Making significant contributions to the music world and reaching ultimate success are some of the objectives that do not come easily to today's salsa artists, but the legacy is something that usually gets recognized when you look at any given career in its entirety. In 2009 I received a recording conducted as a tribute to a musician who must be regarded as one of the best Latin arrangers, bandleaders and top-notch instrumentalists of all time. In fact, he would have already celebrated the 45th year of his recording career as a bandleader if he were still alive. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the demise of one of Puerto Rico's top producers-Mario Ortiz Sr.-who set the world on fire in 1964 with the big band sounds of his Mario Ortiz All-Star Band. It's not every day that I got to write about one of my favorite artists, Mario Ortiz Sr., who was born in Santa Isabel in 1935. By the age of 13, he was already playing the trumpet, when he joined Ponce's Melody Boys Orchestra, before working with Mingo and his Whoopee Kids (a popular band of that era). He then returned to Santa Isabel to play for the next 13 years with the Caribbean Kids, a band led by his music teacher, Demetrio Rodríguez. That group also featured Luigi Texidor (on bongó) and vocalist Ruth Fernández. On November of 1962, Mario Ortiz Sr. formed his own band, which included another legend who was 17 at the time…Elías Lopes. The band was baptized as the Mario Ortiz All-Star Band and that is precisely what it became. The band's constant touring throughout the island led to the title of its first LP for the Rico-Vox label-“On The Road” (1963) featuring vocalists Emma Roger and Paquito Alvarez; trumpeters Elías Lopes, Salvador Jiménez and Yuyo Martínez; saxophonists Pedro Rivera Toledo (tenor), Manuel Montalvo (alto) and César Delgado (baritone); percussionists Celso Clemente, Pablo ‘Papi La Moña’ Bonilla and Luis Sandoval; pianist Francisco Ortiz (who alternated with Mario Roman); drummer Federico Vigo and bassist Victor Rivera. Baritone sax player Julio César Delgado would go on to lead a great life as a producer in the heyday of TH throughout the 1980s, when I was working out of their New York office at Audiorama Distributers. He was a true gentleman and a very seasoned veteran who was the real secret behind the ‘Salsa Sensual’ scene in Puerto Rico. It was around that time when I first met Mario Ortiz Jr). This LP would also be released as “Holiday in San Juan”, to be employed as a ‘tourist record guide’, included in the gatefold discount coupons and a 12x12 booklet with the best places and hotspots to go in 1964, along with ads and island tidbits which is one of my favorite collector's items today! The hits from this debut were the jazzy “Mambo Infierno”, “Maina”, “De Cachete” and “La Bicicleta” (that had already become very popular on Fidel Cabrera's radio show ‘Gran Show del Mediodía’ transmitting from WIAC). Mario was a huge fan of the big bands in particular México's version of the Glen Miller Big Band, the Luis Arcaraz Orchestra and for that reason, he chose to utilize the three trumpet/three sax big band format for his own orchestra. With the success of that first recording, Mario Ortiz traveled to New York to play at the famed Palladium Ballroom in 1963, leading him the first authentic Puerto Rican band to play there. They were signed by Remo Records, which led to three great recordings, starting with the LP “Swinging With Mario Ortiz All Star Band”, released in 1964. The band swung with the best from New York and the LP generated the hits “Chinita”, “Yaré Yaré”, “Busca Ambiente”, “Para Los Bravos” and the signature instrumentals, known back then as mambo-jazz, such as “Cool Heat” and “Carioca”. The band members were the same (with the exception of Elías Lopes) joined by Jacinto Picar and Paquito Jouvert (trumpets), Jesús "Chupín" Navarro (piano) and Willie Torres, Cheo Feliciano, Jimmy Sabater, Julio Cruz and Emma Rogers (vocals). It was quickly followed by “The Best of Mario Ortiz All-Star Band” (The Best referring not best of hits but of the best performance), with the addition of vocalist Chico Rivera (former vocalist of Lito Peña's Orquesta Panamericana). This second album featured the hits “Rumberito”, “El Soplo”, “Cohete”, ”Jala Jala No.2”, “Se Acabó el Bembé” and the instrumentals “Move” and Malagueña. Other notable artists signed by the Remo label were Louie Ramírez (making his recording debut) and the popular Pete Rodríguez y La Magnifica. In 1965,
