Like any legendary record label worthy of its legacy, Fania Records was particularly attuned to both great music and savvy self-promotion. So when it initially assembled the cream of its late 1960s artist roster (Ray Barretto, Joe Bataan, Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, label co-founder Johnny Pacheco, et al.) to play a club date together as the Fania All-Stars, it was as much a celebration of the exciting sounds on New York City’s Latin music scene as a shrewd marketing exercise. Abetted by guests Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri, the resulting live albums, 1968’s Live at the Red Garter, Volumes 1 & 2, provided proof-of-concept for the supergroup as a novel experiment.
Three years later, Pacheco’s business partner at the label, Jerry Masucci, set his ambitions far bigger. Boogaloo, the once popular mid-’60s hybrid of Latin and R&B, had fizzled out. But its youthful energy was absorbed into newly energized takes on the traditional Afro-Cuban styles Pacheco championed, played by conjuntos with expert precision and jazz-level chops, flamboyance, and above all, cultural pride. The new pan-Latin sound would become known as salsa. And the Fania All-Stars – now encompassing both label fixtures and newer recruits – were reconstituted for a special concert to be both recorded and filmed. Masucci envisioned a “Latin Woodstock” that would put the eyes and ears of the world on the infectious energy of salsa, the NYC community that birthed it, and of course, Fania.
Recorded on the evening of Thursday, August 26th, 1971, the two volumes of Live at the Cheetah represents in many respects the Big Bang of 1970s salsa. The assembled All-Stars crowded onstage – including conga player Barretto, trombonist Colon, pianist Harlow, percussionist Roberto Roena, and bassist Bobby Valentin, along with superb vocalists Cheo Feliciano, Hector Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Cruz, Adalberto Santiago, and Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez – more than lived up to the billing. Cheetah’s flashing-lights filled, two-thousand-capacity ballroom of dancers provided a perfect environment, as evinced by the synergy of the attendees’ clave and Valentin’s nimble bass on the hard-charging opener “Descarga Fania,” or the frenzy the percussion triumvirate of Barretto, Roena on bongos and cowbell, and Orestes Vilato on timbales induce on the magnificent “Ponte Duro.”
Other moments possess the celebratory warmth of a homecoming. Feliciano’s showcase “Anacaona” (the anthemic Tite Curet Alonso-penned tribute to the iconic Taíno cacica and rebel) signals his triumphant return to performing after years of self-imposed retirement battling drug addiction. Cruz and pianist partner Ricardo Ray’s propulsive “Ahora Vengo Yo” – their return to the NYC stage after a period in Puerto Rico – heralds the duo’s subsequent success through the decade. “Estrellas de Fania” and the 16-minute “Quitate Tu” – epic soneros featuring all of the assembled singers in round robin improvisation – evoke the exhilaration unique to standing on the precipice of something momentous. As Fania’s in-house designer and the All-Stars’ master of ceremonies “Dizzy” Izzy Sanabria declares from the stage at one point with all the passion the moment merits: “¡Que viva la musica! Latin music power – yeah!”
Just as Masucci hoped, the Live at the Cheetah albums – along with their dynamic accompanying concert film/El Barrio documentary, Our Latin Thing – propelled salsa, and with it Fania, worldwide. Within a few years, the All-Stars would famously sell out Yankee Stadium, inaugurate Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, and play the “Rumble in the Jungle” concert in Zaire as they ascended to superstardom (and all of its trappings and complications). But Live at the Cheetah, Volumes 1 & 2 makes the case that their chemistry was never better than on the hot summer night in midtown Manhattan that set it all off.