Oscar D'Leon Biography

Oscar Emilio León Samoza, 11 July 1943, Antímano, Caracas, Venezuela. Charismatic singer and bass player D’León, commonly known as ‘El Leon de la Salsa’ (The Lion of Salsa), is one of the few contemporary salsa musicians to capitalize on the strengths of 40s and 50s Cuban big band arrangers, yet recognizably with a distinctive modern flavour. Drawing on Cuban classics and compositions by other prominent Latin composers as a vehicle for imaginative reinterpretations, he has accumulated an impressive body of work, from a country not typically associated with producing a world-class Latin artist. D’León possesses an exceptionally good voice, with a large range, very silky and playful yet emotionally impressive. The interplay of the harmonized lead vocals and nasal background singing (which is traditional to the Afro-Cuban form called son) perfectly complements and mirrors the brass arrangements, giving a rich dynamic texture. D’León’s band is essentially a salsa orquesta with a line-up of the usual rhythm section of percussion, bass and piano augmented by varying numbers of brass instruments, particularly trombones. On stage, D’León is an exuberant, tongue-in-cheek showman, with an outstanding ability to involve the audience in his extended improvisations on his many hits and Latin music classics. Contrary to his reputation as a bass player, he concentrates his ‘live’ performances only on singing and energetic dancing, unavoidably involving the audience.

D’León was a founder member of Venezuela’s leading salsa band, Dimensión Latina, and recorded six albums with them between 1972 and 1976. D’León departed in 1976 and organized his own two trumpet/two trombone band called La Salsa Mayor, which featured the distinguished piano playing of ex-Federico Y Su Combo Latino member, Enrique ‘Culebra’ Iriarte. He released three albums with La Salsa Mayor until a split occurred in 1978, retaining only Iriarte and his principal trumpeter, César Pinto (another ex-Federico accompanist), plus substantially new personnel for Y Su Salsa Mayor Con Wladimir. This album marked the reunion with former Dimensión Latina co-lead vocalist, Wladimir Lozano. From this point, Victor Mendoza and Humberto ‘Tigre’ Becerra (with D’León) comprised the crucial typically Cuban nasal style of background vocals that has remained one of D’León’s trademarks to date. The other members continued concurrently as Salsa Mayor, releasing ... De Frente Y Luchando...! La Salsa Mayor ‘Nuestra Orquesta’ (1978), with Pellín Rodríguez (ex-El Gran Combo) sharing lead vocals, and La Salsa Mayor (1979). In 1978, D’León began an association with the band La Crítica, then featuring Teo Hernández, the ex-lead singer of the exciting and funky all-trombone Los Dementes, which was led by pianist, arranger and composer Ray Pérez. D’León sang the hit track ‘Se Necesita Rumbero’ from La Crítica’s album of that year. The band on Oscar D’León Y Su Salsa Mayor Con Wladimir (1978) featured a frontline of three trumpets and two trombones, a combination D’León retained on his next three albums. Commencing with El Mas Grande! (1979), his band was just referred to as his ‘orquesta’. After Al Frente De Todos (1980), Culebra left to pursue an undistinguished solo career, and was replaced by Enrico Enriquez on A Mí Sí Me Gusta Así! (1981) This Puerto Rico-recorded album featured a hefty brass section, plus the novel addition of saxophone.

After several undistinguished albums in the early 80s, D’León began a return to form with 1984’s Con Cariño. Between 1985 and 1987 D’León issued a succession of albums featuring some of his strongest material, inspired playing and assured arrangements, which justified his position as one of salsa’s true international stars. The definitive albums of this period were 1987’s Riquiti..! and La Salsa Soy Yo. In June and October 1988, D’León demonstrated his live reputation by playing three sell-out concerts at London’s Hackney Empire. The last was recorded and broadcast in 1989 as a programme in BBC television’s Rhythms Of The World world music series, then released as Oscar D’León Live, the first salsa video to be issued in the UK.

From 1988 onwards, there followed a fallow period of unexceptional, largely salsa romántica recordings. In 1991, D’León joined an all-star line-up of his new label RMM’s top vocalists, including José Alberto, Tony Vega and Ismael Miranda, plus Celia Cruz, for Tito Puente’s The Mambo King: 100th LP. He carried on recording for the RMM subsidiary Sonero, releasing El Rey De Los Soneros (1992) and Toitico Y Tuyo (1994). The Grammy-nominated 1996 release El Sonero Del Mundo was recorded in Miami with Willie Chirino. The following year’s live album was recorded in New York with help from guests such as Arturo Sandoval, trumpeter Piro Rodriguez and vocalist India. He then returned to the studio to complete another fine set, La Formula Original.

D’León marched on into the new millennium with neither his creativity nor popularity showing signs of faltering, and a new recording contract with Universal Latino spurred him on to record one of his finest albums for several years, Infinito, released to uniformly positive reviews in 2003. The same June D’León suffered three heart attacks while performing in the Caribbean island of Martinque, although he vowed to carry on touring and recording after recovering.

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

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