Willie Colon: 50 Years of Salsa Music

Willie Colon launched his 50 Anniversary Tour in Puerto Rico, which made me reflect on the career accomplishments of this Salsa music legend.

A mediocre musician per his own admission, Willie Colon became Salsa music star since his teen years by using his superb instincts for taking the pulse of what Latinos in New York wanted and making hit songs. To accomplish this, he used his creativity and calculated risks.

I was able to hear Willie recount some of his career highlights in an extensive interview in Puerto Rico’s Salsa radio station Z-93 as a promo for his concert.

The Colon-Lavoe Years

Willie Colon with Hector Lavoe and Yomo Toro

Willie Colon made history with Hector Lavoe in many fronts, including their Asalto Navideño albums.

Colon was teamed with Hector Lavoe against his will by Fania exec Johnny Pacheco. As Willie Colon shared in the interview, they both played in the same building in New York, but in different floors (clubs), so they were somewhat rivals. Pacheco new Hector was a great singer, and Colon needed one, so he did the match.

The 8 years with Hector Lavoe made them both Salsa icons. They wrote songs and had so much fun in stage, that they quickly became Salsa fans favorites. The two Asalto Navideño albums were ground-braking music history, as for the first time Puerto Rican folk music was combined with Salsa music.

Willie shared in the interview that he wanted to do this experiment to bring back some sense of pride to Puerto Rican folk music, as at the time (later 60’s through early 70’s) the younger Latinos dismissed it as old music, and were almost ashamed of it. The Asalto Navideno albums were a huge success, but after the 2nd one, the Colon-Lavoe association came to its end.

The Colon-Blades Years

Willie shared little about his years with Panamanian star Ruben Blades during the radio interview, perhaps still resentful of their legal feud of a few years back. The first thing he said was that the fact they came from different backgrounds (Colon from the streets of NYC, and Blades an educated lawyer from Panama) created constant friction amongst them.

Colon also shared that it was Blades the one that wanted to get together with Colon after seeing how the song “El Cazanguero” came out in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”. Colon eventually agreed and they went on to change Salsa by introducing socio-political themes to Salsa music.

The Master Producer

While still with Ruben Blades, Willie Colon began to lay the ground for future works. Besides starting to slowly introduce himself as a singer, he also began to produce albums with other singers.

The first of those collaborations was with Puerto Rican legendary “trabalengua” singer Mon Rivera. Mon was in the twilight of his career, but Colon always had a great admiration for him, particularly since Mon had a trombone-only band, which Colon always tried to get up and play with when he was a younger apprentice. Willie shared that when he approached Mon about making an album together, Rivera said “ah, you are that ‘americanito’…”.

Willie also produced some great albums with the Cuban Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. But of their albums (about 3 of them) it was the 1st one “Only They Could Have Done this Album” which really captured the airwaves. He didn’t talk much about these albums with Celia, nor of the successful album he did with El Nino Bonito Ismael Miranda. Colon also produced an album for Venezuelan singer Soledad Bravo.

Willie Colon – the Singer

Willie Colon backcover of Legal Alien Salsa album

Willie saved the Legal Alien album by adding one last song; “El Gran Varón”, which catapulted the album into a huge success.

For a musician that admits he is not a great musician, Willie Colon enjoyed great success as a bandleader. He also, eventually, enjoyed great success as a singer, despite not being a great singer either. But he knows clave, knows how to sing, and has always kept that great hear for what people might like.

Willie also made his solo albums distinctly different by using an all-female chorus and adding string sounds to his arrangements, with the objective of making his music more palatable to a wider audience; an effort in which he succeeded.

A couple of this albums were saved by this instinct, as he added a last minute song when he sensed the album was missing something. One of those last minute addition songs, was Omar Alfanno’s “El Gran Varon”, which made the album a huge hit.

I like to listen to Willie Colon’s solo albums, but not to watch him performing.

Twilight of El Malo

Willie Colon is recognized as one of the Latin music flagbearers. An innovator and visionary, he used his musical instinct to build one of the most successful careers in Salsa music.

On the twilight of his magnificent career in Salsa, William Anthony Colon Roman, also known as “El Malo” (which was the name of his 1st album), is thinking of dedicating his next years to produce for other younger artists.

I believe that with his musical acumen, Willie Colon will do Latin music a great favor if he can influence the next generation of Latino artists in the Salsa genre, or any other genre he wants to produce in.

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