I am so far behind on everything. But never fear. This time around I bring you what has to be a first for me. I bring you the Nestor Louis interview featuring Rafael De Jesus. Also starring our no nonsense, no fluff, real deal interviewer, George Rivera.
We all met at the Marriott in the World Trade Center back in November 1997. I arrived first, Rafael was the second to arrive. We sat down in the main lobby of the hotel and started to chat. We chatted about many things, but the topic we seemed to gravitate towards was success and its definition. Unfortunately I do not have that part of the conversation on tape because I did not want to start the interview without George. He was running a bit late. Anyway, if I remember correctly, it all started when I asked Rafael, "do you sometimes ask yourself, ‘gee how comes I have not reached the same level of success that some of my peers are enjoying? I mean what am I doing wrong?' Do those thoughts ever come across your mind?" His answer as best as I could remember was "I ask myself those very same questions every now and then, but I don't give it much thought. To do so would be counter-productive and even negative. After all, what is success? There are many different definitions of it. How do I know that mine is the correct one? How do you know yours is the correct one? The fact is that, we hold on to the definitions that make us content with who we are and who we aspire to be or become. As far as, what am I doing wrong? Well, that's why I'm here. I like to listen to other people's ideas. No one person knows it all. I don't claim to be that person either (chuckles). I know George, and he is very knowledgeable about the music among other things. He told me about you also being a huge fan of the music. So hey, I'm here. How does the saying go? Dos cabezas son mejor que una?"
Just when Rafael finished stating
his philosophy, as if on cue, George walks in. We kid around a bit. All
three of us have a similar sense of humor, but George is a riot.
Q&A: A Conversation With Rafael de Jesus
NL: George, why did you have to spoil things? I was just having a deep conversation with Rafael and you had to show up. Man, Ralph is deep, my head is gonna explode.
GR: He is the man. You are talking to one of the legends. He is one of the guys. He and Nestor Sanchez son de la mata! I'm talking about Quintana and guys like that. Ralph can smoke those guys from the 70's just as well.
NL: Very few people from my generation down know about your beginnings so lets take it from there.
RDJ: Well, soy Puertorriqueño nacido y criado aqui en Brooklyn, New York. Puerto Rican parents who've been here. So my first language has been English, although Spanish was always spoken at home. My father was kind of into the music business with a local neighborhood band. He sang and recorded a 78 record that I treasure. You know it's a big thing for me. My influences were everything that was around me. An everyday existence here in NYC was American music. You know, the Beatles, Dave Clark Five, The Four Tops, the era of hanging out on the corner with the Persian Lamb collar leather jacket.
GR: Playboys (laughs).
RDJ: Yeah, the tailor made shark skin pants with the flap pockets, the beaver hats that we would comb with baby oil. We would put bands that would identify what neighborhood you were from.
NL: Sounds like a pimp's era!
RDJ: Not really, it's kind of like what the kids are wearing today to identify themselves. It's an era we all kind of go through you know. Anyway, my inception into the music was with my cousins. We had a tight knit family. We all lived in the same building. My older cousins got into Latin music and through that we started banging on instruments. They bought congas. We would break clothes hangers and use them as timbal and drum sticks. They got involved with a band in Brooklyn and I hung out with them. They rehearsed and after 150,000 rehearsals they got their first gig. It was at New York City Community College. Their singer never showed up so they used me. Of course I had a car, which made me their band boy (chuckles). We made it to the gig, so the members of the band and my cousins were like 'oh Ralph you gotta help us out mira que they are not going to pay us if we don't start right away. You know some of the songs.' So I did it. I'll tell you a funny story about that night. We were opening for Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe. Hector was late, and I remember they also had to save their gig so Willie asked me if I would pitch in until Hector arrived by doing some coros for him. Jose Mangual knew a couple of the songs, and for the gig Willie offered me twenty bucks. I did coros for that first set.
GR: That's how Willie and Mangual started singing too. Willie and Mangual started singing because Hector never got there on time. Willie had to save the gigs, so one of them would sing. Later Hector would waltz in making excuses like he got stuck in traffic and things like that.
NL: I know you from the Eddie Palmieri days and later on the Luis "Perico" Ortiz days. What part of your history am I missing?
