Tito Rodriguez and His Substitute Band Boy

[This is a fictional short story based on historical events in Latin music.]

It was early on a Wednesday evening, and Carlos was exhausted already. He had carried all the instruments and equipment of Tito Rodriguez‘ orchestra up the stairs, into the ballroom on the 2nd floor.

It is a steep staircase which faces 53rd Street in the corner with Broadway Avenue in New York City. The staircase leads to the entrance of the Palladium Ballroom, which is considered the mecca of Latin music in New York. Carlos used every ounce of energy he had in his skinny 5′ 9″ frame of 140 pounds to get the equipment upstairs. In top of that, he still had to set it up and perform sound checks to ensure it was working correctly.

Tito Rodriguez was a regular at the Palladium

The Palladium Ballroom was known as the Home of the Mambo during the 1950’s.

He got the band boy gig for just one day to substitute for his friend Cheo, who was on his way to audition for the vacant singer job in a recently formed sextet led by a guy named Joe Cuba. Carlos was excited of this opportunity to work with one of the hottest performers in Latin music.

Carlos and Cheo got to know each other by living in the same building in the Bronx. They became friends as both of their families arrived to New York from Ponce, Puerto Rico. Additionally, they had opposite personalities. Cheo was outgoing and charismatic, and liked to be the focus of attention in street “rumbas” by playing the bongos and singing. Carlos was timid and quiet, preferring to clap and sing the chorus in the anonymity of the crowd whenever he accompanied Cheo to the “rumbones”.

If Cheo landed the singer’s gig with Joe Cuba, then tonight would be Carlos’ audition for the band boy job with Tito Rodriguez. Carlos desperately needed the extra income to pay for his electronic courses at the New York Community College in Brooklyn. He was smart and had a passion for both electronics and music, so he enjoyed every minute of connecting the equipment and doing sound checks. If he could just find someone to carry the equipment, it would be a dream job.

Inside the ballroom, Tito Rodriguez was walking around checking the members of his orchestra. He always checked that they were dressed sharply in the band’s uniform. The suit, the tie, the shoes, their hair, all had to look perfect. Then he checked on Carlos.

‘Flaco’, are you done with the equipment setup? Tito asked his substitute band boy.

“Not yet boss. I’m still working on the connections. I should be done in about 30 minutes”, replied Carlos.

“We have to be ready before Puente starts…”, said Tito, referring to his friend and famous bandleader of the same name, “…and we can’t interfere with his sound checks. So, you don’t have that much time!”

Tito’s Microphone Problem

By the time Tito Puente was getting ready to open, Carlos had completed the equipment setup for Tito Rodriguez’ orchestra. He had done a quick sound check and everything worked.

The Palladium Ballroom is packed tonight! Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Whites, and Jews all came to dance the Mambo. The craze for this rhythm started in the late 1940’s, and now, mid-way through the 50’s, is still going strong.

Tito Rodriguez playing maracas in front of a microphone.

Tito Rodriguez and his orchestra performed regularly at the Palladium along with Machito and Tito Puente.

Tonight, the best bands are playing the Palladium. Machito and his Afro Cubans are one of the top bands in Latin music. They basically created a new genre called, Afro Cuban Jazz. Tito Puente, who came up through Machito’s band, ensembled one of the premier bands in Latin music. He records frequently, and tonight he’ll probably showcase music from his latest album. And as they say, last but not least, Tito Rodriguez recruited some of the best musicians in New York’s Latin music scene in the way of becoming the best all-around entertainer. He’s a handsome singer with a great voice, which makes him a favorite among women. Like Puente, he’s an exceptional dancer, and occasionally will perform a solo on the timbales.

These three orchestras are some of the best in Latin music. Tonight, like most nights when they alternate with each other, they want to earn the people’s choice as the best band. Although this is a friendly competition, they all take it very seriously!

Tito Puente led off the night, and played an amazing set. He closed the first set with his hit “Ran Kan Kan”, included in his latest album “Mamborama”. He did a good job of trying to grab the public’s favor right from the start. “Ran Kan Kan” filled the massive Palladium dancefloor by giving the 1,000 couples it accommodates a hot mambo to dance.

As Puente played his last note, Machito followed him without missing a beat. It was as if an invisible disc jockey synchronized the music changeovers. Since the ample Palladium stage accommodated all three orchestras at the same time, one band got ready to play while the other was finishing their last song. From the stage looking towards the dancefloor, Puente’s orchestra was located to the left of the stage, Machito’s in the middle, and Rodriguez’ to the right of the stage.