Ortiz released “Los Cabezones”, and it is from these three LPs that the new “Tributo-45 Aniversario” draws its selection of hits. “Los Cabezones” was recorded at the same time as “The Best of Mario Ortiz All Star Band”… for the New York market, while “The Best”… was released in Puerto Rico and included the hits “A Quitarse” and “El Cid”. “A Quitarse” was also recorded on the Puerto Rico All-Stars' 1977 sophomore album “Los Profesionales”, with the vocals of Tito Allen and a piano solo by Mario Román (who played with Ortiz in the early days). During all of these time-periods, Mario Ortiz Sr. had also become a musician on many television programs, including ‘El Show Libby's’ (playing lead trumpet for Pepito Torres' band) and with his own band on "Show del Mediodía." Television exposure was huge for Ortiz, who performed as a sideman in the house bands of the television shows conducted by Myrta Silva and Chucho Avellanet, among many others; as well as on the radio airwaves, the primary medium in the 1950s and 1960s. After working for only two and a half years with the aforesaid band, Mario became the featured bandleader at the San Geronimo Hotel for the following seven years, before joining Miguelito Miranda's orchestra at the Caribe Hilton. Along with Moncho Usera (with whom Mario was also a sideman at the hotels), Miguelito Miranda was considered to be one of the finest bandleaders in Puerto Rico during that era. It was steady work at a very important time in history, as the hotels provided good dance music and great back-up for their international shows, featuring Sammy Davis Jr., The Supremes, Tom Jones, and many others. Ortiz performed on and off as a sideman at the hotels for 20 years. When Miranda retired in 1977, Ortiz took over as leader of the Caribe Hilton's house band. Keep in mind that the Caribe Hilton was one of the most popular and prestigious hotels on the island. The international names that passed through the Caribe Hilton stage included Julio Iglesias, Vic Damone, The Stylistics, Robert Goulet and Diane Carroll. Originally contracted to play at the Geronimo by Armando Castro, Ortiz also played with César Concepción and Vitín Miranda. Back in 1988, I spoke with Mario in New York about his career during one of his performances at the Palladium on 14th Street (which had nothing to do with the original Palladium ballroom that was shut down in 1966). He recalled one of his most memorable periods in 1966, when Tito Rodríguez was living in Puerto Rico, and he chose the Mario Ortiz Band to travel with him and conduct a big show in a Venezuelan tour that also included Little Ray Romero, Chico Rivera and Juancito Torres. That same year, Mario hooked up with Dario González's Borinquen label to back up popular vocalists Tito Lara on his LP Quisiera and to participate on Lissette Alvarez's debut. Lissette is known by many as Willy Chirino's wife, but she also had an illustrious career of her own throughout the 1970s. After the hotel days, Ortiz met with Rafael Ithier, who had his own EGC label, and Ithier offered Mario the opportunity in 1975 to record his band (with Willie Rosario functioning as producer). The result was” Vivito y Coleando” (EGC 009). Mario Ortiz Jr. recalls that this LP served as an introduction to the studio recording that made him fall in love with salsa. My favorite track has always been” Random Riff”, featuring the soloists Rey Coen and Celso Clemente. In 1976, Mario Ortiz Sr. became a member of Frankie Gregory's answer to the Fania all-Stars: The Puerto Rico All-Stars. Mario shined as soloist and arranger, and a year later, he would co-produce their second LP, “Los Professionals”, with arrangements by the great Jorge Millet. Both recordings featured Ortiz's longtime friend Elías Lopes as lead trumpeter and culminated with their November 1978 performance at Madison Square Garden in New York, where the band proved they could give their New York City counterparts a run for their money! 1977's “Borinquen Flame” allowed a 15-year old Gilberto Santa Rosa to make his recording debut, but the band never did perform live with Santa Rosa due to Ortiz's newly acquired status at the Caribe Hilton, where he replaced Miguelito Miranda. It was Mario Ortiz Jr. had met Gilberto in 1974 at the Escuela Libre de Música, and he was the one who recommended the young singer to his father for that particular recording. This recording had a line-up of musicians which included Polito Huertas, Elías Lopes, Eladio Pérez, René Hernández, Tony Sánchez Jr., Tommy Villariny, Aldo Torres, Rafael Torres and former pianist Jesús Navarro (who also doubled on trombone), plus vocalists Santos Colón, Paquito Guzmán and Elliot Romero. Santa Rosa went on to record with Orquesta La Grande. Months later, during a performance at the Caribe Hilton (when the band was on strike, and he was performing a benefit for the musicians), Santa Rosa filled in for an absent Simón Pérez , that night in the Tommy Olivencia Orchestra, and the rest is history!. That same year, Mario Ortiz Sr. was hired by Borinquen to produce holiday albums for Ramito (Ramito en Salsa) and La Calandria (La Calandria en Salsa), following the success of his second recording for Borinquen titled “Bailables Navideños”, in which he displayed his passion for Christmas music. From 1977 to 1983, Mario Ortiz Jr. performed