STORY OF GEORGE GOLDNER AND TICO
Mambos and Cha-Chas!
The Best in the World for Your Listening and Dancing Pleasure
THE BIRTH OF TICO
& THE TWO TITOS
There's probably no form of popular music more under-appreciated in
the United States than Latin music. Yet, it's hard to imagine a time when
it wasn't heard here. Given that large sections of this country were once
Mexican territory, Latin songs and dances have been a part of our cultural
tapestry for a very long time! Over the last 75 years, their influence
on country, jazz, rock, reggae, rhythm and blues, disco and even Broadway
show tunes has been profound; you can hear it in songs as diverse as "San
Antonio Rose", "St. Louis Blues", "Spanish Harlem",
"Doo Wah Diddy Diddy", "Turn The Beat Around" and
Irving Berlin's "Heat Wave".
North Americans en masse first became fascinated with Latin rhythms
in the second decade of the 20th century, when professional dancers Irene
and Vernon Castle imported Argentina's tango to New York. It intensified
during the 1930s, with hit records like "El Manicero (The Peanut
Vendor)" by Don Azpiazú's Havana Casino Orchestra, hit movies
like Flying Down To Rio in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers demonstrated
the rhumba, and the splashy Broadway débuts of Brazilian bombshell
Carmen Miranda and conga king Desi Arnáz. By then, many Cuban,
Puerto Rican, Brazilian, Mexican and Spanish migrants were taking advantage
of the Latin craze by forming their own orchestras. Their interaction
with jazz musicians sowed the seeds of the mambo and the cha-cha-chá
in the early 1940s, and made possible the flourishing of Latin music meccas
like New York's Palladium Ballroom and Hollywood's Million Dollar Theater.
Many of these Latin pop pioneers got the chance to commit their music
to wax. Major record labels such as RCA Victor, Columbia and Decca had
been waxing Latin music almost since the advent of recording technology.
In the '40s, the first nationally-distributed independent labels devoted
to Latin music came into being - Mardi Gras, Verne, Coda, Seeco and others.
Tico Records was arguably foremost among these companies.
Inner sleeves from early Tico album releases had the following message
emblazoned on them in huge blue letters: Mambos and Cha-Chas! The Best
in the World for Your Listening and Dancing Pleasure. It read like typical
record company hype of the period, but it was surprisingly true. Tico
Records could legitimately boast of marketing the best Latin dance music
around. Research into the history of the label unearths a familiar name:
He was one of the most important figures in the development of
rock 'n' roll as we know it today. An early R & B producer and
record executive, Goldner founded such seminal rock labels as Rama,
Gone, End, and later, Red-Bird Records. He made possible the success
of early doo wop groups like The Crows, The Cleftones, and most
famously, The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon. His 1957 production
of The Chantels singing "Maybe" is widely believed to
have launched the rock 'n' roll girl group genre. Many historians
consider him the patron saint of R & B vocal group music. Yet,
in his book Rhythm and The Blues, former Atlantic Records
executive and Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Wexler calls
Goldner "the phonograph record's King of Salsa". Both
perceptions of the man are correct, because Latin artists paved
George Goldner's path to rock 'n' roll. In a recent Vanity Fair
article, respected R & B songwriter and producer Jerry Leiber
remembered him as an immaculately groomed man who "looked like
(French actor) Adolphe Menjou . . . not a hair out of place".
Journalist Tony Scherman described him in 1993 as a suave ladykiller
who "dressed exquisitely and was fond of Tiffany cigarette
A native New Yorker born in 1918, Goldner first made his living as a
garment dealer. However, dance music was his secret passion. He abandoned
the rag business in the early 1940s to run dance halls, which were thriving
due to the popularity of swing bands. He loved to dance himself, and according
to some sources, he even taught dancing for a while. Goldner's wife Gracie
was Puerto Rican, and Spanish-language recordings often played in their
home. The Goldners were no doubt among thousands of New Yorkers who flocked
to ballrooms in order to enjoy exciting live sets by the city's finest
"Everyone danced mambo and cha-cha", pianist and future Tico
recording artist Alfredito Valdés, Jr. would recall decades later.