Machito and his Afro-Cubans kept the people in the dancefloor swinging with their guarachas, mambos, and Afro Cuban Jazz. Finally, when Machito signaled that he was in his last song of the set, the musicians of Tito Rodriguez’ orchestra took their positions and were ready to start.

Tito opened the set with his usual “Mambo Mona” (Mama Guela) theme. He came to the mike to welcome the audience, but as he started to speak, no sound came out. He checked to see if the microphone was ON. It was. He tried again. Nothing! He tapped on the mike with two fingers, first once, then twice. The microphone was dead!!

Machito playing maracas with Graciela

Machito and his Afro Cubans was one of premier bands at the Palladium.

Tito Rodriguez looked at the right-hand side of the stage where Carlos was standing watching nervously. Tito gave him a killer’s stare. Carlos could almost feel his knees shaking underneath him. He didn’t know if it was of fear or embarrassment. Fixing radios and phonographs in the comfort of his room was one thing, but he felt sick having Tito and his orchestra starring at him reproachfully.

Carlos stood frozen in panic! His light-brown Puerto Rican skin tone was turning whiter by the minute! “What could have gone wrong?”, he asked himself. He had checked everything and everything worked! Tito turned around to face his orchestra, and signaled them to continue to play instrumentally. He held-off the chorus from entering to buy himself some time.

Martha was still on the sidelines standing next to Carlos. As the dancer for the Tito Rodriguez orchestra, she normally waited for Tito to enter and get things going before she would enter the stage just before the interlude in the middle of the first song of the set. She turned to Carlos and said; “You need to get Tito’s mike working! We don’t want to look like fools tonight!

Carlos didn’t move. He just stood there staring back at Tito in disbelief. The thought of failing in front of so many people terrified him. “This is surely my fault. I’ve let down Cheo, and now the great Tito Rodriguez is pissed at me. Oh my God”, Carlos thought!

Martha brought out her Cuban blood and now yelled at him; “OYE, ‘COME MIEHDA’, LOOK AT ME!” She grabbed Carlos by the shoulders and turned him to face her. “What’s your name?”

“Carlos”, he mumbled.

“Ok Carlos. You need to fix Tito’s mike”. ‘PERO YA!’ I’ll buy you some time. You’ve got about 2 minutes. CORRE, VETE, YA!

Finding the Problem with Tito’s Mike

Carlos started to run into the stage, when he felt Martha grab him by the shirt, ripping off his top button.

“‘QUE TE PASA, VIEJO’? WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?” she yelled. Then lowering her voice to not make a bigger scene, added, “‘Poh Dioh, mi negro’, you can’t run through the middle of the stage!”.

“Ok, ‘Peldone’!”, Carlos responded softly, still looking half-zombie. Martha could tell Carlos was just reacting; not thinking.

Tito Rodriguez with Martha and his Orchestra.

Tito Rodriguez and his Orchestra. Martha and Tito are sitting in the piano.

She tried her best to calm herself down, and with a softer tone, looked at him in the eye and said in her Cuban accent, “‘Mira viejo’, sorry about your shirt, ok? ‘Ehcucha’; you look like a smart guy; I know you can do this! Go through the back of the stage! ‘Pero anda, poh tu madre! Apúrate!’

Perhaps unknowingly, the beautiful Cuban brunette that Tito hired to give his orchestra a distinctive extra attraction, got Carlos to finally snap out of it.

Without a moment to waste, he turned and ran towards the back of the stage. Then he turned a sharp right and ran full speed behind the orchestra. As he ran through the back, he turned for a split second to look in-between the musicians towards the front of the stage. He saw Tito facing the musicians but now staring at him, looking hopeful instead of pissed.

When he got to the other end of the orchestra, he turned right again and sped towards the amplifier. To save time, he decided to do a baseball slide to quickly stop just in front of it. Almost breathless, and now with a bit of pain in his right leg from banging it on the stage’s hardwood floor doing the slide, Carlos checked the connections. He was looking for something wrong, but he couldn’t find anything out of order. Taking a deep breath and shutting his eyes for a second to try to focus, he opened them and looked again at the connections to double-check he didn’t miss the mistake in his rush. This time he took the time to mentally walk through all the connections. He confirmed that all cables seemed to be in the right place.

