An album featuring a salsa version of Mexican idol Juan Gabriel’s dramatic ballad “Hasta que te concoci” and a Latin-tinged take on the group Bread’s soft rock hit “Make it With You” might not sound destined for album gold, let alone platinum. But with 1993’s Otra Nota, Marc Anthony started firmly on his path to superstardom, bringing a new sound for a young generation of bilingual Latino fans, and a new image for Latin artists to the charts.
After the album’s release, Anthony, then in his early twenties, went on his first major tour. With his “curly hair flowing halfway down his back, metal-rimmed aviator glasses, loose-fitting pants, and a white sweater,” a Boston Globe critic wrote, he “looked more like a college physics major than a salsa singer.” A NY Daily News writer had a similar reaction, noting that although the singer was already attracting crowds of excited female fans, he was “no pretty boy.” The comment was a jab at Latin pop stars of the time, and also romantic salsa singers. Salsa had emerged as the gritty grassroots sound of Latin cool in 1970s New York, but the ‘80s had brought with it a smoother, more commercial version of the genre performed by artists known for wearing tight polyester and feathered hair.
Anthony is one of the biggest romantics of all, a lover of love songs who has even been known to cry onstage. But the music on Otra Nota, as foreshadowed by that onstage look, set him apart from other salsa and Latin pop artists. A native New Yorker from a Puerto Rican family, born Marco Antonio Muñiz, he was brought up in El Barrio on Latin ballads, pop radio, old-school hip-hop, R&B, and classic salsa. He was an up-and-coming artist singing in English, performing freestyle – the 80s electronic genre that was sometimes called Latin hip-hop – when he was signed by RMM record head Ralph Mercado, who was looking for new sounds to appeal to urban Latino listeners.
Anthony has said that it was hearing “Hasta que te conoci” on a car radio that fatefully steered him to record salsa for the first time. When he told his then-manager that he wanted to record the song, he suggested that the singer do a salsa version. Producer Sergio George helmed Otra Nota, making ample use of synthesizer technology of the time, which decades later, can sound bombastic. But, more importantly, George brought in a line-up of top Latin musicians, including Fania veterans violinist Lewis Kahn and bongo player Ray Colón, and Afro-Rican jazz pioneer William Cepeda on trombone, to build the music’s backbone. On tracks like “Si tu no fueras,” Anthony’s natural improvisational groove immediately established his link to hard salsa singers, notably the great Hector Lavoe (who Anthony would later play in a 2007 biopic). On “El último beso,” a ballad that stretches into piano tumbaos and a pumped-up sing-along chorus, Anthony emerges as a masterful sonero, ringmaster of a euphoric Cuban-style music circus.
Some in the salsa world were dubious when Otra Nota was announced as Anthony’s first album aimed to cross over into the Spanish-language Latin market. New York club-goers wondered what he was doing recording salsa. Many others thought that salsa was as dead as disco. But Mercado, George, and, of course, Anthony proved them all wrong. Anthony was named Best New Artist at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in 1994, on his way to becoming one of the most popular Latin artists of all time. And salsa, remade in the voice and image of Marc Anthony, would triumphantly dance into the next century.