Part of the Latin Legacy Series: From Mambo to Salsa!
Puerto Rico has such a beautiful and rich heritage: culture, beaches, music, food… One special gift to the island of Puerto Rico, La Isla del Encanto (The Island of Enchantment) was the gift of a young boy who loved music and grew to be one of the most talented and gifted singers of Latin Music of all time! Mr. Pete Bonet is one of the great salsa pioneers. He is humble in his ways, with fieriness and greatness in his stage presence and graceful with his voice. I have seen Pete Bonet perform with the late great Tito Puente Orchestra and the only comparison that I can find is that of the late Janis Joplin. When Janis performed, it felt like there was a riot of music at the concert.
Pete Bonet has the tendency to enjoy his high energy performance and relates to his fans in the audience that are watching him. He creates an ecstatic performance for the pleasure of his audience. I chose Pete Bonet as an interviewee, due to the fact that he has always stuck in my mind, throughout the years, as one of the most outstanding singers that I have seen perform in Latin Music.
When I was a youngster, my mother, who was a professional in San Francisco, brought me home two 45rpm records that would change my entire life. During her lunch break she would visit a record store in downtown San Francisco and asked the clerk for suggestions on what records to buy for her son. My mother came home with 2 records, Mongo Santamaria’s ‘Watermelon Man’, and Ray Barretto’s ‘El Watusi.’ Later in this interview, you’ll see the co-relation to the 2 records and Pete Bonet.
Later in my teens as a DJ at the college station, the Tico-Alegre Record label in New York City, through Tito Puente, sent me long play discs (LPs) of Mongo, La Lupe, Ismael Rivera, Ray Barretto, Charlie Palmieri and Eddie Palmieri to play on the air. The records could rarely be purchased at that time on the west coast, but listeners would actually record the music on their recorders at home just to be able to listen to it again. In those days you would use your last $5.00 dollars to buy a great salsa record!
I thank Pete Bonet for this opportunity to interview him, from Puerto Rico where he resides today. I can tell you that of my interviewing career, this has been probably the most interesting, grand and sentimental interview I have ever done, due to my relationship with this great Latin music. Thank you Pete Bonet for your love and dedication to music, for being a pioneer in the Latin salsa industry and for the grand music you have given us with your voice, love and talent and for the gift you have given to Puerto Rico and the world!
Pete, what was the first time that in your heart, you heard Latin Music and it really inspired you that you became interested in Latin Music?
As a child, I was born and raised in Santurce, Puerto Rico. It is a part of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Right now I live in Ceiba, Puerto Rico. My father was a guitar player, a bohemian, that would go play from bar to bar and sing. My father left our family when I was 8 years old. My older brother has a beautiful voice.
What was the first tune that started you to sing music?
My house was next to a bar in Santurce, and a jukebox would play all day and night. I would go to sleep to music; this jukebox was on all the time! Early in the morning and late at night! I learned to sing all those songs on that jukebox. The singers on that jukebox were Felipe Rodriguez, Tito Lara and Trio Los Panchos and more and Daniel Santos. The most famous band was Rafael Cortijo y su Combo. They were really famous. They would travel to other cities and their vocalist was Ismael Rivera.
I learned all those songs and my mother took me out to all those dances and I would dance with her.
The black people, the Cepeda Family, had food and dance on Saturday, like a party. They were a Puerto Rican folkloric group and family and since they lived next to me, I would go to their house on Sundays and they would kill a pig for the party and play congas and dance.
When you were young, who inspired your singing?
Felipe Rodriguez, Tito Lara, the great singer Ismael Rivera, and Daniel Santos.
I was sent at sixteen and a half years of age to New York to live to study. I did not want to go to school (he laughs), I was going nowhere fast! I was around bad influence.
In New York at the school I learned English and I was put in the 8th grade, when most at my age were finishing high school.
So in New York, when I was 18, they would let you go into night clubs until you were 18.
I would go out and see Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Johnny Pacheco, and I was influenced by those people. Charanga was very famous in New York. Charanga was Latin music played with 2 violins and a flute in the band,
Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Machito were with (had) the Big Bands, so I would go to dance when these orchestras played.
I was in the U.S. Air force and was sent to Texas. I always loved the cowboy movies and John Wayne and all those cowboy people and wanted to see the Alamo.
I was singing in a rock and roll band in Texas. They were all black musicians and I was the only Latino in the band. This was before I got into Latin music.
I left Texas and came back to New York. I was a bookkeeper by trade and would work for all these tall, high rise buildings they were constructing, 50, 66 stories tall and I would be a time keeper for the contractors.
One day I went to a club and Alfredito Valdez was there. He was the brother of Vicentico Valdez the famous singer and father of the great pianist Alfredo Valdez, Jr.
His father’s band had a charanga band with 2 violins and a flute of course. The rhythm section with a piano, bass, timbales and congas.