RDJ: (Jokingly) Well, here I'll read it to you. Back in Brooklyn I was part of Orchestra DJ.
NL: George do you know about that?
GR: Yep. They recorded for MGM. The record says you were 15 years old. Was that accurate?
RDJ: I was 16 when I recorded with them but you know I was gigging with them a year earlier. I hooked up with their bongo player who was a member of the band with my cousins. I asked him to hook me up with them if they needed a singer. I was very lucky because Orchestra DJ gigged a lot. It turns out that Georgie De Jesus' parents owned a photography studio. They would also sell wedding dresses and gowns for weddings. People rented tuxedos and all sorts of things for weddings. So on top of selling their photography, their gowns, and tuxedos for the weddings we would sell them the band. So for a small two trombone B or C band, whatever you want to call it, there was never a weekend that we didn't work. In those days, Ralph Mercado had the Three In One club on Flatbush and The Saint George was having those Grand Paradise weekend dances. I mean for any reason a dance would spark up in different neighborhoods, and we were lucky to be the warm up band. We had a great time.
GR: You had a hit with that record. What year was that?
RDJ: I don't know. It had to be 72, 73
GR: I still have the vinyl. He had a hit in there. What was it Black Shadows or Dark Shadows?
RDJ: It was Black Shadows. We had Black Shadows on a 45 rpm. On the other side we had this song titled La Jara. Our first 45 was with Mars Records. I still have that 45 from Orchestra DJ. At times I listen to those record and wonder "what on earth were we thinking about?" I mean these were songs we were serious about! That's what we knew (laughter). Black Shadows was a chacha with two trombones and English lyrics.
GR: La Jara also made it to the album. You guys got a lot of radio play with that record.
RDJ: Yeah we did. And to think about it, in the neighborhood and all around New York we had a certain impact. We even traveled a bit. I had a lot of fun being involved with a band at 16 years old. At the age of 17 got my first car. I was always either in school or at work. I had a part time job plus the band. There was always a place to go. And to reflect back to those days, most of my friends of that time are either dead or in jail today. There are not too many success stories. However, I do feel that being involved in a band is one contributing factor to the fact that I am still here. We recorded two albums!
NL: Now, you move on and become popular throughout Latin America with Perico.
GR: No, there is more before Perico. There is Orchestra Cimarron, which made a big impact in NYC around 1975. You guys got a lot of work here right?
RDJ: Yes. You know many of us in Orchestra DJ took different paths. Some of us pursued college degrees, others heavy drugs. At that time I was working in a Junior High School in Brooklyn. I met a gentleman by the name of Ron Davis who was the Assistant Principal. He played valve trombone and was also the head of the music department at the school. We met and decided to put a band together. We became co-leaders, he knew certain people, I knew certain people. We started to make phone calls, got people together, started rehearsing, and it started all over again! Going to the clubs looking for work, "mira que te tengo una bandita aqui, que esto y que aquello, que mira, que chequea, que dame un brake. I won't charge you, olvidate we'll pay you if you let us play", that was our situation. We started working again. We got lucky again with the weddings. I had it down, because I was like the Master of Ceremonies. I played so many weddings I was like, (Ralph puts on an announcer's voice) "Good evening ladies & gentlemen welcome to the Cordon Blue. At this time I'd like every one to please rise. I'd like to introduce to you - the bridal party...(whispering to the band members) 'mira tocate una cosita alli...un chacha...systems too loud shhhh...mira tate quieto ok. (Back to announcer's voice) Now ladies and gentlemen". We played everything. 'You play rock music?...mira este, I dunno how do you?...dale alli olvidate'. As long as the people were happy and paid us we didn't care. We would eat, drink, and dance. Forget about it.
GR: And the money was better than most of the big gigs. You made more money in weddings than in the big dance of the month.
RDJ: But we always wanted to be in the big dance of the month because being salseros you were around the heavy salseros. You knew you were able to say "yeah, we're going to play next to Eddie Palmieri or Ricardo Ray." You were with the big boys.
GR: Remember when they used to have the battle of the bands in the Bronx? The Battle of The Bands! This week in the Bronx: Willie Colon vs. Eddie Palmieri. There used to be the Easter dance at Hunts Point.