"(Bands would be) at the Palladium, the Manhattan Center, (the) Riviera
Terrace". The Palladium, located at 53rd Street and Broadway, billed
itself as "Home Of The Mambo", and was by far the most popular
spot for Latin dancing. Anyone from New York City transit workers to actors
James Dean and Eartha Kitt might be seen there, brushing up on the latest
mambo variations. It was smarter than the average ballroom, as Downbeat
Magazine's Nat Hentoff detailed in a 1954 column: "The $1.75 admission
entitles the adventurous patron to mambo instructions early in the evening,
plus an amateur contest for mambo dancers, plus a professional mambo show
from eleven to twelve (PM), plus dancing . . . the consensus of the
clientele seems to be that this is far better exercise than bowling or
turning off the TV commercials". Enchanted by the music played at
the Palladium, and at his own establishments, Goldner found himself wanting
to record it.
In 1948, he formed a partnership with radio personality Art "Pancho"
Raymond, who hosted a Latin music show on Station WLIB. The name of the
record label they founded was derived from the Xavier Cugat hit "Tico
Tico No Fubá". Raymond's involvement notwithstanding, Tico
Records was always George Goldner's baby. With little more to his credit
than chutzpah and enthusiasm, he dove headlong into the treacherous
waters of music recording, marketing, and promotion, learning (and making
up new rules) as he went.
Art Raymond's experience in the record business counterbalanced Goldner's
lack of same, but partnering with a disc jockey wasn't necessarily a
move. Given Raymond's high-profile involvement with the company, WLIB
was vulnerable to conflict-of-interest charges if he played Tico releases.
What Goldner felt he needed in order to access radio playlists was a
few silent partners. Partners like Dick "Ricardo" Sugar, a
popular deejay who was preparing to launch his own Latin music show
WEVD. He decided to purchase blocks of airtime from Sugar - a practice
which, though legal in the 40s, would be eventually be denounced as "payola"
and prohibited. However, from 1948 on, George Goldner actively cultivated
a reputation among New York deejays as Mr. Pay-For-Play.
Among other unofficial partners in Tico Records were jocks Bob
"Pedro" Harris and Matty Singer, "The Humdinger"
(one of the label's early single releases was called "The Matty
Singer Mambo"). Throughout his career, George Goldner would
maintain close ties with radio people; in a few more years, he'd
establish a mutually beneficial relationship with pioneering rock
jock Alan Freed. At this early stage, Dick Sugar was the main person
he counted on to provide an outlet for his product, and he certainly
must have been encouraged when Sugar christened his program "Tico
Tico Time!". Years later, the deejay would allow that he did
so "in honor of Tico Records".
Goldner and Raymond set up offices at 659 Tenth Avenue in Manhattan,
and went out hunting for talent. There was plenty to be had. Swing had
become passé, and dozens of Latin bandleaders were rushing to fill
the musical void; almost overnight, it seemed, the mambo craze was in
full bloom. There were lots of cocky young Hispanic musicians around town,
and all who hadn't already been snatched up by major labels were anxious
to get into a recording studio. In a stroke of incredible good luck, among
the first acts Goldner and Raymond signed were two bandleaders who would
become legends of Latin music: percussionist Tito Puente and singer Tito
Rodríguez, both veterans of New York's "cuchifrito" (Latin
club) circuit, as well as alumni of important society bands like those
of Noro Morales, José Curbelo, Pupi Campo and Xavier Cugat. The
high quality of their Tico recordings would do much to build their respective
Tito Puente was unquestionably Tico's star, both in the label's
earliest years and much later, near the end of its existence. Journalist
Max Salazar claims that Puente cut nearly 80 different recording
sessions for Tico in its long lifetime. He started his own group
after a long period of apprenticeship in various New York bands.
A master timbalero who also played piano, vibraphone and
brass, Puente was an excellent arranger and a top-notch showman.
