Few bands can mark their success by decades. Singing about telephones, timbaleros, New York summers and brujeria has worked out well for the shining stars of the Caribbean, El Gran Combo. In 2012 they celebrate 50 years in music having made over 60 albums and hosted dozens of iconic musicians in their ranks, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, have more than earned the prophetic name they selected years ago.
Founded in 1962, El Gran Combo’s seeds were planted in contentious soil but bloomed into legend. The Puerto Rican ensemble had been performing with Rafael Cortijo y su Combo. When legal problems kept its lead singer Ismael Rivera from recording, the group was put on indefinite pause. Rather than waiting around for a resolution, its musicians broke off in different directions. Rafael Ithier, a pianist and songwriter and Eddie Perez, a saxophonist, were part of this core group. When Ithier was asked to put together a band to play for merengue legend Joseito Mateo, he recruited his band mates. They recorded “Meneame los Mangos,” as El Gran Combo. A name they were baptized with by Rafael Alvarez Guedes who coordinated the album’s production. Their name was a nod to their past with Cortijo and a signal of their new future. History however would once again put plans on hold. Their first record, Acangana, came out days before JFK was assassinated. Their label, Gema Records, literally stopped the presses and didn’t distribute the album in Puerto Rico and the U.S. until much later. Its eventual release brought success across the Caribbean and in the U.S.
Despite having played together for years, members began leaving almost immediately. Their original lead singer lasted as long as the group’s first live performance in San Juan. He was quickly replaced by Andy Montanez who became a group mainstay. Since then members have stayed for months or years and some for decades. Ithier and Perez are the only original members of the group that remain today while vocalists Charlie Aponte and Jerry Rivas, who joined the group in the 1970s, still remain with the orchestra. Although the faces would constantly change, the ensemble counts salsa icons such as percussionist Roberto Roena, singers Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe and La India as contributors. The collection of famous alumni gained them the title, “La Universidad de la Salsa,” a tribute to an institution that grooms young, raw talent.