All charanga bands had 2 singers that would sing in unison. Alfredito had a singer that I knew in school. I came out of the Air Force and wanted to sing. I told my school friend how he had been and if the band needed another singer to let me know. In 2 weeks they called me, because they needed a singer. I stood with them for 6-8 months.
The flute player said that this young guy by the name of Ray Barretto left Tito Puente’s Band to start a charanga band and I was Ray Barretto’s first singer! This was my first band for a while.
Ray Barretto had another singer that would also play guiro (a long gourd used especially for charanga music or cha-cha-cha). You need the guiro sound in a charanga band.
I was left alone with Ray Barretto as singer and he wanted me to play guiro. Professionals that played guiro on recordings would make lots of money in those days.
Ray Barretto got another singer and guiro player…Chihuahua would just play guiro. I left the band because there were too many people in the band.
I was mad because I didn’t know how to play the guiro, so I got great on the guiro and Mongo Santamaria in New York wanted a guiro player who could sing. I asked Mongo and he asked if I could play guiro and sing. He told me to come up on the next set in about half an hour and come up and play.
Mongo to me was one of the greatest conga players in the world. The bass player talked to me. I was nervous. The bass player told me we were going to play Mongo’s tune, ‘Pa Ti.’ It was Victor Venegas a great Mexican bass player.
So Victor went outside, and he told me how the song was going to go……bass & guiro, alone at the beginning, so I said, OK!
When I got up there and played, Mongo looked at me and smiled. I recorded ‘Watermelon Man.’ I recorded 2 albums with Mongo and La Lupe. I was teaching La Lupe how to sing in English! ‘Besito Pa Ti, Besito Pa Mi,’ we recorded it together. La Lupe left and went with Tito Puente for a while.
I went with Ray Barretto. He had a trip to Hollywood, California and had to play ‘El Watusi.’ I was the only guy that could sing that song!
I had told Mongo that I was going to go return and play with Ray Barretto’s Band again, because they were going to tour and play in Hollywood, California. Mongo responded to me, “It’s up to you“, so I returned to Ray Barretto’s Band. Mongo told me to return and play with Ray Barreto’s Band because he decided he was not going to play salsa any longer; he was going to change and start playing Latin Jazz.
Ray Barretto and I and his band arrived in Hollywood and we were a big hit. We were invited back to perform in Hollywood again!
Later, La Lupe asked me if I had a Latin band of my own. (I had my own band) … with the late Louie Ramirez, as my musical director. La Lupe had left Tito Puente’s Orchestra and asked me to back her up. I was very fortunate with my band, because I had a lot of work!
How did you meet or perform with Tito Rodriguez and Tito Puente?
I must say that Tito Rodriguez called me up and requested that I perform with him. I sang Coro (Chorus) and stayed with Tito Rodriguez until the day he died. Tit Rodriguez became very sick at the end of his career. We performed at Madison Square Garden and that was the last time that Tito Rodriguez was on stage. Tito Rodriguez and Orchestra, including me, were going to travel to Panama, but that never happened. So one day while in New York, Tito Rodriguez, being critically ill, called me and said that he could not go and do the show, due to the fact that he was very ill. Tito Rodriguez said, “I can’t go, I want you to do it for me.” I sang all of Tito Rodriguez’s songs with his Latin orchestra and sorry to say, two weeks later he died.
I went to work with Joe Cuba and that is when Tito Puente called me and said he wanted me to sing with them.
I have performed with over fifty bands and the number one band is El Grand Combo.
Of all the singers in your heart, which one can you say is your favorite of all time?
Tito Rodríguez, Ismael Rivera and Frank Sinatra
Of the Latin orchestras in the world which band was your favorite?
Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Eddie Palmieri is fantastic, he is great! Machito was my friend and I loved his band,
As far as orchestra management, which one did you enjoy the most?
Well, with Tito Puente I was very relaxed; I loved to sing in that band. I love Tito’s (Puente) arrangements, and he always looked for you to do your best!
In Tito Rodriguez’s Orchestra I would do Coro (Chorus), his orchestra was about the singer, Tito Rodriguez.
In Tito Puente’s Orchestra it was about the singer that was performing, like Santos Colon or Vicentico Valdez.
If I asked you for your favorite all time timbales drummer, whom would you say it was.
Orestes Vilato and Tito Puente of course!
I would like to thank our great Editor in Chief, Angel Romero, if it was not for him, these presentations would not be possible. You are welcome to leave questions or remarks after this interview.
Author: Les Moncada
Les Moncada is a former Latin Jazz orchestra leader and conguero for over 40 years. He was born in Oakland, California and currently resides in Sacramento, California.
Les Moncada was an apprentice to conga and batá master Francisco Aguabella, a friend of vibraphonist Cal Tjader, Latin Jazz band leader Pete Escovedo, conguero Armando Peraza and many more.
He has been writing for many years for World Music Central.
Les Moncada’s Facebook site is: Timbales and Congas Bongo Bata and bells.