These qualities made him a headliner at the Palladium, as well as
a consistent winner of Latin music polls. "Tito Puente was
to the timbales what Buddy Rich and Tony Williams were to jazz drums",
author and percussionist Jim Payne writes. "He combined the
snare drum and drum set techniques of (jazz) with the traditional
Cuban (percussion) style, and with innovation . . . he took performance
on the timbales to a new level". Goldner recognized his talent
right away, and gave him maximum creative leeway at record dates.
In the fall of 1949, Puente gave Tico its first big (regional) hit, "Abaniquito".
After Dick "Ricardo" Sugar began giving the single regular airplay
on his show, it was pounced on by Latin music deejays all over the East
Coast. Lead vocals on this incendiary mambo number were sung by Cuban
sonero Vicentico Valdés, who would record for Tico as a solo artist
in later years; Latin jazz pioneer Mario Bauzá made a guest appearance
on trumpet. Among Puente's other early hits was the sizzling "Mambo
Macoco", the groundbreaking "Vibe Mambo" and his cooking
version of the Cuban standard "Caramelos".
Goldner found himself supervising a landmark recording after Puente
convinced him to schedule a session for a first-of-its-kind all-percussion
album. There was nothing in the studio but Latin percussion instruments,
Puente, his bandmates Mongo Santamaría, Potato Valdés
and Willie Bobo, and a big bottle of rum which they passed among
themselves. When the night was over, they'd cut Puente In Percussion,
a classic disc that became the template for hundreds of subsequent
Latin recordings. Other highly-regarded (and, collectors be warned,
high-priced) Puente albums for Tico include Mamborama, Cha-Cha-Chás
For Lovers, Dance The Cha-Cha-Chá, Puente In Love, Tito Puente
Swings, Vicentico Valdés Sings, and Mambo With Me
- and those are just his 1950s releases.
Tito Rodríguez also played percussion, but made his biggest impact
as a singer. The brother of popular Puerto Rican vocal star Johnny Rodríguez,
Tito came to New York in the late 1930s to follow Johnny into the music
business. He took a job as featured vocalist with the popular society
band of Enric Madriguera in 1941, then landed a spot the following year
with the orchestra led by America's most celebrated Latin bandleader,
Xavier Cugat. His spirited performance of "Bim Bam Boom" was
one of Cugat's finest Columbia releases of the '40s. After leaving Cugie's
employ, Rodríguez did much session work in-between brief stints
with various other bands. After suddenly being fired from the José
Curbelo Orchestra in 1947, he decided to start his own group, The Mambo
Devils. Expanding from a combo to a ten-piece orchestra the following
year, they were booked for an extended gig at the Palladium Ballroom,
where they developed an avid following.
George Goldner produced a reconstituted version of Rodríguez's
group under the name Los Lobos del Mambo, and scored bestsellers
with such sides as "Mambo Gee Gee" (otherwise known as
Goldner Mambo"), "Mambo Mona (Mama Guela)", "La
Renta" and the risqué "Chiqui Bop". Tito Rodríguez
recorded for Tico between 1949 and 1958, leaving for a time to cut
sides at RCA Victor, returning, and then leaving permanently in
1960 for the United Artists group of labels.There he would record
his most acclaimed albums, Live At The Palladium and Tito
Rodríguez Returns To The Palladium - Live!, and redefine
himself as primarily a singer of romantic tunes. It's probably the
recordings he made during this period that compelled Latin bandleader/writer
Bobby Sanabria to compliment his "unique jazz-influenced phrasing".
However, his early Tico sides established him as a top contender
in the mambo/cha-cha sweepstakes.
"All the (Latin) singers were influenced by Tito's style", stated singer
Cheo Feliciano, one of many who considered him a mentor. "Everybody
wanted to be Tito Rodríguez! He was the model for not
only singers, but for bandleaders. He was a very fastidious dresser,
and he demanded that his band look good at all times". The adjectives
"polished" and "professional" certainly do spring
to mind at the mention of his name. Notable sidemen on his sessions
included pianist Joe Loco, conga player Luis Miranda, trombonist Billy
Byers, saxophonist Lenny Hambro and trumpet player/arranger Harold
Wegbriet. Just so everybody knew how much he valued his musicians,
he cut a Tico album of instrumental boleros called Latin Jewels.
