Latin Beat Magazine
October 2001, page 35
By Nelson Rodriguez
With all the Buzz that has been going on with Salsa and "Salsa Romantica", it is
remarkable that very few people know that the trend that revolutionized salsa which
is called "Salsa Romantica" started here in the city of Los Angeles by a local musician,
composer, and arranger named"La Palabra."
On the twentieth anniversary of the first “salsa sensual” composition, the following
story shines a new light on the creation of this tropical dance style that many refer to as
We all know Latin music has had its share of controversy. Our senior writer
Max Salazar has written quite a bit about these controversies that include the
“Billing Wars,” “Who Invented The Mambo?” and the accusation made against singer
Vitin Avilés that he was copying Tito Rodriguez’s vocal style and phrasing. Salazar
produced a photograph of a 78-rpm vinyl record made with Vitin Avilés on vocals
that preceded Tito Rodriguez’s singing debut. This last case brings about a controversy
that has remained silent until now.
For many in the Latin music community, the 1983 release of Noche Caliente’s
self-titled album introduced us all to the sensual style of “salsa romántica.”
The new tropical style highlighted the talents of Frankie Ruiz, Eddie Santiago
and later, those of Luis Enrique, Lab Rodriguez and Jerry Rivera. For many years,
we continued to believe that what Louie Ramirez and Ray de Ia Paz produced
for K-Tel Records, under the title of Noche Caliente, was the birth of this romantic
It turns out that this concept of arranging romantic tunes as salsa tracks actually
came from a local L.A. band’s performance. The story began with the arrival
of a 15-year old Cuban musician to New York City in April 1966, who discovered
a whole new world of music, from the current Latin beats to North American pop
music, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. His first musical encounter was with
a sextet named Lalo y su New Yorkina that featured a young Hector Casanova
on vocals. The band went on to record their first single, Rompe Tu Pared, soon
The young Cuban we speak of is known today as Palabra, who leads one of L.A. ’s top
bands, Orquesta La Palabra. Palabra remembers that Cuban musicians back home
focused more on creating new sounds and styles and experimenting with their talents.
He explains,”Pello El Afrocan specialized in mozambique , Pacho Alonso in pilón,
Orquesta Revé in changui, Enrique Jorrin in chachachá, and so on.” Many people
in the U.S. were unaware of the many new rhythms taking shape in Cuba during
the ‘60s and ‘70s. New Yorkers were into the boogaloo, merengue, and the early sounds
of salsa music. Through his father, Palabra was introduced to the Motown sounds
of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Billy Stewart, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
Before he could properly adjust to living in New York City, his family decided to relocate
to the city of Detroit. In Detroit, at that time, racial tensions were at an all-time high,
marked by numerous riots between African Americans andCaucasians. These social
conditions rapidly became a part of Palabra’s life. On the one hand he was a black man,
and on the other, he was a Latino in a city with few Latinos.
During his high school years, Palabra mostly played R&B music and top 40 standards
with several school bands. He learned a little about jazz music, Brazilian rhythms
and even classical music. In his last year at Cooley High School, he returned to Latin
music when he was introduced to a vocalist who needed a piano player at El Sol
Supper Club in Detroit. From that union, El Combo Moderno was formed. His Detroit
experience continued to grow with the R&B group Stanley Mitchell & The People’s
Choice, the Five Specials, and finally the act that led him to Los Angeles, Phoenix Rising.
This last group was a Stevie Wonder investment production that never transpired.
While in Los Angeles, awaiting word from Stevie Wonder on the future of Phoenix Rising,
Palabra once again became involved with Latin music, joining the ranks of Orquesta
Mazacote. Soon after, he met multi-instrumentalist El Niño Jesus, vocalist Johnny
Nelson, and percussionists Hector Andrade and (Carlos Navarro. These musicians
formed Orquesta Versalles. This group was the early cradle for singer Luis Enrique,
who developed his style with this band.
In 1981, Versalles was playing regularly at the Candilejas Night Club in Hollywood
when the owner, (known among the musicians as “El Chino”), fascinated with their
sound, proposed recording the band. A 45-rpm vinyl was recorded, featuring
“El Nino” Jesus’ track Pa’ Puerto Rico on side A and Palabra’s arrangement
of Todo se Derrumbó on the B-side, with Johnny Nelson on vocals. The B-side became
the hit. Todo se Derrumbó became the first “salsa romantica” tune to be recorded.
With the success of the single, an LP was anticipated and the band went into the studio
to record. The recording was never completed, due in part to Palabra’s prior commitment
with the group Phoenix Rising. Torn between both productions, Palabra finally decided
to abandon Versalles in order to dedicate himself to recording with the R&B band.
Again, Palabra managed to record a few tracks with the Phoenix Rising project,
but the recording was never finalized and the deal never materialized.
Little by little, Palabra worked himself back into the Versalles orchestra, and recorded
its debut LP for Profono Records (a division of CBS Records) in 1983. The hit
of the production was the cover tune Lady, written by Lionel Ritchie. The song went
on to be the #1 tropical dance hit of 1984 throughout the clubs on the east coast,
with the help of the record pools, and also on the west coast due mostly to public radio.
Profono Records didn’t quite know how to promote the project, however, so success
came mainly through word of mouth and the good servicing of top clubs that made
the Versalles’ “salsa romántica” version of Lady a nationwide hit. The hand was labeled
as the “new sound” to emerge from the west coast.
Prior to the recording, Palabra remembers being approached by the people of K-Tel Records
about a project based on his concept of turning pop ballads into salsa tracks. But
the problem was that he was under contract with the Stevie Wonder production
and supposedly living in New York City, not in Los Angeles. Due to this condition, Palabra
had to disregard the K-Tel proposal that was later given to Iouie Ramirez on the east
coast. Noche Caliente was thus born, and Todo se Derru,nbó (in salsa style) debuted
with Louie Ramirez’s arrangements, based on Palabra’s concept. The rest is history.
In 1991, Palabra met with Louie Ramirez at the Copacabana Club in New York City.
During this impromptu meeting he became aware for the first time of his part in the history
of salsa romántica. Ramirez went on to explain that the single version of “Todo se Derrumbo”
started a revolution in Latin music, claiming many new fans, while also causing a wave
of commotion amongst the purists of tropical music, who did not welcome the new style.
Ramirez indicated that after hearing that a Los Angeles musician had already bridged pop
ballads into salsa rhythms, and due to K-Tel’s interest in such a fusion, the production
was initiated, and indeed proved to be a successful venture.