RDJ: Yeah, there would be like 100 bands for ten dollars (chuckles). It used to start at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. It was a big place! It was a dark place.
NL: Is that how you end up with Palmieri?
RDJ: Lalo & Eddie split and through a friend of mine and "some guys" in Brooklyn I met Eddie Palmieri. That's another story. Eddie goes (impersonating Eddie) "you sing? Yeah? Well listen, I got a gig aprendete estas canciones." So I did. I was just thrown into the pot. No rehearsal, just learn these songs and be there at such and such a time. Show up. I later started rehearsing with Eddie. Tito Nieves came into the picture about that time. He used to play basketball. He was a real skinny guy, tall, with a big afro. He would come in and hangout and listen to us rehearse. He would mimick the coros. I did LUCUMI, MACUMBA, VOODOO with Eddie and Charlie. I traveled a lot with Eddie, but as things started to change within his group, I got introduced to Luis "Perico" Ortiz. He was just leaving Pacheco's band, where he was the musical director/lead trumpet player. He ran into a couple of fellows that included Ramon Rodriguez who decided to sponsor his album. So they recruited me. I can honestly say that Perico and I had nothing in common. Totally different backgrounds, different customs, mannerisms, you name it. Not that we didn't get along, the chemistry worked. I did not know that much Spanish and he did not know that much English. I was Newyorican, he was island. His training was totally different from mine, but we learned a lot from each other. And we worked a lot. I mean George can tell you.
GR: Five gigs a night. It got to a point that club owners would try to stop guys from gigging that much. They would say stuff like "you can play in no more than two clubs a night."
NL: Who decided clubs were going to come up with that rule?
GR: The club owners. They were like "look you guys are getting stuck in traffic. Doing this and that. Look we can't do that no more."
NL: How is it that you claim that you didn't speak that much Spanish and yet you belt out all these great songs and soneos?
RDJ: Like anything else. I picked up a lot of that stuff because I wanted to do it! So I would put in the time. Perico helped me, Ramon helped me. You do your homework. On top of that I have a good ear in picking up phonetics.
GR: Would you say that with Perico you blossomed? Did you grow more as a singer with him?
RDJ: I am still growing as a singer. Between Eddie and Perico? They were two different experiences, with Eddie I didn't sing that many tunes. With Perico I did more stuff, I was singing entire albums with different types of rhythms and stuff. Ramon as the composer helped me shape the direction and the feel for a song. And with Perico, Perico had a better ear as far as choosing certain melodies on how the soneo would go. Tremendous, tremendous, experience.
NL: I don't know, but I feel that you left Perico's band too soon.
RDJ: I don't think that was the issue. Many people felt the same way. But I think it wasn't even a matter of staying. It was a matter of people going their way, with their own ideas and plans. Things were beyond our control. After Perico's orchestra broke up I was approached by the same people that financed him, and I recorded an album for them. From there on, as I was telling you and George before, I've never been lucky enough to fit into one true recording company. I was bouncing around with my band. Tito Nieves came into the mix at that time. I would prepare Tito to leave him with Cimarron. I would invite him to gigs with me. He would do coro with my band. I'd pay him for that, and later deliver him back to his mom's house. Make sure he got upstairs, looked out the window, he was a young kid. Later on I got him involved with Ramon Rodriguez, we took him to Puerto Rico and recorded him with Julio Castro Y La Masacre. Johnny Ortiz also recorded him with Tabori. Ramon Rodriguez teamed up with Raymond Castro and founded Conjunto Clasico and also grabbed Tito Nieves.
NL: Wow what a history lesson!
GR: Wait it gets better man. He brings Domingo Quiñonez into the picture as well.
RDJ: Yeah, as I start working in the area people start telling me about this kid in Philadelphia. That he is a singer and that he is willing to make the trip to New York so he can have the NY exposure. At that time I was rehearing at the Corso. One of the albums I did was sponsored by Tony Raimone of the Corso. They tell me about this kid, so I say bring him down. He shows up and introduces himself to me. Domingo Quiñonez starts doing coro with my band. I let him sing a couple of songs, un bolerito aqui, una salsita alla. Perico decides to start his band again and got wind of this young talented guy that is singing with Rafael's band. He offered him a job as a lead singer and the rest is history.
NL: Did you ever think of producing Domingo?