However, his fans preferred albums like Wa-Pa-Cha, heavy on
dance beats and not stingy with the Rodríguez vocal magic.
Every ballroom dance enthusiast in New York knew about the Palladium's
"two Titos", so there was a consumer base ready and willing
to buy 78 RPM singles by them. Puente and Rodríguez pumped out
product on a regular basis, and the label was off to a great start. George
Goldner found that he loved going into the studio with artists. The sound
of hot Latin rhythms coming through the audio speakers was like an elixir
In 1987, rock historians Mike Redmond and Steve West described the typical
Goldner recording date: "Sessions took place in small, rectangular
rooms with a small control booth at one end. Goldner and the engineer
would monitor from the booth . . . the rest of the studio was occupied
by the band and the singers, with a screen between them to prevent the
sound from bleeding through. Three microphones were usually employed:
one for the band, one for the lead singer and one for the (backing) group".
As he gained experience in the studio, Goldner became known for subjecting
musicians to dozens of takes until he got exactly the result he wanted.
His favorite part of recording sessions was playback time, according to
pop songwriter/producer Jeff Barry, who worked with him in later years.
"He would listen with his eyes closed", Barry says, "and
when the record was over, he would, when he was particularly excited,
pick up the chair he was sitting on, and throw it against the wall!".
Busted furniture must have been plentiful at early Tico sessions; a lot
of exceptionally good dance music was cut, more than enough for Goldner
to get excited about.
Then, in 1950, matters suddenly took a turn for the worse. Disagreements
over money and/or creative direction led to a falling out between him
and Art Raymond. Recording sessions were halted indefinitely; Puente,
Rodríguez and Tico's other artists had little choice but to make
deals with other labels. It took a year for Goldner to settle with Raymond
and buy out his interests. Desperately in need of new funding, he turned
to Joe Kolsky, a shady New York nightclub owner. Kolsky became an increasingly
powerful silent partner in Tico Records as Goldner struggled to lure his
back his old acts.
He succeeded in signing Puente and Rodríguez to new contracts,
and in the process, he found a new star: Joe Loco. Since the late 1930s,
Joe Estévez, Jr. had been a sideman with almost every major jazz
and Latin orchestra you could name. Tommy Dorsey, Xavier Cugat and Machito
were some of his former employers. His nickname, translated as "Crazy
Joe", came either from his sometimes erratic behavior or from a song
that he co-wrote with Machito in the 1940s called "Cada Loco Con
Su Tema". Count Basie and Duke Ellington's work provided Estevez's
inspiration, and of all Latin pianists of his era, he was the most popular
with jazz lovers. That was the result of his extensive jazz background,
and of his penchant for avoiding Latin tunes. He preferred to give pop
and jazz standards like "How High The Moon" and "Bei Mir
Bist Du Schoen" the Latin treatment - a practice which reportedly
enhanced his "crazy" reputation among peers. Estévez
came to Tico as a member of Tito Rodríguez's orchestra, but George
Goldner was so impressed by his piano playing, he encouraged him to cut
some solo sides. This yielded a hit single in 1952, a very atmospheric
version of "Tenderly". Its enthusiastic acceptance on jazz radio
prompted Estevez to go out on his own. He formed a popular quartet with
vibraphonist Pete Terrace, bassist Jules Andino, and bongo player Bobby
Flash that became a fixture in New York jazz lounges. While he was a Tico
artist for less than three years, Joe Loco cut a wealth of great instrumentals
for the label that filled out albums and compilations for years to come.
Piano ballads like "Tenderly" were the norm for him, but you
can't beat themes like his conga-pounding remake of "Hallelujah"
Picture research by Stuffed Animal,
Tony Rounce, Malcolm Baumgart, Richard Havers, Leonardo Flores,
Phil Milstein, Rat Pfink and Jeffrey Glenn.