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Fania Records Co-Founder Johnny Pacheco Dies At 85

Feb 16, 2021
Originally published on February 16, 2021 1:19 pm

Johnny Pacheco, one of the founders of the iconic Latin music label Fania Records, died Monday at age 85.

Pacheco had been hospitalized in New Jersey for undisclosed reasons, according to Alex Masucci, the brother of Fania co-founder Jerry Masucci. No cause of death was provided.

Fania Records revolutionized the sound of Cuban dance music in the 1970s. During that time, Pacheco was a prolific songwriter and musical arranger whose work helped fuel the careers of Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades. As a producer, his vast musical knowledge of various Latin musical genres helped ignite the rise of the Latin dance genre known as salsa and he became its biggest cheerleader.

The label's influence extended for several generations, well into the 21st century. DJs and producers have used tracks from the golden age of salsa to create remixed club hits around the world.

Pacheco was born in the Dominican Republic to a musical family in 1935. His father was a band leader that played popular dance music including the Cuban danzón, which would have an influence on the younger Pacheco's musical career.

When the family moved to New York in the late 1940s from the Dominican Republic to escape the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, Pacheco became immersed in music. He taught himself to play accordion, violin, saxophone and clarinet. He attended the Juilliard School of Music to study percussion and soon became a busy A-list studio musician, playing on sessions for commercial jingles, record dates and with the NBC Studio Orchestra.

In the early 1960s, his band Pacheco Y Su Charanga popularized a style called pachanga and soon he was touring throughout the US, Latin America, Europe and Asia, where he learned how to appeal to larger audiences.

In 1963 he partnered with attorney Jerry Masucci to form Fania Records and under Pacheco's guidance as talent scout, composer, arranger, musician and record producer, the label ushered in the international popularity of salsa, a term that encompasses a variety of mostly Cuban dance styles including mambo, guaracha, cha cha cha and also included Puerto Rican rhythms like bomba as well as the Dominican merengue.

"At first we didn't think we were anything special," Pacheco told NPR in 2006, "Until every place we went, the lines were unbelievable. They tried to rip the shirts off our backs. It reminded me of The Beatles."

The label helped make stars of lead vocalists like Cruz, Blades, Hector Lavoe, Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez and Cheo Feliciano, as well as band leaders Ray Barretto and Willie Colón.

Pacheco spent the remainder of his career continuing to search and develop new talent, all the while promoting the vast Fania catalog with concerts and lectures. Ever the creative band leader, in his later years he led yet another band under his name, Johnny Pacheco Y Su Tumbao Añejo (Johnny Pacheco and His Vintage Groove).

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Johnny Pacheco has died. He'd been hospitalized with pneumonia the night before. The 85-year-old flautist, composer and arranger was celebrated as a trailblazer of salsa music. Here's NPR's Felix Contreras.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: To truly understand Johnny Pacheco's contribution not only to music but also to the Latino experience here in the United States, you need to know a little bit about Fania Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUIMBARA")

CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: The label was started by Pacheco and his divorce attorney, Jerry Masucci, in 1964, primarily to record New York City bands that played their favorite kinds of Cuban dance music, which had dried up because of the U.S. economic embargo on the island. As Pacheco sold their records from the trunk of his car to neighborhood record shops in Latin New York, the U.S. was also undergoing a profound national transformation as civil rights for African Americans began to extend to Latino communities. And very soon, the Fania sound was not only a musical revolution, it was also the sound of a political awakening as Afro Latino folkloric rhythms like Afro Cuban guaguanco, Dominican merengue and Puerto Rican bomba all became part of Pacheco's musical palette as the principal architect of the Fania sound. And as he told me in a report about Fania Records in 2006...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHNNY PACHECO: You know, the Black had Motown. The white Anglo had their own sound. And here we come with a different sound of Latin music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUAGUANCO PA'L QUE SABE")

PACHECO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Johnny Pacheco was born in the Dominican Republic in 1935 and moved with his family to New York when he was 11 years old. Already a budding musician, he continued his music studies and was admitted to The Juilliard School of music, where he studied percussion and arranging, after which he was soon an in-demand studio percussionist on American pop music records. But in an early form of niche marketing, Pacheco soon applied his vast musical skills to popular dance music aimed at the people who were living around him. His first taste of success came in 1960 with a dance craze called the pachanga.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CACHITA")

PACHECO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: His band was offered international tours in Europe, Asia and Latin America while becoming one of the first Latin bands to play the Apollo Theater in New York. It was those early music experiences in the music business that gave him the confidence to take on running a record label. And for a little more than a decade, Fania Records built a stable of star vocalists and instrumentalists that included Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe and Ray Barretto, all of whom later formed the Fania All-Stars with others on the label under Johnny Pacheco's direction. The true magic of Johnny Pacheco's gift was not just his prowess as a label chief, musical arranger or cultural visionary. It was how all of those skills were put to use in the service of others for Fania and well into his later years as he mentored countless young musicians and arrangers. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY PACHECO'S "DESAFINADO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.