with his dad's band as fourth trumpet at the Caribe Hilton. In 1984, Ortiz Jr. became a regular in the band upon its signing with the label Combo, and he was featured on the 1984 release “Vamos a Gozar”, during the early stages of the ‘Salsa Sensual’ era. Compositions on this recording were penned by Gilberto Santa Rosa (who had two songs picked out for himself –“Vamos” and “El Pescador” and Roberto Anglero (one of Mario's oldest friends); and the album featured Luis Quevedo (piano), Gole Fernández and Charlie Sierra (timbales), Ramón Irizarry (bass), Tommy Villariny, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Tony Vega and Chico Rivera (vocal chorus), and the uncredited Sammy Vélez (baritone sax). It also introduced two young voices in 19 year old Anthony Cruz (who was recommended by his brother Nelson Cruz), and 29 year-old Primi Cruz, who had auditioned by phone after being recommended by Rafael Ithier. The Johnny Ortiz composition “Cuidadito” became the band's first hit in Puerto Rico, and the hits just kept on coming with “Los Soneros” and “Arrollando El Sabor”. In 1985, “Ritmo y Sabor” generated the hit “Negra Quiéreme” and “De Ninguna Manera”, followed by the 1986 LP “Déjenme Soñar” with the hits” Déjenme Soñar” and “Tu Forma de Querer) and 1987's Algo Diferente, released at the height of the "salsa romántica" scene (with the huge hits” En Bancarrota” and “Háblame En La Cama” and 1988's “Sexy Salsa”, featuring Luigi Valentín (as replacement for Primi Cruz, who went on to sing for Willie Rosario), and introducing the hits “A Fuego Lento” and “Pensar En Ti”, which placed the band at the top of many playlists worldwide. Anthony Cruz's name became known worldwide through his performance of these two spectacular hits in 1987. Although Mario Ortiz Sr. was not a big fan of the "Salsa Sensual" movement, he certainly thrived during that time span at the end of the 1980s. Gilberto Santa Rosa was once again instrumental during these recordings as a coach to Primi and Anthony's soneos. When Gilberto Santa Rosa went solo, Mario Ortiz Sr. was there as his co-producer with Rafael Ithier on the debut album “Good Vibrations”, during which Mario Jr. (Marito) served as a studio musician. This collaboration repeated itself for his next two recordings on Combo. Mario Sr. also produced and arranged for Moncho Santana (ex-Grupo Niche star best known for being the voice of “Cali Pachangero”) and later Cano Estremera in 1994 and 1996. After disbanding the group in 1991 Mario went on to arrange for many salsa acts and toured with Gilberto Santa Rosa and Jerry Rivera. Meanwhile, Mario Jr. became an intricate part of the "mini big band" sound that Mario Sr. always loved (despite not being able to record Latin jazz during his Combo days). The younger Ortiz has maintained a pretty good career, and today leads the tribute to his father that is worthy of a Grammy award. Born on March 5, 1961, Mario Jr. acquired his musical education at San Juan's Escuela Libre de Música, where he had the opportunity to meet longtime friends like Gilberto Santa Rosa, baritone saxophonist Ernesto Sánchez (who occupied the sax chair in the band in 1986, and became one of the most requested salsa sensual arrangers of the 1980s), David "Piro" Rodríguez, and Humberto Ramírez. He started to play with Máximo Torres' Chiquitines del Son and Don Perignón's Evolución 75 at age 15, and at 16, with vocalist Tito Allen. With Allen he experienced the talents of José Gazmey, Piro Rodríguez, Jimmy Morales, Andy Guzmán, and Jochy Rodríguez. While continuing his schooling in Michigan, Puerto Rico and Florida, Ortiz Jr. recorded four LPs with the Willie Rosario Orchestra (TH Records), starting with 1980's “El de a 20 de Willie”, “Atízame el Fogón” (1982), “The Salsa Machine” (1983), and “Nuevos Horizontes” (1984). Mario Jr. was also given the opportunity to co-produce “Nuevos Horizontes” (probably the most famous of all of Rosario's recordings), which featured the vocals of Gilberto Santa Rosa and Tony Vega. The hits included the Adalberto Alvarez classic “Lluvia”, “Sí Yo Tuviera Un Millón”, “Carmelito del Campo” (with a trumpet solo by Mario Ortiz Sr., a frequent guest on Rosario recordings), “Babarabatiri”, “Changó Ta Bení”, and the instrumental “Laura.” Rosario always reserved the right to record Latin jazz, as did Bobby Valentín, and was a staple of the old-school Puerto Rican bands. Mario Jr. joined his father and recommended to Rosario that his seat be filled by Humberto Ramírez, who was in San Francisco at the time. By this time, Mario Ortiz Sr. had reorganized his band with the two new singers, later joined by a third vocalist, Nelson Rodríguez. Meanwhile Mario Jr. had connected with Julio César Delgado at TH and became a top studio musician, which was the established norm in the field of ‘Salsa Romántica’, He recorded for Lalo Rodríguez, Andy Montañez, Tommy Olivencia, Frankie Ruiz, Paquito Guzmán, and