RDJ: No, I did not. At that time I was more worried with putting myself and the band on the map, generating work, and trying to see what I had to do for my career. It never crossed my mind to produce anyone.
NL: Now you have....you've been in the business for quite some time now. You've recorded some incredible albums. A lot of people would ask the obvious, "why haven't you made it?" You've helped these folks. They are at a level that unfortunately you are not. Why?
RDJ: (Laughs!) George can you answer that? I ask myself that question all the time. You'll have to bring a box of 120 minute tapes! But seriously speaking, I think that it is because I've never had the opportunity to be involved with a true record company. No marketing strategy, no type of follow-up.
GR: He's always been produced by the fly-by-night guys. Also the industry at that time was not serious. It got serious maybe after the fifth year RMM was out. Even RMM was on shaky ground. Before that Fania. The industry got serious after Sony entered the scene, later followed by WEA and everybody else! What it all comes down to, Rafael De Jesus has been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
NL: Fania on shaky ground? They were the Motown of salsa! They were signing up everybody and their mother!
GR: Shaky ground in the sense that if you didn't play the game the way Fania wanted you to play, you didn't play. Lots of behind the scene games that the people are not aware of, but if you talk to the people of that time they'll tell you. Ask yourself one question, why did it take Eddie Palmieri so long to sign with Fania? Eddie told you himself on that interview you did that he would've never signed with Fania. He always resisted Fania. When Fania bought Tico Records he managed to get out of that contract with Tico.
NL: Ok, Fania is a story by itself. But, Ralph how about RMM? You did some serious coro in a couple of Jose Alberto productions. RMM never offered you a deal?
RDJ: I don't know why. Ralph Mercado and I know each other. We never had...
NL: A beef?
RDJ: No, I can honestly say we haven't. Whenever we see each other we greet each other cordially. We never sat to discuss any possibilities of business. Why? I don't know.
GR: On that note, I spoke to Domingo, and I asked him how he ended up in RMM. He told me that Charlie Donato, after having success with Tony Vega, went up to Ralph and pitched the idea to him. "Yeah he cleaned up his act, I think we should do something with him." Ralph said "yeah, bring him up. Let's do it." My question: Has anyone ever approached RMM on your behalf? Have you approached RMM on your own behalf?
RDJ: They know about me. I don't know if anyone has approached them on my behalf. I've made a couple of phone calls in the past. Ralph and I briefly spoke when I started with Clasico, you know "yeah when you finish with that we'll talk." But you know we've never actually spoken. The flip side to this fact is the fact that Alex D' Castro produced an entire recording for me, way before he even met me. He got involved in a business venture.
GR: Copa Records.
RDJ: Correct. Alex picked the songs, the arrangements, the musicians, my vocal range. This guy is incredible. I always saw myself as a good boxer with no corner. While the other boxer has all these professionals working on him with the water, the doctors, and trainers, I just come out swinging round after round. He was the management, the corner I always wanted. He told me that I was one of his favorite singers and that he envisioned me in that production. So he FedExed the tapes to me. I listened to them. I called him back. The next day I flew to Puerto Rico. At 9:00 A.M. I was in the studio. In two days of work we recorded eight songs, and by the end of the second day at 11:00 P.M. I was home in New York. Alex D' Castro is a great person.
GR: Unfortunately, your corner man, had no corner man. Rafael is not alone either. He shares a similar story with that of guys that have great voices and do not have the recognition they deserve. Guys like Nestor Sanchez, Tito Allen, Ray De La Paz. They can be in the same league with people like Jose Alberto, Domingo, and Gilberto. Things will change for some of them.
NL: If you had the chance to do it all over again, what would you do different and why?
RDJ: That is a difficult question. Off the top of my head I'll say nothing.
Nothing because I do not regret anything I've done. You really can't tell
what could've been better. How can you? There is really no way of gauging
that! The turnout of anything that happens, for the most part, is all speculation.
Let say for example, I would've done this instead of that, there is no
way of telling whether it was going to come to fruition or not. There is
no way of telling. Besides, I am not finished. I am still in the game.
Rafael De Jesus, spirit intact, determined, and stronger than ever. I somehow get the feeling that things are about to change for him. El que persevera, triunfa!
PS - Thanks George for hooking