© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
One drummer sits down at the drum kits and says - “Check this out” whereupon he turns off the snare drum strainer which gives the drum a tom tom sound and proceeds to lay down a wicked timbales Latin beat using that drum and a cow bell that’s mounted to the back of the bass drum.
“Hey, Man, that’s wicked. Where you’d learn that?”
“Oh, yeah,” the other drummer says, “let me use the kit” whereupon he sits down behind the drums and used the timbales-sounding snare and the cow bell to play a tight clave beat that sounds like a combination of a mambo and a cha cha.
“Wow. Where’d you pick that up?”
Back in the day, every self-respecting drummer was expected to have a cow bell mounted on his bass drum and know how to play authentic Latin clave and son clave beats on it.
And not a Farmer John’s cow bell that was salvaged from a barn yard. We’re talkin’ about a finely tempered and tuned musical cow bell - an instrument - that was manufactured to produce a “harmonic sound” that blended in with the music and not the clanging sound produced by the bell cow leading the herd to pasture.
And any self-respecting drummer learned how to play Latin licks on that cow bell by listening to Willie Bobo who was a fixture on timbales with the groups headed-up by Tito Puente, George Shearing and Cal Tjader for much of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Willie was The Main Man; he was the source of cookin’ Latin Jazz and since just about every Jazz combo had some Latin Jazz tunes in their book of arrangements, many Jazz drummers got to trot out their Bobo Bop licks when these tunes were called.
The liner notes to the CD reissue of Spanish Grease and Uno, Dos, Tres - 1*2*3, two albums that Willie recorded for Creed Taylor at Verve in 1965 offer some very illuminating comments about Willie’s career.
“Barely out of his teens, Willie Bobo emerged as one of the finest percussionists of the mambo era, equally adept on bongos, congas, timbales, and trap drums. His all-percussion albums with Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria still stand as touchstones of the African-Cuban art. Bobo pushed the envelope of early Latin jazz with bandleaders George Shearing, Cal Tjader, and Herbie Mann, and with his own group he helped to pioneer Latin soul and funk in the Sixties, paving the way for the boogaloo craze. In the following decade he became a familiar face to millions of television viewers playing the role of a musician on The Bill Cosby Show.
Bobo recorded Spanish Grease and Uno, Dos, Tres 1 *2*3 at the peak of his career as a leader, during the transitional period following the decline of the mambo and preceding the rise of salsa.
Reissued here on a single CD, these albums show him reaching out beyond traditional Latin forms with a multi-ethnic band playing an eclectic repertoire of rock, blues, jazz, and pop, including covers of chart-topping hits of the day as well as standards and original tunes.
Bobo unites all of his disparate influences into one seamless, soulful Latin groove, held together by his solid percussion and earthy sense of swing. And though his music received little critical attention at the time, Bobo's imaginative recombination of African-Cuban, African-American, and mainstream pop-rock elements had an important impact on later salsa, Latin rock, and Latin jazz that is readily apparent in retrospect.
‘He had a colorful career,' says Latin-music historian, scholar, and disc jockey Max Salazar, whose knowledge of Bobo's life and music comes both from research and firsthand experience with the artist. ‘He knew the powers that be, but he made his own breaks and capitalized on them.’
Born William Correa on February 28, 1934, Bobo was raised in an East Harlem, New York barrio. His father played Puerto Rican folk music on the guitar-like cuatro, but young Willie was more attracted to the brassy, urbane mambo and became a band boy for Machito's legendary Afro-Cubans. At fourteen he took up the bongos, then the congas, timbales, and trap drums, under the tutelage of Cuban percussion master Mongo Santamaria, who had just arrived in New York.
‘Willie was mesmerized by Mongo,’ says Salazar, ‘and Mongo took him on as a student and taught him everything about the drums.’ In 1951 Mongo became Tito Puente's conga player, and for a while Willie backed jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, who gave him the nickname Bobo. Then in 1954 he joined Santamaria in Puente's band, replacing Manny Oquendo on bongos. ‘Willie Bobo came in only because Mongo Santamaria convinced Tito to hire him,’ says Salazar. ‘Puente had heard about this kid, Bobo, who was very good on drums, so Tito did not want him — that jealousy thing, I guess. They were both excellent drummers, but Tito Puente was the undisputed timbal champ at the time. He called himself the King of the Timbales, and Bobo used to make fun of that.’
