Latin Jazz Conversations: Bobby Matos (Part 3)


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Bobby Matos
The music business presents a crazy ride for any young artist, sending them through waves of ups and downs. When an artist first ventures into the wild frontier known as the music business, all the rules and everyday procedures seem absolutely foreign. Everything must be learned, and in many cases, it must be learned the hard way. With each success comes a sideways curve that throws a new twist into the artist's journey. Rebounds follow, along with new surprises; it's a never-ending journey of uncertainty and rewards.

Percussionist and bandleader Bobby Matos rode the waves of the music business through an influential debut as a recording artist. Born into a family of music lovers, Matos spent his childhood soaking in the sounds of influential artists like Louis Armstrong, Tito Puente, Nat King Cole, and more. Matos expressed himself through song and dance, and eventually found himself leaning towards Machito And His Afro-Cubans. He attended live performances, forged a lifelong friendship with Machito and Graciela, and got backstage lessons with Carlos “Potato" Valdes. He dropped out of collegiate art studies to dedicate himself to his gig with a traditional Afro-Cuban band. The gig helped him solidify his conga skills, and eventually moved him into steady work as a sideman. Just as things started to pick up, the draft shipped Matos to Washington D.C., where he bonded with Paul Hawkins, a percussionist who mentored him further. Matos pursued music studies after leaving the army, building his knowledge of music theory and harmony. His new skills led him to pursue the composition of original compositions, and sent him towards work as a bandleader. He formed The Latin Soul Combo, found gigs for the group, and began recording the band's performances. These recordings led to a demo deal, which eventually found its way to Philips Records. The company supported the production of Matos' My Latin Soul, a classic album that unfortunately didn't receive publicity from Philips. Matos moved to Speed Records, where he recorded a second album, but despite a strong musical product, the company never released the recording due to financial problems. Behind Matos' back, the company released several singles from the album, and created European distribution. Tired of the life of a bandleader, Matos found extensive work as a sideman and recording artist, but the future waves of the music business were destined to send Matos back into the role of a leader.

My Latin Souland tracks from Matos' unreleased second album found a cult following among Latin Jazz fans and DJs, remaining a popular piece of Latin Jazz history today. It was a sign of the potential that became clearly apparent when Matos later revived his career as a bandleader on the West Coast. In Part One of our interview with Matos, we examined his early connections with music, his encounters with Latin Jazz legends, and his dive into professional performance. Part Two of our interview with Matos looked at his move towards timbales, his time in the Army, his musical studies, and his first steps as a bandleader. Today we look at the formation of The Latin Soul Combo, the recording of My Latin Soul, and his unreleased second album.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You were leading groups and learning to write—how did that get you to My Latin Soul?

BOBBY MATOS: My bassist was one of the only original guys that was in that rehearsal band that stayed with me. We went into the army about a week apart; I knew him because he was a friend of an old college buddy of mine—the guy that I bought my first conga from. He introduced me to this pianist, Al Dorsey, who was a mambo nut like I was. He came into the band and then he and I started writing music together. What I didn't know, he knew, because of his harmonic keyboard experience. It made me really want to learn the piano; as I did, the piano is really what taught me all my harmonies—as I sat at the piano and did all my exercises, I was starting to see this stuff. He and I started to co-write a lot of the music that went into My Latin Soul. The tune that he wrote, “Up In Alfred's Pad," was the first tune that I arranged on my own. It was easy for me, because I just put the flute an octave above the trombone and figured out how to transpose into bass clef. It wasn't a difficult arrangement, but at the time, I hammered it out and stumbled over it. All of that music turned into My Latin Soul.

The name of our band at that time was The Latin Soul Combo—El Combo De Alma Latina. We were doing these little gigs and I was making tape recordings of the band. We were trying to do original numbers and we did a couple of cover numbers. I knew this guy, Big George, that worked in a record store in the heart of Broadway—it was one of the Colony stores, Colony Records. He was connected to a lot of different people in the music business. I gave him a copy of the tape of one of our live gigs.

The next time I walked into his store, he said, “Bobby, come with me." He took me out of the store across the street to the Brill Building, which was where all these composers had different offices —the well known and the not so well-known that were struggling to make it. This was the heart of Tin Pan Alley and the commercial music business in New York. He takes me up to this guy's office, Joe Cain, who had been the producer of Joe Cuba's To Be With You and he had been Celia Cruz's producer on Secco Records for many years. He goes into the office and Big George, a 6 foot 4' guy with a cigar in his mouth, says, “Hey Joe, Bobby's got the best Latin band in New York!" I'm thinking, “Really? All he's heard are these tapes." But that was the way that he talked.

