(JTA) – Fania Records, often referred to as the “Motown of Latin Music,” announced the passing of Larry Harlow on social media last week. After the record company broke the news last week, a who’s who of Latin music offered tributes.
“Larry’s contributions to what today is called salsa are immense,” seven-time Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria wrote on Facebook. “A real part of New York’s history has been lost [â¦] to our Latino community and it is sincere.
But Harlow, whose paternal grandfather was a theater critic for The Jewish Daily Forward, was neither Latino nor had Latin American roots. As a nod to his heritage, he was known in the world of Latin music and beyond as “El Judio Maravilloso”, “The Wonderful Jew.” “
Harlow came from a family of musicians. Her father, Nathan Kahn, was an Austrian-born bass player and her mother, Rose, an opera singer, had Russian roots. Born in 1939 as Lawrence Ira Kahn, he grew up in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. The name Harlow is a derivation of his father’s stage name.
âMy father was in a car accident and almost died,â he told me in 2010. âThe doctor there saved his life.
The doctor’s name was Harlowe, and to honor it, Kahn took on the stage name Buddy Harlowe. Larry Harlow would drop the “e” for his stage name to become one of the most respected musicians on the Latin scene.
For three decades, Buddy Harlowe led the house group at the legendary Manhattan Latin Quarter nightclub, and Larry spent hours behind the scenes with owner Lou Walters’ daughter.
âWhen I was a kid, 10 or 11, Barbara and I used to sit in the booth next to the spotlight and we saw all the shows that came in there,â Harlow recalls in an interview with The New York Times. .
Barbara, of course, would become famous Jewish journalist Barbara Walters.
Harlow began piano lessons at the age of 5, went on to excel at playing various instruments and was accepted into the prestigious High School of Music and Arts in Harlem. There he discovered the music that would become his life.
âWhen I got out of the subway I was going up this huge hill and I would hear this weird music coming from all the bodegas,â Harlow told the Cheeky in an interview in 2006. âI thought, ‘What kind of music is this? That’s really nice.'”
Harlow allegedly used his bar mitzvah money to buy a reel recorder and a one-way ticket to Cuba in the 1950s to study the music scene. He traveled the country by bus, accompanying musicians, learning Spanish, attending Santeria ceremonies, immersing himself in Cuban culture. At Fania, a popular lunch in Havana, he met a fellow New Yorker who shared his passion for Latin music.
Jerry Masucci, son of Italian immigrants, would years later become the co-founder of the influential Fania Records.
âHe was from Brooklyn like me, so we hit it off,â Harlow said.
The Cuban revolution cut short the trip to Harlow. Back in New York City, his mother arranged for him to perform at resort hotels popular with Jews in the Catskills area of ââupstate New York. Before the revolution, Cuba was a very popular vacation destination for the wealthiest Americans who brought cha-cha, mambo and rumba music with them to North America. Not everyone could afford a trip to the island, but music could transport them there.
Cuban music became a staple at many resort hotels in the so-called Borscht Belt, which employed dance teachers and mambo groups. Tito Puente played at Grossinger. And there was the popular Irving Fields Trio, whose most famous work, “Bagels & Bongos,Combined Jewish songs (often Yiddish) like “My Yiddishe Momme” (“My Jewish Mother”) with Latin rhythms.
At the Paramount Hotel in Schenk, musicians gathered for jam sessions. It was there that Harlow met many of the future superstars of Latin music.
After the United States imposed trade and travel embargoes on Cuba, the majors abandoned many of their Latin American artists. Masucci, then a divorce lawyer, would soon fill the void. In 1964, he and Dominican-born musician Johnny Pacheco founded Fania Records, named after the Havana restaurant.
Larry Harlow was their first artist to sign.
“The first thing I noticed was that he really knew how to play Latin music”, Pacheco recalled decades later. âWhen he took a solo, that’s when he really got me. He used to take amazing solos. You could tell he had really listened [the jazz pianist] PeruchÃn and all these guys in Cuba. The scales he played, I was flabbergasted.
Harlow has become one of the most prolific artists on this quintessential New York label, recording over 200 albums by various artists and 50 of his own. He was the first to develop the first line of two trumpets and two trombones that most salsa groups use today.
In addition, his 1965 debut album, “Heavy Smokin, ‘Featured his then-girlfriend, Vicky Berdy, playing congas, something unheard of in the male-dominated world of Latin music. He went on to produce the all-female orchestra Latin fever.
When Arsenio Rodriguez, a blind Afro-Cuban musician died in 1970, Harlow recorded a tribute album.
“Without Arsenio, there is no salsa”, he said. noted. âThis man, who was the first to add conga, piano, multiple trumpets and more to music, had died in the dark. No one on the Latin scene has done anything to pay tribute to him. As a Jew, I sometimes heard sarcastic comments about being a foreigner. This album helped erase some of those sarcastic comments and got me some respect.
Rodriguez was nicknamed “El Ciego Maravilloso”, “The Amazing Blind Man” – and soon Harlow would be called “El Judio Maravilloso”. At the concerts, the hosts and the entertainers shouted in Spanish: âAnd now, the incredible Jew! No further explanation was needed. Harlow proudly embraced the nickname.
Perhaps Harlow’s most enduring legacy is an initiative he started in 1974, garnering more than 100,000 signatures for Latin music recognition by the Grammy Awards. That year he protested outside the venue for the awards ceremony – and it worked. Three decades later, in 2008, Harlow would receive the Recording Academy’s Trustees Lifetime Achievement Award, which bestows the Grammys.
Many Latinos have declared him an honorable Puerto Rican. It was an honor he gratefully accepted, but he would often say, “I’m a proud SOB” or “Son Of Brooklyn”.
âYou can get the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t get the boy out of Brooklyn,â he also liked to say.
As Harlow proudly showed me the Santeria Shrine in his New York City apartment in 2010, he said, âI never pretended to be someone I wasn’t. I have always been proud to be a Jew.
Visiting Cuba exposed him to the African roots of music, and as part of his immersion in the culture, he became a Santeria priest in 1975.
âThere is no conflict between me and being Jewish and Santero,â he explained. “Whether it’s Kabbalah or Santeria, it’s like a form of protection.”
We had met shortly after his performance of âLa Raza Latina: A Salsa Suiteâ at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, which broke the park attendance record. Originally composed in 1976, the concept album traces the roots of salsa from West Africa to Cuba and finally New York, emphasizing the music’s multi-layered identity. Like the city in which the style was created, salsa is a melting pot of genres such as mambo, montuno sound, Latin jazz, and other elements.
As Aurora Flores, who had worked with Harlow on her memoir, put it, âNew music was born on the streets of New York, and Larry Harlow was one of its fathers. [â¦] It was a sound conceived by the children born in the United States of Puerto Rican citizens, Cuban and Dominican immigrants, African Americans and the great-grandson of an Austrian rabbi.