many others. In 1990, he obtained a Bachelor's Degree in Music Education from the University of Miami, and went on tour with Juan Luis Guerra & 4.40 for several years. In 1993, he went back to the University of Miami to complete his Master's Degree and had the fortunate opportunity to play with Dizzy Gillespie, Arturo Sandoval, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Henderson and other jazz greats. Today, he is a music teacher in Miami-Dade County and has worked during the past few years in preparing the recording Tributo-45 Aniversario, fronting the Mario Ortiz All-Star Band (featuring Gilberto Santa Rosa, Cheo Feliciano, Richie Ray, Andy Montañez, Tito Allen, Papo Lucca, Elias Lopes, Bobby Valentín, Adalberto Santiago, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Cruz, Primi Cruz, Anthony Cruz, Ismael Rivera Jr., Tony Vega, Pedro Brull, Roberto Roena, Chico Rivera, Celso Clemente Jr., and more). Mario Ortiz Jr. is very proud of this amazing project that includes 16 tracks from his father's debut LP, “On The Road” and the Remo sessions. More amazing is that these musicians did without any financial compensation. They all wanted to be a part of history! Using his father's arrangements, with a few changes and the help of his school friend Ernesto Sánchez, Mario chose “Maína” (with the voice of Anthony Cruz), “Mambo Infierno” (with the assistance of Lenny Prieto on the transcription, Adalberto Santiago on vocals and a reggaetón mix) and the Machito classic “Qué Bonito Es Puerto Rico” (with Primi Cruz and with Mario's niece, Adriana, singing Graciela's part) from the debut album On the Road. On ‘Swinging with Mario Ortiz’, he chose Tony Vega to sing “Yaré Yaré”, with an awesome piano solo by Papo Lucca. The big Puerto Rico hit “Chinita” features vocals by Gilberto Santa Rosa and “Para Los Bravos” that features vocalists Andy Montañez, Cheo Feliciano, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Adalberto Santiago, Bobby Cruz, Tito Allen, Pedro Brull, Ismael Miranda, Anthony Cruz and Ismael Rivera Jr. paying tribute to all those bravos (brave ones) that have passed away. “Con Güiro y Pandereta” (designed to be a holiday favorite this year, as it was in 1964-65) is now sung by Pedro Brull. There were two versions of this parranda, the first with vocals by Paquito Alvarez and the second one sung in 1967 by Chico Rivera, who can be heard on the new version, joking around with Roberto Anglero. The track “Malagueña” now features Richie Ray and Luis Aquino as soloists, and it was extracted from the LP “The Best of Mario Ortiz All-Star Band”. Bobby Cruz sings on “Rumberito”, with a great bongó solo by Roberto Roena. ‘El Soplo’, with vocals by Tito Allen, is a bit faster here and includes elder statesmen from 43 years ago-Pedro Rivera Toledo, Ulises Ortiz (Mario Sr's brother, who also played with Ortiz Sr.), Rafael "El Indio" Martínez (saxes) and Gole Fernández (timbal). “Se Acabó el Bembé” features Ismael Miranda, and the Miles Davis hit "Move" now highlights a timbal solo by Rigoberto Diaz, originally delivered by Gole Fernández in 1964. Chico Rivera handles the “Bolero Medley :“Odiame” and “Anoche Hablé Con un Niño” and shows that he still has the vocal styling that once made him famous. Cheo Feliciano sings “A Quitarse” (from the LP “Los Cabezones”), and relates to Mario Ortiz being at the Palladium in 1963 to see the Mario Ortiz Band play and the pride he felt to see a Puerto Rican band performing like those from New York. “El Cid” is a fusion of the original by Mario Sr. on the solo with Mario Jr…. Ortiz Sr. must be smiling at his son from heaven with only one regret: that he was not here to be a part of it! Mario Jr. provided me with a DVD disc that shows the making of this great recording, and I would like to share some of the comments made by those who recorded on the CD…. Elías Lopes: "The first Remo recording we did was done right after doing a dance at the Palladium Ballroom. With the entire band, we did four numbers in 12 hours and 12 hours the next day to finish the other four numbers on two channels (one for the band and one for the vocals). For me it was a privilege to be with Mario at the time and he was an inspiration who taught me many things about the music." Bobby Valentín: "The man could be having a conversation with you and at the same time hear everything that is being played…stop on a dime and point out the error by any musician…he was unique that way and similar to Juancito Torres, but at a higher level. Roberto Anglero: "I was a car mechanic and Mario would come by and ask me if I had a tune for him. I told him I'd go
to his house but he insisted on taking out a music sheet and writing the song right there. He asked me to stop by his house on Thursday and listen to the finished product". Bobby Cruz: "Mario was one of the inspirations in my wanting to be a musician, along with the Titos (Puente & Rodriguez)."