“Oh crap” he said in frustration to no one in particular.

He looked up from the amplifier perplexed! Carlos calculated that about one minute had gone by and he didn’t have a clue what was wrong, much less how to fix it. “Ok, let me think.” he thought trying to calm down. “If the connections are correct, what else could have gone wrong? Maybe it’s the mike, or it’s the cable, or it could be a that a bulb went out inside the amp.” he thought analytically. “I can quickly check the amp by changing the cable input to Tito’s mike, but someone would need to check if the mike works. I’m not about to tell Tito to go back and check the mike again. What if it still doesn’t work? I need to be sure it works before I tell Tito.”

Martha Correa with Tito Rodriguez

Martha Correa (l) dancing a routine with Tito Rodriguez (c) and a guest (r) in front of the band.

Then he came up with a better idea. He unplugged Tito’s mike from the amplifier and then changed one of the trumpet microphones into Tito’s mike input slot in the amp. Now he could still hear the trumpets through the speakers, so the amp was working fine. That narrowed down the problem to either Tito’s mike or its cable.

While the band continued to play the “Mambo Mona” intro, Martha was able to get Tito’s attention. She signaled him that she would come in with the chorus. Tito immediately knew what she had in mind. They would do their dance routine now, instead of in the middle of the song, which is when they normally do it during the instrumental interlude.

As the chorus sang “Mama Guela, Mama Guela”, Martha came out, and a few seconds later, she and Tito went into their fierce dance routine. “Ohhhhh, that’s why she told me I have a couple of minutes”, Carlos thought, as he saw what was going on.

Finding Time for a Solution

Carlos thought quickly, “I need to get another mike and cable set from the equipment trunk backstage on the other side. But there’s no way I’ll make it back here before Tito makes a fool of himself onstage”. However, realizing this was his only option, he immediately started running back to the equipment trunk as fast as he could.

Mike Vazquez and Anibal Vazquez

Mike Vazquez (l) and Anibal Vazquez (r) formed the dance team The Mambo Aces, which performed regularly at the Palladium.

Anibal Vazquez, of The Mambo Aces, was one of the few people standing backstage when he saw Carlos run by him towards the equipment trunk. Just a minute earlier he had noticed that Martha and Tito had started their dance routine early. As the professional dancer he was, Anibal was friends with Martha and knew well their dance routines. Now, seeing Carlos running towards the band’s equipment trunk, he knew the famous orchestra where his friend worked was in trouble. At that moment, Andy, as he is known in New York, went looking for his Mambo Aces partner Mike Vazquez.

Carlos arrived at the equipment trunk with another baseball slide. By doing that, he re-injured the same leg he injured on the first slide. Now his right leg was in real pain. But ignoring the pain for a second, he looked through the trunk and found the mike and cable set he was looking for.

In what seemed one swift motion, he jumped up to his feet to start his run back, but felt a sharp pain on his right leg that momentarily stopped him. He thought for a second and calculated he only had about 10 or 15 seconds left before the 2-minutes Martha had given him were up. He would never make it back and fix the mike before Tito needed to start singing. The thought of being responsible for having Tito Rodriguez make a fool of himself onstage made him feel ashamed. Additionally, he’ll also need to find another way to pay for his electronic courses.

His thoughts were interrupted when he heard a round of applause coming from the audience in the dancefloor. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome The Mambo Aces”, announced Tito’s trumpet player, Victor Paz. The public opened a circle in the middle of the dancefloor for them to perform their dance routine.

Carlos had seen The Mambo Aces dance team before. Along with Augie & Margo, they were one of the premier dance teams in New York’s Latin music scene. Then it hit him! Anibal and Mike had just bought him another couple of minutes!

“I might be able to get back faster by cutting through the rear of the backstage”, Carlos thought for a second. Instinctively he had figured that running back the same route would take him much longer, especially now that he re-injured his leg. The backstage had a bunch of equipment and stuff stored there that would get in the way, but he figured that he could still cut across and save time.

Without another moment to ponder his decision, Carlos began to quickly cut across the backstage. Using his agility and skinny frame, he moved quickly around the stuff stored there. Once he got across, he tried to run full speed behind the orchestra, but he couldn’t. He was limping from his right leg due to the pain of the two slides he’d taken.