‘Willie Bobo always mocked Tito Puente; he mimicked him, says salsa pioneer Eddie Palmieri, who grew up idolizing Puente. ‘When Tito played vibes, Willie played timbales, and since Tito played a lot of vibes, Willie was not only the bongo player, he was a whole show on stage. It was fun to see.’
Despite their personal friction, the percussion section of Puente, Santamaria, and Bobo is generally regarded as not only Puente's best but one of the finest in Latin-music history, and their albums Top Percussion and Puente in Percussion, augmented respectively by drummers Francisco Aquabella and Carlos "Potato" Valdez, are among the all-time percussion classics.
"Still,' continues Salazar,
the jealousy existed, because a lot of times Bobo would show up Puente on the timbales. Puente tolerated the newcomer because Bobo was incredible on bongos, congas, and timbales, and most of all because Willie was recommended by Mongo.
And Bobo tolerated Puente because he was his boss; this is how he pai one night at Birdland Puente is introducing his musicians, but when he comes to his rival, he introduces him as "Willie Boborosa". He mispronounced his name deliberately, over network radio.
Puente consented to Bobo's performing and recording with Shearing in 1955 but not when Willie and Santamaria cut the album Mas Ritmo Caliente with Shearing's former vibraphonist, Cal Tjader, two years later. "At that time he considered Tjader a real threat to his throne," adds Salazar. "So he exploded, and he humiliated Bobo and Mongo to the point where they quit. Tjader then broke up his group so he could get these two guys. He sent them airplane tickets and everything, and Mongo and Bobo went flying out to the West Coast and joined Tjader."
For the next three years, Bobo played timbales and trap drums in Tjader's California-based quintet and sextet, recording on such Latin-jazz landmarks as Tjader Goes Latin, Latin for Lovers, and A Night at the Blackhawk. "Willie was really playing his maximum there," says Eddie Palmieri, "because he was influenced by jazz. He wanted to be a jazz drummer, but he and Mongo had a routine, because they had already been with Tito." During the same period he recorded such Santamaria albums as Yambu, Mongo, and Our Man in Havana. When Mongo split with Tjader in 1961 to form his own band in New York, Bobo went with the Cuban percussionist, but he soon left to join Herbie Mann's group. In 1963 he struck out on his own and cut sessions with Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. He organized a group of his own to substitute for Count Basie at the bandleader's club in Harlem and was so successful that A&R man Teddy Reig signed him for a series of albums on the Tico and Roulette labels.
Then Bobo signed with Verve in 1965 and recorded Spanish Grease for producer Creed Taylor.
Having established himself as a bandleader and solo recording artist, Bobo moved back to Los Angeles and landed the role on Cosby. It is ironic that he achieved his greatest exposure playing the part of a musician. Willie traveled to Ghana with Santana to make the film Soul to Soul, and he performed and recorded with Herbie Mann and others, but his brand of Latin soul was eclipsed by the salsa movement of the Seventies, which emphasized the Cuban roots of the music and downplayed its funk and jazz connections.
By the time he died of brain cancer in 1983, at forty-nine, Bobo was an obscure figure. Had he lived to see the current Latin-jazz boom, he would surely have made a comeback, but a decade ago his music was perceived as too jazzy for Latin dancers and too funky for jazz purists. A native New Yorker, he had settled in Los Angeles, cut off from the Latin-jazz wellspring; perhaps he could have gone home again, but then came his final illness, and it was too late.
Though his fans never forgot him, his reputation among the general public languished after his death. But with the growing international awareness of Latin-music history today, Bobo's contributions are beginning to be recognized.
His unique sound can be heard as a precursor to the whole panoply of contemporary Latin jazz, Latin rock, and even Latin hip-hop, but you don't need a sense of history to appreciate it. After all, Bobo never intended it as art for the cognoscenti but as lighthearted, danceable party music with a jazzy, streetwise edge.
So just sit back, get in the groove, and enjoy!
July 1994 Reissue
Willie and the band perform Nessa on the following video tribute.