What was an idea to just do one ‘Tribute’ CD became an anniversary album and to meet the needs of the modern day salsa fans a 50thAnniversary came to life….this time covering the ‘Salsa Romantcia’ era with the vocalists Anthony Cruz & Primi Cruz. There was a huge demand from fans, especially in South America, for the band to re-record these hits from the 80’s. Mario Jr. kept using his father’s original arrangements with a few touches here and there that modernized the tracks.
One of the standout tracks on the 5oth CD was “Los Soneros” with the vocal talents of lead singer Ismael Miranda followed by Gilberto Santa Rosa, Tony Vega, Andy Montañez, Rey Ruiz, Tito Rojas, Ray De La Paz, & Victor Manuelle. Marito also dedicated the 50th to Cheo Feliciano who was the first one to record on the 55th Anniversary CD.
This set into motion what is now a tradition of a new CD every five years. “The 55th Anniversary” CD, that came out in 2013, returned to the classic tracks that Mario Ortiz Sr. did while also introducing newer young vocalists. Alain Garcia sung “Mas Bonita Que Nunca” (with willie Rosario as guest) and “Festival De La Caña” & Gio Beta on “De Ninguna Manera” and “Que Puedes Hacer Por Mi”. Add to this the hits “Doña Intranquilidad” sung by Tito Nieves, “Soltando Chispas” sung by Gilberto Santa Rosa (with the soloists Rigoberto Diaz on timbales and Roberto Roena on bongo), “Fuego” sung by another newbie Ruben Trillo (with Marito on the trumpet), the Latin Jazz instrumental “Budo” with Marito and Luis ‘Perico” Ortiz on the dueling trumpets, “Trucutu” sung by Victor Manuelle (with Marito on trumpet and Pete Perignon on timbales) and the Tito Rodriguez classic “Avisale A Mis Contrarios” with the vocal talents of Andy Montañez & Ismael Miranda (with the soloists Roena, Jimmie Morales and Don Perignon). This production was produced by pianist Andy Guzman and another Grammy nominated CD for Mario Ortiz Jr. in 2014.
We have to mention some of the great musicians who were part of these recordings like Bobby Valentin, Papo Lucca, Dante Vargas, Giovanni Hidalgo, Pablo ‘Chino’ Nuñez, Charlie Santiago, Angel Torres, Tommy Villariny, Sammy Velez, Celso Clemente Jr., Henry Santiago, Darvel Garcia, Luis Aquino, Freddie Miranda, Arturo Ortiz, and Frankie Perez.
Plans for 2021 include an all Latin Jazz recording that will include all the Latin Jazz tracks that have been recorded (Cool Heat/El Cid/ Malagueña/Budo/Random Riff/Move/Cariaoca) and some possible surprises. We know Ernesto Sanchez is working with Marito on this project.
In my opinion, that has been supported by many important personalities in the industry, the first CD “45th Anniversary-Mario Ortiz Tribute” should have won the Grammy in 2010. Even Gilberto Santa Rosa, who won the Grammy that year, acknowledged that Mario Ortiz Jr. should have won the award!
The legacy of Mario Ortiz the father has been living and will continue to live through the son and we the fans will be the beneficiaries of all this great music.
(I first wrote this article for Latin Beat Magazine in 2009 and have updated for WorldSalsaRadio.com)