The group spent the 60s performing, recording and building their reputation. They became the house band for the local Puerto Rican show El Show de la 12, which made them fixtures in Latin American households. Despite gold records and growing popularity on and off the island, their label Gema Records dropped them. Rather than sign with another company (Motown was allegedly interested), they created Combo Records and released their own music, something they have continued to do since 1970. Estsamos Primeros was their first album as free agents and it ushered in an era of other changes. In 1971, the group added a trombonist Epifano Ceballo to their orchestra. This kind of experimentation and innovation would become their hallmarks.
The 1970s and 1980s found the group touring around the world and gaining fans across the globe. The ensemble has played everywhere from Madrid to the Netherlands, Argentina to Alaska; with their live concert album Breaking the Ice coincidentally snagging them a Grammy nomination in 1984. Their songs about love and daily life make their appeal universal.
Through the years the orchestra has witnessed historic milestones. They’ve performed to sold-out crowds at Yankee Stadium; celebrated their 20th and 25th years with concerts at Madison Square Garden; upon turning 30 they were made official musical ambassadors by the Puerto Rican Senate. While for their 40th anniversary Billboard Music recognized them with a Lifetime Achievement Award. But El Gran Combo is more than just a band of merry musicians. Academic Frances Aparicio referred to them in her book, Listening to Salsa, as a “musical tradition.”
Thanks to a rotating cast of musicians, singers and arrangers, El Gran Combo is the most enduring group of salseros in the genre. Taking a New York City-born sound, they crafted their own brand that has become the standard for salsa across the world. As Puerto Rico’s most recognizable export, the homegrown Boricuas have evolved and remained — at their core — gentlemen toiling away on their instruments, moving people to dance. For this they will always be Dons.