Charlie Palmieri Biography

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Carlos Manuel Palmieri Jnr., 21 November 1927, Bellevue Hospital, Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA, d. 12 September 1988, the Bronx, New York City, New York, USA. Known in salsa as ‘El Gigante de Las Blancas y Las Negras’ (The Giant of the Keyboard), Palmieri’s parents, Carlos Palmieri Manuel Villaneuva and Isabel Maldonado-Palmieri, migrated from Ponce, Puerto Rico to New York’s El Barrio (Spanish Harlem), shortly before he was born. He was a child musical prodigy who could faultlessly copy a piece on the piano by ear. He began piano lessons at the age of seven and later studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. In 1941 Charlie and his five-year-old brother, Eddie Palmieri, won prizes in amateur talent contests and during this time, a guardian would take him to Latin big band dances. Charlie made his professional debut on 2 October 1943 with the band of Osario Selasie at the Park Palace Ballroom. A seven-month stint with Selasie was followed by one-and-a-half years with Orquestra Ritmo Tropical. After graduating from high school in 1946, he freelanced with various bands, including La Playa Sextet and Rafael Muñoz, with whom he made his recording debut on ‘Se Va La Rumba’. In October 1947, he was hired to replace Joe Loco in Fernando Alvarez’s band at the Copacabana club, by the band’s then musical director Tito Puente. In 1948 he recorded on the Alba label with his first band, Conjunto Pin Pin.

After leaving the Copacabana in 1951, Palmieri toured briefly with Xavier Cugat. The same year, he joined Puente’s band and appeared on the 10-inch album Tito Puente At The Vibes And His Rhythm Quartet, Vol. 6 on the Tico label (most of which was later incorporated on the late 50s album Puente In Love). He joined Pupi Campo’s band and worked on Jack Paar’s CBS daytime television show. In the early 50s, Palmieri formed another band, which debuted at New York’s famous Palladium Ballroom with lead vocalist Vitín Avilés. However, lack of gigs caused him to resume work as an accompanist. He performed with Johnny Seguí, Tito Rodríguez, Vicentico Valdés and Pete Terrace. A couple of tracks he recorded with Rodríguez in 1953 were included on the 1990 compilation Ritmo Y Melodia, 15 Joyas Tropicales. He appeared on Terrace’s mid-50s A Night In Mambo-Jazzland, and recorded as leader of a small Latin jazz group on El Fantastico Charlie Palmieri. At the end of 1956, he organized a quintet for an extended residency in Chicago.

Shortly after Palmieri’s return to New York, he discovered Johnny Pacheco playing flute with the band of Dominican singer/composer Dioris Valladares, who was on the same bill as Palmieri’s group at the Monte Carlo Ballroom. He employed Pacheco, initially as a timbales player, and later as the flautist with his flute, strings, rhythm section and voices band, Charanga ‘La Duboney’. The band signed with the major label United Artists Records, and their 1960 debut Let’s Dance The Charanga!, featuring Vitín Avilés, generated several hits in New York’s Latino market. Not only did La Duboney enjoy considerable success in their own right - playing two to three dances a night - but they also kicked off the early 60s charanga (flute and violin band) boom. After a short while, Pacheco split to found his own charanga. Palmieri was obliged to break his contract with United Artists when the company insisted that he record Hawaiian music! This was because the record contract of Tito Rodríguez, who signed with the label in 1960, stipulated that he would be the only artist to record Latin music for them. Palmieri and Charanga ‘La Duboney’ switched to Al Santiago’ s Alegre label. They released three albums on the label between 1961 and 1963, and contributed two tracks to 1961’s Las Charangas, which also featured the charangas of Pacheco and José Fajardo. The tracks ‘Como Bailan La Pachanga’ and ‘La Pachanga Se Baila Asi’ (co-written by Joe Quijano and Palmieri), from La Duboney’s magnificent bestselling Alegre debut Pachanga At The Caravana Club, were both hits in Farándula magazine’s New York Latin Top 15 during May 1961.

Palmieri directed (and performed on) and Santiago produced four superlative Alegre All-Stars Latin jam session (descarga) volumes issued between 1961 and the mid-60s. These albums, which gave Palmieri an opportunity to indulge his dual passion for jazz and Cuban music, involved artists such as Kako, Pacheco, Willie Rosario, Cheo Feliciano, Orlando Marín, Dioris Valladares, Joe Quijano, bass player Bobby Rodríguez, Barry Rogers, Osvaldo ‘Chi Hua Hua’ Martínez and Willie Torres. The Alegre All-Stars’ recordings were a descendant of the Cuban Jam Session volumes recorded in Cuba on the Panart label in the second half of the 50s (see Israel ‘Cachao’ López). Cuban saxophonist José ‘Chombo’ Silva participated on both. In their turn, the Alegre All-Stars inspired a string of New York descarga recordings, which included releases by Kako, Johnny Pacheco, Osvaldo ‘Chi Hua Hua’ Martínez, Tico All-Stars, Cesta All-Stars, Salsa All-Stars, Fania All Stars and SAR All Stars. Palmieri and Santiago made a significant input: Palmieri guested on the Tico All-Stars’ 1966 descarga volumes recorded at New York’s Village Gate, and directed and played on the Cesta All-Stars’ two albums, which Santiago co-produced; Santiago produced Salsa All Stars in 1968, which featured Palmieri on piano.

