The Development of Latin Record Labels

Three important Latin record labels—Alegre, Tico, and Fania—;were formed in New York in the 1960s. Fania, which eventually became known as “The Latin Motown” ultimately dwarfed and absorbed the other two labels, but all three made important contributions to the development of salsa and Latin popular music.

Tico Records
Founded in 1948 by producer George Goldner, Tico Records was the earliest New York record label devoted to Latin music. The early artists on Tico were some of the giants of the Latin music genre. Tico records originally had a banner with the following: “King of the Cha Cha Mambo.” Tico was the early home of Tito Puente. In late 1949, Puente organized a line-up of four trumpets, three trombones, four saxophones and a full rhythm section for a recording session for the label. He was the mainstay of the Tico label for its first ten years, then left for RCA, only to return to Tico in the 1960s. At one time Machito and Tito Rodriguez also recorded with Tico Records. The great vocalist Celia Cruz was also contracted with Tico Records in the early 1960s when she left Cuba and began an almost decade-long association with bandleader Tito Puente. However, after eight albums on the label, she asked to be released from her contract.

In 1966, Tico Records produced a series of jam sessions called the “Tico All Stars” at the Village Gate club in New York with stars like Joe Cuba, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, and Johnny Pacheco. The label also later co-produced a Carnegie Hall concert with Puente, La Lupe, Ismael Rivera, and many others. Again, these descargas paved the way for salsa.

Tico Records was sold to Fania Records in 1974, and Fania continued to use the Tico name for many releases. Tico’s last recording was made in 1981, and after that time, all Tico artists changed labels.

Alegre Records
Alegre Records was formed in 1956 by a young Puerto Rican pianist named Al Santiago. The label was actually which headquartered out of the ‘Casa Alegre’ record shop in New York. Alegre’s first big hits included major charanga bestsellers by Johnny Paceco and Charlie Palmieri. Other artists on the label included Kako, Sabu, Willie Colón, Ricardo Ray, Barry Rogers, Eddie Palmieri, and many others.

Al Santiago’s approach was was to mix the big band feeling of Machito with the freewheeling improvisational talents of emerging salsa artists to create a new Latin sound. Santiago brought new standards of studio technique, postproduction, graphic design and use of media to the Latin record business, using the best available sidemen, engineers and facilities.

Like Tico Records, Alegre also employed the concept of superstar jam sessions, called the “Alegre All Stars”—a move soon mimiced by the Fania All Stars. The Alegre jam sessions (called descarga in Spanish), which helped pave the way for salsa, were inspired by earlier work of the great Cuban bassist and co-inventor of the mambo, Israel “Cachao” Lopez. Lopez made an influential series of recordings in the late 1950s called Cuban Jam Sessions. Santiago also set up a branch in Puerto Rico, hired songwriter “Tite” Curet Alfonso to run it, and released a Puerto Rican All Stars Album in the mid-60s. Financial overextension forced Santiago to sell Alegre Records to Fania Records in 1966.

Fania Records
Singer/bandlleader Johnny Pacheco formed Fania Records in 1964 in partnership with lawyer Jerry Masucci. The company became the most influential record label in Latin music history, and it reshaped Cuban music into the Latin New York salsa sound. Fania became known as “The Latin Motown” as hit records began to pour out of its studio and into the charts throughout Latin America and the barrios of the US.

An early artist on the Fania label was pianist Larry Harlow. He was soon followed by a group of Brooklyn teenagers led by a 17-year-old trombonist named Willie Colón. Producer Pacheco put Colón together with another teenaged artist, vocalist Héctor Lavoe to produce their first hit album, El Malo (1967). It was a raw collection of songs about teenage barrio life with an urban edge. Fania also brought out a major record called Acid by percussionist Ray Barretto in 1967. It was a hard-edged fusion of R&B and jazz.

In 1971, following the earlier model of Tico and Alegre Records, Fania formed a supergroup of its major recording artists called the “Fania All Stars.” Their first engagement was at the Cheetah club in Manhattan. The performances were recorded and filmed and released as Nuestra Cosa Latina—Our Latin Thing. The group became so popular that two years later in 1973 they were performing in Yankee Stadium before a crowd of 20,000 people. The Yankee Stadium concert was released on film in 1974 as Salsa and as a double album called Fania All Stars Live at Yankee Stadium. The record is still viewed as a salsa classic. Among the artists performing on the album were bandleader Johnny Pacheco, vocalist Celia Cruz, El Gran Combo (the leading Puerto Rican band), percussionist Ray Barretto, percussionist Mongo Santamaría, jazz drummer Billy Cobham, jazz keyboardist Jan Hammer, and Afropop bandleader/ saxophonist Manu Dibango.