Joe Cuba Biography

Gilberto Miguel Calderon, 22 April 1931, New York City, New York, USA; of Puerto Rican parentage. Calderon, who was a salesman by day, played conga with the Joe Panama Quintet, whose other personnel were: Panama (leader/piano), Jimmy Sabater (timbales/vocals), Willie Torres (lead vocals), Tommy Berrios (vibraphone) and Roy Rosa (bass). In late 1954, the pianist, composer and arranger Nick Jiménez replaced Panama and Calderon took over leadership. At Panama’s instigation, the musicians’ union prohibited the use of his name, and acting on a promoter’s suggestion, the group became the Joe Cuba Sextet. Latin music historian, Max Salazar, has cited singer/composer Willie Torres and Nick Jiménez as pioneers of the use of English lyrics in Latin music. Apparently, in early 1952 they performed a mambo arrangement of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’. The popularity of the English lyric songs Torres performed with the Joe Cuba Sextet for Jewish and Italian dances at the Stardust Ballroom in the Bronx, helped them secure a two-year residency at the Pines, a Jewish resort in South Fallsburg, New York State. It was there that Jiménez wrote ‘Mambo Of The Pines’, which later became their smash hit 78 single ‘Mambo Of The Times’ on George Goldner’s Rainbow label. The tune also appeared on Diggin’ The Most, the Sextet’s second release on the Seeco Records label, which they signed to in the early 60s, prior to that they recorded for Mardi Gras Records.

In 1957 Torres left to fill the lead singer slot in José Curbelo’s band, which Santos Colón had vacated to join Tito Puente. Torres was replaced by Cheo Feliciano. As a possible punishment for leaving, Cuba used Jimmy Sabater as lead vocalist on the recording of the Torres/Jiménez ballad ‘To Be With You’, which became a popular classic. ‘When I left Cuba’s group’, Torres later told Max Salazar, ‘it was understood that I would record it as it was Nick Jiménez’s music and my lyrics. I was disappointed but I’m glad Jimmy got his break’. During 1964, the group switched to Tico Records. They contributed four tracks to Canciones Mi Mama No Me Enseño/Spanish Songs Mama Never Taught Me (1964) with Ismael Quintana on lead vocals, who at the time, was the singer with Eddie Palmieri’s band La Perfecta. The bestselling Vagabundeando! Hangin’ Out (1964) contained the classic ‘El Raton’, written and sung by José Feliciano. The Sextet’s fourth Tico release, Estamos Haciendo Algo Bien!/We Must Be Doing Something Right!, included their hit single ‘El Pito (I’ll Never Go Back To Georgia)’.

In 1966, Cheo departed and Torres returned. The sextet were among one of the first to perform the R&B/Latin fusion style called boogaloo, which enjoyed a brief fad between 1966 and 1968. The Sabater/Cuba-penned boogaloo ‘Bang, Bang’, from Wanted Dead Or Alive, sold a million and reached number 63 in the national US pop chart in 1966. Sabater’s composition ‘Oh Yeah’, also from the same album, charted in 1967. Sabater was raised in New York and his family emanated from Ponce, Puerto Rico. He was spotlighted on the ballad album Joe Cuba Sextet Presents, The Velvet Voice Of/La Voz Sutil De Jimmy Sabater (1967). Jimmy also made solo albums, including: Solo (1969), El Hijo De Teresa/Teresa’s Son (1970), To Be With You (1977) and Gusto (1980), but he continued as an accompanist up to Cuba’s final album (to date) in 1979. The Sextet had passed their peak, Afro-Cuban pianist/arranger/composer Alfredo Rodríguez replaced Jiménez and Alberto Delgado took over from Berrios on vibes on Recuerdos De Mi Querido Barrio (Memories Of My Beloved Neighborhood) (c.1971). Torres amicably departed to become a bus driver with the New York City Transit Authority. Doin’ It Right/Hecho Y Derecho (1973) was Rodríguez’s last album with the group and Phil Diaz’s debut as Cuba’s regular vibes player. Cuba dropped the term Sextet on his last two albums released in 1976 and 1979, both of which were produced by Louie Ramírez. Joe Cuba died on February 15, 2009 after a long hospitalization.

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

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