When the charanga sound declined in popularity, Palmieri replaced the flute and violins with three trumpets and two trombones to form the Duboney Orchestra for 1965’s Tengo Maquina Y Voy A 60 (Going Like Sixty). Puerto Rico-born Victor Velázquez, a Palmieri accompanist since 1961, sang lead vocals with the new Duboney, which also included young trumpeter Bobby Valentín. Palmieri left Alegre to record for the BG label, but returned in 1967 for Hay Que Estar En Algo/Either You Have It Or You Don’t!, which contained some boogaloos, an R&B/Latin fusion form that was the rage at the time. Palmieri later admitted to Max Salazar: ‘... I didn’t care for the boogaloo, but I’ve learned that if you do not follow a popular trend, you’re dead.’ The following year he recorded Latin Bugalu for Atlantic Records, which was also released in the UK. The album was produced by Herbie Mann and contained his self-penned classic ‘Mambo Show’.

1969 was an extremely lean year for Palmieri’s band. He nearly suffered a nervous breakdown and contemplated relocating to Puerto Rico. However, he was dissuaded from doing so by Tito Puente, who hired him as musical conductor for his television show El Mundo De Tito Puente. When the series finished, Palmieri started a parallel career as a lecturer in Latin music and culture, and taught in various educational institutions in New York. Velázquez left for an eight-month stint with Joe Quijano in Puerto Rico; he returned to Palmieri’s band in 1972 to share lead vocals with Vitín Avilés, then departed to join Louie Ramírez’s band. Palmieri began using organ, which imparted an element of kitsch to some of his recorded work. He rejigged his horn section to two trumpets and saxophone (played by Bobby Nelson, who doubled on flute). He issued three notable albums on Alegre between 1972 and 1975 with Avilés on lead vocals, and two on Harvey Averne’s Coco label (in 1974 and 1975) with lead vocals by Velázquez. A number of Palmieri’s hit tunes from this period were written by veteran Puerto Rican composer/singer and former heart-throb, Raúl Marrero, including, ‘La Hija De Lola’ from El Gigante Del Teclado (1972) and ‘La Vecina’ from Vuelve El Gigante (1973). Palmieri only played organ with his band on the first Coco outing, Electro Duro, which was probably his most disappointing album. His second Coco release, Impulsos, was a more refined remake of the rawer (and better) Charlie Palmieri. Both versions featured Velázquez on lead vocals; he again departed and went on to co-lead Típica Ideal. In 1977, Palmieri teamed up with veteran Panamanian singer/composer Meñique Barcasnegras for Con Salsa Y Sabor on the Cotique label. That year, he returned to Alegre to lead and perform on the Al Santiago produced 17th anniversary Alegre All-Stars reunion Perdido (Vol. 5), which re-convened 10 musicians from the 60s sessions, together with Louie Ramírez, Bobby Rodríguez and members of his band La Compañia. Palmieri remained with Alegre in 1978 for The Heavyweight, with singers Meñique and Julito Villot, and played and arranged on Vitín Avilés’ solo Con Mucha Salsa. His brief return to Alegre was punctuated by the highly recommended compilationGigante Hits in 1978, which selected tracks from his 1965-75 period with the label.

In one or more of his capacities as A&R head, producer, keyboard player and arranger, Palmieri worked with a long list of artists, which included: Kako, brother Eddie, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Ismael Rivera, Rafael Cortijo, Herbie Mann, Ismael Quintana, Yayo El Indio, Cal Tjader, Raúl Marrero, Joe Quijano, Frankie Dante, Bobby Capó, Israel ‘Cachao’ López, Machito, Mongo Santamaría and Ray Barretto. In January 1980, Palmieri moved to Puerto Rico to escape New York’s severe winters and frustrating, exploitative Latin club scene. He organized a successful band there, but sadly never recorded with them. Palmieri returned to New York in February 1983 to discuss a proposed concert in Puerto Rico with his brother Eddie. However he suffered a massive heart attack and stroke and was hospitalized for six weeks. Upon his recovery, he continued to reside in New York and resolved to live at a slower pace. On 6 January 1984, New York’s Latin music industry paid tribute to Palmieri at Club Broadway. The same year, he returned to a small group format (piano, bass, timbales, conga and bongo) for the Latin jazz A Giant Step on the Tropical Budda label. He played on El Sabor Del Conjunto Candela/86, led by bongo/güiro player Ralphy Marzan, and on Joe Quijano’s The World’s Most Exciting Latin Orchestra & Review in 1988. Up to 1988, he gigged with Combo Gigante, which he co-led with Jimmy Sabater. He made his belated UK debut in June 1988 with a five-night residency at London’s Bass Clef club accompanied by London-based Robin Jones’ King Salsa.

On 12 September 1988, Palmieri arrived back in New York after a trip to Puerto Rico, where he had performed at the Governor’s residence with veteran singer/composer Bobby Capó. Later in the day he suffered a further heart attack and died at the Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, New York. In 1990, the Latin jazz CD Mambo Show was released on the resurrected Tropical Budda label, which congregated an all-star ensemble, including Palmieri (piano and co-producer), Mongo Santamaría (conga), Chombo (saxophone); Barry Rogers (trombone), Nicky Marrero (timbales), Johnny ‘Dandy’ Rodríguez (bongo), Ray Martínez (bass), David ‘Piro’ Rodríguez (trumpet).

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.