Roberto Roena Biography

16 January c.1940, Mayagüez, Puerto Rico; his last name is occasionally spelt as Rohena. A salsa band leader, Roena began his musical career as a dancer with various bands in Puerto Rico - he later became known as ‘El Gran Bailarín’ (The Great Dancer). While performing as a dancer and chorus singer with Cortijo Y Su Combo, the band’s leader Rafael Cortijo gave Roena his first percussion lessons. He settled for the bongo and became a member of Cortijo’s band between 1957 and 1962. Roberto was among the seven accompanists, led by pianist Rafael Ithier, who defected from Cortijo’s Combo in May 1962 to become the basis of El Gran Combo. During his tenure with Gran Combo he appeared on Kako’s classic Latin jam outing Puerto Rican All-Stars Featuring Kako, recorded in 1963, and 1967’s Los Mejores Mujsicos De Puerto Rico, directed and arranged by Ray Santos. In 1966, Roena made his recording debut as leader with a band called Megatones on Se Pone Bueno/It Gets Better on Alegre Records. Panamanian Camilo Azuquita provided the lead vocals and El Gran Combo’s lead vocalists at the time, Andy Montañez and Pellín Rodríguez, sang in the chorus. Roena left Gran Combo in mid-1969. He signed with Fania International (later called just International), a division of Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pacheco’s Fania Records, and debuted with his band Apollo Sound on Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound. The great Puerto Rican composer, Tite Curet Alonso, was the album’s ‘creative musical director’ and wrote the smash hit track ‘Tu Loco Loco, Y Yo Tranquilo’. From the outset, Apollo Sound featured a line-up of two trumpets, trombone, tenor saxophone (doubling on flute), rhythm section (bongo, conga, timbales, bass, piano) and voices (lead and chorus). A third trumpet was added in the mid-70s and the resultant front-line combination was retained into the 90s. While preserving their rhythmic integrity, Roena and Apollo Sound developed into one of salsa’s more progressive and sophisticated outfits with their own highly distinctive style. To help achieve this, Roena hired some of Puerto Rico’s most creative arrangers over the years, including Bobby Valentín, Elías Lopés, Luis ‘Perico’ Ortiz, Julio ‘Gunda’ Merced, Papo Lucca, Louis García, Tito Rivera and Humberto Ramírez.

The first three Apollo Sound albums all featured the same trio of vocalists, namely, Piro Mantilla, Dino Guy Casiano and Frankie Calderon. Trumpeter Elías Lopés acted as musical director on Apollo Sound’s second and third releases. Tito Cruz replaced Mantilla on 1972’s Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound 4. Casiano was succeeded by Sammy González, a former Tommy Olivencia band member, on Apollo Sound’s fifth release in 1973, which marked the recording debut of virtuoso trombonist/arranger Julio ‘Gunda’ Merced with the band. Luis ‘Perico’ Ortiz arranged the hits ‘Traición’ and ‘Parece Mentira’ from 1974’s Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound 6. In 1974 Roena participated in the reunion of original members of Cortijo’s Combo on Juntos Otra Vez. Calderon and Cruz departed after Apollo Sound’s sixth album and José ‘Papo’ Sánchez joined González as co-lead vocalist on Lucky 7 in 1976. This record contained another of Roena’s greatest hits, ‘Mi Desengaño’, which was co-written and subtly arranged by Merced. Rubén Blades contributed his compositions ‘Para Ser Rumbero’ and ‘Amistad Barata’ to La 8va. Maravilla in 1977. González left and recorded as a leader on Sammy González Y Los Torbellinos Con Samuel Serrano (1978). Tito Cruz returned to replace González on Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound 9 in 1977. In mid-1978, Merced split from Apollo Sound taking five band members with him, including singer Papo Sánchez, to found Salsa Fever. In the late 80s, Merced became the house producer and musical director for Tony Moreno’s Musical Productions label. Roena carried on to produce El Progreso in 1978, which was one of his strongest albums. It contained the Curet Alonso composition ‘Lamento De Concepción’ with a wonderful multi-layered arrangement by Papo Lucca, who played piano on the track and four other tracks. Tito Cruz was joined on lead vocals by Carlos Santos, who performed previously with Kako and Vilató Y Los Kimbos. Also in 1978, Roena produced La Practica Hace La Perfección for Apollo Sound founder member, trumpeter/vocalist Mickey Cora (Mario Alvarez Cora), leading his own band called Orquesta Cabala.

Roena switched to Fania and released four albums (including a compilation) on the label between 1980 and 1982. 1981’s Looking Out For ‘Numero Uno’ contained the dark bitter-sweet ‘Se Esconde Porque Me Debe’, superbly arranged by Louis García, and three interpretations of songs written by Cuban composer/band leader Adalberto Alvarez. Carlos Santos went solo and debuted on Lo Mío in 1982. The same year, Roberto teamed up with vocalist Adalberto Santiago for his last release on Fania, Super Apollo 47:50. Also in 1982, Roena participated in a reunion of some ex-members of El Gran Combo on El Combo Del Ayer, and again in 1983 on Aquel Gran Encuentro. Roena re-surfaced with Apollo Sound in 1985 on Afuera Y Contento on Pa’ Lante Records. Founder member of Apollo Sound, Piro Mantilla, and Sammy González, another former member, together with Junior Reynoso, comprised the album’s trio of lead singers. Included was a gloriously understated, yet swinging version of Adalberto Alvarez’s composition ‘A Ver’ (Let’s See).

The album also featured an example of the short-lived Puerto Rican dance fad called zuky. The track in question, ‘Apollo Zuky’, was a Latinized cover of the 1981 soca hit ‘Soca Rhumba’ by Montserrat’s Arrow. After a brief gap, Roena released the aptly titled Regreso (Return) in 1987 on Up Records. The record also marked the comeback to Apollo Sound of Papo Sánchez, who shared lead vocals with Rubén La Hoz and two female vocalists: Johanie Robles and Aracelis Beltran. The album was a further top quality serving of sophisticated salsa and featured two more cover versions of Adalberto Alvarez songs, including a magnificent arrangement of his ‘Reflexiones Mías’ by Tito Rivera. Sánchez was the sole lead singer on 1990’s New Decade on the Sonostar label.

Roena joined the Fania All Stars at the beginning of the 70s and has continued to record and gig with them up to the present day. With them he appeared in the films Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa) (1972) and Salsa (1976), and made his UK debut in 1976. He can be seen performing as a percussionist and dancer with the band in the 1991 UK video release Salsa Madness, filmed in Zaire in 1974. Roena has sessioned on recordings by various other salsa artists and bands, including Charlie Palmieri, Cheo Feliciano, Ismael Quintana, Julio ‘Gunda’ Merced Y Su Salsa Fever, Pedro Arroyo, Roberto Lugo, Andy and Harold Montañez and Willie González.

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

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