So Joe listened to the tapes and he called me. He said, “I like what I heard, but you need a decent demo. If I'm willing to produce a demo, are you willing to let me run with it? I'll see if I can take it around to some labels and get you a deal." I said, “Sure." So he paid for the demo. He went into the studio and did two of our originals for the demo. He took it around and then struck up this deal with Philips Records. He called me and told me that we had a deal.

It was an interesting experience, because it took close to a year before this album was released. It was almost two months before our contract was up when the album came out. It had no publicity—we didn't have anyone promoting this record or taking it around. We didn't know what was happening; we didn't know anything about the commercial end of the music business. When I went to find out if they were going to pick up our option, they told me, “No, we're not picking up your option because you didn't sell enough units." I said, “How could I have sold enough units? I signed a contract in September and you didn't release my album until July. Two months later I couldn't have possibly sold enough units with no promotion." They pretty much said, “Too bad."

So we went out and we auditioned for Speed Records, which was run by Stan Lewis, who had been one of the co-founders of Cotique Records, along with Morty Craft, was a notorious exploiter of many different Rhythm and Blues groups. Both of these guys were record business criminals; it's been a well-documented fact about both of these guys. So I wound up recording for Speed Records; I did an album that was head and shoulders above My Latin Soul.

Now we were starting to really get serious—I was writing better and I had another arranger on the date—Paquito Pastor, who was playing with Joe Quijano at the time. Years later he played with Fajardo and Tito Puente, among other people. The two of us were doing some really serious writing. When we went into the date, we didn't go in with anybody left over from the original group because of sentiment. We went in with hard-core pros on every instrument, in every chair. I had Victor Venegas on bass, Paquito on piano, Steve Pulliam on trombone, Mauricio Smith on tenor, and a really great trumpet player out of Joe Quijano's band. It was really a killer band. I had Manny Romando on Spanish vocals and Tony Middleton doing the boogaloo/soul vocals. Tony Middleton was out of The Willows, who had the old doo-wop hit “The Church Bells May Ring." He had been the lead singer with them.

Then they never released this album. The company went bankrupt. There was a big scandal. They went bankrupt, and they had never really finished paying us for the session. I tried to collect—I went to the bankruptcy hearing and I asked the judge, “Well, can I at least get the tapes, can I own the master tapes?" He said, “That seems fair since he didn't pay you for the recording. How about that?" Then Stanley Lewis stood up and lied to the judge, saying, “The studio is taking possession of the tapes. I can't give them to Bobby because they won't let me have them until I pay for the studio time."

They did release three singles from it. One of the singles was “Return To Spanish Harlem," which I picked up and put onto my Charanga Chango album. There were also a couple of other singles that were released from it as well. The singles were heard a little bit and they actually got some play on some R 'n B stations in New York. One of the singles made a little bit of noise in Puerto Rico.

Years later, I was in England hearing these songs being played by the DJ; they were on 12 inch singles. I realized that Stanley had copies of all these tapes and he was licensing them to European companies, doing all sorts of deals with them. This was my great second album that was never heard by anybody.

Then I kind of got out of being a bandleader and turned my attention towards being a sideman. As a bandleader, you end up paying everybody and you have less money than you paid everybody else. I still had those dreams of always wanting to play original music, play stuff that was burning in my head. I could make more money being a sideman though; it was just too hard to be a bandleader.

I stayed in New York for a while, working and recording with a lot of different people. I spent a couple of months with Joe Loco in Atlantic City. I freelanced a lot in New York. I recorded with Miriam Makeba, Jim Croce, and a lot of different people. I started working with Ben Vereen and Bette Midler. Ben was just really beginning the start of his career. He was just getting out of paying his dues and starting to work on Broadway. He had worked in Hair, and then he got the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar. This was around that time.

We were doing a lot of work where I was making much more money than I had ever made as a leader. As a leader, I'd be lucky to make thirty dollars; working with Ben Vereen, I could make a hundred dollars. This was in a time when a hundred dollars was big money. With Ben, I was playing in places like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. The same thing with Bette. My first gig with her was at Carnegie Hall. That was a different world; I didn't want to be a bandleader anymore and have to suffer!

This was during the seventies in New York—at that time, there was a big, big recording scene going on in New York City. It's not as big an industry as it used to be, as a matter of fact it's much, much smaller—a lot of the recording has moved out of New York. But at that time, there was a tremendous amount of recording. Every week, I was doing two or three sessions, and that was enough. I didn't even have to take gigs.

Still, I started to do gigs with different people. I was called for a quintet gig that was led by Andy Harlow. Andy was playing vibes, tenor, and flute. I started to get little quintet gigs as a leader, and I'd call all the same guys that he had in his quintet. We had a deal—whoever got the gig was the leader. It didn't matter to me, I didn't even call the band Bobby Matos; I called it The Afro-Latin Jazztet. When he got a gig, it was The Andy Harlow Quintet. That was enough for me at that time.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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