Tito Puente with Santos Colon

Tito Puente and his orchestra, here with singer Santos Colon and Ray Barretto on congas, also performed regularly at the Palladuim.

Determined, Carlos limped as fast as he could across the backstage, grimacing in pain. He turned to look to the front, and saw that Tito and Martha had stopped dancing and where now looking to the middle of the dancefloor where The Mambo Aces where doing their dance routine at the beat of “Mambo Mona”. The audience was thrilled watching them dance!

Carlos kept limping quickly behind the orchestra and then took the sharp right turn towards the amplifier in the front. While the attention was on The Mambo Aces, Carlos disconnected Tito’s mike, connected the new mike to the new cable, and plugged the new cable into the designated slot in the amplifier.

Now he needed to test it. To not attract the attention of the crowd, Carlos waited for the chorus, and decided to sing along to test the mike. That’s when he remembered how “Mambo Mona” goes. The chorus comes back just before the part where Tito sings. The Mambo Aces were now finishing and receiving a warm applause.

“I only have a few seconds to figure out if this works and then find a way to give the mike to Tito”, thought Carlos. As the chorus started, he sang along into the mike; “Mama Guela, Mama Guela”.

He wasn’t sure if his voice came through the speakers or not. He tried again with the chorus, “Mama Guela, Mama Guela”. Since he didn’t have a speaker pointing at him, he couldn’t tell if his voice was coming out through the speakers. He tried to think quickly as he knew this was his last chance before any additional delay became an embarrassment for Tito Rodriguez and his orchestra!

Carlos came up with another idea. With his right-hand fingers, he tapped the mike head in sync with the 3-2 clave of the song. He learned the clave and could tell the difference between a 3-2 clave and a 2-3 one, from the many street “rumbones” he attended with Cheo. Now, he heard his tapping to the clave through the speakers. So did Tito and Martha, who both had smiles of relief in their faces.

Carlos began to approach them with the new working microphone, but Tito signaled with his hand for him to stay put while he walked towards him to get the mike. When he reached Carlos, he smiled and said, “Gracias flaco”, and immediately started singing from where he was, right on cue.

Epilogue

For the audience at the Palladium that night, it all looked as if it had been planned this way all along. They never had a clue of a problem.

When the set was over and Tito Puente started his second set, Carlos went to the amplifier to turn it off until the next set. When he returned backstage, Cheo had just arrived and was waiting for him.

“Hey Cheo, how did it go with Joe Cuba?” Carlos asked while hugging his friend.

“Bro, I got the gig with Joe” said Cheo with a broad smile. “Can you believe it man? I’m now the singer of the Joe Cuba Sextet.”

“That’s great man!, replied Carlos as they slapped hands. “Felicidades”.

“I heard you had a little problem here! What happened?”, Cheo asked.

Cheo Feliciano and Joe Cuba

Cheo Feliciano singing here with Joe Cuba. He  remained in the Joe Cuba Sextet for 10 years.

Before Carlos could reply, Tito Rodriguez and Martha came along to join the conversation. “Cheo, felicidades! I heard you got the gig with Joe Cuba”, Tito interrupted.

“That’s right boss. I’m now the singer of The Joe Cuba Sextet”. “‘Gracias, muchísimas gracias’ for your recommendation. This means a world to me!” Cheo said emotionally.

Martha gave Cheo a hug. “Felicidadeh viejo” she said to him. “But don’t cry on me now!” she added jokingly. With watery eyes and without saying a word, Cheo shook his head to indicate he wouldn’t.

She then turned to Carlos and also gave him a hug. “‘Que te dije, tú’, I knew you could do it” she said happily.

“Boss, what are you going to do about the band boy job?”, Cheo asked Tito, having regained control of his emotions.

Tito smiled and looked directly at Carlos; “‘Flaco’, if you want it, the job is yours”. Then he turned to Cheo. “‘Este flaco’ just saved me from a big embarrassment onstage. He fixed the problem when all eyes were on us and without the audience noticing what happened. I can always use a guy like that.”

With the good news, Carlos broke into a big smile and grabbed both Cheo and Martha in one big hug. Feeling emotional and happy, Cheo exclaimed, “Que lindo”, and imitating Martha’s Cuban accent added, “sentimiento tú”!

Final Note from Hector:

Since this is my first fictional short story, I would appreciate your comments, good or bad. Your input will be valuable for my next short story. Thank you!

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