A mediocre musician per his own admission, Willie Colon became Salsa music star since his teen years. He accomplished this by using his superb instincts for taking the pulse of what Latinos in New York wanted and converting that into hit songs. Additionally, he used his creativity and took 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
Colon was teamed with Hector Lavoe against his will by Fania executive Johnny Pacheco. As Willie Colon shared in the interview, before they met, they both played in the same building in New York. They played in different floors (clubs), so they were somewhat rivals. Pacheco knew Hector was a great singer, and that Willie needed one, so he made the match.
The 8 years with Hector Lavoe made them both Salsa icons. (Note: you can read my series on Hector Lavoe HERE). 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. It was one of the few times Puerto Rican folk music was combined with Salsa music. (You can read my full blog on the Asalto Navideño ablums HERE)
Willie shared in the interview that he wanted to do this experiment to bring back some sense of pride to Puerto Rican folk music. 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 Navideño albums were a huge success. It was after the 2nd one that 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 he is 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 is a product from the streets of NYC, and Blades an educated lawyer from Panama. According to Willie, this created constant friction between them.
Colon also shared that it was Blades the one that wanted to get together with him. After seeing how the song “El Cazanguero” came out in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” Ruben approach Colon about working together. Colon eventually agreed and they went on to change Salsa music by introducing socio-political themes.
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. For many years 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. Additionally, Colon also produced an album for Venezuelan singer Soledad Bravo.
Willie Colon – the Singer
For a musician that admits he is not a great musician, Willie Colon enjoyed great success as a bandleader. Eventually he enjoyed great success as a singer despite not being a great singer. However, 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 strings to his arrangements. The objective was to make his music more palatable to a wider audience, which he accomplished successfully.
A couple of this albums were saved by his musical instinct. As an example, he would add song at the last minute 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 “Legal Alien” 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 flag-bearers. 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.