. There were hundreds of clubs throughout the city and every venue was packed! Nightlife could not be replaced at any cost at this time! The Vietnam war broke out later on in the ‘60’s and soldiers took our sounds overseas. Many stories of GI’s writing home saying how they missed home and their music! Even the enemy used my music to try and influence the army about going home by playing my songs in combat!!
Tell us about your record label and what you wanted to try and achieve with your music Joe
I started Ghetto Records with the help financially of an “unknown Source” lol! We had a hit with Paul Ortiz Tender Love and eventually my partner and I parted ways. That didn’t stop me because I would go on to form Salsoul Records on Mercana Label. After some years we parted company with the Cayre brothers and once again Joe Bataan was searching for goals in life! I always wanted to create a Latin/Soul/Motown and Salsoul was the closest I got!
What have you been up to more recently Joe?
I have been traveling around the world as an ambassador of Latin/Soul with much success! Now thanks to the “ Big Boss” who has blessed me once again... the Lord saved my life and my approach to everything is much different now.. “All glory to the big boss, our Lord!” I have finished my memoirs and biography and seeking a publisher at the moment. I have plans to record a new album and need a label to record for. I will be at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London September 19 -21 so pop along and see me there! “Nothing is promised, seek his kingdom and everything will follow! Thank you Lord for this day you have made!”
Thank you Joe for sparing your time with us and sharing your experiences of life with us! It is very inspiring... may I wish you on behalf of all of our readers and myself all the very best for the future!
Joe Bataan... recommended listening... LP’s
Gypsy Woman Fania Records
Subway Joe Fania Records
Riot Fania Records
Poor Boy Fania Salsoul Americana Records
Gypsy Woman Fania
Ordinary Guy Fania
The Bottle Epic
This Boy Fania
Compilations Best Of Joe Bataan Charley Records cd compilation
Under the Streetlamps - Anthology 1967-‘72 cd comp.
DVD We Like It Like That The Story Of Boogaloo
Andy Hill (Chills and Fever Mod Club) September 2019