Eddie Palmieri Biography

Eduardo Palmieri, 15 December 1936, South Bronx, New York City, New York, USA, of Puerto Rican parentage. The self-avowed pioneering ‘oxygen cocktail’ of contemporary salsa, pianist, band leader, composer, arranger, producer Palmieri began playing the piano at the age of eight. He also played timbales, and wanted to specialize in the instrument, but changed his mind after several gigs with his uncle’s group. Within the framework of typical Latin music, Palmieri progressed a unique approach to the genre characterized by free improvisation and experimentation.

While attending Public School Number 52 in the Bronx, 14-year-old Palmieri formed a group with timbales player Orlando Marín, which included vocalist/percussionist Joe Quijano. Palmieri left in 1955 to turn professional as a member of Johnny Seguí’s orchestra, and the group became the Orlando Marín Conjunto. However, his over-zealousness resulted in his dismissal. ‘The club said I broke the piano, hitting the keys too hard. Seguí told me, either you go or the band goes, so see you later’. He then replaced brother Charlie Palmieri as pianist with the band of ex-Tito Puente lead singer, Vicentico Valdés, before joining Tito Rodríguez’s big band from 1958-60. In the liner notes to Eddie’s first album, Charlie described his brother as a ‘nut’ for leaving the financial security of Rodríguez’s successful band. Palmieri subsequently played weddings, funerals and local dances before forming La Perfecta in 1961. The line-up included John Pacheco and Barry Rogers (b. 1936, New York, USA; d. 19 April 1991, New York, USA; trombonist/arranger). Palmieri and Rogers developed a two trombone and flute frontline for Conjunto La Perfecta, which Charlie Palmieri dubbed a ‘trombanga’. They became one of Latin New York’s busiest bands and signed with Al Santiago’s Alegre label, who produced their debut Eddie Palmieri And His Conjunto La Perfecta in 1962.

In addition to Rogers, other key founder members of La Perfecta on the album were: Ismael ‘Pat’ Quintana (lead vocals), Manny Oquendo (timbales) and George Castro (flute). In 1963, Brazilian trombonist Jose Rodrigues joined La Perfecta; he became a regular Palmieri accompanist into the 80s and a busy session musician. Eddie Palmieri and the band released a further two volumes on Alegre before switching to Tico Records in 1964 for Echando Pa’lante (Straight Ahead). La Perfecta’s seminal mid-60s trombanga line-up comprised of Rogers and Rodrigues (trombones), Castro (flute), Oquendo (timbales/bongo), Tommy López (conga), Dave Pérez (bass), Palmieri (piano), Quintana (vocals). Pérez was an ex-member of Johnny Pacheco’s charanga and later worked with Ray Barretto and Típica 73. Palmieri released a further five albums with La Perfecta, including two with Latin jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader, before the band fell apart in 1968. ‘I just wasn’t taking care of business - problems with money, cancelling gigs. Just getting there was all I could manage - just get there and bring some money home to eat. That’s about what it came down to.’ However, the band’s legacy of recorded work provides ample testimony of what a brilliant, ferociously swinging outfit they were.

In 1966, Palmieri participated in the Tico All-Stars’ descargas (Latin jam sessions) recorded at New York’s Village Gate and guested on the Fania All Stars’ debut album in 1968. After the break-up of La Perfecta, Palmieri used a variety of front-line instrumentation on his albums. The first, Champagne in 1968, featured the trumpet of Alfredo ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros and Rogers on trombone, together with bass player Israel ‘Cachao’ López and three lead vocalists: Quintana, Cheo Feliciano and Cynthia Ellis. It contained boogaloo material, the R&B/Latin fusion style that was in vogue at the time. Palmieri later described boogaloo as embarrassing, and blamed its emergence on what he perceived as a decline in Latin music’s creativity, caused by the isolation of Cuba from the USA. Palmieri took up the issue of economic and social injustice in the USA on 1969’s Justicia. He was joined on this album by young timbales player Nicky Marrero, who became a regular accompanist until the mid-70s. Marrero later joined the Fania All Stars and Típica 73, and worked extensively as a session musician. Cuban Justo Betancourt sang in the chorus on Justicia and Eddie’s next release Superimposition (1969), which contained a whole side of experimental instrumentals. Bass player Andy González, a member of Ray Barretto’s band at the time, performed on this album; he eventually joined Palmieri’s band in 1971, then split in 1974 to co-found Libre with Manny Oquendo. Cuber remained with Palmieri until the late 70s.

Brother Charlie guested on organ on this album and Eddie’s other 1971 recordings, which were issued between 1971 and 1974. These included the Latin and R&B fusion experiments with the black group Harlem River Drive, and concerts at Sing Sing prison and the University of Puerto Rico. Palmieri signed with ex-band leader Harvey Averne’s Coco Records, and debuted on the label with 1973’s Sentido. Quintana left to pursue a solo career and was replaced by 16-year-old Lalo Rodriguez on The Sun Of Latin Music in 1974. In 1976, the album won the first ever Grammy Award in the newly created Latin record category. His next Coco release, 1976’s Unfinished Masterpiece, which he did not want issued, took him back to Grammy land. Young Cuban violinist Alfredo De La Fé appeared on both albums.

Palmieri’s subsequent five new releases between 1978 and 1987 all received Grammy nominations. After a break from recording due to contractual wrangles, he made Lucumi Macumba Voodoo for the major record company Epic in 1978, which took the African-derived religions of Cuba, Brazil and Haiti as its theme. The record flopped both in and outside the Latin market, and Palmieri later expressed disappointment about his experience with the label. He also regretted unwittingly joining the Fania Records empire. La Verdad/The Truth won him a fifth Grammy Award, and featured late 80s/early 90s hit-maker Tony Vega on lead vocals. Palmieri relocated to Puerto Rico in 1983, but lack of regular work due to rejection by many promoters and musicians, caused him to return to New York in frustration. Palmieri signed with another major company, Capitol Records, for the disappointing Sueño in 1989. It contained four remakes of previous hits and featured jazz fusion alto-saxophonist David Sanborn. His work in the 90s included a jazz-orientated set for the Nonesuch label, and a series of albums for the sympathetic RMM outlet. The 2006 collection Simpático, recorded with Brian Lynch, was one of the finest albums of Palmieri’s career.

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

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